How Close Were the Nazis to Making an Atomic Bomb?

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Podcast Transcript

During the second world war, one of the biggest efforts of the war was the Manhattan Project: the secret American program to create an atomic bomb. 

The scientists and staff of the Manhattan Project were in a race to beat Nazi Germany to be the first country to build the A-bomb. When Germany surrendered in May 1945, and Americans detonated the first device in July, they had seemingly won the race.

But was it in fact a race at all? How close were the Nazis to actually building an atom bomb? 

Learn more about the Nazi nuclear program on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.


This episode is sponsored by the Tourist Office of Spain.

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If you were to travel back in time to the year 1930 and take bets from people about which country would develop the first atomic bomb, the smart money would probably have been on Germany. 

Germany at this time had an all-star lineup of talent that was at the forefront of nuclear and quantum physics. Max Planck, Albert Einstein, Max Born, Werner Heisenberg, and many others were all Germans who were some of the top physicists in the world at that time. 

However, whatever high hopes the German physics world had changed dramatically when the Nazi party came to power in 1933. Their racial theories caused many of the top German scientists to flee the country, including the likes of Albert Einstein. 

As Germany began annexing more countries, other scientists began to flee as well. Leading physicists from Hungary, Austria, and Denmark all left to find refuge mostly in the United States and the United Kingdom

On top of the physicists leaving, the Nazis also had bizarre prohibitions about teaching what they called “Jewish physics”, which was mainly Einstein’s Theory of Relativity.

Even though many physicists had left Germany, not all of them had. They still had a lot of talent. Enough talent to make people worried.

In August of 1939, Hungarian physicist Leo Szilard wrote a letter to the President of the United States, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, which was signed by Albert Einstein. That letter warned that Germany might develop an atomic bomb. 

There was reason to be concerned. In January of 1939, German researchers Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann had discovered the fission of uranium and the implications became very obvious. 

This letter was the impetus that lead to the creation of the Manhattan Project and the development of the American atom bomb program. 

I’m not going to go into too much depth about the Manhattan Project on this episode, but suffice it to say that it was a very expensive, very organized, and very secret project. It was also huge. At one point or another during the project, over 600,000 people worked on the Manhattan Project, and most of them had no clue what they were working on. 

The people working on the Manhattan Project were in a race with an opponent they couldn’t see. There was no way of knowing if they were in the lead or if they had won until the race was over. As far as they knew, the race might end with a mushroom cloud over London or New York. 

During the war, there was very little information coming out of Germany about the development of their program.

When the war ended, it had become clear that Germany never did develop an atomic bomb. The question was, how close did they come?

Well, there was a German nuclear program. However, the program wasn’t nearly on a par with what the Americans were doing. 

The German program, as it turned out, was really just to get a working nuclear reactor to produce electricity. Something, which first occurred in the United States in 1942 with Enrico Fermi and the University of Chicago. 

The German program began soon after the 1939 discovery of fission. However, that was never well organized and was halted with the invasion of Polan on September 1. 

On the day of the invasion of Poland, a new nuclear program was started under the auspices of the German military’s weapons division. 

Soon after the war began, two conferences took place with many of the leading physicists still in Germany. One of the themes to come out of the meeting was that the physicists stressed to the government that the creation of an atomic bomb was extremely difficult and would require a huge investment and a lot of time. 

Werner Heisenberg, probably the most preeminent physicist still in German, said at the second conference, that “in principle, atomic bombs could be made…. [but] it would take years…. [and probably] not before five.”

He further went on to note “I didn’t report it to the Führer until two weeks later and very casually because I did not want the Führer to get so interested that he would order great efforts immediately to make the atomic bomb. [Albert] Speer felt it was better that the whole thing should be dropped and the Führer also reacted that way.”

Basically, Heisenberg and the other physicists totally undersold the idea of an atomic bomb to Hitler. Heisenberg later explained that they didn’t want to put themselves in a position where a failure to deliver a bomb would have potentially disastrous results for themselves and possibly their families. 

That being said, as we’ll see later, their belief in the difficulties of developing a bomb was legitimate. In fact, the amount of money and effort that went into the Manhattan Project sort of proved that point. 

The allies didn’t know any of this of course. They were still working under the assumption that the Germans were trying to do the same thing that they were doing. 

