Home > Biography, History > The plot to kill Heisenberg? Certainly, it was a matter of principle.

The plot to kill Heisenberg? Certainly, it was a matter of principle.

February 26, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

Yes, the Heisenberg. The one whose car had a kick ass GPS system, but a broken speedometer. Or was it the other way around? Anyway, we’re talking about Werner Heisenberg, physicist extraordinaire. During the late 30s and early 40s (you know, when World War II was going on) Heisenberg was one of the few European scientists who decided to stay in his homeland of Germany. Unfortunately for the allied forces, and for Heisenberg himself, he was considered by his colleagues to be the preeminent mind on nuclear fission. If there was going to be one scientist to split the atom and make the bomb it was Heisenberg.

Heisenberg was loyal to his country, but he wasn’t a Nazi. Regardless, once the war began he was effectively cut off from most of the scientific community. This made the allies very nervous. American scientists were working furiously to unlock the power of the atom and feared more than anything being beaten to the punch. Propaganda would occasionally come out of Germany claiming that they were well on their way to developing a bomb capable of shaking the heavens and destroying parts of the world. No one could be sure of the first part of the claim, but the closer the American’s got to splitting the atom, the more they began to believe the second part.

Since no one on the allied side knew where to find Heisenberg, nor what exactly he was working on, America took a jealous lover’s stance and decided that if we couldn’t have Heisenberg on our side, then no one could. Anytime Heisenberg was discussed seriously by the espionage communities, it was always suggested he be kidnapped. Kidnapping someone who doesn’t want to be kidnapped can be rather difficult, and nearly impossible when it involves sneaking into Nazi Germany and then sneaking your captive back out, so the option of eliminating Heisenberg was always included with the plans. While no one was really comfortable with assassinating a respected scientist, it was deemed a necessary evil to prevent the Nazis from having access to Heisenberg’s brain.

There were at least two separate instances where Heisenberg was in danger of being assassinated. The first was really aborted before it got anywhere. As one of the assassins was trying to place Heisenberg’s exact location they stumbled upon some correspondence between him and another scientist. In it, Heisenberg outlined what he had been working on, and none of it had to do with creating a bomb. Reports like this had gotten through before, and it was never seen as being watertight evidence. The European allied agencies determined that he wasn’t a threat, but the Americans wanted to err on the side of caution. Something else happened, though, that really stopped the plan dead in its tracks. The American’s had split the atom. Once that happened, Heisenberg seemed like less of a threat.

Oddly, the OSS (Office of Strategic Services, which was the precursor of the CIA) changed its mind and sent former Red Sox catcher Moe Berg to find out what Heisenberg was up to. They gave Berg a rudimentary education on nuclear physics and a list of keywords and phrases to pay attention to and sent him on his way. A symposium was arranged in Zurich, Switzerland and Heisenberg was invited to attend as a guest speaker. If any of those keywords or phrases that Berg learned were said at the speech, indicating that Heisenberg was working on an atomic bomb, Berg’s orders were to kill Heisenberg right then and there. Luckily for both scientist and spy, Heisenberg’s speech was not about atomic weaponry.  It was also in German, which Berg knew how to speak, but probably had a hard time understanding physics in.

In hindsight, the whole plot was rather scatterbrained to begin with. If Heisenberg had been working on an atomic weapon, what were the chances that he would be allowed to attend scientific meeting/week long vacation in Switzerland. Even if that happened, why would Heisenberg reveal to a roomful of  allied scientists that he was working on a bomb? Finally, by the time the plot was actually carried out, there were 100,000 Americans working on the bomb. Three years earlier he was seen as a much larger threat, but at the time his expertise wasn’t needed and even if he were developing a bomb, it wouldn’t stop the Americans from what they were doing. The OSS was still in its infancy at the time and a lot of their plots and schemes were handled with much less finesse than the British Secret Intelligence Service’s plots, but then again the SIS had been around since 1909.

While Heisenberg’s speech revealed nothing about the threat of atomic weaponry, Moe Berg was able to arrange a more intimate meeting with Heisenberg to needle some more information from him. After a party which both attended, Berg and Heisenberg left at the same time. The two began walking down a remote road with no one else in site. Berg attempted to start a conversation with Heisenberg which amounted to little more than pestering the scientists with questions. The answers must have laid Berg’s mind at ease because the two parted company and never saw each other again.

Berg was no assassin, but he was given the perfect opportunity to carry out a covert assassination. I wonder if Heisenberg ever knew how close he came to being killed.

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