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German Historian Says Nazis Fell Just Shy of Nuclear Weapons

By Dave Graham
Mar 14, 2005

BERLIN - A German historian whose new book was billed as proof the Nazis tested nuclear bombs cast doubt on his publisher's claims on Monday, saying he had avoided referring to the weapons in question as "atom bombs".

Berlin historian Rainer Karlsch, whose book Hitlers Bombe (Hitler's Bomb) was criticized in German media before publication for lack of evidence, told reporters in Berlin there was no conclusive evidence the Nazis tested nuclear weapons.

"If you read the book's title, you'll see it says 'Hitler's bomb', not 'Hitler's atom bomb'," he said at the presentation of his book. "That was very deliberate because it remains open to debate what name is to be given to this (weapon)."

Ten days ago his publisher, DVA, issued a statement which said Nazi Germany had tested nuclear bombs.

"The Third Reich was on the verge of winning the race to deploy the first nuclear weapon. Under the supervision of the SS, German scientists tested nuclear bombs on (the Baltic island of) Ruegen and in Thuringia in 1944 and 1945," DVA had said.

Karlsch did not elaborate on the apparent contradiction, but German book critics slammed publisher DVA for sensationalism.

Mark Walker, a history professor and Third Reich expert at Union College, Schenectady in New York state, said the book had not re-written the history of the nuclear arms race.

"The word atom bomb has a specific, precise historical significance," said Walker, who attended the book's launch. "An atom bomb is what the Americans dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. An atom bomb is what the Soviet Union tested in 1949. There was no German atom bomb."

However, he said Karlsch's book had discovered a lost chapter in the history of Nazi research into nuclear arms.

Witness Accounts

Based on witness accounts, soil analyses and newly obtained documents, the book contends bombs with a "sub-critical mass" were tested using a "nuclear procedure" on Ruegen and in the then central state of Thuringia late in World War Two.

Karlsch referred to the device in question on Monday as an "atomic grenade", but acknowledged he had so far not uncovered any incontrovertible proof that the tests took place.

"There is a series of indications," he said.

Describing the testing in the book, Karlsch cited a female witness who said she saw a pillar of bright light blaze into the night sky, which then spread out into the shape of a tree.

Karlsch said residents of the Thuringian town of Ohrdruf suffered nose-bleeds, headaches and nausea for days after a reported March 1945 explosion.

Another account details how hundreds of prisoners of war and concentration camp internees were killed and mutilated during the testing before being disposed of by Hitler's SS.

Karlsch said the weapons he had described were much less powerful than the bombs dropped on Japan in August 1945, and would not have decided the war for Germany.

Nazi scientists failed to produce deployable nuclear weapons because they lacked sufficient fissile material, Karlsch said.

Karlsch, who has been on the staff of Berlin's Free and Humboldt universities, received praise from German media for uncovering details about Nazi research on uranium. However, much of the critical reaction to the book has been hostile.

Germany's Die Welt daily said more than half of the book was a "brew of hearsay and disinformation", and asked why DVA, which belongs to a respected media group, had released the book.

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