The idea of the drug-induced super-villain Adolf Hitler in possession of nuclear weapons should send a slight shiver up the spine. Had the man who was the most despised, ruthless dictator of the 20th Century got his hands on the most devastating weapons we’ve ever seen, the world may well now be a very different place than what we see today.
Thankfully – well at least if you were on the Allies side – it was the Americans who developed the first atomic bomb during their Manhattan Project and after deploying two such bombs above the skies of Japan, the Second World War came to a shuddering halt.
The frantic race to ensure that somebody like Hitler was not the first to use nuclear weapons had been won and the allies seemed to breathe a little easier as the threat of fascism and imperialism appeared to ease. But one question has lingered ever since the capitulation of Nazi Germany in 1945. Just how close were they in developing their own nuclear weapon?
The Rise of Nazism
To give you a comprehensive background of the Nazi’s nuclear program we have to start well before World War II and even before the meteoric rise of the screeching dictator himself. The conditions placed on Germany by the Treaty of Versaille were harsh, but gradually the country began to rebuild itself and by the early 1930s was home to some of the most influential scientists of the age. The country appeared primed for some remarkable years, but then things started to get a little – Nazi – I guess.
When Hitler took control of the country in 1933, it sparked an emigration flood of German scientists and mathematicians, eager to escape. One of the most famous early departures was that of Albert Einstein who scarpered across the English Channel then on to the U.S never to return to his homeland.
Many who chose to stay were eventually forced out of their positions as the Nazis began to purge their society of Jewish influence under the directive of the Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service, which essentially excluded Jews and members of political parties opposed to the Nazis from the civil service.
Thousands lost their jobs and hundreds of Germany’s best and brightest began leaving the country, many heading to the exact nations that would soon find themselves at war with Germany, the U.S and the U.K. Quite astonishing, considering what was about to come, around 50% of Germany’s nuclear scientists left the country before the outbreak of World War II. While Hilter must have gained some perverse satisfaction from kicking out these brilliant Jewish minds, it was an act that would end up devastating the country’s pursuit of nuclear weapons.
The world changed in December 1938 and it is perhaps appropriate for this particular story that it was a German chemist Otto Hahn and his assistant Fritz Strassmann who first detected and identified the element barium after bombarding uranium with neutrons.
Nuclear fission had been born and it would be only a few months until the first state-backed plans began emerging regarding its potential use, both for energy and military purposes. It wouldn’t be long until interest spread across the globe and in August 1939 a letter arrived on the desk of U.S President Franklin D Roosevelt, written by Hungarian physicist Leó Szilárd and co-signed by Albert Einstein, urging the president to begin a nuclear program to head off any potential use by the German far-right. FDR quickly appreciated the importance and not long after the early stages of the Manhattan Project were set in motion.
The First Uranverein
In April 1939 a group of scientists met for the first time in Germany to discuss both military and civilian uses of nuclear fission. The group came to be known as the First Uranverein (Uranium Club) and informal work continued at the Georg-August University of Göttingen.
This was still very early and the prospect of a usable weapon was still several years away at least, but the Uranverein certainly laid the groundwork of what was to come. But their work came to halt in August 1939, when three of their members were called up for military training as it became clear the nation was once again on the verge of war.
The Second Uranverein
The Second Uranverein was officially formed on 1st September 1939 – an auspicious date that I’m almost certain was no accident, as it was the day Germany invaded Poland, effectively sparking World War II. On 16th September, the group met for the first time and included some of the most influential scientists still in Germany. Perhaps most notably, Werner Heisenberg, who had recently won the Nobel prize for physics, Otto Hahn, the man who discovered nuclear fission and Walther Bothe, who would go on to win the Nobel prize in 1954.
It was an illustrious group, to say the least, and one which concluded at the second meeting that a nuclear bomb was theoretically possible, but that it would take a minimum of 5 years. In the same meeting, they were asked by a Nazi official how long they thought the Americans would take to develop a nuclear weapon. The group’s answer was 1944, but privately many assumed it would take an additional three or four years.
Under Military Control
It’s difficult to know just how enthusiastic Hitler was about the nuclear weapons program. Most sources seem to suggest he was more interested in the smaller-scale experimental weapons being developed – namely the V weapons, which we’ve covered on Megaprojects so if you fancy a dark trilogy of Hitler’s vengeance weapons, why not head on over after this video.
