[Paleopsych] Der Spiegel: The Third Reich: How Close Was Hitler to the A-Bomb?
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The Third Reich: How Close Was Hitler to the A-Bomb?
March 14, 2005
How Close Was Hitler to the A-Bomb?
By Klaus Wiegrefe
Berlin historian Rainer Karlsch claims that the Nazis conducted three
nuclear weapons tests in 1944 and 1945. But he has no proof to back up
How close was Hitler to an atomic bomb? A German historian claims he
was much closer than previously believed.
The United States needed 125,000 people, including six future Nobel
Prize winners, to develop the atomic bombs that exploded over
Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. The uranium enrichment facility alone,
including its security zone, was the size of the western German city
of Frankfurt. Dubbed the Manhattan project, the quest ultimately cost
the equivalent of about $30 billion.
In his new book, "Hitler's Bomb," Berlin historian Rainer Karlsch
claims Nazi Germany almost achieved similar results with only a
handful of physicists and a fraction of the budget. The author writes
that German physicists and members of the military conducted three
nuclear weapons tests shortly before the end of World War II, one on
the German island of Ruegen in the fall of 1944 and two in the eastern
German state of Thuringia in March 1945. The tests, writes Karlsch,
claimed up to 700 lives.
If these theories were accurate, history would have to be rewritten.
Ever since the Allies occupied the Third Reich's laboratories and
interrogated Germany's top physicists working with wunderkind
physicist Werner Heisenberg and his colleague Carl Friedrich von
Weizsäcker, it's been considered certain that Hitler's scientists were
a long way from completing a nuclear weapon.
Karlsch's publisher, Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt, is already issuing
brazen claims about the "sensational results of the latest historic
research." The Third Reich, says the publishing house, was "on the
verge of winning the race to acquire the first functioning nuclear
weapon." Even before the book was published, the generally reserved
publishing house sent press kits to the media, in which it claimed
that the author had solved "one of the great mysteries of the Third
The book is being presented Monday at an elaborately staged press
conference. Karlsch, an unaffiliated academic, plans an extensive
The only problem with all the hype is that the historian has no real
proof to back up his spectacular theories.
His witnesses either lack credibility or have no first-hand knowledge
of the events described in the book. What Karlsch insists are key
documents can, in truth, be interpreted in various ways, some of which
contradict his theory. Finally, the soil sample readings taken thus
far at the detonation sites provide "no indication of the explosion of
an atomic bomb," says Gerald Kirchner of Germany's Federal Office for
Karlsch spent several years in archives researching his subject,
discovering many unknown documents on the history of science in the
Third Reich. That includes a manuscript of one of Heisenberg's
speeches which historians had previoulsy assumed had been lost. The
manuscript alone would have been a significant find, but it wasn't
enough to satisfy Karlsch or fully support his offbeat theory. As a
result, in order to give his theory wings, he had to make some
The bazooka effect
Did the Nazis conduct three nuclear weapons tests in 1944 and 1945?
For one thing, he focuses on Erich Schumann, who served as chief of
research for Germany's weapons division until 1944. At Schumann's
estate, Karlsch discovered records from the post-war period. Schumann
was a former physics professor and wrote that in 1944 he discovered a
method of generating the high temperatures (several million degrees
Celsius) and extreme pressure necessary to trigger nuclear fusion
using conventional explosives. The hydrogen bomb is based on this
During World War II, explosives experts experimented with hollow
charges -- essentially hollowed-out explosive devices -- which possess
extremely high penetration force. The success of the bazooka is based
on this effect and Schumann believed he could apply it to a nuclear
weapon. He assumed that enough energy for nuclear fusion would be
released if two hollow charges were aimed at each other.
It's a theory that deserves serious consideration. However, Schumann
never claimed to have tested his theory in practice. Karlsch, however,
believes it was applied. He claims Schumann presented his ideas at a
conference in the fall of 1944. He then speculates that, under
instruction from the SS, a team of physicists working with Kurt
Diebner, a rival of Heisenberg, made use of the discovery.
Karlsch bases his theory in part on statements made by Gerhard
Rundnagel, a plumber, to the East German state security service, the
Stasi. In the 1960s, the Stasi became aware of rumors circulating in
the former East German state of Thuringia that there had been a
nuclear detonation in 1945. Rundnagel told the security service that
he had been in contact with the research team working with Diebner. He
said one of the physicists in the group had told him that there were
"two atomic bombs in a safe." Rundnagel later said the two bombs were
dropped over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Despite that inconsistency,
Karlsch believes the man should be taken seriously.
