Detained German physicists hear about atomic bomb (transcript)
September 24, 2016 8:30 PM   Subscribe

Transcript of Surreptitiously Taped Conversations among German Nuclear Physicists at Farm Hall (August 6-7, 1945) (.pdf) (via @timhwang)

At the beginning of the war, Germany’s leading nuclear physicists were called to the army weapons department. There, as part of the “uranium project” under the direction of Werner Heisenberg, they were charged with determining the extent to which nuclear fission could aid in the war effort. (Nuclear fission had been discovered by Otto Hahn and Lise Meitner in 1938.) Unlike their American colleagues in the Manhattan Project, German physicists did not succeed in building their own nuclear weapon. In June 1942, the researchers informed Albert Speer that they were in no position to build an atomic bomb with the resources at hand in less than 3-5 years, at which point the project was scrapped.

After the end of the war, both the Western Allies and the Soviet Union tried to recruit the German scientists for their own purposes. From July 3, 1945, to January 3, 1946, the Allies incarcerated ten German nuclear physicists at the English country estate of Farm Hall, their goal being to obtain information about the German nuclear research project by way of surreptitiously taped conversations. The following transcript includes the scientists’ reactions to reports that America had dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima. The scientists also discuss their relationship to the Nazi regime and offer some prognoses for Germany’s future. As the transcript shows, Otto Hahn was especially shaken by the dropping of the bomb; later, hecampaigned against the misuse of nuclear energy for military purposes.
posted by hawthorne (67 comments total) 144 users marked this as a favorite
 
Also, more comprehensively (I think): Hitler's Uranium Club: The Secret Recordings at Farm Hall by Jeremy Bernstein.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 8:46 PM on September 24, 2016 [11 favorites]


This is amazing. I only wish nuclear weapons were talked about with half this much nuance these days.
posted by gusandrews at 8:50 PM on September 24, 2016 [1 favorite]




HEISENBERG said he could understand it because GERLACH was the only one of them who had really wanted a German victory, because although he realized the crimes of the Nazis and disapproved of them, he could not get away from the fact that he was working for GERMANY. HAHN replied that he too loved his country and that, strange as it might appear, it was for this reason that he had hoped for her defeat.

Wow.
posted by aubilenon at 9:11 PM on September 24, 2016 [36 favorites]


HEISENBERG: It is possible that the war will be over tomorrow.

HARTECK: The following day we will go home.

KORSHING: We will never go home again.
posted by No-sword at 9:12 PM on September 24, 2016 [50 favorites]


Holy shit. This is absolutely fascinating. It reads like great fiction.
posted by Mothlight at 9:13 PM on September 24, 2016 [4 favorites]


There are all kinds of fascinating gems in this transcript: geopolitical ideas, moral concerns...and their intersection in terms of how the scientists felt about Hitler, Germany, and the "Anglo-Saxon" world. But I found this quote especially interesting:

KORSHING:
That shows at any rate that the Americans are capable of real cooperation on a
tremendous scale. That would have been impossible in Germany. Each one said
that the other was unimportant.


This goes against what I think is the conventional wisdom about America: that its strength lies in its value on individual initiative, individualism in general, whereas in Germany (and more so in, say, Japan) their strength lies in their ability to unify as a nation. In Germany, its 20th century unification to malign ends is notorious; today its unification in implementing progressive ideas in the areas of education, health care, and alternative (to oil/coal) energy is the envy of many of us Americans.
posted by kozad at 9:13 PM on September 24, 2016 [21 favorites]


I agree, Kozad, it's very interesting and revealing that they talk about America the way people talked about Japan in the 80s or China now.
posted by No-sword at 9:14 PM on September 24, 2016 [10 favorites]


Wow.

Also, talk about being scooped...
posted by kleinsteradikaleminderheit at 9:24 PM on September 24, 2016


kozad and No-sword: I was unsurprised at that. I don't quite have the words to describe why, unfortunately.
posted by clorox at 9:51 PM on September 24, 2016


One would have had to produce hundreds of organic components of uranium

Do you think this should be "compounds"?
posted by escabeche at 10:03 PM on September 24, 2016 [2 favorites]


Speaking of geopolitics: If the Americans and the British were good Imperialists they would attack STALIN with the thing tomorrow, but they won't do that, they will use it as a political weapon. Of course that is good, but the result will be a peace which will last until the Russians have it, and then there is bound to be war.
posted by Paragon at 10:05 PM on September 24, 2016 [21 favorites]


This is so terribly fascinating.

These men were allowed to return to Germany on January 3rd, 1946, although obviously not to any of the Soviet controlled areas and, I assume, were carefully monitored. They were correct (other than Heisenberg) that building a bomb would be a very difficult task for the USSR; what they weren't aware of and didn't take into consideration was Soviet espionage -- the best in the world -- used against the soft target of a wartime ally. Thus, the USSR was only a few years behind and also went straight to concurrent thermocuclear research.

