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Old 10-09-2019, 01:07 PM
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How much did the WW2 German military know about the German atomic bomb project?


I was watching the 1966 film "Is Paris Burning?" and Hitler is seen assuring a German general that despite the D-Day landings Germany can still win the war, as Germany is developing a "new weapon" which will annihilate whole armies and is expected to be deployed within the year. Since the film is based on a nonfiction novel it made me curious just how much German generals as well as the military in general knew about the German atomic bomb project.

Reading up on the subject all I can find is information based on how much the Germans knew about the American atomic bomb project, which is apparently not much. But I'm curious if knowledge of the potential atomic bomb was used to raise moral when Germany started getting defeat after defeat, and if German generals actually began to play for its usage.

I also read that the Amerikabomber project also had specifications on the aircraft being able to carry an atomic warhead, but I'm curious if that just meant they had the provisions to carry a potential bomb that size or if the designers were actually told that the planes might carry an atomic bomb.
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Old 10-09-2019, 02:38 PM
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I was watching the 1966 film "Is Paris Burning?" and Hitler is seen assuring a German general that despite the D-Day landings Germany can still win the war, as Germany is developing a "new weapon" which will annihilate whole armies and is expected to be deployed within the year. Since the film is based on a nonfiction novel it made me curious just how much German generals as well as the military in general knew about the German atomic bomb project.

Reading up on the subject all I can find is information based on how much the Germans knew about the American atomic bomb project, which is apparently not much. But I'm curious if knowledge of the potential atomic bomb was used to raise moral when Germany started getting defeat after defeat, and if German generals actually began to play for its usage.
I haven't read it, but I wouldn't rely on Is Paris Burning?, even in book form, without additional verification.

There are then several overlapping issues:
  • The obvious set of "wonder weapons" on the verge of being launched in anger in early June 1944 were the V1 and V2. A garbled version of them might account for any story.
  • By this stage the various Nazi nuclear projects were on the back burner and weren't particularly expected to settle the war.
  • You do get rumours swirling about, particularly in neutral countries, about Nazi wonder weapons, some of which are supposed to be atomic. But this is just pre-war SF-speculation transmuted into wartime rumour.
  • Clearly parts of the German military knew about their nuclear projects. They were one of the major funders of them after all. But how far did that knowledge extent? Would, say, Rommel have known of them? Maybe, maybe not. If he did - and I really can't think of any evidence that he ever did - it would probably have simply been on the basis of inter-collegial gossip with his peers.

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I also read that the Amerikabomber project also had specifications on the aircraft being able to carry an atomic warhead, but I'm curious if that just meant they had the provisions to carry a potential bomb that size or if the designers were actually told that the planes might carry an atomic bomb.
I think this is connection is largely a myth. If nothing else, the Germans apparently had little idea how big a nuclear weapon might be. (I duly note the massive historical controversies in this area, which I've discussed at length on the Dope over the years.)
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Old 10-09-2019, 03:13 PM
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In the final year of the war, the German military and general populace put a lot of faith in "wonder weapons", because they didn't have much else to hang on to. These were generally not thought to be atomic bombs, but missiles like the V1 or V2, jet aircraft, or supercannons.

Last edited by zimaane; 10-09-2019 at 03:14 PM.
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Old 10-09-2019, 03:14 PM
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In fact, the first V-1 was launched against London just a week after D-Day, and the V-2 first saw action in September. I suspect not only Hitler, but a whole bunch of high-ranking Germans knew a lot more concrete information about those weapons than the mysterious laboratory projects.
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Old 10-09-2019, 04:06 PM
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There's "knowing" and "believing".

Several of Hitler's top generals believed when he said that soon wonder weapons would turn the direction of the war. Right up to the when the Soviets broke out across the Oder.

Did they know anything about these miracle weapons to the extent that their information confirmed these beliefs? No.

Not even the people working on the wonder weapon projects thought they were going to really change anything with just their project. (While no doubt hoping that other projects they knew little to nothing about where the ones Hitler was bragging about.)

