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A thrilling tale of wartime derring-do meets a richly researched story of postwar intellectual exploitation

The Bastard Brigade: The True Story of the Renegade Scientists and Spies Who Sabotaged the Nazi Atomic Bomb

Sam Kean
Little, Brown
460 pp.
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Taking Nazi Technology: Allied Exploitation of German Science after the Second World War

Douglas M. O’Reagan
Johns Hopkins University Press
294 pp.
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In December 1944, former Major League Baseball (MLB) catcher Moe Berg sat in a freezing Zurich lecture theater listening to a talk by Germany’s leading nuclear physicist, Werner Heisenberg. Berg was not there merely as an interested audience member; he had been tasked by the U.S. Office of Strategic Services—forerunner to the CIA—with determining how close the Nazis were to developing an atomic bomb and, if necessary, assassinating Heisenberg with the pistol concealed within his coat. Fortunately for Heisenberg, Berg’s assessment was that the Nazis still had some way to go, and the oblivious physicist survived his Swiss speaking engagement. This unlikely tale is one of many that appear in Sam Kean’s The Bastard Brigade, which documents the efforts made by the Allies to sabotage the Nazi atomic bomb project during the Second World War.

As that story suggests, the book is a gripping read. Alongside Berg, a polyglot student of physics and classics once described as “the brainiest guy in baseball,” the book is populated by a cast of interesting and often eccentric characters: Joe Kennedy Jr., the older brother of the future president; Irène Joliot-Curie, the Nobel-winning chemist and daughter of Marie Curie; and Samuel Goudsmit, a Jewish Dutch-American physicist who led the investigations into the Nazi atomic bomb while also attempting to save his parents from a concentration camp.

The fascinating stories are delivered with the narrative aplomb of an accomplished novelist. Indeed, in the Author’s Note, Kean admits that when planning a book, he looks for “rip-roarin’ stories first and foremost,” and he has certainly found one.

The Nazi atomic bomb remains a fascinating historical idea, not least when we consider how different the war, and the world, might have turned out had the Germans developed it before the Allies. The story Kean tells is of the efforts made by the Allies to prevent this from happening, from the aforementioned assassination plot to the endeavors of the so-called “Alsos” teams, which raced through Europe after D-Day, seizing (and occasionally destroying) Nazi atomic research facilities and equipment and arresting any German physicists they could find.

Kean’s delivery is breezy, light, and often humorous (which can make the occasional references to the Holocaust or Nazi atrocities feel jarring), and his passion for history and for physics comes across on almost every page. He also has a knack for conjuring up imagined conversations, and even private thoughts and motivations, for his characters, which breathe life into these historical accounts. He writes, for example, that when Samuel Goudsmit was preparing for his first voyage into the crumbling Third Reich in early 1945, he received a checklist that, among other things, “recommended he update his will and pay up his life insurance.” Kean imagines Goudsmit thinking that he “might as well call his wife right now and tell her he was a goner.” The line between historical fact and Kean’s fertile imagination is not always as clear as it could be, however, and the book’s lack of references and relatively succinct bibliography do little to help the reader assess the authenticity of the story’s details.

The Bastard Brigade is an eminently readable book, and its fast pace and wartime thriller tropes certainly commend it as an undemanding vacation read. It should, however, be treated as an intriguing gateway to a little-known piece of history and not as an authoritative account on the subject.

When the war ended, it was clear that the Nazi nuclear program had been but a shadow of its Anglo-American equivalent, the Manhattan Project, but in other fields, such as rocketry or submarine technology, Nazi science had outstripped that of the victorious Allies. This is where Douglas O’Reagan’s Taking Nazi Technology picks up, exploring the efforts of the United States, Britain, France, and the Soviet Union to exploit the scientific spoils of the defeated Third Reich and how they changed the nature of international technology transfer in the process.

