From the issue dated May 5, 2000

Frayn's 'Copenhagen' Plays Well, at History's Expense

Scholars are never satisfied when they see their specialized subjects turn fodder for stage, screen, or novels. The adaptor, like the translator, is by definition something of a traitor to his topic. There are so many pitfalls awaiting the artistic magus. He can get an essential personality wrong, as Peter Shaffer may have done with his hyperactive Mozart in Amadeus, or worse, with his Salieri, whom the playwright slanders as a murderer. Or he may get the facts of a historical situation wrong, as Rolf Hochhuth allegedly did in recounting Pius XII's nonreaction to the Holocaust in the 1963 play The Representative.

In such cases, specialists inevitably carp, and at conferences and in faculty-club chatter, they attempt to recapture the dignity of precision by the renewed staking out of violated scholarly turf. But can that sacred turf ever be fully reclaimed once its invasion has been so publicly observed and, worst of all, when the disreputable artistic distortion of fact has been rapturously received by the laity as an improvement on the arid original? Scholarly exactitude may command its tens of admirers, but poetic license hath its tens of thousands.

These gloomy thoughts of a pedantic specialist on Werner Heisenberg are prompted by the arrival on Broadway of what is being hailed as the play of the year, Michael Frayn's Copenhagen, which opened in April at the Royale Theater. The drama revolves around the notorious encounter, in September 1941 in Copenhagen, between Heisenberg, Nazi Germany's brightest star in physics, and his old mentor and friend, Niels Bohr, then a partly Jewish citizen of Nazi-occupied Denmark, and later, at Los Alamos, N.M., a key mind behind the creation of a nuclear-fission bomb. The play is an intermittently fascinating jeu d'esprit that flutters around the uncertain nature of knowledge -- both personal and scientific. With just three characters -- Heisenberg, Bohr, and Bohr's wife, Margrethe -- Frayn develops through his often electric dialogue a synergy on stage that has made the play a success at London's Royal National Theatre and ensured its production not only in New York, but in France, Germany, an d Denmark, as well as prompting conferences in London, in New York, in Amiens, at Dartmouth College, and in Copenhagen itself.

What explains all this commotion? Of course, physicists are so pleased to see any reasonably interesting picture on stage of their often hermetic lives that they have flocked to the play, but then physicists are hardly a large enough contingent to regularly fill a theater. The trendy issue of the "two cultures," however, ensures that any serious attempt at bridging the gap between scientists and nonscientists will appeal to our academic consciences; this year, the University of Pennsylvania had the bright idea of making Copenhagen required reading for all freshmen.

The play cleverly exploits parallels between the questioning by humanistic postmodernists of historical facts and the questioning by constructivists of scientific facts. To oversimplify considerably, constructivists might consider particle physics to be a fanciful belief system molded by social and cultural factors, with no more underlying truth than alchemy. That's a notion that may hold some appeal for select scholars of the history of science.

Would it be cynical to suggest, however, that it has equal charm for the lion's share of viewers, who might find it reassuring to learn that the science they know so little about might just be pie in the sky anyway? If all is unknowable, then does it matter that I got a D on all those problem sets in organic chemistry and became an investment banker?

Nor should one omit the work's sheer theatricality, talky as it may be. As it flits dizzyingly from philosophy to physics to politics to personality to history, there's no time for the audience to get a real grip on any of the crucial points at issue. At intermission, viewers happily recall how they didn't quite understand this or that bit, but how brilliant it all seems.

What's wrong with that? The intellectual vertigo induced by Frayn's quicksilver writing may be intended to capture some of the intellectual excitement inherent in the discoveries of science, and of life. But the price we pay for the dramatic thrill Frayn has concocted -- the sacrifice of historical and scientific truth -- is simply too great. The Copenhagen experience carries the audience along headily on a scientific roller coaster. Forget about understanding -- just look at the views!