Focused more on reactor design than weapons design, and lacking easy access to uranium ore, the Germans looked to heavy water as the moderator and for the production of P-239, and thus the facility at Vemork in Norway, which the British eventually successfully destroyed. But as several of the scientists point out, any real substantial fission bomb project was almost certainly doomed to failure by being subject to Allied bombing of the facilities -- the size of the Y-12 isotope separation facility at Oak Ridge was (and is) enormous. Germany couldn't have built such a facility anywhere in Europe without its existence and likely purpose identified and targeted; and Germany couldn't have managed its equivalent to the Manhattan Project in secrecy outside of Europe, either. They couldn't have done this, even if the scientists had been enthusiastic about doing so, which they were not. And, as one of them says, if they had been enthusiastic and had been able to convince Hitler to dedicate the necessary manpower and resources -- which they couldn't have afforded in any case -- at the slightest hint of failure they would be subject to accusations of treason and execution. No one at Trinity Site in the US worried that if the test failed that they'd be summarily shot. Every one of these German scientists certainly worried about the price of failure of what everyone on both sides of the Atlantic recognized as a huge gamble.

Also, it's not as if the Allied scientists were much more enthusiastic about developing a bomb than the Germans. It was hotly debated by most of the scientists who were involved, or approached. The difference, of course, which the German scientists acknowledge, was Hitler and Nazi imperialism. Which also happened to be monumentally murderous and genocidal. (Although I find it interesting that they cannot fathom Bohr's defection and participation, even though they're quite aware of Nazi institutional antisemitism. I've never accepted the claim that most Germans were not at all aware of the Holocaust, even in possibility; but I'm quite willing to believe that there was an enormous amount of willful self-delusion and ignorance, especially among people like these, who were more privy to the thoughts and actions in the higher Nazi hierarchy.)

I found this interesting:
WIRTZ: It seems to me that the political situation for STALIN has changed completely now.

WEIZSÄCKER: I hope so. STALIN certainly has not got it yet. If the Americans and the
British were good Imperialists they would attack STALIN with the thing tomorrow, but they
won't do that, they will use it as a political weapon. Of course that is good, but the result will
be a peace which will last until the Russians have it, and then there is bound to be war.
It's unclear to me how much Heisenberg and some of the others expect the kind of hegemonic "Anglo-Saxon" political structure represented eventually by NATO, as opposed to something more like the Soviet puppet regimes behind the Iron Curtain. (Though, as we know, some of those regimes were more autonomous than others, and some of the western Europe regimes were closer to puppets of the US than we many of us like to admit.) Heisenberg seems to expect a world made up of not just a few superpowers, but imperial mega-national political entities, like the USSR. Maybe one per continent, say. And they all expected that were the Soviets to get the bomb, full scale nuclear war would result. MAD didn't occur to them. Which is reasonable, maybe, as the US had demonstrated a willingness to actually use a weapon; although, conversely, perhaps the tangible horror of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is what enabled the MAD doctrine to actually work.

I'm unsurprised that this was used as the source for a radio play. It really does read like fiction and the glimpse into the real-time discussions by these men -- some of whom are familiar historical figures for me -- is deeply compelling.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 10:32 PM on September 24, 2016 [43 favorites]


The final two paragraphs are amazing.
posted by clorox at 10:54 PM on September 24, 2016 [1 favorite]


Yeah, it's like reading early 20th-century fan fiction or something, with the particular names being mentioned.

Isn't the talk about the superiority of "the Anglo-Saxons", which IIRC was always happening in juxtaposition to the Russians in the conversations, probably just standard Nazi racial doctrine? (Derived from pre-existing prejudice against Slavs, which derives from the same root as "slave"...)
posted by XMLicious at 10:59 PM on September 24, 2016 [5 favorites]


I hope Tom Stoppard is making haste to write the play.
posted by drnick at 11:08 PM on September 24, 2016 [1 favorite]


Yeah this is a play just waiting to happen.
posted by PenDevil at 11:43 PM on September 24, 2016 [1 favorite]


Yeah this is a play just waiting to happen.

It's called Copenhagen, and it's a very good play. It focuses on a mid-war meeting between Bohr and Heisenberg, but the postwar interrogations of Nazi scientists come up a lot, especially when trying to understand Heisenberg's...uncertain motivations.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 12:00 AM on September 25, 2016 [22 favorites]


WIRTZ: I'm glad we didn't have it.
WEIZSÄCKER: That's another matter.

posted by philip-random at 12:06 AM on September 25, 2016


There's a fascinating, albeit sometimes difficult, play called Copenhagen, and subsequent TV movie, by Michael Frayn. The play, based on a mountain of historical research, tries to unpack the question of what Bohr and Heisenberg discussed during their 1941 meeting in Copenhagen. Someone has put the film version up on YouTube.
posted by zachlipton at 12:10 AM on September 25, 2016 [9 favorites]


In June 1942, the researchers informed Albert Speer that they were in no position to build an atomic bomb with the resources at hand in less than 3-5 years [...]

