Whilst my recent writing has been focused on critical analysis of cinematic art, in this article, I shall make an exception and engage with Michael Freyn’s play, Copenhagen. Like all my other writings, this article is about many things, yet I wish to keep it within a self-imposed requirement of this space being (mostly) about critical writing on performing art based on a premise: philosophical and critical thoughts are at their best when they find powerful aesthetic expressions. That being acknowledged, to fully appreciate aesthetic expressions of philosophical and critical thoughts, one faces a particular paradox: although inspired aesthetic expressions of philosophical and critical thoughts present us openings into previously inaccessible insights by virtue of non-linguistic means, to clearly understand something, one still needs to put such impressions into words. And thus, I force myself to grapple with this impossible task: to bring some clarity to the subtle and intricate insights expressed through non-linguistic mediums with the very means deemed incompetent in the first place.
Whilst one must always tread a precarious path between incomprehension and fantasy when engaging in such an enterprise, the current project presents an additional difficulty: I have currently no access to theatrical performances or the TV adaptation of this play. Whilst Freyn’s text is fascinating in its own right, and thus presents a consuming reading experience, as a play, it is meant to be rendered by living human flesh and voices appearing within a specifically curated space and time. An excellent drama makes as good reading as great poetry or fiction. Yet, a drama cannot fully realise its potential without being actually performed. Quite unfortunately, it turned out that it was not possible for me to appreciate Freyn’s play as it was originally intended for the aforementioned reason. Therefore, this article owes its existence to a radio drama, directed by Emma Harding for BBC 3, starring Simon Russell Beale, Greta Scacchi, and Benedict Cumberbatch. Whilst the present situation is not ideal, there are two factors that made this project possible: the intriguing premise of Freyn’s drama, which encourages us to imagine the entire script as a drama of voices, and the sheer quality of the production itself.
Freyn’s Copenhagen is highly regarded both in Britain and abroad, and quite deservingly so. It is intellectually stimulating, historically controversial, and philosophically engaging. The play focuses on one of the most intriguing events in modern intellectual history, that is, a private meeting between Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg in 1941. It took place in the German occupied Danish capital, and Heisenberg traveled there to meet his friend despite tremendous obstacles. Under the circumstances, this meeting put both of them in a difficult position. Despite his stature as a nobel laureate in physics, Heisenberg’s position within the Reich was never comfortable: he was attacked by none other than Heinrich Himmler himself, who called him a ‘white-Jew’ and threatened to ‘make him disappear’. Therefore, despite being hailed as one of the most talented scientists in the world, Heisenberg had ample reason to be cautious in all aspects of his actions. As for Bohr, he was also fixed under the intense gaze of the Gestapo. Himself a Jew, he aided refugees crossing the Danish-German border before the German occupation of Denmark, an offence that could have cost his life under German rule. In addition, as one of the most prominent figures in theoretical physics, Bohr was suspected of being in contact with his fellow physicists, such as Einstein, Fermi, and Oppenheimer, who were leading the Allies’ nuclear weapons program, although the Germans did not know the exact extent of their progress. Given that Heisenberg was deeply involved in the German counterpart program, the meeting of the two naturally piqued the interest of all sides. Yet, despite explanations given by the participants, as well as the research conducted by historians, the exact meaning of the event remains darkly mysterious. Despite the controversies regarding the correctness of what appeared to be Freyn’s favoured interpretation of this particular event, Copenhagen has been credited for bringing our attention to this elusive event, and re-evaluating the legacy of Heisenberg and the scientific development to which he decisively contributed.