The atom bomb project was going nowhere for quite some time. There was nothing of importance to know about it, from a general's point of view. Hitler's little models of a rebuilt Berlin had a greater chance of becoming a reality.
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Old 10-09-2019, 04:54 PM
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The Germans loved them some super-weapons, and they didn't restrict themselves to the ones that actually had any realistic chance of existing. If Hitler did tell a general that they were on the verge of getting a super-weapon that would change everything, he was just as likely to be referring to the Spear of Destiny as to the nuclear bomb.
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Old 10-09-2019, 06:00 PM
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Everything done at Peenemünde was done under the supervision of the military and various secret police groups. No matter how much you want to argue about their understanding of the day to day research, the same can be said for the U.S. Military at Los Alamos. The military in both cases knew everything possible for them to know.
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Old 10-09-2019, 08:32 PM
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The atom bomb project was going nowhere for quite some time. There was nothing of importance to know about it, from a general's point of view. Hitler's little models of a rebuilt Berlin had a greater chance of becoming a reality.
I've read that the German scientists working on the atomic bomb project had concluded that developing an actual working bomb was at least a decade in the future. So the Germans didn't really see the atomic bomb as a wartime program; they wanted one at some point but it had to take a back seat to more immediate needs like building planes and tanks and rockets. The general attitude was "We need to win the war first with these other things. Then we can devote the resources to building an atomic bomb."

Despite this, the Germans were sure that they were in the lead on atomic bomb research. They believed if a German atomic bomb was ten years away, then any other country must be at least twenty years away. (The Americans would later make the same conclusion about the Soviets and the Soviets would do so about the Chinese.)

When the war ended and the German scientists were taken to America, they were surprised at how their interrogation quickly tapered off. They concluded that the Americans just didn't understand what they had been working on and didn't see the potential of atomic weapons. This illusion would be shattered a few weeks later when they found out that the Americans were actually far ahead of them in atomic bomb development and had concluded the German scientists didn't know anything that the Americans hadn't already figured out.
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Old 10-09-2019, 09:40 PM
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When the war ended and the German scientists were taken to America, they were surprised at how their interrogation quickly tapered off. They concluded that the Americans just didn't understand what they had been working on and didn't see the potential of atomic weapons. This illusion would be shattered a few weeks later when they found out that the Americans were actually far ahead of them in atomic bomb development and had concluded the German scientists didn't know anything that the Americans hadn't already figured out.
And the (secret) recordings of the reactions of the German scientists to the reports of the Hiroshima bomb make it quite clear that the German scientists had not been holding back on Hitler - they had been doing their best.
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Old 10-10-2019, 12:00 PM
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When the war ended and the German scientists were taken to America, they were surprised at how their interrogation quickly tapered off.
[nitpick]

None of the German atomic scientists were taken to the US. Following their arrests, the main interrogations of them took place in Germany. They were then flown (as a group) to England and interred at Farm Hall and it was there that they were eavesdropped on. When it came to releasing them, they were then repatriated - again by air - straight back to Germany.

[/nitpick]
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Old 10-10-2019, 02:29 PM
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When the war ended and the German scientists were taken to America, they were surprised at how their interrogation quickly tapered off. They concluded that the Americans just didn't understand what they had been working on and didn't see the potential of atomic weapons. This illusion would be shattered a few weeks later when they found out that the Americans were actually far ahead of them in atomic bomb development and had concluded the German scientists didn't know anything that the Americans hadn't already figured out.
Heisinberg refused to believe it for some time. He had been using paraffin as a moderator. His first atomic pile caught fire. As he and a graduate student began to run, they realized they couldn't out run a nuclear explosion and watched the fire.
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Old 10-10-2019, 02:45 PM
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Heisenberg, at least, would later claim that he did know that the German project was going nowhere, because he was deliberately sabotaging it. Whether this was true or not, I don't think anyone knows.
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Old 10-10-2019, 04:40 PM
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Heisenberg, at least, would later claim that he did know that the German project was going nowhere, because he was deliberately sabotaging it. Whether this was true or not, I don't think anyone knows.