The same was true of the USA and, as it turned out, the atomic bomb at best only marginally affected the outcome of WW2; Germany had surrendered months before the first nuclear explosion, Trinity.

In retrospect it's interesting to imagine what the world would be like if the Manhattan Project had been likewise stymied; surely we would still have nuclear fission, and perhaps weapons, but would they have been used in war? On the other hand, perhaps the reason we haven't seen a nuclear war is that we saw how destructive even a limited use would be.
posted by Joe in Australia at 12:10 AM on September 25, 2016


I notice nobody mentions plutonium.
posted by ckape at 12:24 AM on September 25, 2016 [3 favorites]


From Wikipedia:
Plutonium was first produced and isolated on December 14, 1940 by Dr. Glenn T. Seaborg, Joseph W. Kennedy, Edwin M. McMillan, and Arthur C. Wahl by deuteron bombardment of uranium-238 in the 60-inch cyclotron at the University of California, Berkeley. They first synthesized neptunium-238 (half-life 2.1 days) which subsequently beta-decayed to form a new heavier element with atomic number 94 and atomic weight 238 (half-life 87.7 years). Uranium had been named after the planet Uranus and neptunium after the planet Neptune, and so element 94 was named after Pluto. Wartime secrecy prevented them from announcing the discovery until 1948.
posted by XMLicious at 12:46 AM on September 25, 2016 [9 favorites]


GERLACH: There are some things that one knows and one can discuss together but that one cannot discuss in the presence of Englishmen.

Surely a house full of genius nuclear physicists, as paranoid and uncertain they must be, would know they're bugged and everything they're saying is scrutinized. It's an even more powerful read when you bear that in mind.
posted by adept256 at 12:54 AM on September 25, 2016 [4 favorites]


Surely a house full of genius nuclear physicists, as paranoid and uncertain they must be, would know they're bugged and everything they're saying is scrutinized
The British did this a lot. They still do. If you want to get people to talk, put them together in a pleasant, safe environment. Isolate them from outside contact. Make the comfortable, treat them well and give them absolutely nothing to do but talk to each other.

You can tell them that you've bugged the space. You can advise them not to share secrets.

In three days they'll be talking freely and openly. It works on anybody, it's simple cheap and enormously effective.

People like to talk. No, people need to talk. If you give them nothing else to do, they will talk.

You notice that after Gerlach mentions the need for discretion, a few minutes later he's blabbing his lips off.

Real "enhanced interrogation" looks like a very dull country club.

Also: copious amounts of very good alcohol.

The British have been the world's greatest manipulative bastards for centuries. If you want to know how to manipulate people, just go and watch them. You don't build an empire solely on brutality (although it is a necessary ingredient.) You need guile, cunning and a deep understanding of psychology.
posted by Combat Wombat at 1:41 AM on September 25, 2016 [147 favorites]


"I believe this uranium business will give the Anglo–Saxons such tremendous power that EUROPE will become a bloc under Anglo–Saxon domination. If that is the case it will be a very good thing. I wonder whether STALIN will be able to stand up to the others as he has done in the past."

As noted in Ivan Fyodorovich's comment, fascinating to see hints of their vision of post-war Europe. This includes observations of the inadequacies of small national governments, and intuitions of a EU-like structure and NATO.

And of course, as a Londoner the certain destruction of London by an atomic bomb had they succeeded as noted in their casual conversation is pretty chilling.
posted by C.A.S. at 2:15 AM on September 25, 2016 [9 favorites]


Kind of a breath-taking read. They were sitting at a pivotal moment of history and they knew it, it seems, and even more clearly than almost anyone else - for knowing the extent of what they had discovered and how its ramifications.
posted by From Bklyn at 2:30 AM on September 25, 2016


A random bit of related trivia: Moe Berg, mediocre professional baseball player and later OSS spy, went to a lecture by Heisenberg in December 1944 and was instructed to shoot the scientist if Berg thought he was close to making the bomb.
posted by kmz at 3:11 AM on September 25, 2016 [23 favorites]


HEISENBERG: I don't believe a word of the whole thing. They must have spent the whole of their ₤500,000,000 in separating isotopes; and then it's possible

Good old Heisenberg, always being uncertain until something is measured.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 4:57 AM on September 25, 2016 [40 favorites]


From wikipedia: The Manhattan Project began modestly in 1939, but grew to employ more than 130,000 people and cost nearly US$2 billion (about $26 billion in 2016 dollars). Over 90% of the cost was for building factories and producing the fissile materials, with less than 10% for development and production of the weapons.

