Saturday, January 14, 2012

Some Thoughts on Michael Frayn's "Copenhagen"


Last night, I caught Flat Earth Theatre's production of Michael Frayn's Copenhagen. It was not my first encounter with the play: I had attended the 2008 production at American Repertory Theater and had read the script a few months ago. Copenhagen, like very few contemporary plays, holds up both as a script for performance and as a literary work. Furthermore, after seeing Flat Earth's production (directed by Jake Scaltreto who shows himself to be more imaginative, thoughtful, and understanding of the text than A.R.T.'s Scott Zigler) I felt vindicated in my 2008 intuition that the play demands both multiple viewings and multiple productions.

However, the more I consider the script and the moral argument that Frayn seems to be making, the more I come to doubt that earlier intuition. What follows is not a review, but a few questions that bother me every time I encounter this play. One of the major themes of Copenhagen is the moral responsibility of scientists during wartime, specifically focussing on Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg, and their work on developing the nuclear bomb for America and Germany respectively. Of course, as history tells us, Germany failed to develop nuclear weapons, while America, famously benefiting Germany's racial laws that drove most of the top physicists out of both Germany and German-occupied Europe, succeeded.

Much is made of Heisenberg's moral calculations as to why he chose to work on the bomb. He was relatively apolitical, and showed a sufficient intellectual independence from Nazi ideology to get himself in trouble with SS Reichsfürhrer Heindrich Himmler for his opposition to the Deutsche Physik movement. Heisenberg's own consciousness had been formed during his adolescence, undergoing hardships, as Germany has been defeated in the First World War. Even if he did not personally believe that a nuclear weapon was practical, even if he had distinct misgivings about the ideology of Naziism and the government's policies, he could neither be certain that other minds could not devise a practical nuclear fission weapon, nor consider the possibility that his homeland would be target of an Allied nuclear attack.

Little, by contrast, is made of Niels Bohr's moral calculations. Frayn does not mention Bohr's own humanitarian work during the era: prior to German occupation of Denmark, providing refuge to German-Jewish scientists, nor does it mention Bohr's important role in the rescue of Denmark's Jews: When Bohr escaped to Sweden, he refused to board the plane that would take him to America to work in Los Alamos on the Manhattan Project until the Swedish government agreed to give asylum to Denmark's Jews, most of whom would arrive a few days later, narrowly escaping deportation to the Theresienstadt concentration camp. In other words, Bohr made his contributions to the American bomb dependent on the rescue of eight-thousand people who were otherwise destined for extermination.

Instead, in the voice of Heisenberg, we hear much of German victimhood from Allied bombings and ultimately the horror of the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki that the Manhattan project made possible. Heisenberg complains about the humiliation of former friends, who had developed the American bomb, refusing to shake his hand though he had failed to develop a German bomb, as if these were moral equivalencies. They are not: the scientists at the Manhattan Project were saving the world from fascism and genocide; had Heisenberg succeeded he would have unleashed more genocide and a more muscular fascism.

The point being that when we look at civilian casualties during World War II, they are estimated to amount to roughly 40 to 52 million, or approximately 62% or nearly two-thirds of those killed during the War. However, ~58% of those killed were Allied civilians while only ~4% of the total dead were civilians of the Axis powers. Bohr knew not only of Germany's genocidal intent against European Jewry (his mother was Jewish) but he knew of Germany's strategy of massive bombing campaigns against civilian populations in order to demoralize the enemy. When one looks at the statistics, there really is no comparison: considering the civilian death toll of World War II, both Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan got off fairly lightly compared to the countries they invaded.

So, the question that bothers me each time I encounter the play is why is Copenhagen's Heisenberg allowed to draw such moral equivalencies in a situation where the contrast is so stark? Is it merely because the play was written for a British audience that is well aware of the constant bombings that British civilians endured during the War-- and are thus assumed not to accept such equivalencies? Is it because Bohr's own reasoning is deemed so obvious to the British audience that only Heisenberg's need be explored? Is it because it ties in with the play's guiding question of why Heisenberg visited Neils Bohr in his Copenhagen home in 1941? Is it because we, as the victors living in democratic societies, have the luxury of questioning ourselves? Or perhaps, more nefariously, Frayn's own reliance on David Irving's 1967 The Virus House for information on the German bomb program (Irving, rather infamously, has come to be known as a fraudulent historian, Holocaust denier, and Hitler-apologist)?

(I would be remiss not to mention the excellent Copenhagen blog by Flat Earth's dramaturg David Rogers, which explores many of the other themes of the play.)

Nota Bene: Art Hennessey reminded me that he raised similar questions about Frayn's moral and historical relativism during A.R.T.'s production in 2008, though while I noted Frayn's connections with David Irving, he notes Frayn's philosophical writings. I also clarified Bohr's own Nazi-era humanitarian work that Frayn doesn't discuss in the play.

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