Jan Eliasberg: Fiction as a window into the ethics of testing the Bomb

By , July 15, 2020

Author Jan Eliasberg Author Jan Eliasberg. Photo by Nina Subin

Researching an idea for a scene, the film and television writer-director Jan Eliasberg went to the New York City public library to see what the New York Times had published on its front page on the day after the Hiroshima bombing. There she read a sentence that fascinated her: “The key component that allowed the Allies to develop the bomb was brought to the Allies by a female non-Aryan physicist.” The Times did not name the physicist.

I’ve got to find this woman and figure out why her name and picture aren’t in every science textbook, thought Eliasberg, whose work focuses on exceptional women neglected by historians. She believed there was an amazing story to be told about someone who had lived in Hitler’s Germany and seen firsthand nuclear fission’s potential to be used for good or evil.

The woman turned out to be Lise Meitner, an Austrian-Swedish physicist of Jewish ancestry who worked at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute until she fled from Nazi Germany to Sweden in 1938. Meitner was one of the co-discoverers of nuclear fission but did not share in the 1944 Nobel Prize in Chemistry awarded exclusively to her colleague Otto Hahn.

Eliasberg ended up writing a novel, Hannah’s War, rather than a screenplay. It was published in March by Little, Brown and Company.

In her author’s note, Eliasberg writes that the book was inspired by Lise Meitner and German physicist Werner Heisenberg, but that everything else in the book is the product of her imagination. However, the book includes some real figures from history, such as Robert Oppenheimer and General Leslie Groves.

Part spy thriller, part love story, Eliasberg’s novel explores one of the great mysteries of World War II: why the Germans made so little progress toward building an atomic bomb, despite having discovered nuclear fission. Eliasberg comes down firmly on the side of author Thomas Powers and others who believe Heisenberg sabotaged the German bomb program by convincing officials that it was unfeasible.

In Hannah’s War, the title character is based on Meitner. It is 1945, and Hannah is working at the secret nuclear lab in Los Alamos, New Mexico, where she is suspected of spying for the Germans. Eliasberg took some artistic license in placing Meitner’s stand-in at Los Alamos. (Meitner herself refused an offer to work on the Manhattan Project and wanted nothing to do with the bomb.) Putting her there allowed Eliasberg to explore the ethical dilemmas faced by scientists developing the bomb.

Much of the drama takes place just before the Trinity test, the first detonation of a nuclear device, in the New Mexico desert 75 years ago this week. Contributing editor Dawn Stover interviewed Eliasberg about her fictional exploration of this history.

Dawn Stover: I find it interesting that we still don’t completely understand why the Germans were not able to build an atomic bomb even though they had a head start.

Jan Eliasberg: The Americans sure thought that [the Germans] were close. We sent a team in with the front lines to capture these scientists and to find plutonium, and to find anything like a bomb. I think people were quite shocked when they saw that they had just this totally primitive … not even really a nuclear pile.

DS: When you were researching this whole history, was there anything that really surprised you or ran counter to what you thought you already knew about this whole period?

JE: Yes, very much so. The stuff that surprised me was on the American side. For example, the assessment by Curtis LeMay [the commander who led US air attacks on Japan] where he basically says, “We’ve bombed the shit out of Japan. Hurry up with your atomic bomb, because there’s going to be nothing left if you don’t.” That shocked me, and also that they deliberately left those cities pristine because they wanted to show the devastation. They wanted, I believe, to kill innocent people, because they were already moving on to the Cold War. They had already identified Stalin and the Soviets as the new enemy. Japan was on its knees. I also was surprised, even though I guess I knew historically about the dates, but I was really surprised at the correlation between FDR’s death [in April 1945] and the Trinity test, because I do think that the scientists had a very different feeling about what FDR might have done than Truman. Another [surprise] was that we never bombed the train tracks leading into Auschwitz, even though we very clearly knew where they were, but they were considered not a strategic target. Also, the last thing I will say, was that General Groves, because of his close relationship with the Alsos team [tasked with investigating enemy scientific progress], knew that the Germans did not have the bomb and delayed telling the scientists in order to keep them working.

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DS: There’s a scene in the book where you introduce readers to all this moral ambiguity around nuclear weapons without hitting them over the head with it. A character who seems like he’s loosely based on physicist Leo Szilard argues that demonstrating the bomb for the Japanese could show them that all war is pointless, and Oppenheimer replies that a demonstration could embolden America’s enemies if it failed. Then you have General Groves saying, “The Reds need to know we’ve got the bomb,” and that’s when the fictional Jack Delaney, who is investigating possible spying at Los Alamos, realizes that Groves has repeatedly called the bomb a “deterrent” as a way to motivate the scientists and assuage their consciences. How much of that scene did you make up, and what kind of understanding of nuclear weapons and deterrence did you want readers to come away with?

JE: That was a very difficult scene to write, maybe the most difficult. The deterrence argument had been going on with Leo Szilard and other scientists. They had been having meetings and they invited Oppenheimer to come, and their meetings were very much about, “What is our moral responsibility, having now built this thing, or almost built it?” They wanted to bring a Japanese delegation out into the desert for the Trinity test. Oppenheimer actually did say, “What if it doesn’t work?”

DS: And Groves? Had he been repeatedly referring to the bomb as a deterrent?

