anti-Semitism, atomic bomb, Berlin, book review, flat characters, General Leslie Groves, historical fiction, Holocaust, Jan Eliasberg, Kaiser Wilhelm Institute, Lise Meitner, Los Alamos, Manhattan Project, nuclear fission, physics, thriller, World War II
Review: Hannah’s War, by Jan Eliasberg
Little, Brown, 2020. 301 pp. $17
In April 1945, U.S. intelligence has uncovered a security leak at Los Alamos, New Mexico, where the Manhattan Project is building the atomic bomb. Suspicion falls most heavily on the scientists who’ve circulated a petition demanding ethical constraints on the weapon they’ve worked to invent, whose destructive power remains theoretical. What’s more, one signatory has just sent a telegram to her German counterparts in Europe, presumably to convey military secrets.
Said scientist, the only woman at Los Alamos with a high security clearance, is Dr. Hannah Weiss, an Austrian-Jewish physicist. She’s beautiful, brilliant, and tough to corner, a job that falls to Jack Delaney, superspy and seasoned interrogator. He has seventy-two hours to find out what, if anything, Hannah has told her friends in Germany.
Eliasberg tells this story in two narratives. With the Los Alamos story, she seamlessly integrates Hannah’s prewar work at the prestigious Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in Berlin, where, despite her exceptional gifts, she’s consigned to a basement laboratory, her findings ignored. “Jewish science” can possess no truth in Nazi Germany. Eliasberg says that she has based Hannah on Lise Meitner, who received no credit for discovering nuclear fission, because Otto Hahn, with whom she had worked closely, left her name off the paper they published in 1939 so that their research would be taken seriously. Further, at his Nobel address in 1944, he conveniently omitted mentioning her. That in itself is a story, and though the novel follows a different path from her actual life, the Berlin narrative raises similar historical issues and derives tension from them.
Unfortunately, the Los Alamos sections don’t measure up. To be fair, Eliasberg, a screenwriter, keeps the pages turning rapidly throughout, and her dialog punches hard. When Jack and Hannah square off, the verbal jousting sets off sparks. Better yet, the cat-and-mouse contest does more than furnish the necessities of thrillerdom; the interrogation covers questions of science and morality, the power of life and death, responsibility to individuals versus society at large. I also believe the re-creation of Los Alamos, with its hard partying, personal rivalries, and the tension and desperation of discovery with the world’s future at stake.
But I don’t accept the premise. They’re too quick in Los Alamos to slap handcuffs on Hannah and string her up, the stated justification for which runs as follows: Why would a Jewish refugee collaborate with the enemy? Because she must have slept with that enemy. I’m sure such sexist, anti-Semitic logic had its followers; General Leslie Groves, who commanded the Los Alamos installation, was a nasty piece of work, bigoted and ambitious, as the author portrays him here. But that army or intelligence brass would rush to try Hannah before a military tribunal, threatening to hang her before you can say, “Albert Einstein,” stretches credulity. They would certainly have done more to figure out which secrets she’d passed, and what they were worth.
Are her friends working for Germany or the Soviets? The narrative waffles, and faced with that vagueness, the American spymasters plan to kill off famous German scientists right and left, a hasty, perplexing verdict. It’s also puzzling how, even in April 1945, everyone assumes the European conflict will go on forever, ignoring how Germany was in its last gasps.
In reality, battles still took place, but the Reich posed a greater threat to its citizens judged defeatist than its foreign enemies, and was certainly in no condition to develop or deliver an atomic weapon. Yet, somehow, the Los Alamos scientists greet the news of Germany’s collapse as a surprise.
With the exception of Groves, the army and intelligence characters feel flat, and the way they strut and shout gives the impression that they’re trying not to admit how empty and wrongheaded they are. Even Jack, who receives more authorial care, strikes me as a stock character, the rough, tough guy with the usual manly trappings, who needs the right woman to let him be vulnerable. His role in the novel’s resolution, a clumsy, predictable section, wraps the story briskly but, like the rest of the Los Alamos plot, remains forgettable.
Compare that to the Berlin narrative. As before, surprises and twists abound, but the people seem natural, deeper, more complex. Special kudos to Eliasberg for creating characters whose Jewishness feels real, not a matter of convenience, as evidence of which they spend time and effort trying to practice their faith and cope with anti-Semitic decrees. But the non-Jewish scientists who believe they have their handlers by the tail, only to find out the opposite, make an impression too. As a result, the tension feels higher here than in the other narrative, even though the bomb hasn’t been built yet, and the threats against Hannah are only potential.
Given all that, would the Lise Meitner/Hannah Weiss narrative have made a thriller by itself? It’s a great story, that’s for sure, the gripping part of Hannah’s War.
Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the publisher via an independent publicist, in return for an honest review.