The historians’ judgment on Freyn’s treatment of this intrigue has been decidedly negative, and thus Copenhagen remains controversial in this respect. Firstly, despite Freyn’s stated neutrality over various accounts and conjectures about what two giants of modern physics discussed and what Heisenberg in particular was hoping to achieve by meeting Bohr privately at this particular juncture, Freyn’s play strongly suggests one line of thought: Heisenberg as a saboteur of the German nuclear weapons program. Whilst the structure of the play confirms Freyn’s commitment to his neutrality over various views on the event, the most dramatic moment of the play comes with Heisenberg’s outburst: his lament over the lost opportunity to pursue the ‘wild probability’ in persuading his Allied counterpart to jointly halt the weaponisation of nuclear science. Since there is no concrete evidence to either support or deny this line of speculation, historians’ indignation is quite justified. Secondly, it is clear that Freyn exaggerated the impact and the importance of Heisenberg’s role in the German nuclear weapons program. As the very notion of Deutsche Physik suggests, ideological adherence to Nazism and standing within the party were considered more important than the talent and competence of a scientist in the Third Reich. Heisenberg personally knew this better than anyone. In what became known as the ‘Heisenberg Affair’, the government and the members of Deutsche Physik ferociously opposed the appointment of Heisenberg, a non-party member, as the replacement of Arnold Sommerfeld at the University of Munich. The conflict lasted for years and, as mentioned earlier, involved the likes of Himmler and Reinhard Heydrich. Whilst Heisenberg heeded Himmler’s warning to strictly segregate his job and his political attitude, he was denied the position. Heisenberg managed to lead one group within the German nuclear program, and his influence was thus not as decisive as Freyn’s play might impress.
Still, Copenhagen is an important play that is worthy of the title of contemporary classic. The central theme of the drama, the ‘indeterminability’ of human intentions that motivate and move us to take a certain course of action, is an important subject with great implications. This Leitmotiv is particularly effective and produces a great dramatic tension throughout, for the central question regarding the subject of this play remains the same after all these years: What did Heisenberg hope to achieve with his visit to Bohr? If one can find an answer to this question, one might finally begin to draw a conclusion about Heisenberg: his science, his achievements, and his character. And, as historians agree, this is the question that cannot be answered definitively. Therefore, whilst it is critical to heed the warnings of the specialists in the history of science, one must also question why this ‘uncertainty’ of human intentions must be brought to our attention, especially regarding Heisenberg. This question also leads us to another: What has made Freyn seemingly so ‘charitable’ toward this conceivably ‘Faustian’ scientist? Thus, in the second part of the essay, I wish to grapple with these questions and argue that the answers to them reveal another subject of the play. As far as I know, this aspect of Freyn’s work is completely neglected, and quite unjustifiably so. Unless one engages with this ‘hidden’ subject, if you will, one’s assessment of Freyn’s play remains incomplete.
This article is the first part of a critical essay on Michael Freyn’s Copenhagen. Whilst I wish to examine what I call the ‘hidden subject’ of the play in the second part, in this article, I wish to focus on aesthetic and historic aspects of the play. I shall begin our inquiry by examining the premise and the structure of the play, and then proceed by examining the practical problems that prevent us from obtaining a clear picture of the event.
The Eternal Recurrence
Copenhagen is a complex piece of literary work. It has many facets to appreciate and contains still more subjects to analyse. Hence, in the first section of this article, I wish to examine the aesthetic and formal aspect of Copenhagen to begin our inquiry. The aesthetic aspect is particular to the format in question: an audio drama. The formal aspect of the play, however, applies to Freyn’s way of structuring the play, and thus, in differing degrees, it is observed across the board (Although the TV adaptation directed by Howard Davies for BBC might be an exception: it is known to be heavily ‘edited’ to fit this particular format). Thus, I shall follow a convention and start with the analysis of particulars before moving on to general aspects of this play.
