Michael Frayn's
in Debate
Historical Essays and Documents
On the 1941 Meeting Between Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg
Copenhagen in Debate cover image

Published August 2005

Office for History of Science and Technology

University of California, Berkeley

195 pp.
ISBN 0-9672617-2-4
Price: $12.00

Contact OHST.
Edited by Matthias Dörries
Berkeley Papers in History of Science, Vol. 20


In 1941, two of the world's leading scientists met in Nazi-occupied Denmark. They were old friends, a mentor and his brilliant former protégé, and together they had changed the world of physics. But one was German and a leading figure in Hitler's nuclear fission program. The other was Danish, half-Jewish, and a statesman in the global physics community. The meeting between Werner Heisenberg and Niels Bohr broke off in embarrassment and strained their relationship for the rest of their lives. What was said - what exactly happened that night - has been fiercely debated ever since.

Michael Frayn's Tony Award-winning drama Copenhagen takes the controversial encounter to the stage. Was Heisenberg trying to forestall the development of nuclear weapons? Carrying out atomic espionage? Or just clumsily seeking personal rapprochement across a political chasm? Frayn's characters play through the different interpretations and find that their understandings, like quantum mechanics itself, are rooted in uncertainty. Michael Frayn illuminates the complexities of self-knowledge, memory, and the very possibility of recapturing the past.

The production of Copenhagen stirred up a vigorous exchange between the playwright and historians of science. In 2002, the publicity prompted Bohr's family to release previously unavailable documents pertaining to the infamous conversation. In light of the new information, historians were forced to examine the incident yet again.

Michael Frayn's Copenhagen in Debate collects essays specially written by leading historians in reaction to the play and the new documents. They debate Frayn's depiction, shed light on the mystery at its center, and reflect on the relation between history and drama.

What conclusions can be drawn from Copenhagen? That is for the reader to decide. By special arrangement with the Niels Bohr Archive in Copenhagen, Bohr's now-famous documents are reproduced in this volume.


Michael Frayn's Copenhagen in Debate contains twelve essays written by historians in response to the production of Copenhagen, each of them extended by the author after the release of the Bohr documents in 2002. The Bohr documents are included at the end of the volume, introduced by comments by Finn Aaserud, Director of the Niels Bohr Archive, and complete with facsimiles, transcriptions, and English translations.

Additional resources

Michael Frayn's Copenhagen in Debate: Online bibliography

Niels Bohr Archive

Werner Heisenberg ad personam

PBS Hollywood Presents: Copenhagen

BBC Four Drama - Copenhagen: The Play

Symposia on Copenhagen.

German-language versions of Frayn's play and the essays in this volume are available from the Wallstein Verlag.