Copenhagen is a kind of Rashomon-like treatment of a central historical episode, but one refracted through a postmodernist lens and complicated by philosophical ideas derived (a little too glibly) from the quantum mechanics pioneered by Heisenberg and Bohr -- such oft-misunderstood, if oft-cited, concepts as Heisenberg's uncertainty principle and Bohr's complementarity principle. The limits of knowledge, of knowledge of others, of oneself, of the external world of politics and morality; the plasticity of memory; the impossibility of arriving at definitive moral judgments -- this is the heady stuff of Copenhagen. The 20th century has seen at least two remarkable plays that drew their inspiration from the world of science -- Bertolt Brecht's Life of Galileo and Friedrich Durrenmatt's The Physicists -- but none has achieved the brilliance of Copenhagen in rendering the technical discussion of scientific ideas dramatically convincing and, at the same time, acc essible to scientists and nonscientists alike.

But even the play's admirers may have felt a certain unease. Was Heisenberg really the character depicted so sympathetically on stage? Was his attitude toward Nazism really so ambivalent, or so justifiable, as Frayn variously suggests? Did the meeting really take the form -- or rather forms -- that Frayn depicts? On a more general level, must our historical knowledge of people and events inevitably be as foggy as Frayn paints it?

If we can come nearer the historical truth of the meeting than Frayn's uncertainty principle allows, then the glittering decor of Copenhagen may turn out, indeed, to be constructed on false historical foundations that undermine its whole intellectual edifice. And here pipes up the aggrieved author, who has devoted two chapters of his recent book to analyzing the Copenhagen visit from both its scientific and moral standpoints. For the central facts of the visit are really not in doubt, even if some people like Frayn refuse to face them.

Frayn, of course, might object that facts, here, are irrelevant. After all, he affects to be an entertainer rather than a historian (although in his printed postscript, he likes to play the historian). The play is certainly full of entertaining anecdotes and mannerisms. It's a pity, though, that Frayn's eye for the picturesque didn't select such gems as Heisenberg's barging in on a dismayed Einstein after the war, or Heisenberg's sickening postwar meeting with the physicist Max Born that degenerated into an anti-Semitic tirade and ended with Heisenberg's spitting at his former teacher. Or, while at Copenhagen, his enthusing to colleagues there about the current Nazi conquest of Europe.

Moreover, historians have been able to discover a few things about Heisenberg's visit that undermine Frayn's claims of unknowability. We know, for a start, that Heisenberg went there on an intelligence mission triggered by a Swedish press report that the Allies were working on a bomb. Heisenberg's intimate friend was the physicist Carl-Friedrich von Weizsacker (who in recent years has finally conceded that in 1939 and 1940 he was willingly working to produce a bomb for Hitler). Alarmed by the Swedish report, Weizsacker discussed the bomb race with his father, Ernst, a senior official in the German Foreign Office later convicted at Nuremberg of war crimes. Soon after the father-son discussion, a mission to Copenhagen by Heisenberg and Carl-Friedrich was swiftly approved at the highest levels of the Nazi government. The general purpose was to discover if Heisenberg had missed some broad principle necessary to a nuclear-weapons program and to discern if Bohr knew anything about the Allied bomb effort.

At one point during his visit with Bohr, Heisenberg made a crude drawing of a gigantic reactor-bomb, a drawing that reflected an erroneous line of research that his assistants had been pursuing and that was also discussed in an official German report a few months later. Both men would have concluded that such a weapon was a far-fetched idea. Without doubt, Heisenberg also wished to have Bohr confirm that the critical mass of uranium 235 required for a true atomic bomb would be on the order of tons, thus ruling out any possibility of its being built. There was no difficulty in Bohr's agreeing with that since, until 1943, when he was informed of the Allied work, Bohr genuinely believed, like Heisenberg, that a bomb was impossible because of that presumed critical mass. That was why Bohr remained reasonably unalarmed on a scientific level by Heisenberg's conversation. It was the moral situation -- Heisenberg's working on a bomb for Hitler and pumping Bohr for information -- that revulsed him.

