Published partly as a result of Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen, a play which re-opened the discussion about Werner Heisenberg’s role in World War II, and partly in an attempt to bring closure to the controversy surrounding his wartime activities, My Dear Li! is an extremely important document for historians, biographers, and physicists alike. The book comprises the correspondence between the Nobel Prizewinning German physicist Werner Heisenberg and his wife Elisabeth during the years 1937 to 1946, introduced by their eldest daughter, Anna Maria Hirsch. The letters are largely left to speak for themselves, apart from those from 1945, where the corresponding chapter includes Werner’s diary entries for the last fourteen days before his arrest at the end of the War.
Three important strands run through the letters. First, they are a testimony to the period in terms both of what is said and of what could not be said for fear of the censor. They portray the stark realities of everyday life with all its difficulties throughout the wartime period. Second, the letters help to clarify a number of the questions that have arisen in connection with Werner Heisenberg. Why did he not leave to go to America when he had the opportunity? The letters make it clear that he felt duty-bound to continue to support the development of science in his country beyond the end of the war, which he was convinced Germany would lose, and to work thereafter in the interests of the New Europe. At the same time, he was not happy with his work on the uranium project, which he saw as meaningless; however, the project allowed him to prevent himself and his colleagues from being sent to the Front. He perhaps underestimated the dangers of this route and always focused on the peaceful exploitation of atomic energy after the war, rather than the realities of creating the atom bomb for Germany. Always on his guard to appear loyal, his letters reveal his growing exhaustion and his longing to be at one with nature. Elisabeth’s responses are thus always of great comfort to him. This leads to the third strand running through the letters, namely the strengthening of the relationship of the couple and how they manage to help each other through the stormy period.
Meticulously edited, the letters provide precious, rich and vivid images of the lives of Werner and Elisabeth Heisenberg.