An argument full of holes
The island of Ruegen in the Baltic Sea is a popular summer vacation
spot. Was it also the site of secret nuclear testing by the Nazis?
The biggest hole in Karlsch's argument stems from his inablility to
prove how the Diebner group managed to implement Schumann's ideas.
According to Karlsch, Diebner and his colleagues used a special device
that combined nuclear fission and fusion to initiate a chain reaction.
With the help of physicists, Karlsch came up with a design for such a
weapon and presents it in his book. Joachim Schulze, a nuclear weapons
expert at Germany's Fraunhofer Institute, took a look at Karlsch's
model and said it would be "incapable of functioning."
Another theory Karlsch presents in his book -- that the Germany navy
tested a nuclear weapon on the Baltic Sea island of Ruegen -- is
nothing short of fantastic. His key witness is Luigi Romersa, a former
war reporter for a Milan newspaper, Corriere della Sera. For years
Romersa, a Roman who is now 87, has been telling the story of how he
visited Hitler in October 1944 and then was flown to an island in the
Baltic Sea. Romersa says that he was taken to a dugout where he
witnessed an explosion that produced a bright light, and that men
wearing protective suits then drove him away from the site, telling
him that what he had witnessed was a "fission bomb."
Unfortunately, Romersa doesn't recall the name of the island he claims
to have visited or who was in charge of the bizarre event. Karlsch
believes it was Ruegen. He dismisses the fact that soil analysis shows
no evidence of a nuclear explosion by pointing to erosion.
A more credible witness is the recently deceased Thuringian resident
Clare Werner. On March 4, 1945, Werner, who was standing on a nearby
hillside, witnessed an explosion in a military training area near the
town of Ohrdruf.
"It was about 9:30 when I suddenly saw something ... it was as bright
as hundreds of bolts of lightning, red on the inside and yellow on the
outside, so bright you could've read the newspaper. It all happened so
quickly, and then we couldn't see anything at all. We just noticed
there was a powerful wind..." The woman complained of "nose bleeds,
headaches and pressure in the ears."
The next day Heinz Wachsmut, a man who worked for a local excavating
company, was ordered to help the SS build wooden platforms on which
the corpses of prisoners were cremated. The bodies, according to
Wachsmut, were covered with horrific burn wounds. Like Werner,
Wachsmut reports that local residents complained of headaches, some
even spitting up blood.
In Wachsmut's account, higher-ranking SS officers told people that
something new had been tested, something the entire world would soon
be talking about. Of course, there was no mention of nuclear weapons.
Did Stalin hear reports about the weapon?
And what about the 700 victims, supposedly concentration camp inmates,
Karlsch claims died in the tests? This impressive figure is nothing
but an estimate based on the number of cremation sites Wachsmut
recalls. However, on the reputed detonation date, the Ohrdruf
concentration camp, part of the larger Buchenwald complex, recorded
ony 35 dead.
Another piece of evidence Karlsch cites is a March 1945 Soviet
military espionage report. According to the report, which cites a
"reliable source," the Germans "detonated two large explosions in
Thuringia." The bombs, the Soviet spies wrote, presumably contained
uranium 235, a material used in nuclear weapons, and produced a
"highly radioactive effect." Prisoners of war housed at the center of
the detonation were killed, "and in many cases their bodies were
The Red Army's spies noted with concern that the Germany army could
"slow down our offensive" with its new weapon. The fact that dictator
Josef Stalin received one of the four copies of the report shows just
how seriously the Kremlin took the news.
Unfortunately, the document Karlsch presents is of such poor quality
that it cannot be clearly determined whether the report describing the
explosions was written before or after the detonation Clare Werner
claims to have witnessed.
More importantly, however, what Clare Werner claims to have seen could
not have a detonation of the type of bomb the German informer sketched
for the Red Army. That type of device would have required several
kilograms of highly enriched uranium, which all experts, including
Karlsch, believe Nazi Germany did not possess.
There is one expert who the author, and his boastful publisher, hopes
will support his theories. Uwe Keyser, a nuclear physicist who works
for Germany's Federal Institute of Physics and Technology in
Braunschweig, is currently testing soil samples from Ohrdruf. Keyser
believes that the readings for radioactive substances he has obtained
so far are sufficiently abnormal so as not to rule out the explosion
of a simple nuclear device. Of course, Keyser's readings could also be
caused by naturally occurring processes, material left behind by
Soviet forces stationed in Ohrdruf until 1994 or fallout from the
Chernobyl disaster or nuclear weapons tests conducted by the
Keyser says he needs "about a year" to conduct a more precise
analysis. He also needs someone to continue footing the bill.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
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