The Copenhagen Interpretations, Part 1

Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen is a play that asks and refuses to answer exquisitely ticklish questions. Did the head of Nazi Germany’s atomic science program fail to build the bomb because he was a secret saboteur or because he was incompetent? Does his failure make him the moral equivalent–and maybe even the superior–of the physicists who did build bombs that killed tens of thousands of Japanese civilians? You can’t leave ethical dilemmas like these unresolved nowadays without engendering accusations of revisionism, which have now been duly produced. Two scholars and a journalist are objecting to Frayn’s ambiguous depiction of Werner Heisenberg–the physicist in question and the author of the uncertainty principle that bears his name–as well as to Frayn’s wry observation that the uncertainty principle applies to history. They think the record is clear.

The historical debate about Heisenberg from which Frayn draws in creating the character can be reduced (crudely) to these two questions: Was Heisenberg a traitor to his country and the savior of the free world? Or was he a collaborator who, after the war, justified his intellectual inadequacies by hinting that he’d been stringing the Nazis along the whole time? (Click here for a review of the literature, as well as a favorable review of the play, in the New York Review of Books. The author is Thomas Powers, whose conflict of interest unfortunately undermines the credibility of an excellent article. His book on Heisenberg is Frayn’s primary source.) Being a dramatist, not a historian, Frayn comes up with a rigorous non-answer. He implies that Heisenberg was guilty at the conscious level but not at the unconscious level. In other words, Heisenberg, one of the most intellectually daring physicists of the 20th century, would probably have built the bomb if it had been easy for him to do so, but the most plausible explanation for why it wasn’t–for why he never got around to doing some necessary if difficult calculations–was that in his heart of hearts he didn’t want to succeed.

That’s way too wishy-washy for Paul Lawrence Rose, the author of Heisenberg and the Nazi Atomic Bomb Project: A Study in German Culture (1998). He’s sure that Heisenberg gave his all to the Nazi bomb program. In an essay that appeared recently in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Rose denounces Copenhagen as a work of revisionism on a par with David Irving’s efforts to deny that Auschwitz was a death camp. Rose knows, he feels, the answer to two questions that serve as the play’s framing device: What did Heisenberg have in mind when he visited the home of his former mentor Danish physicist Niels Bohr shortly after Germany occupied Denmark? What did Heisenberg say that made Bohr throw him out of his house? (The men were professionally and personally extremely close; together they were responsible for the Copenhagen Interpretation, the most important theory in physics in their day.) The action in Copenhagen consists entirely of Heisenberg, Bohr, and his wife, Margrethe, sitting around after their deaths, analyzing and re-analyzing the visit: Was Heisenberg trying to warn Bohr that the Germans were working on a bomb? Or did he want to pump Bohr for information that would help him build it? Rose believes Heisenberg meant to find out whether the Allies were working on the bomb and to elicit news about developments in atomic science that would make one possible. That’s why Bohr got mad. End of story.

Rose’s interpretation can be dismissed on the grounds that he’s unreliable and unpleasant (which is not to say that he might not be right, just that he’s unpersuasive). His essay is so contorted with bitterness it’s unreadable, and he never discloses that Frayn, in a lucid postscript to Copenhagen, spends a great deal of time attacking Rose’s book as, in fact, bitter and unreadable, as well as wrong. Rose, moreover, adduces as evidence a sketch of a nuclear reactor or bomb that Heisenberg supposedly drew during his visit to Bohr but that, as Frayn demonstrates in his postscript, probably never existed.

Samuel Freedman, the author of a remarkable and important forthcoming book about the escalating tensions among American Jews called Jew vs. Jew: The Struggle for the Soul of American Jewry (click here to pre-order it), makes a similar point, though with a great deal more elegance and restraint. In a editorial soon to appear in USA Today that he kindly sent Culturebox, Freedman accuses Frayn of exercising poetic license cavalierly. Freedman says that what offends him most is that at the end of the play Heisenberg is presented to the audience as a tragic hero. “At least we tormented ourselves a little beforehand,” Heisenberg says to Bohr. “Did a single one of [the physicists on the Manhattan Project] stop to think, even for one brief moment, about what they were doing?”

In Culturebox’s view, Freedman is thinking argumentatively, rather than dramatically. The play takes the form of a fervent three-way discussion, in which the three characters struggle to persuade the others that their individual recollections and interpretations are correct. Heisenberg is indeed a tragic (and flawed) hero–but mainly to himself. Bohr’s wife thinks he’s a self-important, manipulative, and dishonest German, and says so forcefully. Bohr wavers between the two. Frayn commits himself only to a playwright’s truth, which is that we can never know for sure what happened.

The historian John Lukacs (Five Days in London, among other books) counters Frayn with the most novel interpretation Culturebox has read so far. In an essay in the Los Angeles Times, Lukacs speculates that what Heisenberg probably intended was to sell Bohr on the Two-War Idea, popular among so-called moderates in the Third Reich. The German Two-War Idea, Lukacs writes, is “that Germany fought two wars; one against the Western democracies, the Anglo-American side; the other against Russia, the representative of International Communism; that the first war was regrettable and avoidable, while the second war was not; and that regrettable, too, was the fact that Germany’s Anglo-American opponents did not understand this.” Lukacs argues that 1) Heisenberg, a nationalist who was strongly anti-Soviet, probably believed that the war against Russia was just and 2) hoped to convince Bohr that the Allies should join forces with the Germans against the Russians–a naive idea, if that’s what he was doing, and one that Bohr, who was half-Jewish, would have rejected out of hand.

This sounds plausible to Culturebox, though not being a historian, either of science or of World War II, she obviously can’t pass meaningful judgment. Her real complaint is that Frayn’s critics are passing up a far more compelling opportunity to attack the man. In his play, Frayn takes a less equivocal stand than he does on Heisenberg on a matter of more urgent public interest. So far no one has addressed it head-on, though Rose touches on it glancingly …

(Click here to read “The Copenhagen Interpretations, Part 2.”)