Now, let us begin the analysis of the aesthetic aspect unique to the given format. The radio drama in focus was directed for BBC 3 by Emma Harding in 2013. It features Simon Russell Beale as Niels Bohr, Greta Scacchi as Margrethe Bohr, and Benedict Cumberbatch as Werner Heisenberg. The ability of these three to extract everything from the given format, and the skills with which Harding put it together, deserve the highest praise. To begin with, a radio drama involves a highly restricted environment which demands more of the actors than a stage or cinematic production would. Both the director and the actors must work without any physical presence or visuals to seduce the audience. In this sense, the task of a radio drama’s director is a little similar to that of the director of animated films: both for animated films and radio productions, the director must cast the actors with the right voice for the roles they play. Also they must find actors with a deep understanding of the challenge inherent in respective formats to create a profound theatrical experience given the restrictions present in both. That being acknowledged, Harding’s challenge here is far more pointed than that of the directors of animated films: since there is no other tools available other than the voice, the success of the production relies entirely on the actors’ ability not only to control their delivery but also to fit their parts flawlessly with those of the rest of the cast. Without physical presence, one actor cannot command and dominate the entire space in a way which a theatre or a cinema occasionally allows an exceptional actor to do. In this precise sense, a radio drama must meet the vision Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart imposed on his opera: the Austrian, contrary to the Italians, did not believe in the exceptional status of lead singers. He demanded the absolute harmony of every element in his music, and he implemented his philosophy in every type of music he created. For Mozart, every note was equally important, and thus, the voices of singers, regardless of their abilities or status, were only good in so far as they functioned as parts of the whole. Without a visual element to cover the slightest of faux pas, the success of an audio drama is dependent on the cast.
In meeting such a condition, all three actors have done splendidly. Simon Russell Beale convincingly renders Freyn’s Bohr, who is more eloquent, at times even temperamental, in comparison with the way the Danish physicist was remembered by his many friends and admirers. Greta Scacchi infuses her natural elegance into the firmness of character which so famously defined Margrethe, who was often referred to as the ‘Queen’. As a result, her Margrethe is not a side character: Scacchi gives an air of authority and strength to this crucial character who does not merely witness the tribunal, but directs it. More importantly, Scacchi’s Margrethe is not a one-dimensional character: she can be firm, yet never vicious. She is at once elegant and strong, intelligent and caring, protective yet never truly unfair. And, needless to say, Heisenberg, a ‘Faustian prodigy’, is a perfect fit for Benedict Cumberbatch. His ability to breathe life into his characters is well-known, yet, in this particular case, the way Cumberbatch adapted himself to this format is quite exemplary. If one recalls the way in which he played Alan Turing in The Imitation Game (Morten Tyldum, 2014), it is quite clear that the Briton excels in portraying an emotionally distant and socially awkward personality without alienating his character from the audience. In this sense, if Cumberbatch were to play Heisenberg in a theatre or a cinema, he would probably resort to a similar method, for Heisenberg was someone who is remembered for his sharpness, not for his affections. Margrethe, for example, always found him ‘difficult’ due to his ‘aloofness’ and ‘closedness’, yet Cumberbatch portrays his character with somber sensitivity, and, at times, with emotional acuteness fit for a Shakespearian tragedy. Such a ‘diviation’ was, however, necessary for this format: whilst a factually more accurate portrayal of Heisenberg might have worked in a theatre or a cinema wherein an actor can supplement the lack of emotiveness in the tone of his voice with other means, in a radio drama, an actor must somehow communicate the inner feeling of a given character strongly enough to impress the audience, and there is no other tool than his voice with which an actor can perform. What is more, despite the star quality and at times commanding delivery of Cumberbatch, his performance did not break the harmony of the Troika. His performance was inspired throughout, and completely absorbing at times, yet it was always aimed at his counterparts as a proper dialectical move. Like the moves of a skilled chess player, every nuance was based on the uncanny anticipation of what his counterpart would do next. Cumberbatch was fortunate in this regard. Thanks to Beale and Scacchi, who met Cumberbatch with brilliance of equal measure, Harding was able to create a production worthy of Freyn’s play. Therefore, as far as I can see, the drama in question met the aesthetic demands of the given format brilliantly.
