What If Nazi Germany Had Built the Atomic Bomb?
Seventy-two years ago yesterday, the United States dropped the atomic bomb for the first time. The obliteration of Hiroshima left at least 90,000 Japanese soldiers and civilians dead. Three days later, mankind's first nuclear salvo was followed by the second (and hopefully last) use of nuclear weapons. The apocalyptic mushroom cloud over Nagasaki and the 39,000 casualties that accompanied it were enough to force Japan's surrender in World War II six days later.
The ethics and legacy of America's decision to drop the bomb remains contentious to this day, debated endlessly by all manner of thinkers. But one of the most fascinating discussions occurred the very day the bomb was dropped, in a large manor house situated in the quiet, countryside town of Godmanchester in Britain. It was there that ten German scientists thought to have worked on the Nazi nuclear program were detained. Amongst them were two Nobel Prize winners, Max von Laue and Werner Heisenberg, and one future winner, Otto Hahn, the man who, along with Lise Meitner, first discovered nuclear fission.
We know about their discussions because every room of the house, called Farm Hall, was bugged. Allied forces were keen to know how close Nazi Germany had come to creating their own atomic bomb, so for six months, they confined the German scientists to the manor and eavesdropped on everything they uttered.
While the Allies didn't end up learning the specifics of the Nazi nuclear weapons program, they did capture a number of candid and emotional conversations between some of the giants of the physics community regarding the grave, destructive weapon that they had helped unleash upon the world.
"I think it's dreadful of the Americans to have done it. I think it is madness on their part," Carl Friedrich von Weizsäcker said.
"One can't say that. One could equally well say 'That's the quickest way of ending the war,'" Werner Heisenberg replied.
Otto Hahn, who felt personally responsible, expressed remorse and regret.
"Once I wanted to suggest that all uranium should be sunk to the bottom of the ocean."
Later, he told Walter Gerlach, "I am thankful that we were not the first to drop the uranium bomb."
"You cannot prevent its development," Gerlach replied. "I was afraid to think of the bomb, but I did think of it as a thing of the future, and that the man who could threaten the use of the bomb would be able to achieve anything."
Others were more focused on why Germany did not succeed in building their own bomb.
"I believe the reason we didn't do it was because all the physicists didn't want to do it, on principle. If we had all wanted Germany to win the war we would have succeeded," Weizsäcker argued.
Others contended that the real reason for Germany's failure rested with the bureaucracy. There was too much distrust, too much competition. Dog-eat-dog Social Darwinism pervaded the upper ranks of government, rendering the country unable to cooperate on such a grand and farfetched project. The Manhattan Project literally created new cities, employed more than 130,000 people, and cost roughly $27 billion in today's dollars.
"... the Americans are capable of real cooperation on a tremendous scale. That would have been impossible in Germany," Horst Korsching opined.
Perhaps the most fascinating discussion was a hypothetical. What if Nazi Germany had managed to build their bomb?
"If we had started this business soon enough we could have got somewhere," Weizsäcker said. "If [the Americans] were able to complete it in the summer of 1945, we might have had the luck to complete it in the winter 1944/45."
"The result would have been that we would have obliterated London but would still not have conquered the world, and then they would have dropped them on us," Karl Wirtz replied.
"One can say it might have been a much greater tragedy for the world if Germany had had the uranium bomb. Just imagine, if we had destroyed London with uranium bombs it would not have ended the war, and when the war did end, it is still doubtful whether it would have been a good thing."