Frayn perverts the moral significance of the meeting as well as distorting and suppressing its scientific and political agenda. Frayn instead sees it as emblematic of what is for him the central moral paradox of modernity: Was the saintly Bohr, who helped develop the Allies' nuclear weapons, actually morally inferior to Heisenberg, the acolyte of Nazism, who failed for whatever reason to make a bomb? Put this way, Heisenberg would undoubtedly have been delighted with Frayn's presentation of a case he himself implied but was afraid to make publicly. The bogus moralizing that Heisenberg did dare to utter openly is alluded to in the play: "Does one as a physicist have the moral right to work on the practical exploitation of atomic energy?" Or, as he put it after the war: "[Do] physicists have the moral right to work on atomic problems during wartime?"

Those generalized, vague questions were typical Heisenberg evasions. The real moral issue that Heisenberg should have faced was the very specific one of whether German physicists should have worked -- as they did -- on a bomb for Hitler. For Bohr -- who was openly worried about the race toward nuclear fission and, even in late 1943, urged transnational consideration of such a bomb's consequences -- the question that confronted him after his arrival in the West was a different one. Was the Nazi evil so great as to justify working on a bomb that would defeat Hitler? The larger issue that confronted Bohr -- whether anyone should work on a bomb for any government -- was an ethical quandary that the Allies didn't have the luxury of pondering during the emergency of the war, but that became pressing in 1945 and after. It was that more-general question that Heisenberg craftily made the central issue of his wartime work, but that was only after the war, when the moral battlefield had changed .

What influences have led Frayn to shun the fairly straightforward historical and moral facts of the Heisenberg story, in favor of his own peculiar interpretation? Curiously, despite his essential premise of historical uncertainty, Frayn does indeed purport to give an accurate impression of the history of Heisenberg and his involvement in the German atomic project, particularly of his visit to Copenhagen. But as Frayn admits in a lengthy postscript to the printed text, that impression is based largely on Heisenberg's War, a popular 1993 book by the journalist Thomas Powers, whose ignorance of German and physics enabled him to happily fantasize about Heisenberg as a secret resister who knew exactly how to make a bomb, but effectively sabotaged the project by delay or intentional mistakes. Heisenberg, in Powers's view, also became associated with the rescue of the Danish Jews and the July Plot against Hitler. In real life, Heisenberg, like his friend Weizsacker and Weizsacker pere, disa pproved of the plot as an act of treason and never justified it even after the war. Frayn, however, advances a notion that was suggested by Ernst von Weizsacker and Heisenberg, and bought by Powers -- that the Weizsacker circle clandestinely resisted Hitler and was connected to a German official who tipped off the Danes to the impending deportation of Danish Jews. Ernst von Weizsacker's judges at Nuremberg didn't buy that argument, and nothing found in the historical record since has lent the scenario any more credibility. Powers's quaintly romantic view, as he has conceded, has not found any takers among serious historians. Indeed, there really is no longer any doubt about either Heisenberg's loyalty to the Third Reich or his scientific misunderstanding of an atomic bomb.

Recent research has established the facts of Heisenberg's allegiance to the Reich. Consider his negotiations with Heinrich Himmler to obtain a chair at the University of Munich and Heisenberg's insistence that he be allowed to publish an article in the SS's scientific journal to vindicate, he said, his "honor." Note his visits to occupied Krakow, Holland, and Copenhagen, and his crass comments to his former friends in those places about how marvelous the Nazi conquest of Europe was. Mark his wistful remarks in Switzerland in 1944 about how the war was lost, but "how beautiful it would have been if only we had won," and his truly amazing assertion to Jewish acquaintances in England and America after the war that, if only the Nazis had been given 50 years, everything would have settled down nicely.