JE: He actually did, but I wanted that to be more Jack’s revelation, that he underestimated Groves because he saw him as this foul-mouthed guy who’s throwing his weight around, and didn’t realize that Groves is also extremely canny, and that he does know how these scientists think and how to soft-pedal certain things. Like, for example, not to mention right away that the Germans don’t have the bomb, because they are so close to the Trinity test at that point. It seemed to me that, between Groves and Oppenheimer, they had sort of woven a spell that caused most of the scientists to leave their qualms at the door. So that’s what I was trying to get to in that scene.

DS: In your reading group guide at the end of the book, you encourage book clubs to ask themselves how Americans continue to process this violent history, and how the threat of nuclear attack influences foreign policy in the 21st century. How would you answer those questions?

JE: Well, I mean, obviously I think of the Pandora’s box and Faust, that you make a bargain with the devil. You can’t put that back. The fact that we have not had a nuclear war does say something about the deterrent effect. But our foreign policy is very much affected by the atomic countries, and there are many of them now. The thing about nuclear war is that it’s almost impossible to imagine. I’ve been thinking a lot about the pandemic, because I think there’s something very similar in the sense that it’s something we can’t see, and so it’s something that’s almost impossible to imagine.

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DS: You see some parallels between this current period and the World War II era you wrote about, when people were dealing with a tremendous range of losses, from simple little things like silk stockings to losing loved ones?

JE: Because I was working on the book over such a long period of time, there were different parallels all along the way. At one point, I was thinking about the way we basically ginned up a reason to go to war with Iraq—that they had nuclear weapons, which they did not. So from the Bay of Pigs to Iran, it was like nuclear [weapons] kept coming back as an issue and as a reason to perpetuate war. When I was doing revisions on the book, I was thinking about what we’re doing to immigrants and how we’re arresting them. That is what the Nuremberg Laws did so horrifically, but brilliantly, is that they chipped away at tiny little things so that you would adjust. Then the next outrageous thing that happened, you were just too accustomed to adjusting.

DS: So the lesson from how Hannah deals with persecution in Nazi Germany, is what? That she tries to maintain some level of human decency?

JE: Yes. That’s exactly what I’m getting at. The Meitner quote at the beginning of the book is: “Those blessed with a brilliant mind and a gift for science have a higher duty that comes before discovery, a duty to humanity. Science can be used for good or evil, so it’s incumbent upon scientists to ensure that their work makes the world a better place.”

DS: Where did she write that?

JE: It was in one of her letters. She wrote a number of letters to Otto Hahn that she didn’t send. She’s quite scathing about the Nobel Prize and his neglecting to mention her role in it.

DS: Which is interesting, because in the public statements that I’ve seen, she seems very gracious and not at all trying to claim her spot in history.

JE: She really valued that relationship with Hahn and his wife. She always felt that that time in Germany was her best period scientifically and the place where she felt the most at home. When she fled to Sweden, she really hated it there. I mean, she was very lonely. She wasn’t treated like a queen at Kaiser Wilhelm, but she was treated even less well in Sweden. The other thing she’s very, very scathing about is the fact that [Hahn] stayed in Germany. She says, again in a letter that she didn’t send, “I knew what was going on, and I didn’t want to accept it because I wanted to stay. But by the time I left, you really knew what was going on, and you said nothing.” So I think that what you see in the public view of her is the graciousness that women are taught to adopt, because people don’t tend to like angry women or resentful women. Lise Meitner was the only woman at Kaiser Wilhelm. She was the first female lecturer ever. She reminds me a little of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, in that she’s very Jewish, very small, sort of birdlike, and fiercely intelligent, but she is not going to go against the way she’s been taught to be ladylike.

DS: I don’t know very much about her personal history, but I believe she never married. You gave her a lover and also kind of a flirtation with the character Jack. Was that just in the interest of storytelling, or were you trying to say something about her as a woman too?

JE: Well, I would say both. I felt from reading her letters that she and Hahn never had a sexual relationship, but that collaboration was incredibly close, and there was a love there, whether it was for him or for their work together. But I know when you have that kind of collaboration and it’s a woman and a man that there’s … sparks are flying. Whether they’re intellectual or romantic, it’s kind of hard to tell, but she writes about him in a way that I certainly felt that there was a very strong bond there. With [the character] Jack, I think it’s actually a different story. She’s manipulating him all the way.

DS: And he is manipulating her.

JE: Yeah, and I wanted all of those possibilities to be there until the end, because that’s what drives an espionage story. Everyone has secrets.

Editor’s note: This interview has been edited and condensed for brevity and clarity.

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Peter Zimmerman
Peter Zimmerman

Anybody who thinks Heisenberg tried to sabotage the German nuclear program has neither read the Farm Hall transcripts nor visited the Haigerloch museum showing the last stages of the Nazi attempt. To be sure, Heisenberg had little notion of a critical mass as we understand it in regards to nuclear explosive devices. He probably did not even understand the different physics of runaway fast reactors and steady-state power reactors. But unless the author conflates incompetence with sabotage, Heisenberg was a willing participant in the German effort to build a nuclear explosive. It should be mentioned that other parallel German research… Read more »

Peter D. Zimmerman
Peter D. Zimmerman

I would also like to comment on a different part of the interview. Indeed, poor Lise Meitner was treated shabbily in Sweden. The elder Siegbahn took a dislike to her for a reason I never learned when I worked and studied in Lund, Sweden under physicists who knew both people. She was also treated very badly by Hahn, which I think was a real shock to her. It certainly demonstrates a serious flaw in Otto Hahn’s character. Jan Eliasberg compares Meitner to Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Meitner was a small woman, and brilliant, but there the resemblance ends. Meitner was not… Read more »