So, yeah, an appropriate balance of accuracy and uncertainty.
posted by kisch mokusch at 5:28 AM on September 25, 2016 [8 favorites]


Also:

HAHN: I didn't think it would be possible for another twenty years.

WEIZSÄCKER: I don't think it has anything to do with uranium.


Is he referring to plutonium?
posted by kisch mokusch at 5:29 AM on September 25, 2016 [1 favorite]


This goes against what I think is the conventional wisdom about America: that its strength lies in its value on individual initiative, individualism in general, whereas in Germany (and more so in, say, Japan) their strength lies in their ability to unify as a nation. In Germany, its 20th century unification to malign ends is notorious; today its unification in implementing progressive ideas in the areas of education, health care, and alternative (to oil/coal) energy is the envy of many of us Americans.

This could be more a reflection of the extremely siloed and hierarchical nature of German research labs that continues in large part to be their model to this day.
posted by srboisvert at 5:48 AM on September 25, 2016 [7 favorites]


MAD didn't occur to them.

Interestingly, this is about the only thing that subsequently happened that they seem to miss. (Plutonium isn't mentioned because it was still quite a secret at the time, so when the scientists were told atomic weapons had been produced the Germans would naturally assume it was via Uranium and their hosts were probably being very deliberate in not correcting them at this stage.)

MAD was an offshoot of early simulations of bluffing games like poker with early computers, a lot of which was pursued by John von Neuman. When it became clear that MAD was the optimum minimax solution to the game of nuclear war, we made a point of sharing the work with the Russians to make sure they would understand the strategy too. It was far from obvious in 1945, and the vision the scientists had of a world dominated by continental superpowers is eerily remniscent of Orwell's 1984.

The comment about cooperation jumped out at me too. I don't think this is so much a feature of German vs. American society, as it is a feature of Fascism vs. open democracy. Accounts like Shirer's Rise and Fall of the Third Reich make it clear that the Nazi government was a hotbed of paranoia, suspicion, deception, betrayal, and ass-covering. Coordinating a project the size of the Manhattan Project would simply have been impossible under those conditions.
posted by Bringer Tom at 6:30 AM on September 25, 2016 [16 favorites]




Anyone interested in the Allies' systematic bugging of Axis POWs' conversations and what they reveal about the war should read Sonke Neitzel's Soldaten - On Fighting, Killing and Dying: The Secret Second World War Tapes of German POWs (2012). It's by no means a perfect book: academic reviews have picked holes in its analyses and pointed out that Neitzel relies heavily on Luftwaffe and U-boat POWs for some of the more sensational testimony of German armed forces' complicity in the holocaust, but as an accessible entree into the field it's brilliant.
posted by Sonny Jim at 7:03 AM on September 25, 2016 [4 favorites]


And yeah, the racist wackaloons do come out of the woodwork in the responses at that second link. Now that they have a candidate running for president, their hopes are terrifying.
posted by hank at 7:04 AM on September 25, 2016 [2 favorites]


as one of them says, if they had been enthusiastic and had been able to convince Hitler to dedicate the necessary manpower and resources -- which they couldn't have afforded in any case -- at the slightest hint of failure they would be subject to accusations of treason and execution. No one at Trinity Site in the US worried that if the test failed that they'd be summarily shot.

That seems to me to be the real reason for the American's successful cooperation and the German failure. It's no so much American individualism or subsumption of same. But the penalties for failure were made ultimate under the Nazis, and that made them cautious.
posted by Diablevert at 7:08 AM on September 25, 2016 [7 favorites]


kozad and No-sword: I was unsurprised at that. I don't quite have the words to describe why, unfortunately.

Post-war promotion of randian individualism values to oppose socialist collectivism?
posted by lmfsilva at 7:10 AM on September 25, 2016 [6 favorites]


From the Wikipedia page on Operation Epsilon, this bit of transcript that wasn't included in the OP:
Diebner: "I wonder whether there are microphones installed here?"
Heisenberg: "Microphones installed? (laughing) Oh no, they're not as cute as all that. I don't think they know the real Gestapo methods; they're a bit old fashioned in that respect.
posted by muddgirl at 7:11 AM on September 25, 2016 [30 favorites]


My father is a German physicist who got his PhD in the 1950s. As such, he's the product of the same centuries-old academic system that produced these men. From the stories he's told over the years, the lack of cooperation seems pretty built-in. No doubt it was heightened by the possibly-fatal consequences of ending up on the wrong side of those outside the academic sphere.
posted by Slothrup at 7:30 AM on September 25, 2016 [4 favorites]


Yeah, the racist wackaloons do come out of the woodwork in the responses at that second link.
Well, to be fair to "racist wackaloons," Veterans News Now does appear to be some kind of fringe right-wing antisemitic conspiracy site, so it's probably their home territory. I would've appreciated a content warning there.
posted by Sonny Jim at 7:36 AM on September 25, 2016 [7 favorites]


This is incredible; thanks so much for posting!