The evidence is consistent in showing Heisenberg to have been a brilliant but weak man, whose shallow moral character allowed him to be easily corrupted by his nationalist German sympathies into colluding with Nazism. His ability to rationalize instantly, whatever the circumstances, any path of conduct stood him in good stead after the war, when he concocted his various "versions" of what had happened at Copenhagen and, indeed, of his entire career as scientific chief of the Nazi atomic-bomb project.

As to the scientific aspect, Heisenberg's misconceptions about the nature of an atomic bomb have in the last few years been exposed once and for all by the release and publication of the Farm Hall transcripts -- taped conversations of German scientists interned at Farm Hall, England, at the time of Hiroshima -- as well as by the availability of the nearly 400 secret wartime reports of the German project of which Heisenberg was the scientific chief. Those sources unequivocally reveal just how crude and wrong-headed Heisenberg's approach was to the theory of the bomb. Although he understood that the bomb would have to use a fast-neutron reaction in nearly pure uranium 235, he misconceived the formula and equation that would have yielded the correct critical mass of uranium on the order of tens of kilograms. Instead, he concluded through false reasoning in 1940 that tons would be required. That scientific error blinded him for the remainder of the war. (He also erred in conceiving of an alternative k ind of messy, small-scale bomb that essentially would have been an exploding reactor -- the idea that he discussed with Bohr in 1941.)

It was only after the news of Hiroshima that Heisenberg finally went back to the drawing board and, within a week, concluded that, after all, only kilograms of uranium were needed. Had he realized that in 1940, the German project would certainly have gone into high gear, and perhaps even succeeded.

Frayn refuses to comprehend, or perhaps acknowledge, Heisenberg's scientific misunderstandings. The play does portray Heisenberg as squirming a bit when conceding that on the evening of Hiroshima, he had told Otto Hahn and others that a ton of uranium would be needed for a bomb. But then Frayn allows Heisenberg to explain this away in a manner clearly believable to the author and endorsed in the play's postscript, where Frayn decides, after all, that he will play the role of historian.

Confusingly, Frayn allows Heisenberg to argue that: (a) he had never calculated the critical mass, but was going on a generally accepted intuitive view of a large bomb mass, and (b) he did the detailed calculation using diffusion theory only for a seminar given at Farm Hall on August 14, 1945. Frayn doesn't appear to notice (though some in his audiences have) that even if one were to believe that version of events, it undermines the play's notion of Heisenberg as a saboteur of Hitler's bomb-making effort.

At any rate, Frayn's version is blatantly wrong in one crucial respect. Heisenberg had indeed made an earlier, erroneous calculation, in 1940, yielding a mass of tons, and it is that calculation (based on a random-walk analysis) that Heisenberg explained repeatedly, and in detail, at Farm Hall on August 6, 7, and 9. However, the analysis of the critical mass in the August 14 seminar is quite differently, and correctly, conceived. In the days between August 9 and 14, Heisenberg had desperately gone back to first principles and rethought the whole critical-mass problem.

Frayn trickily alludes in a very vague way to the 1939-40 calculation of tons of uranium in Act I, perhaps expecting his audience to forget that, when the critical mass of tons is raised dramatically at the climax of Act II, it has been arrived at by calculation, not conjured out of thin air. Frayn's sleight of hand camouflages the fact that, at Farm Hall in the first days after Hiroshima, Heisenberg still fervently believed in the technical correctness of his early calculation.

The bottom line is that Heisenberg, like Weizsacker, had been working hard in 1939-40 to make a bomb for Hitler, but -- scientifically speaking -- was barking up the wrong tree.

Frayn has evidently fallen for some of the more absurd moral justifications by the Axis scientists for their serving the Nazi regime. Those excuses included Heisenberg's sanctimonious comment in 1948 that "I have learned something that my Western friends do not yet completely wish to admit -- that in such times almost no one can avoid committing crimes or supporting them through inaction, be he on the German, Russian or Anglo-Saxon side." That self-serving statement allowed Heisenberg to pose at least as Bohr's moral equal, perhaps even his superior, and it is a notion that drifts noxiously in and out of Copenhagen.

