Hitler's nuclear program
March 4, 2005 7:17 PM   Subscribe

Hitler's bomb. Adolf Hitler had the atom bomb first but it was too primitive and ungainly for aerial deployment, says a new book by German historian Rainer Karlsch. The book indicates that Nazi scientists carried out tests of what would now be called a dirty nuclear device in the waning days of World War II. US historian Mark Walker, an expert on the Third Reich's atomic weapons program, supports Karlsch's claims: "I consider the arguments very convincing". More inside.
posted by matteo (18 comments total)
Concentration camp inmates were used as human guinea pigs and "several hundred" died in the tests, conducted on the Baltic Sea island of Rugen and at an inland test in wooded hill country about 100 kilometres south of Berlin in 1944 and early 1945.
Karlsch, 47, author of a number of books on Cold War espionage and the nuclear arms race, supports his findings on what his publishers call hitherto unpublished documents, scientific reports and blueprints.
posted by matteo at 7:19 PM on March 4, 2005

the vikings were first to land on the moon. really.
posted by quonsar at 7:34 PM on March 4, 2005

Just like to mention that a "dirty nuclear device" is not a nuclear bomb. Its just a conventional bomb that has some radioactive material in it, but there are no nuclear reactions taking place. And it was previously known that the Germans had some uranium, so it does not seem surprising that they would expriment with it.
posted by c13 at 7:43 PM on March 4, 2005

Well if so, that directly contradicts Richard Rhodes work in "The Making of The Atomic Bomb" (which he won a Pulitzer for).

The Germans were ahead in general atomic power research before the war, but not by much, and not for long.

In addition to lacking in research, due to being de-prioritized by upper management, they never really had the industrial infrastructure in place, nor access to quantities of raw materials or materials processing to make an enriched uranium bomb.

Sure, there was discussion of a radiological dispersion bomb, but from what I've gathered, it wasn't seriously considered by Heisenberg any more than it was by Oppenheimer et al.
posted by Relay at 7:47 PM on March 4, 2005

If you wanted to make in impact in WWII, you needed a bomb that went BOOM. Hitler didn't have boom, he had bubkes; he had bombs that went pfffft. He had nothing more than fancy mustard gas - pfffft. Thank the Lord he only had pfffft.
posted by caddis at 8:08 PM on March 4, 2005

Not an "atom bomb", except for the fact it has atoms in it.
posted by Pretty_Generic at 8:22 PM on March 4, 2005

Radioactive atoms that is.
posted by caddis at 8:24 PM on March 4, 2005

The dirty bomb claim is separate and unrelated to a nuclear bomb. I'd be curious to know the merits of this claim, as everyone that I have heard with expertise on the subject says Germany didn't have a bomb, and wasn't likely to have had one ever, under the conditions at the end of WWII.

We needed Oak Ridge and whatever the Berkley people did, in addition to Los Alamos. Even if Germany was on par with the US as far as materials, theory, et al. went (which they don't seem to have been), their infrastructure was within Allied bombing range -- an major disadvantage America did not have.

I won't ever have time to read this book just to satisfy that curiosity -- but if any one does, do report!
posted by teece at 8:28 PM on March 4, 2005

I can only vaguely remember a tv show from a few years back mentioning that the uranium ore carried on the German U-boat 234 near the end of World War II came in handy in the final days of the Manhattan project when every little bit of hard to get uranium was helpful.
posted by indices at 8:58 PM on March 4, 2005

If in fact there were dirty bomb tests "conducted on the Baltic Sea island of Rugen" in the 1940's, it would be trivial to go there and test for the truth. Anything lethally radioactive but not extremely exotic (i.e. something realistic that the Nazis had) would leave a ton of evidence glowing around even now, and probably for centuries.
posted by kjs3 at 8:59 PM on March 4, 2005

Somewhat related: Copenhagen is a rather quick play to read (and spend hours dissecting) that contemplates the 1941 meeting between Bohr and Heisenberg and the relevance it had to atomic development by the Germans. It's fiction, naturally, yet those interested in such topics might find it enjoyable.

(Could this sound more like comment spam? Geez. :\)
posted by Hankins at 9:04 PM on March 4, 2005

Rugen was no Trinity. According to a Finnish study of Baltic radioactivity,

The total collective dose from man-made radioactivity in the Baltic Sea is estimated at 2600 manSv of which about two thirds (1700 manSv) originate from Chernobyl fallout, about one quarter (650 manSv) from fallout from nuclear weapons testing [and the remainder from nuclear power and processing].

The study includes a map showing that the Arkona Sound and Belt area, which includes the German island of Rugen, has comparatively low radioactivity levels, which don't seem higher than the global noise level relating to above-ground nuclear testing. So, I think the claim of an operational nuclear bomb is ... somewhat exaggerated.

I really don't think they'd gotten much farther than Fermi had, under the Stagg Field stadium at the University of Chicago, before he was whisked away to Alamogordo. Frankly, given the suicidal nature of the Nazi leadership at the end, if they had it -- why didn't they use it?

Some ironic side notes: Ruegen is home of an experimental desalination facility, and the proposed site of one of Europe's largest wind farms (1200MW). Also, there was a previous English book making similar claims.

Incidentally, most of Nazi Germany's uranium came from the Sudetenland -- probably a driving motivation behind its annexation.
posted by dhartung at 9:23 PM on March 4, 2005

Well, as long as they didn't get their hands on the Grail...

Marion! Don't look!
posted by Asparagirl at 9:35 PM on March 4, 2005

For anyone who likes speculative WWII things, I can recommend Ralph Giordano's Wenn Hitler den Krieg gewonnen hätte. (If Hitler would have won the war)

It details a lot of the plans the Nazis had for Europe, including some of their crackpot architectural ideas, in which everything had to be the biggest ever, regardless of feasibility or practicality. (They wanted, for example, to build a bridge longer than the Golden Gate Bridge in Hamburg.) Just thought I'd mention it. I'm not sure if it's been translated into English, though.
posted by Ljubljana at 12:07 AM on March 5, 2005

Heisenberg's War by Thomas Powers is the standard reference on stuff like this. It may not be definitively accurate but it stops the fear from spreading.
It's really easy to build up a story about nazi nukes - the fact that they went for the largest supplies of uranium in Europe and then went on for the Norwegian heavy water plant makes the whole thing fun.
Fortunately, they didn't have the material, the time or, most especially, the qualified people they needed to do it.
Those people were either imprisoned, gone, dead or (as Powers suggests) paralysed by the way their country had rotted.
posted by thatwhichfalls at 12:30 AM on March 5, 2005

the uranium ore carried on the German U-boat 234 near the end of World War II came in handy in the final days of the Manhattan project when every little bit of hard to get uranium was helpful.

It takes more than a year to transform uranium ore into weapons-grade enriched uranium, so I tend to doubt this.
posted by ChasFile at 3:05 AM on March 5, 2005

the vikings were first to land on the moon. really.

that would explain all the craters ... barbarians
posted by pyramid termite at 3:23 AM on March 5, 2005

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