The most notable formal aspect of Copenhagen is its premise: the entire play is driven and dominated by dialogues. This characteristic of the play favours an audio drama, yet, given the restrictions inherent to this particular format, it is easy to assume that a radio drama must be severely handicapped compared to other formats, such as the cinematic or theatrical. As commonly known, we are least resistant to visual stimuli. Despite that our visual experience is not our direct reaction to the given, and thus such an experience is in fact defined by what Heisenberg calls ‘practical a priori’ concepts, which are shaped and defined by linguistic conventions and thus contingent, the visual stimuli tend to exert a decisive influence on our judgments. We routinely judge the attributes of persons we encounter, such as their character and professional competence, based on ‘how they look’. And it is commonly believed that performing arts benefit the most from exploiting our receptivity to visual stimuli, and there is certainly some truth to this view. Given that recent films are marred by sensory overload due to the proliferation of CGI, we might be tempted to categorically dismiss the above statement on the ground of artistic merit. Whilst I am personally sympathetic to such a reaction, we must note that the dominance of visual aspects of performing arts is quite significant. Consider casting the ‘right’ person for a role. Whilst a veteran actor can circumvent the ‘negative’ perception of their look by virtue of their reputation, public image, and acting skills, for the most part, a candidate actor must cultivate a certain look to be cast for a role. This is a process wherein the precarious interplay between the exploitation of stereotypes and the manipulation of stereotypes, that is, an aspect of acting, takes place. And it is commonly considered that casting is one of the most important parts of a production, and for good reason. Failing to cast the right actor for a role commonly results in negative reactions, for the audience cannot ‘believe in’ the part, and this undermines their experience. Given the dominance of visuals in our experience, it is natural for us to accept the relative ineffectiveness of an audio drama. Surely is it not better to be present at the stage performance of Hamlet than listening to its audio recording? Fascinatingly, however, the potential weakness present in an audio drama is almost completely neutralised in Copenhagen, for the entire play is literally made up of the conversation of ghosts. As in many of Samuel Beckett’s plays, in Copenhagen, the protagonists are trapped in a purgatory wherein the ‘normal’ temporal order is not applicable. They have no future, only the agonising past and the hollow present. Yet, unlike Beckett’s, Freyn’s play is driven entirely by the conversations. This premise allows us to imagine the entire play without visual stimuli. Given the quality of production supported by the brilliant performances of the three actors, the experience of listening to Copenhagen as an audio drama is not only adequate but perhaps essential in appreciating this drama fully. In Copenhagen, the lack of visual stimuli plays an important part by cutting distractions from the dialogues. Judging from the book cover, the stage production acknowledged the conversation-driven nature of the play by resorting to stark minimalism. Therefore, Copenhagen, against convention, presents itself as a vocal drama.
Another notable formal aspect of the play is its circularity. The play begins with the dreaded question: Why did he come? Whilst Bohr appears hesitant to stir the ‘spirit of the past’, Margrethe persists. Why did Heisenberg come to visit Bohr at this particular juncture? She forces Bohr to grapple, again, with this mystery since ‘now we are all dead and gone’, and ‘no one can be hurt’. Whilst historians agree that Margrethe’s question cannot be answered conclusively, they also agree with her that such a realisation, however rational, cannot stop us from asking questions. In light of this ‘undead’ nature of the questions regarding their meeting, Freyn adopted a highly imaginative premise: the ghosts of the three protagonists of the fateful meeting jointly examine every possible meaning of the event by enacting them. This premise necessitates formal characteristics of Freyn’s play: it is open-ended without a linear temporal structure. Since there is no possibility of arriving at one definite account of the event or another, the three characters are condemned to seek every possible interpretation, however wild, and enact it ad infinitum. There are two insurmountable obstacles in the way of our obtaining a definite conclusion to the question: practical problems and theoretical ones. The practical problems concern the specific and contingent problems in determining the truth about the meeting, and thus belong to historians. The theoretical problems concern general and constitutive problems about the limit and the nature of our understanding, and thus are philosophical in nature. Since both are the focus of the following sections, I refrain from analysing them here. Still, it is critical to note the way in which the content of the play determines its form. The complexity of the narrative that condemns the spirits of the past in eternal recurrence is necessitated by the subject of the play, that is, the impenetrable fog of uncertainty not only of this specific event in question but also of human intention and its relation to human actions in general. Whilst historians have mostly focused on the practical problems specific to this event, the theoretical problems are even more important. According to Freyn, the central inspiration of this play is the theoretical ones. He was interested in writing this play because the controversies and mystery surrounding the meeting between the great physicists highlight the fundamental problem of the impossibility in determining one’s intentions, which supposedly determine one’s actions. This was Freyn’s insight and the one that began the entire project: he realised the uncertainty applies to Heisenberg’s character as well as our constitutive epistemic limitations. And thus, before we analyse the uncertainty in the following sections, we must acknowledge just how sophisticated Copenhagen is. The way the content and the form of the work necessitate one another in this contemporary classic represents a rare brilliance. However, it is a different story for our protagonists who are condemned to this tortuous circularity.
