6. Notwithstanding Avid Speculation, the Nazis Never Came Close to Having an Atomic Bomb
One of WWII’s greatest what-ifs revolves around how close the Third Reich came to building an atomic bomb. During the war, the Manhattan Project operated on the assumption that Hitler had an advanced nuclear program, that might bear fruit any day. So those in the know viewed America as being in a race against Germany over which country would first produce nuclear weapons. They could have relaxed on that front. After the war, it was discovered that the German nuclear program was nowhere near as advanced as had been assumed: early in their research, German physicists took a wrong turn, and followed it away from the path that leads to nuclear weapons. The war could have lasted another decade, and Hitler would have been no closer to possessing an atomic bomb in 1955 than he had been in 1945.
German Nuclear Physics Fails, Manhattan Project Thrives
Germany’s chief nuclear physicist, Werner Heisenberg, had nebulous ideas that splitting the atom could produce a powerful weapon, but he never understood how to turn nuclear fission into reality. Germany’s last atomic test in the spring of 1945 failed to achieve the preliminary first step of criticality – a self-sustaining chain reaction that the Manhattan Project had achieved in 1942. Criticality was the crucial foundation, without which an atomic weapon program could not succeed. Additionally, the German nuclear program lacked necessary support. After achieving criticality, it took America almost three years, with a massive investment of resources and the personal support and attention of the head of state, to successfully test the first atomic bomb. The Germans had not accomplished the criticality breakthrough by the time the war ended, and their nuclear program had never received anything close to the support enjoyed by the Manhattan Project.