WEIZSÄCKER: History will record that the Americans and the English made a bomb, and that at the same time the Germans, under the HITLER regime, produced a workable engine. In other words, the peaceful development of the uranium engine was made in GERMANY under the HITLER regime, whereas the Americans and the English developed this ghastly weapon of war.

Oh yeah, man, you totally called it, people today use "Hitler's Germany" as shorthand for a bunch of extremely goodhearted scientists
posted by Greg Nog at 8:12 AM on September 25, 2016 [33 favorites]


I've said it before, and I'll say it again: it was socialism and socialist principles that allowed the Allies to win the war. Just think what we could accomplish in peacetime if we pulled together like that.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 9:00 AM on September 25, 2016 [22 favorites]


Seconding the recommendation upthread for Bernstein's book! It not only has the full Farm Hall transcripts; it also has Bernstein's very thorough annotations and contextualizations. It's completely riveting. You can read pieces of it on google books.

And as for von Weizsäcker, nearly everything he said about the German nuclear program was dissonant. Those remarks about "history recording" how the Americans built a bomb while the Germans were only interested in nuclear energy are especially conflicted; he himself in 1940 had suggested to the Weapons Bureau that neptunium bred in a reactor could be used for a fission bomb! Not a reactor, a bomb. There's a lot of revision going on there, and you can see even more in Bernstein's introduction (if the link fails, it's the prologue subsection entitled Von Weizsäcker's "Open Road" starting on pg 30).
posted by Westringia F. at 9:10 AM on September 25, 2016 [7 favorites]


"Edel sei der Mensch, hilfreich und gut! Den das allein unterscheidet ihn, von allen anderen wesen die wir kennen." Göthe.
posted by Oyéah at 10:06 AM on September 25, 2016


Just think what we could accomplish in peacetime if we pulled together like that.

If only we'd run with that ball the way the Russians did.
posted by Segundus at 11:51 AM on September 25, 2016 [1 favorite]


The mentions of Dresden are chilling, just because there's this general lack of recognition of how many people, non combatants, were just burned to death by regular old incendiary bombs in WWII. regular old oxygen and fuel.

My grandfather's command in WWII was charged with aerial photography of the fire-bombing runs over Japan, the destruction of cities. He always talked about that more than Hiroshima. it's easy for me to forget, after a couple generations of MAD, that the war was that insane before the atom bomb. That it's very easy to forget--who wants to remember, really--the atom bomb made sense
posted by eustatic at 11:57 AM on September 25, 2016 [8 favorites]


There is so much information coming out right now that I just know my granddad would have known about. So frustrating he isn't here anymore. He must have met Gertrude Sanford, and I think he mentioned her, but since I didn't have a clue, I don't remember what he said. I remember that he met up with Niels Bohr, and he told me it was awkward, but when he told me, I wasn't really prepared to dig deeper.
I could go read his diary at the National Archives, but I have a job, and children, so I probably won't till I'm retired. That generation was truly amazing - something to aspire to.
And that goes for the Germans as well. They were on the wrong side, and they were doing wrong, but they struggled with huge problems and worried about the ethics. So often today, I meet scientists who couldn't care less about how their work impacts society. They are too far down some rabbit hole they have determined to be important. Happily, multitudes of scientists are doing good work, but look at all the people working for the food industry or for the shady parts of medical or for weapons.
posted by mumimor at 12:28 PM on September 25, 2016 [6 favorites]


My Goodness, that transcript is so full of amazing and shockingly illuminating things that if I weren't sitting at a table, I'd undoubtedly be down on my knees right about now.

Even amidst such brilliance, something about Von Weizsäcker stands out to me:
WEIZSÄCKER: I don't think it has anything to do with uranium.

WEIZSÄCKER: I think it's dreadful of the Americans to have done it. I think it is madness on their part.

HAHN: That man came to me in 1938 when the non-aryan Fraulein MEITNER was still there – it wasn't easy to keep her in my Institute. I will never forget how BOMKE came to us and told me that he was being persecuted by the State because he was not a Nazi. We took him on and afterwards we found out that he was an old fighting member of the Party.

WEIZSÄCKER: Then we might speak of our "BOMKE-damaged" Institutes. (Laughter).