Uncertainty (Part I.)
The uncertainty that condemns the ghosts of Bohr, Margrethe, and Heisenberg to eternal enactment of their meeting in 1941 originates from two distinct problems: practical problems and theoretical ones. In this essay, I wish to examine each of them so that one can fully appreciate the intellectual depth of the subjects involved in this play. To this end, I shall begin by examining practical problems that prevent us from arriving at a clear picture of the event in question, which will be followed by the elaboration on theoretical problems in the second article of this essay.
Practical problems are particular to the event in question, and thus contingent. Whilst less significant philosophically, they are more relevant with regard to judging the legacy of Heisenberg’s science and his character. The fog of uncertainty fostered by practical problems plays a decisive role in denying the possibility of arriving at a precise assessment of who he was and for what he stood. In order to grasp what these problems are, we must begin by directing our attention to what we already know about the fateful meeting. Despite the confusions, there are several aspects of the event that are accepted as the facts by historians: 1) Heisenberg met Bohr privately in German-occupied Copenhagen in 1941 by overcoming great difficulty in obtaining permission for foreign travel; 2) Heisenberg was one of the principal scientists leading the German nuclear program at the time of their meeting; 3) Both scientists were under the intense scrutiny of the Gestapo; 4) Heisenberg led Bohr on a private walk for a discussion; 5) Heisenberg informed Bohr that the Germans were researching the possibility of weaponising nuclear science; 6) Heisenberg also corrected Bohr that, contrary to Bohr’s earlier assessment, exploiting nuclear fissions to create a bomb was practically possible; and 7) When points 5 and 6 were communicated, Bohr abruptly cut short their conversation and ended their walk. Aside from these points, there is no clear picture of the event. In fact, to the dismay of the British intelligence officer who accompanied Heisenberg to liberated Copenhagen to see Bohr and establish the facts of their meeting, the two physicists could not even agree on the route of their walk.
This point brings out probably the most benign problem: our fallibility in preserving an accurate picture of our experience, and in recalling it undistorted. The staged ‘reunion’ between the Dane and the German took place after the war in the presence of a British intelligence officer, and, according to Heisenberg, he sensed Bohr’s reluctance to ‘disturb the spirit of the past’, which leaves us with a more pointed curiosity, or even suspicion, as to what was discussed between them in the original meeting. Whilst one can speculate about the reasons why Bohr was ‘uninterested’ in revisiting the event, it is worth noting the fact that it is not easy to recollect past events accurately in ordinary circumstances, let alone after surviving a traumatic experience. The ‘reunion’ took place years after the actual event, and a lot had happened to each of them, and to the world since their meeting in 1941. The Dane had narrowly escaped the Gestapo to Sweden, then had gone to Britain and eventually to Los Alamos in order to contribute to the Allied nuclear weapons program, to which he critically contributed by solving the ‘stubborn problem’ (Oppenheimer) relating to the initiation of the chain reaction for the Nagasaki bomb. Despite surviving the war and enjoying universal praise and admiration for both his character and his science, as a Danish-Jew who assisted the refugees across the Danish-German border, his war-time experience must have left a deep scar, and thus, it is not all that surprising to see his memory compromised. His trauma was not limited to his fear of living under the German rule as a Jew. Bohr was undoubtedly disturbed by the result of the successful experiments of their bombs on ‘living targets’, as well as the fast approaching nuclear weapons proliferation, and lobbied for international cooperation regarding the use of nuclear energy. The International Atomic Energy Agency was established upon Bohr’s suggestion. Despite the fame, security, and accolades he enjoyed in his later years, given the circumstances, it is quite understandable that Bohr’s recollection was wildly inconsistent regarding his 1941 meeting with Heisenberg. He once stated that Heisenberg wanted to recruit him to build a bomb for Hitler. Then he suspected Heisenberg of trying to gather intelligence on the Allies nuclear weapons program. He had no clear recollection of his own response to Heisenberg, let alone what exactly Heisenberg told him during the walk. Eventually, Bohr admitted in his unsent letter to Heisenberg that the German was so cryptic in his communication that he never understood what he wanted of him.