It is simply monstrous to draw or imply a moral symmetry between Bohr and his disciple. Niels Bohr was a man of the most intense moral awareness, whose integrity has been universally recognized. If he became involved in the Los Alamos bomb project after his harrowing escape from Denmark, in 1943, it was only after his serious ethical misgivings about such a weapon had been overcome by consideration of the immediate evil presented by Nazism. To put a character of Bohr's moral stature on anywhere near the same plane as a superficial, rationalizing sophist like Heisenberg suggests an incomplete knowledge not only of the historical facts, but of human character. Heisenberg never accepted moral responsibility for his role either in the Nazi state or in the Nazi atomic-bomb project.

It was that evasion that drove Heisenberg to invent the Copenhagen version that Frayn obviously prefers. Yet this version was -- in the words of Heisenberg's sympathetic British minder, Ronald Fraser, during a second visit to Copenhagen after the war -- "a typical Heisenberg fabrication. ... He rationalizes that quickly that the stories become for him the truth. ... Pitiful, in a man of his mental stature."

"Now no one can be hurt, and no one betrayed," purrs Heisenberg in the play. But the memory of Bohr has been hurt, and Heisenberg's true history betrayed. And Heisenberg is left approvingly with the last treacherous -- and banal -- words in the play about "some event that will never quite be located or defined ... that final core of uncertainty at the heart of things."

The elegiac and exhausted ending of the play is where the accumulation of distortions and mistakes finally turns into something altogether more distasteful. It has the appearances of a Lear-like transcendence of the destructive futility of human striving. We are with three characters, all passion spent, but with Heisenberg having the unanswered final say. He is granted a wrenching speech lamenting the death of his poor "dishonored Germany," which audiences receive as a moving testimony.

It is a spurious absolution, for Heisenberg himself was one of those who made that dishonoring possible through his selfish compromises with the Nazi regime -- an irony to which Frayn seems oblivious. Frayn's irony, instead, is applied to a vicious denigration of Bohr, "the good man," who emerges by the end as a self-absorbed prig, indifferent to the births and welfare of his own children, who contributed to the deaths of tens of thousands through his work on the Allied bomb.

Bohr is not the only one who turns out to be an unintentional villain. The Allies are in general, and the Jews, too; after all, as Frayn's play points out -- in a moment that stuns a New York audience -- the true inventors of the bomb, Otto Frisch and Rudolf Peierls, were Jews. Everyone, then, is seen to be guilty, and so everyone is blameless. There is no difference between the Gestapo and British intelligence. The British bombing of Dresden and Berlin is as bad as Hitler's Blitz on British and Polish civilians. Churchill and Roosevelt are amoral power-wielders, just like Hitler (another Heisenberg glibness), and so on.

It all makes one wonder what the Second World War was fought for. Was it just another dreadful mistake like its precursor? Was appeasement, after all, the right policy, as a few radical British historians have argued?

When I first read Copenhagen, I found its elan disarming. But the generally uncritical reception in the last two years and the prospect of more of the same in New York have aroused, no doubt unworthily, a more puritanical feeling. Thanks to the play's chic postmodernism as well as the complexity of its ideas, the subtle revisionism of Copenhagen has been received with a respect denied to such cruder revisionisms as that of David Irving's Holocaust denial. Revisionism it is, nonetheless, and Copenhagen is more destructive than Irving's self-evidently ridiculous assertions -- more destructive of the integrity of art, of science, and of history.

Paul Lawrence Rose is the Mitrani Professor of Jewish Studies and European History, and the director of the Center for Research on Antisemitism, at Pennsylvania State University at University Park. He is the author of Heisenberg and the Nazi Atomic Bomb Project: A Study in German Culture (University of California Press, 1998).

Chronicle of Higher Education
May 5, 2000
Section: Opinion & Arts
Page: B4