WEIZSÄCKER: 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.
He was half right about it not being uranium; the bomb that destroyed Nagaski three days later was a plutonium bomb.

But of course they didn't know -- and show no sign of having so much as an inkling of -- the fact that "the Italian navigator [had] landed", and that the "engine" they even thought they might get credit for developing was already running, developed under Fermi in Chicago.
HEISENBERG: On the other hand, the whole heavy water business which I did everything I could to further cannot produce an explosive.

HARTECK: Not until the engine is running.

HAHN: They seem to have made an explosive before making the engine and now they say: "in future we will build engines".
However, there's as nice a demonstration as you could possibly want of the impotence of the most elaborate security when it comes to keeping secrets from true experts:
WEIZSÄCKER: In 1940 VAN DER GRINTEN wrote to me saying that he was separating isotopes with General Electric.

HARTECK: Was VAN DER GRINTEN a good man?

WEIZSÄCKER: He wasn't really very good but the fact that he was being used showed that they were working on it.
The revelation about Dresden is absolutely stunning:
HEISENBERG: Yes. (Pause) About a year ago, I heard from SEGNER (?) from the Foreign Office that the Americans had threatened to drop a uranium bomb on Dresden if we didn't surrender soon. At that time I was asked whether I thought it possible, and, with complete conviction, I replied: 'No'.
At that time, "about a year ago" would have been August 1944; the Trinity test wasn't until July 16, 1945 and was probably about as soon as we could have done it, as I read what we now know of the history of the Manhattan Project; so it was probably an empty threat in August of '44.

But the fact that this threat was made should completely change the historical conversation about the fire-bombing of Dresden, which actually took place in mid-February of 1945:
Immediate German propaganda claims following the attacks and post-war discussions[5] on whether the attacks were justified has led to the bombing becoming one of the moral causes célèbres of the war.[6] A 1953 United States Air Force report defended the operation as the justified bombing of a strategic target, which they claimed was a major rail transport and communication centre, housing 110 factories and 50,000 workers in support of the German war effort.[7] Several researchers have asserted that not all of the communications infrastructure, such as the bridges, was targeted, nor were the extensive industrial areas outside the city centre.[8] Critics of the bombing argue that Dresden was a cultural landmark of little or no strategic significance, and that the attacks were indiscriminate area bombing and not proportionate to the commensurate military gains.[9][10]

Large variations in the claimed death toll have fueled the controversy. In March 1945, the German government ordered its press to publish a falsified casualty figure of 200,000 for the Dresden raids, and death toll estimates as high as 500,000 have been given.[11][12][13] The city authorities at the time estimated no more than 25,000 victims, a figure that subsequent investigations supported, including a 2010 study commissioned by the city council.[14]
We didn't bomb Dresden to achieve strategic objectives, we bombed it to carry out the threat we'd made to try to force Germany to surrender.
posted by jamjam at 1:25 PM on September 25, 2016 [4 favorites]


he himself in 1940 had suggested to the Weapons Bureau that neptunium bred in a reactor could be used for a fission bomb!

Ya, this.. Many places in the transcript imply "the engine, then the Bomb". Talk about Uranium reserves in Europe, talk about "a politician who has an engine can do anything he wants", and etc. Whether Plutonium was secret is totally immaterial. These people were all aware that if you had a nuclear reaction running, you could bread fissionable material easily.
posted by Chuckles at 1:42 PM on September 25, 2016


Then we might speak of our "BOMKE-damaged" Institutes.

Yeesh, what a wiseacre.
posted by biogeo at 1:46 PM on September 25, 2016 [2 favorites]


The PBS Series Secrets of the Dead had an excellent 2013 episode, "Bugging Hitler's Soldiers," about this British operation. (preview, transcript) It doesn't mention anything about the atomic bomb or these physicists, but it's a good overview of how it worked and what other things they learned.
posted by pmurray63 at 2:44 PM on September 25, 2016 [3 favorites]


Microphones installed? (laughing) Oh no, they're not as cute as all that. I don't think they know the real Gestapo methods; they're a bit old fashioned in that respect.

Although, if I did think I was being bugged by microphones, this is exactly the sort of thing I would say very clearly into the nearest potted plant while making frantic winks and hand gestures.
posted by eykal at 2:51 PM on September 25, 2016 [12 favorites]


HEISENBERG: Yes. (Pause) About a year ago, I heard from SEGNER (?) from the Foreign Office that the Americans had threatened to drop a uranium bomb on Dresden if we didn't surrender soon. At that time I was asked whether I thought it possible, and, with complete conviction, I replied: 'No'.