As for Heisenberg, his life was no easier than his Danish counterpart’s. Before visiting Copenhagen, his trouble was already dire. He became the centre of the dispute between the faculty of the Department of Physics at the University of Munich and the members of Deutsche Physik, and he received a ‘death threat’ from the SS chief, Heinrich Himmler, who called him a ‘white-Jew’ who needed to be ‘made to disappear’. Surviving this ordeal, later Heisenberg led a team of scientists to pursue a program to experiment on a nuclear reactor. Being part of the Uranverein, or the Uranium Club, he and his team were under constant pressure from the Wehrmacht as well as the Ministry of Armaments and War Productions headed by Albert Speer. Whilst Heisenberg secured funding for his reactor program, for reasons unclear, he did not push Speer for the nuclear weapons’ program during the famous meeting. Heisenberg stated: 1) the production of the nuclear bomb was possible, but not before 1945 and thus would have little or no effect in reversing the course of the war; and 2) whilst technically possible, the production of a nuclear bomb was practically impossible under the given circumstances due to the prohibitive demand on resources. As a result, Speer cut most of the funding from the nuclear weapons program, and Heisenberg had to fight for the independence of his project from the interventions of the Nazi party members in the program. Like the rest of Uranverein, he was abducted by the British and kept in an MI-6 safe-house in England, wherein he and his team learned of the dropping of the Hiroshima bomb. Upon his return, Germany was in ruins. Despite his continued prominence in physics, after the war, he was reviled as a ‘Nazi scientist’ who had tried and failed to produce the bomb for Hitler. For thirty years, he was forced to ‘explain’ his war-time activities, especially the reasons why he took such troubles to see Bohr in German-occupied territory. Whilst his contemporaries gave inconsistent and oft conflicting accounts of this event, Heisenberg’s response was rather consistent. Yet, despite the consistency, the ambiguity surrounding his actions and his intentions only deepened.
The reason for the opaqueness surrounding Heisenberg differs from Bohr’s. It is not the result of the natural fallibility of our capacity to remember and recall our experience. The obscurity is rather the result of Heisenberg’s conscious decisions and his clear understanding of what was at stake at each moment of his life. When the Nazis rose to power in Germany, he had to be extremely cautious in choosing what he would say and what he must pass over in silence. As we noted earlier, he was under attack from the members of Deutsche Physik and Heinrich Himmler, who threatened him with the starkest of terms. It was only through the intervention of Himmler’s mother, who was a friend of Heisenbergs, that the SS chief reconsidered his ‘option’ and let the ‘white-Jew’ off the hook. Yet, the resolution came with a deadly warning: Heisenberg was to strictly separate his personal beliefs and feelings from his ‘professional duty’ of serving the Reich. In his lectures and public appearances in Copenhagen during the trip in question, Heisenberg dutifully performed the Nazi propaganda, and thus left his Danish colleagues seething. Despite his seemingly comfortable relation with the German officials in Copenhagen, however, Heisenberg was acutely aware that he had to meet Bohr in person, in a private space. By holding a private meeting with Bohr, Heisenberg was in effect admitting that he had something he was unable to tell in front of the German officials. Fearing the surveillance, they took a private walk. Still, according to Bohr, Heisenberg was so cryptic that he never quite understood what Heisenberg really wanted to discuss and why. Still, it is not fair to put all the blame at Heisenberg’s feet, since Bohr did not allow Heisenberg to go on. The incomplete nature of their conversation imposes a serious difficulty in arriving at the conclusive and objective account of their 1941 meeting. Because the dialogue was cut short, we are forced to settle with Heisenberg’s ‘version’, and he was always going to say as little as possible. During the war, Heisenberg was under the watchful eyes of the regime. At the last stage of the war, he was in the captivity of the British intelligence. And after the war, given his acute awareness of the importance of this event to his legacy, Heisenberg was never going to be candid about what was discussed, and what was left unsaid, between him and his great mentor.
