PD Smith

Spy left out in the cold

23 September 2007 | atomic bomb, Doomsday Men, Hahn, Heisenberg, Rosbaud, Science, spies, WW2 | Post a comment

MI6, Hitler's atomic bomb project and Cherie Booth QC - it was a potent mixture that was guaranteed to make headlines. The Guardian's was: "Spy left out in the cold: how MI6 buried heroic exploits of agent Griffin".

Paul Rosbaud was a physicist and the editor of the scientific journal Die Naturwissenschaften. Rosbaud encouraged Otto Hahn to publish the news of the fission of uranium in January 1939 thus ensuring that this breakthrough was shared with scientists around the world. He was friends with Germany's top atomic physicists throughout the war and was therefore well placed to keep the British intelligence service briefed on German progress towards an atomic bomb. For Rosbaud was an MI6 agent, codenamed Griffin.

Now his nephew - represented by Ms Booth, wife of the former prime minister - is trying to force the security services to declassify all its files on Rosbaud so the full story can be told. And this is one story that will certainly be worth reading.

You can get a flavour of what Rosbaud was like from this remarkable passage from Paul Lawrence Rose's excellent book Heisenberg and the Nazi Atomic Bomb Project: A Study in German Culture (U of California P, 1998):

“During the war Rosbaud had realized perfectly well how Heisenberg’s self-serving moral sophistry was shared by his colleagues on the uranium project. A few days after the big Speer-Heisenberg meeting at Harnack-Haus in June 1942, the scientists learned of Speer’s decision not to press ahead with the bomb project. One evening at Restaurant Orient, on Fasanenstrasse near the Kurfürstendamm, a group of twelve physicists were professing their moral relief at not having to develop a bomb. A rather intoxicated Rosbaud was finally provoked by the cant he was hearing to shout out: ‘If any one of you knew how to make the bomb, he would not hesitate a minute and tell your Führer how to destroy the rest of the world in order to get the highest order of the Iron Cross.’ Rosbaud admits ‘they were decent enough not to denounce me after this, but my remark was followed by [icy silence].’ The stunned scientists, evidently frightened that Rosbaud might be an agent provocateur who would report their reactions to the Gestapo, quickly split up and vanished. But, of course, Rosbaud had hit both nails on the head – the first, that their advice to Speer stemmed from technical ignorance about how to build a bomb, and the second, that their moralizing was empty cant.”

The legal hearing is set to continue. Personally I hope Rosbaud's nephew is successful.

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