It's super unlikely that the USA would have threatened to use "a uranium bomb" at a time when the Project was so secret; it's doubly unlikely that they would have threatened to bomb Dresden, specifically. This was long before they had even one nuclear device; if they were bluffing they could have threatened to bomb the whole of Germany. I think this is just one of those weird wartime rumors that happened to coincide with a bit of truth. In contrast, other wartime rumors that didn't coincide with reality (e.g., death rays) were soon forgotten.
posted by Joe in Australia at 3:40 PM on September 25, 2016 [2 favorites]


It strikes me that they are *pretty* on the ball about a lot of what had to happen to make a bomb. But it seems they would have been astonished to know by how many years they were beaten to the "engine."
posted by atoxyl at 4:07 PM on September 25, 2016


The British did this a lot. They still do. If you want to get people to talk, put them together in a pleasant, safe environment. Isolate them from outside contact. Make the comfortable, treat them well and give them absolutely nothing to do but talk to each other.

Ok, but why the snappy blazers? And why does the perimeter security system closely resemble a weather balloon?
posted by um at 4:10 PM on September 25, 2016 [16 favorites]


I think this is just one of those weird wartime rumors that happened to coincide with a bit of truth. In contrast, other wartime rumors that didn't coincide with reality (e.g., death rays) were soon forgotten.

Here is Alex Wellerstein’s take on that particularly story (several of his other posts have been linked upthread)

There are tantalising clues—Heisenberg himself gave some in 1964—but the origin of the tale remains an enigma.
posted by Fongotskilernie at 4:12 PM on September 25, 2016 [3 favorites]


Whether Plutonium was secret is totally immaterial. These people were all aware that if you had a nuclear reaction running, you could bread fissionable material easily.

That's not true. There was no guarantee that adding neutrons to uranium was going to yield a fissile product, or that it would be extractable, or that it wouldn't be contaminated with some other neutron poison generated at the same time. This was only knowable through experimentation. They certainly recognized that there might be more fissile isotopes than just uranium, which is why:

WEIZSÄCKER: I don't think it has anything to do with uranium.


They knew that uranium was going to be hard to make work, but they didn't have the experimental knowledge to know if there was a different element that would be easier.
posted by kiltedtaco at 4:23 PM on September 25, 2016 [1 favorite]


What struck me was all the science names as actual people and not as terms- Heisenberg and Geiger especially.
posted by freethefeet at 4:36 PM on September 25, 2016 [8 favorites]


What a riveting read. So interesting, probably one of the first insights I've had into to the thoughts of the Germans who hated Hitler but still worked under his government. As people have noted above it reads like a perfect play.
I read it hot on the heels of reading about Hitler's reliance on amphetamines and stronger, which this article and book posits, why Hitler was always so ill, but managed to pull himself together for rousing angry speeches.
posted by stevedawg at 1:20 AM on September 26, 2016 [1 favorite]


So much in this short piece. One thing not remarked upon so far is this:
(Nuclear fission had been discovered by Otto Hahn and Lise Meitner in 1938.)
This seems disputed, but clearly " the non-aryan Fraulein MEITNER" was a hugely important figure. It would take some devotion to one's work for a Jew to stay until 1938.
posted by hawthorne at 4:51 AM on September 26, 2016 [4 favorites]


This was an incredible read, and re-sparked my interest in the incredible Copenhagen -- which I happpen to have two copies of! (dont ask). Any MeFite want the other?
posted by So You're Saying These Are Pants? at 8:14 PM on September 26, 2016


This is extremely weird conversation. People are speaking in complete careful sentences, not interrupting or overlapping much, and doing a whole lot more background exposition than you'd expect. It's almost like it was performed for an audience. Lots of "as you know..." style statements and full name references, and so on. I wonder how much the transcript has been cleaned up, and what the original is like (presumably it's translated from German). Maybe it's just not a very good translation?

I work with conversation transcriptions a lot, and it's usually pretty incomprehensible unless you know a lot of background, know the same people the speakers do, and even then there's trailing sentences, ideas that change direction midway through, and interruptions, off-topic asides, etc. If I read this script as a proposed play script, I'd say the conversation was too unrealistic.

Also I know a lot of physicists and the conversation when they discuss recent news relating to physics rapidly (within two sentences) gets into a level of technical detail that non-physicists cannot possibly follow. Lots of sketching of equations, mention of technical terms, shorthand references to papers they all know etc. It's weird to me that that doesn't happen here.
posted by lollusc at 10:49 PM on September 26, 2016 [12 favorites]


Those are very good points, lollusc. Transcriptions of actual speech are largely phrases and interruptions and such. And, yeah, you'd think that when they were discussing some of the more technical stuff, they'd have been actually technical. So, yes, I'm inclined to think that there is a great deal of paraphrasing by the intelligence team, like these aren't the raw transcripts, but rather the end result prepared to disseminate to folk at the highest levels of government.