O’Reagan’s book is a work that is utterly rooted in scholarly rigor and a close engagement with both primary source material across three countries and extensive existing literature. As such, it provides a wide-ranging view of the scientific and technological exploitation carried out by all four of the powers that occupied Germany in 1945, without losing depth, nuance, or historical context. The story it tells is at least as fascinating as that in The Bastard Brigade, but Taking Nazi Technology also interrogates the very concept of international technology transfer and asks important questions about the processing of huge quantities of information and the value of so-called “know-how.” As O’Reagan points out, this is a story that has not been widely told before, and where it has been, its telling has generally been uneven, speculative, sensationalized, or all three.

By 1945, after the advent of ballistic missiles, jet engines, and the atomic bomb, it was axiomatic that technology would be central to any future war effort. The victorious Allies sought a shortcut to scientific supremacy through the exploitation of German tech and expertise, and this soon expanded to include civilian topics as well as military ones. Laboratories and factories were examined; documents and equipment were confiscated; and scientists and technicians were detained, interrogated, and sometimes recruited.

Perhaps the greatest asset and innovation of Taking Nazi Technology is its coverage of the schemes and policies of all four occupying powers, addressing each in turn before bringing them together to explore broader trends. The Americans, we learn, were able to hire Wernher von Braun, the man behind the V-2 rocket, and his team and later put them to work on the U.S. space program; the British produced hundreds of reports on every aspect of German science and industry and sold them to buyers across the world; the French sent students to work in German laboratories to imbibe skills and experience and to spy on their new colleagues; and the Soviets forcibly relocated some 2500 scientific workers (and their families) from their zone of Germany to the USSR proper in one major deportation in October 1946. The mass diaspora of German expertise and know-how is one of the great untold stories of the postwar era, and as O’Reagan explains, its ramifications are still being felt today.

Although Taking Nazi Technology is certainly a more scholarly and more sober account than The Bastard Brigade, it is neither dull nor inaccessible. It has been written in such a way as to allow readers with very little prior knowledge to engage with the narrative, and its discussions of policy development, intellectual property law, and the relationships among science, business, and the state never stagnate.

Nonetheless, there are places where an anecdote of the sort on which Kean relies so heavily would illuminate the ramifications of the policies under discussion or showcase some of the absurdities that the process of exploitation so frequently produced. It is, after all, a remarkable historical phenomenon, unprecedented in scale and boldness. This can sometimes be forgotten when reading O’Reagan’s account.

It seems at first that these two books have relatively little in common. The events discussed in The Bastard Brigade take place mostly during the Second World War; the key players are spies, geniuses, and eccentrics; and the tale is recounted with the breathless excitement of a particularly lively work of fiction. Taking Nazi Technology, meanwhile, gives an account primarily rooted in the postwar years, in which the protagonists are civil servants and technical experts, and all is couched firmly within the relevant historical context. That said, in reading both works, some commonalities emerge.

In a sense, they can be seen to present two sides of the same topic: Kean writes of dastardly Nazis and Allied derring-do, of conspiracies and plots and bizarre adventures, and although he explores these traits in relation to wartime atomic espionage, they can be found just as readily in postwar technological exploitation. O’Reagan explains the policies and plans that underpinned these dramatic tales and fits them into the broader historical concepts to which they relate. And again, although his focus is on exploitation, the central idea of the state’s mobilization of, and interactions with, science is equally relevant to the atomic case.

By reading the two works in tandem, it is possible to get the benefit of both the bigger picture and the more astonishing anecdotes associated with this important moment in history. As a result, I feel confident in recommending both books, even though it would be fair to surmise that each is targeted at a slightly different audience.

The Bastard Brigade is perfect as a first foray into this period, and I defy any reader not to be drawn into the world of unlikely spies and Nazi Nobel Prize winners that Kean paints so vividly and infuses with such energy. However, for many, this will be little more than a historical amuse-bouche that encourages further reading. Here, Taking Nazi Technology makes for the perfect second course—meatier and more substantial but still broad and accessible enough to suit all but the lightest appetites.

About the author

The reviewer is at the School of History, University of Kent, Canterbury, UK, and the author of British Exploitation of German Science and Technology, 1943–1949 (Routledge, 2019).