Naturally, in the absence of a definite account, there have been some wild speculations, as well as stories told by the ones ‘in the know’. Bohr’s various statements regarding what Heisenberg was hoping to achieve from meeting him are by no means the wildest. For example, according to Ivan Supek, a student of Heisenberg, the Bohr-Heisenberg meeting in 1941 was not Heisenberg’s idea; it was the initiative of Carl Friedrich von Weizsäcker, a protégé of Heisenberg. Supek stated that Weizsäcker persuaded Heisenberg to meet Bohr. Weizsäcker’s explicit aim, according to Supek, was to persuade the Dane to mediate the peace deal between Britain and Germany. To make the matter more confusing, Weizsäcker’s own account is somewhat different from Supek’s. According to his own version of the story, Weizsäcker persuaded Heisenberg to meet Bohr in order to establish an international accord amongst physicists not to build a nuclear bomb. This story is curiously consistent with Weizsäcker’s pre-war and post-war activities. During the 1950s, Heisenberg and Weizsäcker strongly opposed the plan to arm Germany with nuclear weapons and contributed decisively to the abandonment of the initiative. Weizsäcker also discussed the ethical implications of developing nuclear weapons with a philosopher, Georg Picht, in 1938. Therefore, given the closeness of Weizsäcker and Heisenberg, it is very likely that they knew about the potential weaponisation of nuclear physics as early as the late 1930s, and were seriously concerned about the implications such a development would have. Still, these clues are not strong enough to lead us to one definite judgment or another about their war-time activities and the intentions behind them. In covertly recorded conversations at Farm Hill, an MI-6 safe-house wherein the German nuclear physicists were detained, both Heisenberg and Weizsäcker demonstrated an acute awareness of the precarious political context in which they were placed. They were actively trying to create a consensus on a version of the story they could agree upon. Heisenberg argued, in case they were asked to work for the Allies’ nuclear weapons program, that they needed to emphasise that they were held and made to work against their will. Weizsäcker wanted everyone to state that none of them wanted to build a nuclear bomb. Again, in light of the evidence, we cannot expect to take anything they state at face value. And thus, whilst they were not involved in the German regime in the same manner as the likes of Wernher von Braun, they remain divisive figures in modern history.