I assume that Bernstein's book, which I linked in my first comment, has more detail and clarifies this. I've considered getting the paperback version, but probably won't.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 12:01 AM on September 27, 2016 [2 favorites]


This is extremely weird conversation. People are speaking in complete careful sentences, not interrupting or overlapping much, and doing a whole lot more background exposition than you'd expect. It's almost like it was performed for an audience. Lots of "as you know..." style statements and full name references, and so on. I wonder how much the transcript has been cleaned up, and what the original is like (presumably it's translated from German). Maybe it's just not a very good translation?

It is indeed a translation. The German transcriptions were lost long ago.
posted by Fongotskilernie at 8:21 PM on September 27, 2016


I work with conversation transcriptions a lot, and it's usually pretty incomprehensible unless you know a lot of background, know the same people the speakers do, and even then there's trailing sentences, ideas that change direction midway through, and interruptions, off-topic asides, etc.

In the 40's, would it have been common to transcribe things with editorializing to make a cleaned up version like this?
posted by yohko at 3:02 PM on September 30, 2016


Very very late to this, but there are two reasons the linked transcripts appear "thin":

First, as you all rightly surmised, what was reported in the Farm Hall transcripts was indeed a distillation of what was actually said. In his introduction to Bernstein's book, David Cassidy writes (emphasis mine):
Before the German scientists arrived [at the Farm Hall MI6 safe house], physicist R. V. Jones, a leading figure in British scientific intelligence, had the rooms (and possibly the grounds) outfitted with hidden microphones. A team of bilingual British military personnel monitored all of the scientists’ conversations and recorded those that appeared of intelligence value in the state-of-the-art medium of the day: reusable shellacked metal disks. From their selection of what to save, we can see that the eavesdroppers were primarily interested not in posterity, but in such immediate matters as morale, political orientation, loyalty to the western Allies and, after Hiroshima, the extent of German knowledge of nuclear fission.

The British agents transcribed only those recorded conversations that proved of special intelligence value and translated them into English.
These conversations were then summarized and excerpted from the English in weekly or biweekly reports compiled and signed by the British officer in charge at Farm Hall, Major T. H. Rittner and, after Rittner fell ill, by his second-in-command, Captain P. L. C. Brodie. In some important instances, however, the reports contained transcriptions of the original German as appendixes.
Amongst those appendices was a complete transcription of a technical lecture given by Heisenberg on 14 Aug 1945. Indeed, the physicists at Farm Hall would give biweekly technical lectures to one another (just as lollusc speculated!). Most of the time, however, they were not transcribed; instead, Rittner would simply write at the end of his report "TECHNICAL: 1. The usual biweekly lectures on general scientific subjects have taken place." without further elaboration. The lecture on 14 Aug was different, though:
HEISENBERG: Ich moechte die 235U Bombe nach den Methoden behan- deln und besprechen, die wir bisher immer bei unserer Uran-Maschine angewendet haben. Da stellt sich dann in der Tat heraus, dass man alle Einzelheiten dieser Bombe wirklich sehr gut verstehen kann....
"I should like to consider the 235U bomb following the methods we have always used for our uranium reactor. It then turns out in fact that we can understand all the details of this bomb very well...."

Heisenberg then goes into great technical detail laying out what he had pieced together, and his full lecture (equations and all) along with the technical discussion that followed were recorded & reported in complete detail. (They're published in Bernstein's book in both German and English translation.)

So, yes: what you are seeing is partly the selective reporting of the British agents who transcribed the recordings. But that's not all!

The second reason the transcripts appear thin is that the linked PDF is itself a distillation of the already-distilled Farm Hall transcripts. Obviously, the PDF only covers 6-7 Aug (and hence none of the sicussions that took place in the days that followed as the physicists tried to piece together what happened). Somewhat less obviously, though, the author of the PDF has chosen to elide the more technical discussions from those days. Basically, every time you see "[...]" a technical conversation has been edited out. For instance, on page 2 of the linked PDF, the second ellipsis corresponds to Gerlach & Hahn discussing separation of isotopes (cf pg 117 in Bernstein); on page 6, the second ellipsis corresponds to a lengthier conversation about sources of uranium (cf pgs 123-124); and so on.

In brief, the creator of the PDF appears to have edited down the transcripts from Aug 6-7 to be a bit less "physics-y," perhaps to make them more understandable, perhaps to maintain flow & dramatic momentum. Unfortunately, however, some of the character of the conversations -- and of physicists themselves -- is lost in the process.

Finally, if anyone would like to borrow, for the purposes of the academic discussion we are having here, my copy of Bernstein's book, please memail me and I'd be happy to loan you a copy. (But do consider buying it, because it's a wonderful resource!)
posted by Westringia F. at 11:15 AM on October 14, 2016 [12 favorites]


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