No doubt the play Copenhagen , by Michael Frayn, is brilliant. The subject is fascinating. Did Werner Heisenberg, one evening in 1941, ask Niels Bohr if it was a moral thing to build a bomb for Hitler, to build a bomb at all? What was the relationship of the two men, and what of their rivalry, of their friendship? How close did we come to Hitler’s owning the tool to destroy the world? Did Heisenberg sabotage the Nazi effort or did he fail by simple careless miscalculation? Did he protect Bohr or betray him? The science of the two men is reflected in their moral choices. Our ability to know exactly what their motives were, and how they played against the pressures of the time, is limited.
Heisenberg-mercurial, lightning fast- uncovered the uncertainty principle in physics. His life, too, could be described as an uncertainty principle. “How?” The play encourages us to imagine. The play is rational, probing, intellectually relentless. It takes us right to that raw uncomfortable place at the heart of our human survival against demons like fission and demons like Hitler. It also shows science in all its splendor, science as pure as human reason, science breathtakingly beautiful, the way it was before we knew that scientific discoveries could lead to vile acts, that gas chambers and A-bombs were just as much the fruit of science as antibiotics and black hole theory. We sit in the theater admiring, wondering-as the very same science that we now know is tainted by our human souls, corrupted by our incurable affinity for evil, struts its stuff stunningly on the stage. See the play. See it as soon as you can.
There is, however, something grim that hangs on after the curtain goes down. I steamed and fumed and quarreled with the play into the early hours of the morning, tossing in my bed, agitated as any person with an unrequited argument can be. There was, in the midst of all this dazzling talk, a missing subject. A terrible distortion occurs because of its absence.
In the play an equation is made between Niels Bohr’s son’s drowning in a boating accident (in which Bohr did not sacrifice his own life to save his son) and the decision of Heisenberg not to sacrifice his position as a German scientist with a prominent role in the Third Reich. Heisenberg’s actions during the war are thereby equated with, or balanced against, Bohr’s remaining on the sailboat while his son slipped under the waves. The analogy is haunting. In the theater, seagull sounds float like accusations over the stage.
However, Heisenberg didn’t stay safe on a boat sailing in turbulent waters but on a killing machine. The absent subject of the play is the dying Jews, the cremated Jews, the vicious genocide that was taking place. As Heisenberg talks to Bohr in Denmark, the Einsatzgruppen are moving into Eastern Europe and taking little children in vans and gassing them and filling trenches with the bodies of Jews. Heisenberg talks of the suffering of the Germans after World War I; we believe him. He later talks of the hardships the Germans experienced after Hitler’s defeat; we believe him. But against the background of the camps, of the Warsaw ghetto, of Babi Yar, the talk of German pain is ludicrous, in bad taste-worse, morally ugly.
Heisenberg makes several cases for himself in this play. He could have made the bomb but didn’t. He loved Germany; it was his land, these were his people. He wasn’t a member of the Nazi party. He was just a leading scientist doing his job. He failed because he couldn’t make a bomb or he wouldn’t, consciously or unconsciously.
There is no one on the stage who confronts him with the deaths of Jews, with the stench of real human bodies. I grant Michael Frayn that the Jewish burial grounds have been gone over and over, that it is hard to bring up the deaths of the Jews without numbing our minds, losing our attention. We’ve been there, we know. How could a play make that old news fresh, wounding, personal, immediate? I grant that it would be hard if not impossible. But if Heisenberg is not forced to take responsibility for his support of the regime that transported to their deaths so many mortal beings then how can I enter into this play? How can I watch this without my stomach turning?
Usually I leave my Playbill on the floor by my seat where it has slipped. This Playbill I carried home and studied. It has a chart of the development of the atomic bomb that traces our knowledge of atomic physics from 1895 to 1945. It gives us the names of the scientists and their contributions: Max Planck, Sir Ernest Rutherford, Prince Louis de Broglie, Albert Einstein’s photons, Erwin Shrödinger’s wave theory, Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle about particles and Bohr’s complementarity interpretation. It is indeed a glorious path of insight, of synthesis, of invention. The physics here lets us live in our universe with increased knowledge of our place, how things work, and that itself brings us closer to God, or to being God or something like that.
But science is neutral, both good and bad. It has brought us chemotherapy and the polio vaccine and travel and the Internet as well as Chernobyl and Bhopal and mass murder and biochemical warfare. It is our nasty politics that continually darken our skies. But science and scientists do bear some responsibility for our destiny. After all how much damage can a man do with a single club and a slingshot? Nothing like what a fellow with a cattle car, a railroad track and a Zyklon B canister can accomplish in a fraction of the time.
Which brings me back to Heisenberg. History shouldn’t let him off so easily. He was a giant when it came to abstract mathematical thought, but a pygmy when it came to moral decisions. He made no public objections when Jewish scientists were expelled from universities or carried off to camps. He lived, worked for and supported, out of a simplistic moronic loyalty to his people, a regime that has called into doubt the very concept of historical progress, of God’s presence among us. The intellectual conversation on the stage at the Royale Theater is dramatic and riveting because so much is at stake for all of us. We watch our intellectual capacities weave into the fabric of our days. We glimpse the interaction between our personal experiences and our political choices. Still, the play has left me terrified that whatever nearly happened to us all because of the invention of the bomb will happen again. It will happen because we do not hear on that stage the voices of the murdered Jews. That absence is the black hole into which mankind may disappear.