Before moving on to the next stage of our inquiry, that is, the theoretical aspect of the uncertainty of human intentions, it is important to note Freyn’s curious emphasis upon one particular story within the drama: Heisenberg as a potential, either intentional or unconscious, saboteur of the German nuclear weapons program. Despite Freyn’s repeatedly stated neutrality and his acknowledgement of the practical impossibility of arriving at a definite account of the event, in Copenhagen, Heisenberg does come across as someone who personally refused to build a bomb and acted accordingly. It also is impressed upon us that the true aim of Heisenberg’s travel to the Danish capital was to create a sort of accord amongst nuclear physicists on both sides to abandon the nuclear weapons projects on ethical grounds. This story is most likely based on accounts of Supek and Weizsäcker, and thus it is useful to take a closer look at each story. Whilst there is no way for us to know the truth of the above statements, it is beyond doubt that the respective aims explicitly stated in their accounts were quite unrealistic if one were to take them literally. Supek’s version is fantastically fascinating. Whilst Bohr was one of the most admired figures in science, it is quite unrealistic, if not delusional, to think that Bohr was in a position to broker a peace between Churchill and Hitler. Weizsäcker’s stated plan, if true, is no more realistic. Bohr was in German-occupied territory, and thus communication between him and his colleagues in Allied territories was non-existent at that time. His ‘plan’ also ignores the fact that Heisenberg’s team was not the only group of scientists in Germany who were tasked to produce a nuclear bomb. Even if, in a most improbable circumstance, Heisenberg successfully carried out the purpose of their meeting and won the support of the likes of Oppenheimer and Einstein, his German colleagues, such as Kurt Diebner, would not submit to such an accord. The chances are that Heisenberg and his team would have been prosecuted at the first attempt to communicate such a plan to them. Considering all this, one is left somewhat sceptical of Weizsäcker’s intention in revealing his alleged role in the event in question. Still, interestingly, Michael Freyn seems quite invested in this line of speculation, despite his explicit insistence that he wishes to support no particular theory. Whilst Freyn does give each theory ‘stage presence’, not all lines of thought are given equal measure of dramatic emphasis. It should be clear to anyone that, in the audio drama, Benedict Cumberbatch’s impassioned delivery of Heisenberg’s desperate bid to prevent the world from weaponising nuclear physics provides the culmination of the play, not only because of the actor’s powerful delivery, but also due to the emphasis given by the author. Yet, the reasons for this phenomenon is lost in its own uncertainty.
Despite such a moment of lapse, Freyn correctly stays on course: he stresses repeatedly the impossibility of knowing the motives of a human agent. Freyn acknowledges the fact that we are going to know only what Heisenberg was willing to discuss, and given the circumstances he was in, his comments were always going to be filtered by his caution over whatever political current he found himself in at any given moment. And thus, questions regarding his legacy cannot be conclusively answered in any way. Did Heisenberg merely fail to produce the bomb due to his relative incompetence as compared to his Allied counterparts, or due to the lack of resources available in the Third Reich? If the failure was circumstantial, or if so he believed, then why did he not overstate the chances of success to Speer and push to secure more funding to improve the rate of success? Was he merely truthful to Speer, or was he, as a few suggest, trying to sabotage the German nuclear weapons project by playing down the possibility of success? Or was he wishing meagre resources to be directed toward projects with better prospects of success to support the German war effort? Did he still, if ever, believe in the ‘final victory’ for the Germans? Or did he by then accepted the prospect of German defeat and decide to save himself and his team by getting out of it? Or was he biding his time in the first place in order to rebuild German physics once Hitler was gone? Given Heisenberg’s caution and reluctance to speak his truth, there can be no answer to these questions. Yet, still, certain aspects of Heisenberg’s attitude seem to point to what was important to him. As seen in his effort to create a consensus amongst his colleagues in case they joined the Allied nuclear weapons research program, Heisenberg was open to working with their ‘enemies’, and at the same time, was clearly afraid of being seen as a traitor who sabotaged the German nuclear weapons program and thus terminated the chance of victory, or survival, for his country. And, despite some gross technical errors in his calculations, Heisenberg did know about the possibility to build a bomb with far less uranium than it was believed in Germany at that time. The fact that he did not share this knowledge earlier with his colleagues disturbed Otto Hahn, yet, again, Heisenberg’s intention for withholding the information cannot be known. Still, his much-too-late admission seems to suggest that he wished the world to know that the German failure in developing a nuclear weapon was not the result of his incompetence. Whilst he was, unlike Weizsäcker, careful not to claim a moral high-ground relative to his Allied colleagues, the motivations behind Heisenberg’s words and silence are quite complex, and, in light of the lack of concrete evidence, it is impossible to grasp the meaning of Heisenberg’s activities during the war in its entirety.
Now that we have dealt with the practical aspect of uncertainty regarding Heisenberg and his legacy, we must direct our attention to the theoretical uncertainty by asking a question: Did Heisenberg himself know what his intentions were? In order to answer this question, we must first answer the following question: Can anyone have a firm grasp of how to determine the intention that supposedly leads to a certain action consistent with it? These are the questions to be dealt with in the second part of this essay.