No doubt Hitler would have loved the idea of having nuclear weapons, but several factors might have tempered his enthusiasm. The first was the timescale as it soon became clear that Germany would not be able to produce a workable bomb before 1947 and with his troops crushing all that came before them across Europe, it’s perfectly conceivable that the German leader believed the conflict would be done and dusted by then.
Then there was the uncomfortable and rapidly expanding realisation that the Nazis had shot themselves in the foot by forcing so many scientists out of their positions during the 1930s. I never met their crazed leader personally, but I’m willing to bet he was a man who didn’t do well with admitting his mistakes and trying to rectify them.
Between 1939 and 1942, Germany’s nuclear program remained under military control, specifically the Heereswaffenamt (HWA, Army Ordnance Office), but this was far from the streamlined, coordinated effort that was going on in the United States.
Unlike in America, the German nuclear program remained heavily fragmented. At its peak in 1942, around 70 scientists were working on the project but certainly not full time. To compound the problems, factions began to appear within the program with different groups competing for budgets and personal rivalries and political allegiances adding to the sense that the German nuclear program never really got anywhere near the scale or coordination of the Manhattan Project.
1942 was a turning point for the Nazis in several ways, their thunderous blitzkrieg came unstuck in the frozen Russian homeland and it was also around this time that Germans appeared to concede that their hopes of building a weapon that could have a significant impact on the war were destined to fail.
The nuclear program was transferred to the Reichsforschungsrat (RFR, Reich Research Council) where it was placed under the leadership of Hermann Göring, head of the Luftwaffe at the time and unquestionably a man who knew next to nothing about nuclear physics.
The Alsos Mission
As the war began to slowly swing in the Allies favour and as the Manhattan Project accelerated, the question of how close Hitler was to a nuclear weapon became more pertinent than ever. The German leader’s frequent reference to Wunderwaffen (wonder weapons) certainly led to plenty of speculation. Was he referencing the V weapons? Or was there something altogether much worse hiding in the shadows?
To address this knowledge gap, the Allies formed a covert special-ops unit in 1943, code-named, the Alsos Mission. They were tasked with not only finding out how far along the Germans were with building a nuclear bomb but also sabotaging anything they came across.
In the early stages of the Alsos Mission, the group moved with the invading Allied army up through Italy, interrogating officers and scientists whenever they became available. Once Rome had been taken, the group carefully combed through information and while evidence was severely lacking, early reports sent back from the Alsos Mission suggested that the Germans were not very far along with their nuclear program. But to get a clearer idea, they would have to enter the German homeland itself.
On 30th March 1945, soldiers with the Alsos Mission arrived in Heidelberg in southwest Germany. It was here that several key scientists were captured, and where the group got their clearest indication yet of what they were up against. After the interrogations, the group were able to pinpoint three sites of interest; a laboratory in Tailfingen, another in Hechingen, and perhaps most notably a site on Haigerloch, where the captured scientists claimed an experimental natural uranium reactor had been moved to.
But as the Allies moved in from all sides, things were certainly not quite as cooperative between the Allies as they could have been. While they were all indeed focused on ridding the world of the scourge of Nazism, they were also very much aware of what might come next. At the Yalta conference in February 1945, the Allies had effectively carved up a post-war Europe, with each of the four major allies, the U.K, USA, France and Soviet Union assigned a sector within defeated Germany.
The problem was that several of the sites of interest lay either within the French or Soviet sphere of influence. So the Americans did not the honourable thing and backed away. Who am I kidding, of course they didn’t. After reaching a factory in Staßfurt, in the Soviet zone, they discovered large quantities of nuclear material. Over the next ten days, 260 truckloads of uranium ore, sodium uranate and ferrouranium weighing about 1,000 tons were whisked away, with most of it ending up in the U.K.
With French forces pushing rapidly eastward, it was a race against time for the Alsos Mission to reach the three principal sites – which as you might guess lay in what would become the French sector of Germany. Operation Big began on 22nd April 1945 with a small group sent in ahead of the advancing Allied line. Their focus was initially in and around the small German town of Haigerloch, close to the western border with France. This was a strange and dangerous period during the war, because even though it was plain to see that Germany was collapsing, groups known as the Wehrwulfs, ultra-loyal Nazi Youth, still roamed freely. And I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that these weren’t pleasant men, in fact, I can’t think of too many worse four-word combinations as ultra-loyal Nazi Youth
The search of the town brought little success but things changed quickly. Firstly, a cave outside the town was discovered with a complete nuclear laboratory inside along with a test reactor, but without the uranium or heavy water needed.