General Leslie Groves, the overall head of the Manhattan project said after the war,  “Unless and until we had positive knowledge to the contrary, we had to assume that the most competent German scientists and engineers were working on an atomic program with the full support of their government and with the full capacity of German industry at their disposal. Any other assumption would have been unsound and dangerous” 

By 1942, the Third Reich realized that the nuclear program wasn’t going to be able to contribute anything to the war effort, so the program was moved out of the control of the army. It still had funding and was considered important to the war effort, but it was basically on its own as far as oversight went.

The program was split into several different parts. The development of a working reactor, the creation of heavy water which is used to moderate the speed of neutrons in a reactor, and enrichment of uranium to create Uranium-235. 

The goal explicitly from 1942 on out was the creation of a nuclear reactor for energy production. 

The production of heavy water was stymied from the start. 

From 1940 to 1944, the British and the Norwegian Resistance conducted a series of sabotage and bombing operations on facilities producing heavy water in Norway.  The town of Notodden had a massive hydroelectric facility which was why it was produced there. 


The Norwegian resistance famously sunk a ferry called the SF Hydro when the Germans tried to remove the remaining heavy water produced at the facility. 

There is a great museum in the town of Notodden, Norway which documents the activities of the Norwegian resistance in sabotaging heavy water production, and I highly recommend visiting. 

In addition to the problems with heavy water production, the Germans had huge problems with the enrichment of uranium. 

Germany had no cyclotrons at the start of the war, which could separate isotopes electromagnetically. The United States had 20. Cyclotrons aren’t a very efficient way to enrich uranium, but they could work in theory, and they didn’t even have that. 

They managed to put together a sort of prototype reactor in a beer cellar in the town of Haigerloch. The reactor looked like a chandelier with cubes of uranium hanging down on strings. 

This reactor prototype was captured by the allies Alsos Mission in 1945. The Alsos Mission was a small unit designed to get scientific information on the Axis powers during the war. When they found the reactor, they confiscated 659 uranium cubes.

Many of those cubes have been lost, but one landed at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. They did a forensic study on their cube to try to determine if it was from the Nazi reactor. They determined that it was created in 1943, was mined in what was then German-controlled Chezhloslovakia, and contained no elements which would indicate it was used in a nuclear reaction. 

In other words, the German reactor never worked. 

The Alsos Mission captured most of the German Physicists and brought many of them to the UK for questioning. Their story was basically what I’ve outlined here, and was corroborated by the uranium samples which were recovered. 

Werner Heisenberg was in England when he received the news of the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, he simply didn’t believe it was possible. He said, “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.”

He didn’t know the Americans had actually spent $2 billion dollars in 1940s money. 

The entire conversation of the German physicists assembled when they heard the news was one of genuine disbelief. It is actually a fascinating read as most of them were horrified that such a weapon was built and used.

In the end, Nazi Germany wasn’t really anywhere close to building an atomic bomb, but no one knew that. It ended up it was a race with really only one competitor. 

I want to end with one quote, and I’m leaving it for last because the source is of dubious authority. We don’t really have any direct, recorded quotes from Hitler on the subject of nuclear weapons. He was dead by the time they were used, and he never said anything publicly about them before that. 

However, in the autobiography of ??SS General Otto Skorzeny, he did recall a conversation he had with Hitler where he asked him about the rumor of the development of atomic weapons. He reported Hilter as saying, 

“You know… Mr. Skorzeny, that if the energy won through nuclear fission and the radiation would be used as a weapon, that this would mean the end of our planet? The results would be horrible… Of course! Even if we could control the radiation and would use nuclear fission as a weapon, even then the results would be terrible! When Dr. Todt was here, I read that such a device with controlled radiation would set free energy that would lead to devastation only compared to what happened when meteors fell on Arizona and the Baikal lake. That means that every kind of life, not only human but also animal life and plants would be completely destroyed for hundreds of years in a radius of 40 kilometers. This would be the Apocalypse! And how should we keep the secret? Impossible! No! No country, no group of civilized persons could consciously take the responsibility. From strike to counter strike mankind would extinct itself. Only some tribes in the Amazon region and in the jungles of Sumatra would have a certain chance of survival.”

Did Hitler say this and really believe this? On the one hand, this runs counter to our image of Hilter as the bloodthirsty dictator. Surely, Hitler wouldn’t have had a problem using such weapons.

On the other hand, maybe the scientists in Germany did make an impression on him and convinced him not to pursue the development of such weapons. Maybe that was the reason why Germany never aggressively pursued the creation of an atomic bomb.