It's extremely unlikely
.
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Old 10-10-2019, 05:01 PM
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Heisenberg, at least, would later claim that he did know that the German project was going nowhere, because he was deliberately sabotaging it. Whether this was true or not, I don't think anyone knows.
Let's just say that he was and he wasn't.
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Old 10-10-2019, 07:46 PM
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Let's just say that he was and he wasn't.
After all, the SS couldn't always be watching...
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Old 10-11-2019, 12:09 AM
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Let's just say that he was and he wasn't.
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Old 10-11-2019, 12:24 AM
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I was watching the 1966 film "Is Paris Burning?" and Hitler is seen assuring a German general that despite the D-Day landings Germany can still win the war, as Germany is developing a "new weapon" which will annihilate whole armies and is expected to be deployed within the year.
It seems unlikely that Hitler would have said this. While he believed that miracle weapons would win the war for Germany, he was thinking of other weapons. He never had faith that atomic weapons would be feasible.

And, given Hitler's status in Germany, it was self-fulfilling prophecy. Because Hitler didn't believe in atomic weapon development, it never got the support it needed to work.

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If Hitler did tell a general that they were on the verge of getting a super-weapon that would change everything, he was just as likely to be referring to the Spear of Destiny as to the nuclear bomb.
That would have been more likely to have been Himmler. He was the one who believed in all kinds of supernatural things. Hitler was a skeptic.
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Old 10-11-2019, 12:14 PM
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...And, given Hitler's status in Germany, it was self-fulfilling prophecy. Because Hitler didn't believe in atomic weapon development, it never got the support it needed to work...


"Jewish Science."
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Old 10-11-2019, 02:06 PM
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Exapno, your link just talks about a letter from Bohr to Heisenberg, based on a single meeting he had with him, and which letter hasn't even been seen by anyone who's ever commented on it. That doesn't strike me as very strong evidence.

Personally, I decidedly don't take any stance on whether Heisenberg did or did not sabotage the program. Based on his claims, he's either a hero, or a monster, and I wish to risk neither diminishing a hero nor praising a monster.
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Old 10-11-2019, 02:28 PM
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Exapno, your link just talks about a letter from Bohr to Heisenberg, based on a single meeting he had with him, and which letter hasn't even been seen by anyone who's ever commented on it. That doesn't strike me as very strong evidence.

Personally, I decidedly don't take any stance on whether Heisenberg did or did not sabotage the program. Based on his claims, he's either a hero, or a monster, and I wish to risk neither diminishing a hero nor praising a monster.
I wouldn't call him a monster. Building a nuclear weapon for the Nazis is just a step abpve making tanks and airplanes for them.
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Old 10-11-2019, 02:47 PM
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Exapno, your link just talks about a letter from Bohr to Heisenberg, based on a single meeting he had with him, and which letter hasn't even been seen by anyone who's ever commented on it. That doesn't strike me as very strong evidence.

Personally, I decidedly don't take any stance on whether Heisenberg did or did not sabotage the program. Based on his claims, he's either a hero, or a monster, and I wish to risk neither diminishing a hero nor praising a monster.
Can you provide a cite for Heisenberg actually stating he sabotaged the project? I couldn't find one. All I can find are good historians saying, as I paraphrased, that it was extremely unlikely.

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Allegations of Sabotage

A popular theory for the failure of the German project is that Heisenberg deliberately aborted it so that Hitler would not have the atomic bomb. But there remains little evidence of this. Heisenberg's 1941 meeting in Copenhagen with Niels Bohr, who would later work on the Manhattan Project, was dramatized in the 1998 play Copenhagen. The play explores three scenarios where Heisenberg discusses his dilemma with Bohr, but leaves the matter for audiences to decide what Heisenberg actually believed and intended to do.

Nevertheless, different accounts of this meeting suggest otherwise. Heisenberg’s wife Elizabeth described a “vague hope” that Heisenberg had to halt bomb development in the United States by passing reassurances through Bohr. Victor Weisskopf recounted Bohr telling him, “Heisenberg wanted to know if Bohr knew anything about the nuclear program of the Allies. He wanted to propose a scientists’ decision not to work on the bomb, and he wanted to invite Bohr to come to Germany to establish better relations” (Powers 125).

