Skip Navigation

The Challenge of History German Nuclear Bomb & Rocket Programs in WWII

PI: Wolf Schäfer


Project Summary

Aiming at a critical history committed to “reasonable conditions of life” (Horkheimer), this research project has five objectives – it will

  • analyze the contributions of physicist Carl Friedrich von Weizsäcker (1912-2007) to the Nazi atom bomb project before 1945, as well as von Weizsäcker’s pacifistic reversal and eventual leadership against a nuclear armed West Germany after 1945;
  • investigate the clandestine “utopian” National Socialism of philosopher Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) and the impact of this worldview on the young von Weizsäcker;
  • explain the innovative fusion of big science and engineering in the Manhattan Project in terms of functional organizational factors in comparison with the dysfunctional management of the German bomb and rocket programs;
  • explore the possibility of learning from techno-scientific failures, such as Hitler’s advanced weapons programs, and the danger of turning these histories into case studies of how to pursue questionable techno-scientific projects successfully;
  • discuss two common errors and one critical assumption, namely on the one hand the falsities that learning from history is impossible and that historical understanding requires the personal experience of the past, and on the other the premise that private learning processes remain socially ineffective unless societal learning processes complement them.

Among other things, The Challenge of History Project will result in a book in German – Die Herausforderung der Geschichte – to be published in 2016 by Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, a scholarly press in Göttingen, Germany, which was founded in 1735 in connection with the establishment of the city’s Georg August University.

Project Publications

In 2013, the Leviathan, a leading German social science journal, published a substantial essay from The Challenge of History: “Plutoniumbombe und zivile Atomkraft: Carl Friedrich von Weizsäckers Beiträge zum Dritten Reich und zur Bundesrepublik.” Leviathan. Berliner Zeitschrift für Sozialwissenschaft, vol. 41, no. 3, 383-421. 

Read the Publication

Another, much shorter contribution appeared in the journal of the American Academy in Berlin: “Negative Charge: What strained the relationship between two of Germany’s most respected scientific thinkers?” The Berlin Journal, Fall 2013, no. 25, 8-11. 

Read the Publication.

Login to Edit