At Tailfingen, the group again hit the jackpot, this time taking into custody Otto Hahn along with more than twenty other scientists. It didn’t take long to discover that papers on Germany’s nuclear program had not been destroyed as thought but instead had been placed within a steel drum and lowered into a cesspool of human waste – which I must say was a pretty good hiding place. They also discovered three drums of heavy water and 1.5 tons of uranium ingots buried in a nearby field, which was again all quietly loaded onto trucks and whisked out of the area. But we should also add that the uranium found was still in its natural state and had not yet been enriched, which again, gives you a good idea of how far along the whole process was.
The Alsos Mission was beginning to conclude that the Nazis were still some way off a workable nuclear weapon, but there was one scientist in particular that they were desperate to capture – Werner Heisenberg.
On 2nd May, the Alsos Mission tracked Heisenberg to his family’s cabin near the town of Urfeld and the scientist was taken into custody. Two days later, Adolf Hilter did the world a huge favour by blowing his brain out and after a further three days, Germany formally surrendered.
With Germany in ruins and Hitler’s plan for a glorious Third Reich firmly over, what lingering fear there had been over the mysterious wonder weapons quickly evaporated. Instead, the Allies busied themselves with poaching as many German engineers and scientists as was humanly possible. Thousands were taken either east or west, many of whom would play a key role in the next generation of nuclear proliferation.
But the important question is just how close had the Nazi’s come to building their own nuclear weapon? Nowhere near close enough is the simple answer.
It’s easy to try and add some extra drama to the situation, but the truth is that Germans were still some way off even testing a large-scale nuclear weapon. The quantities of hard water and uranium found were so small that it’s difficult to look past it simply being the very early stages of a nuclear weapons program. Perhaps the best way to look at it is when we compare it to the Manhattan Project.
The Manhattan Project cost roughly $2 billion ($29.2 billion today) and employed over 120,000 people directly at its peak, though the total number involved directly and indirectly was thought to be around 500,000 people – that’s almost 1% of the U.S workforce at the time. It quite simply dwarfed the German program which cost only around 8 million reichsmarks ($2 million in 1945 & $29.2 million today). The Americans spent 1,000 times the amount on their nuclear program as the Germans did and considering the number of people working on the German program was said to be in the hundreds rather than the thousands, we begin to get an idea of just how far behind they were.
The reasons behind this were quite simple, German simply couldn’t afford it, especially when the war began to unravel for them. The almost impossible had been made even harder by the scientific purges that occurred in the run-up to World War II, which left Germany’s scientific community absolutely shattered.
But there was also another potential factor – and I say potential because this has been furiously argued over since 1945. The question being, did Werner Heisenberg and other German scientist purposely slow the Nazi nuclear weapons program, as a way of stalling Hitler’s plans? There seems to be two very well dug in positions here, either Heisenberg, who was one of the most brilliant physicists in the world at the time, guided the program into a series of roadblocks that caused it to never truly get going, or he was a widely ambitious scientists doing everything he could do build the world’s first nuclear bomb but didn’t have the knowledge or support to do it.
At the end of the war, the majority of the scientists captured by the allies were interned in Britain, in a country house called Farm Hall near Cambridge. And as you would have it, the house was heavily bugged and the allies spent the next six months listening carefully to what was said inside. It’s difficult to be conclusive one way or the other. The German scientists seemed genuinely astonished that the Americans had managed to build a bomb so quickly and on one occasion Heisenberg essentially laid out to the group exactly how you would theoretically build a nuclear weapon. It was particularly notable that it sounded as if this was new information to certain members of the group, which would have been very unlikely if they had been working tooth and nail to build such a weapon.
In the end, there has been no definitive answer. Whether Heisenberg guided the Nazis down a deep rabbit hole or simply couldn’t build the bomb, we’ll probably never fully know for sure. Had Hitler not kicked out some of the best minds in the country before the war, surely work would have progressed further, but to be very honest there was only one country with the finances and capabilities to build a working nuclear weapon amid the bloodiest war in history, and unfortunately for Adolf Hilter, it certainly wasn’t Nazi Germany.