Heisenberg did however tell Bohr that the German project was underway, and drew a simple sketch, which Bohr thought to be a bomb. Infuriated by Heisenberg, who he thought “is not being honest, or he is being used by the Nazi government,” Bohr refused to speak with him more and eventually turned the sketch over to Manhattan Project scientists, who identified it as the outline of a reactor (Powers 126). J. Robert Oppenheimer later recalled, “Bohr had the impression that they came less to tell what they knew than to see if Bohr knew anything that they did not; I believe it was a standoff.” As his son Aage Bohr explained, “He had the impression that Heisenberg thought that the new possibilities could decide the outcome of the war if the war dragged on” (Rhodes 385).

Despite some misgivings about building a bomb, throughout the war Heisenberg maintained a genuine loyalty to his country. Richard Rhodes recalled, “There was at least one speculation that one of the German scientists deliberately falsified the measurements in graphite, hoping to stop a German bomb program. I don’t think there’s really evidence to support that. It seems to have been a mistake in the course of developing these various components of the technology.” Historians generally agree that the problems with the German project stemmed from serious miscalculations and a lack of priority. The allegations of sabotage carry little weight.
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Old 10-11-2019, 02:59 PM
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Ah, I did find a cite in Rose, Paul Lawrence. Heisenberg and the Nazi Atomic Bomb Project: A Study in German Culture. Berkley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1998. On p. 60, Rose quotes a 1970 letter to Ruth Nanda Aschen.

Quote:
Dr. Hahn, Dr. van Laue, and I falsified the mathematics in order to avoid the development of the atom bomb by German scientists.
No further elaboration.

Perhaps there's more like this, but by itself such a self-serving statement a quarter-century after the war does not change my opinion of "extremely unlikely."
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Old 10-11-2019, 04:25 PM
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Let's just say that he was and he wasn't.
If we knew where he was on the research, we wouldn't know how fast it was progressing.
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Old 10-15-2019, 01:14 PM
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Let's just say that he was and he wasn't.
As I understand it, he knew where he was, but he didn't know where he was going.
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Old 10-15-2019, 01:44 PM
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I recall about a Jewish friend from college was to be whacked. He was trying to work up the courage to ask the authorities to release the guy. I don't recall if he did or not. It's been a long time since I read The German Atomic Bomb.
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Old 10-15-2019, 04:12 PM
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Let's just say that he was and he wasn't.
Are you certain?

Last edited by bob++; 10-15-2019 at 04:12 PM.
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Old 10-16-2019, 11:52 AM
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Are you certain?
Kinda sorta.
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Old 10-16-2019, 03:43 PM
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I recall about a Jewish friend from college was to be whacked. He was trying to work up the courage to ask the authorities to release the guy. I don't recall if he did or not.
Possibly a garbled version of the case of Samuel Goudsmit's parents? Heisenberg and Goudsmit were contemporaries at the forefront of quantum physics in the Twenties and were relatively close friends then and through the Thirties. The latter took up a job in the US before Hitler coming to power and the main refugee exodus.
However his parents remained in Holland (the family was Dutch) and got trapped by the Nazi occupation. As Jews, they got deported eastwards in 1943. At this point a Dutch physicist appealed to Heisenberg to try to intervene. He did reply, but - in hindsight - by that stage the parents had already been murdered (offhand, in Auschwitz). There's no evidence that, having vacillated, Heisenberg ever actually tried to do anything.

The significance of this to the whole, endlessly unresolvable debate about Heisenberg and nuclear weapons is that Goudsmit became the chief scientist assigned to the Alsos Mission, the Manhattan Project's front-line intelligence operation in Europe in 1944-5. He's one of the main guys who has to hunt down Heisenberg. It's then Goudsmit's postwar memoir that sets off the whole debate and the sniping between the two of them then ran on for decades.
Pretty much everyone accepts that there was a degree of (perfectly understandable) personal animosity in all this on Goudsmit's part over Heisenberg's failure to try to save the parents. They did sort of patch up their personal relationship late in both their lives, but not perfectly.
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Old 10-16-2019, 07:00 PM
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Thanks, Bonzer, I vaguely remember that.
I had a textbook written by Heisenberg in graduate school. about half an inch thick, and difficult as hell to understand. This from a guy who dreamed of trigonometric substitution when I took differential equations. I would awaken and freak out. "Was that accurate? Christ, I can't remember!"
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