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  • Copenhagen:The Drama of History
  • Reed Way Dasenbrock (bio)

It's been fascinating to watch the opening scene of critical commentary on Michael Frayn's Copenhagen, for it has reproduced in miniature the historical controversy on which Frayn's drama turns. Werner Heisenberg's 1941 trip to Copenhagen to visit Niels Bohr remains of interest more than sixty years later because the uncertainties that continue to surround it reflect deeper questions of interest to us all. Why did Germany fail to develop a bomb in World War II, when it had entered the war ahead of the Allies in some crucial respects? Is the difference between the Nazi failure and the success of the democracies a tribute to the greater openness of democratic societies? No one regrets that failure, but should we celebrate or regret our success? Did the German effort fail because key German scientists wanted it to fail? In that case, can we claim moral superiority as unambiguously as we would like?

Heisenberg's visit with Bohr captures these questions in a single place, time, and set of actions. (Aristotle would have approved.) After the war, Heisenberg presented his trip as part of an effort to prevent a bomb from being developed by both sides, and apologists for Heisenberg from Robert Jungk to Thomas Powers have interpreted his actions as consistent with an attempt not to build the bomb.1 Bohr's wife, Margrethe, never hid her opinion that the visit was a "hostile act," and this stance fits in with the view advanced by critics of Heisenberg from Samuel Goudsmit to Paul Lawrence [End Page 218] Rose who stress Heisenberg's role as a collaborator with the Nazi regime, presenting him as staunchly nationalist if not a National Socialist, as working hard to provide Germany with the bomb, and as dumbfounded by the news in August 1945 of the Allied success because he believed Germany still to be well ahead in the race for nuclear power.2

As Frayn's play—like so many of the physicists germane to its story—has crossed the Atlantic, its initial reception has reflected this dichotomy, for the simple reason that journals have turned first for reviewers to historians knowledgeable about the subject matter of the play, rather than to literary critics, a group not generally known for its ability to handle the complexities of modern physics. Hence Thomas Powers reviewed the play approvingly in the New York Review of Books. Well he might, since in his reading, at any rate, the play endorses his interpretation of Heisenberg's motives for going to Copenhagen:

In Copenhagen Heisenberg does want to know if there's an Allied bomb program ("my dear Heisenberg . . . I've no idea . . .") but it's not the reason he's come. What he intends is immeasurably bolder—to tell Bohr that now, in the very early stages of fission research, scientists can still tell officials that bombs are too difficult and expensive, and he wants Bohr to press this point upon the Americans—"to tell them we can stop it together." The plan is of course preposterous and seems to collapse as soon as it's put into words.

But crazy as it is, Frayn suggests, this really was the reason Heisenberg came to Copenhagen.

("Unanswered Question" 6)

In Powers's view, Heisenberg—after failing in this attempt—in actual historical fact went on to convince the Nazi hierarchy of exactly this point, that the bomb wasn't practicable during the course of the war. In effect, Heisenberg gets the credit for killing the [End Page 219] German bomb effort, given the Nazis' focus on weapons that could be brought into use by the end of the war.

This analysis leads Powers into an aspect of Frayn's play he calls "startling and even subversive" (7). If Heisenberg in effect conspired to deprive Hitler of the bomb, as Powers asserts in Heisenberg's War and argues here that Frayn is also asserting, whereas Bohr went off to Los Alamos and helped build the bomb, then Heisenberg becomes "not a hero of the resistance, but something more disturbing—a scientist asked to build a bomb who raised the question...


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pp. 218-238
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