Jeffrey LewisHitler's Bomb

German historian Rainer Karlsch has written a book, Hitler’s Bomb, which— according to press reports—concludes “Adolf Hitler had the atom bomb first but it was too primitive and ungainly for aerial deployment.”

Karlsch reportedly claims Germany tested the weapon in the Baltic and that the fissile material came from “an atomic reactor in Gottow, a village outside Berlin that now amounts to no more than a few chunks of concrete.”

Of course, it is difficult to full evaluate Karlsch’s claims because the book will not be released until March 14 and Karlsch isn’t granting interviews until then.

But let me try anyway: Bullshit.*

In the immediate post-war environment, a special US intelligence unit named Alsos scoured Germany to secure Germany’s uranium stocks and scientists. Alsos is mentioned in both Richard Rhodes’ Making of the Atomic Bomb (Simon & Schuster 1986, pp.605-610) and Stan Norris’ Racing for the Bomb (Steerforth 2002, pp281-311), as well as memoirs by Leslie Groves, and principals Boris Pash and Samuel Goudsmit.

Goudsmit, in particular, mentions the Gottow facility, which was located in a town called Kummersdorf (see page 144 of ALSOS, reprinted by the American Institute of Physics 1983). Goudsmit photographed the facility, which was beneath the impressive wooden shack pictured right (larger pictures are available for purchase).

Moreover, Germany—to produce enough plutonium for a bomb—would also have to have built a plutonium separation facility.

The US facility for wartime plutonium production, in Hanford WA, was 500,000 acres. The Pu production piles used 390 tons of structural steel, 17,400 cubic yards of concrete, 50,000 concrete blocks and 71,000 concrete bricks. The scale of industrial efforts to produce usable quantities of plutonium and enriched uranium was captured by Nils Bohr who, upon his first visit to Los Alamos, pre-empted a reminder that uranium enrichment would not be feasible due to the industrial requirements by exclaiming “You see, I told you it couldn’t be done without turning the entire country into a factory. You have done just that.”

Apart from the total lack of infrastructure to produce significant quantities of plutonium, Karlsch also has to explain why there was no mention of the test, either by Albert Speer in his memoir Inside the Third Reich or transcripts of conversations among German scientists secretly taped during their post-war incarceration at Farm Hill.

I hope the press is simply hyping much more restrained claims.

*Update: Since we are getting many German visitors, let me translate this particularly American term: Stierscheiße.


  1. Cheryl Rofer (History)

    Given the very large numbers the Germans calculated for critical masses, the bombs themselves would have had to be monumental, along with the facilities.

    Maybe they sent them to Syria before the Allies arrived.

  2. Arrigo (History)

    Sounds to me like the claim that the Japanese tested their A-bomb off the coast of South Korea using the uranium which the germans sent along in a clone of the U-234 which did surrender with some uranium oxide at the end of WWII…

    I wonder if they didn’t get their stories mixed up and since the sea off South Korea is a tad far from Germany they decided that Peenemunde could do nukes too.

    Not very creative is it?

  3. just another historian (History)

    What will be impressive (and entertaining) is how Kalrsch deals with not only the obvious logical-historical problems (where were the facilities? why would the Allies have forgone a chance to offer further exculpation as to their own creation of the bomb?), but the entire wealth of historical literature (especially Mark Walker’s excellent book German National Socialism and the Quest for Nuclear Power, 1939-1949) which plainly shows (in both political and technical senses) that the Nazi bomb project never came anywhere close to producing an actual weapon.

    Frankly I suspect it will not be interesting because I fear he will not actually deal with any of this. Sensationalism sells, plain and simple, and this would not be the first time that someone published something of this sort (i.e. Robert Wilcox’s Japan’s Secret War which again asserted that Japan had made a test though provided no evidence nor dealt with any of the logical-historical problems, much less previous scholarship), got it reviewed/debunked in a number of sources, and generally propagated some silly new myths.

    On the flip side, though, the press likely to be generated will give a nice opportunity for real scholars and historians and experts to speak a little bit about the actual historical events, and lord knows academics need whatever public time they can get to show their worth to the world. Michael Frayn’s “Copenhagen” was hardly a stellar historical work but it did allow for some interest in what was a previously rather esoteric subject (Heisenberg and Bohr’s meeting, the German bomb project, etc.), and probably sold a few books. There are worst things to happen in the world, and I really doubt that Karlsch’s book is going to be able to support its claims in any really compelling fashion.

  4. just another historian (History)

    Actually, I take back some of my total skepticism. Look at the Times online article again: for one thing, it doesn’t claim that they had working bombs, but that they were essentially just radiological devices, dirty bombs, purposeful fizzles.

    This is certainly plausible, if there is evidence for it. The press report of course seems to conflate this with actual full-fledged fission bombs, which is not too surprising (it is a press report, after all, and who knows how good their German is). Such a program would not require extensive infrastructure, and there’s no telling which scientists would have actually worked on or known about it (which would take care of the Farm Hall question).

    Mark Walker is quoted in the article as saying it is plausible. Of course, the press usually takes such things out of context, but if he really thought it to be a good argument (not just plausible, of course, but likely), then I think that’d be a pretty good endorsement from one of the best sources on the German nuclear program.

    In the end, we’ll have to see what it actually says, though. One of the German blurbs on the book I was able to look up ( seems to say that he claims to have found that the SS conducted “atomic tests” (radiological testing?) on prisoners, “vouchers for a nuclear weapon attempt”, “a draft for a plutonium bomb patent” and the remains of “the first functional German reactor”. Which doesn’t add up to Hitler having a functional atomic bomb, of course, and I suspect that aspect of it is just to sell more books.

  5. Jayson Buchanan (History)

    Thats all Rainer is trying to say in his book. Hes not actually saying they had a high yield atomic device but rather they had a low yield atomic device, or dirty bomb if you will.

    Whats interesting to know is that if you go to the Jewish State Library, Israels version of our LOC, and you read some of the storys from around 1943 from people who were put into concentration camps you read about accounts were prisoners would see huge groups of people leave and than come back, and they would suddenly two or three days later day, and there bodys would be all bloated. Sounds like radiation poisoning to me, how about anyone else?

    I’m not supporting all of Rainers claims, but there is alot of stuff the Nazis hid from the world to conceal there barbarous acts, and today and just being found. Do the research and you’ll see German officials to this day and just finding out new things. Also Rainer said the bomb was tested on the Baltic Sea Island of Rugen, whats another interesting thing is that all plant life on this island have genetic mutations in them, another fact to support Rainers claims.

    From what people have said, at the time Germany might have tested that dirty bomb, the radiation would only have lasted about 25-30 years, so today all evidence would have been gone. So it makes you wonder if the German Government some how, and i cant figure how, covered up the Rugen Island Incident for some 60 years. But we will see the claims in his book when it comes out later this month.

    Las Vegas, NV

  6. uniformed (History)

    anyone tested the soil on this island?