Distillations magazine

Unexpected Stories from Science’s Past
December 17, 2015

Magical Thinking

What happened to physics in Nazi Germany?


Philip Ball. Serving the Reich: The Struggle for the Soul of Physics under Hitler. University of Chicago Press, 2014. 320 pp. $30.

In Serving the Reich, Philip Ball tells the sad story of theoretical physics in Germany during the period from 1919 to 1945. It would be comforting to claim that this tale needn’t have unfolded as it did, but Ball demonstrates convincingly that it was a fate foretold.

The first ingredients were an ingrained hierarchy in which university professors were civil servants expected to look up to and obey their political superiors; a defeat in a long, brutal war; and a peace treaty that held Germany solely responsible for the war and placed onerous financial reparations on it. This unholy trinity resulted in a nation with many shamed and angry citizens in search of a leader who would not fail them, as had the kaiser, his ministers, and his generals.

Next came a volatile political atmosphere in which an unstable government attempted to control the actions of extremist groups on the far left and far right. A growing desire for order and stability made the rise of a strongman all but inevitable. It was Germany’s misfortune that the strongman happened to be Adolf Hitler—a product of the far right and a war veteran who took Germany’s defeat as a personal affront.

At the same time, physics itself was undergoing revolutionary change. New insights polarized parts of the physics community, allowing the nation’s political turmoil to seep into the scientific debate. One popular explanation for Germany’s defeat was the “stab-in-the-back” theory, in which the country was betrayed by socialists; many socialists were Jewish, and so Jews had stabbed German fighting men in the back. Einstein and other leading theorists of the new view of physics were Jewish; ergo they were trying to stab German science in the back. Ball points out that a certain amount of this purge mentality was generated by intellectual envy or simple career opportunism, which made it very easy for physicists who felt passed over to jump on the nationalist bandwagon.

With relativity and quantum physics under attack, the blood-and-soil nationalists put forth their own version of physics—Deutsche Physik—which would insist on the necessity for solid experimentalism over pi-in-the-sky theorizing. This doesn’t sound like the worst position to hold—especially if you ignore the swipes at so-called Jewish science and include the fact that two of the Deutsche Physik ringleaders were the Nobel laureate physicists Philipp Lenard and Johannes Stark.

With Hitler newly in control the interior minister, Wilhelm Frick, put fresh emphasis on the need of the sciences to serve the state by making products of material value. In a speech given in June 1933 Frick said, “With all respect for the freedom of science, let us postulate that service to science must be service to the nation and that scientific achievements are worthless when they cannot be utilized for the culture of the people.” In other words, there was little value in understanding how things work, so even though the Deutsche Physik group could rejoice that Einstein and his cronies were departing the Reich, they too found themselves overlooked and ignored by a government that placed much more importance on chemistry and engineering than on theory-spinning physics.

But theory has its place. Nuclear fission, with its promise of awesome power to the possessors of its secret, brought theoretical physics back into the game. While the Deutsche Physik academics puttered about with “cosmic ice” (ice as the basic ingredient of the universe) and other mysticism-inspired miracle weapons, Nobel laureate physicist Werner Heisenberg and his colleagues held out the promise of a weapon that would win the war. As early as September 16, 1939, Heisenberg wrote a report to Army Ordinance on fission and in a follow-up memo pointed out that fissile material could become a powerful explosive force. By this time many of the top theoreticians had been driven from Germany, and many were now living and working in the United States, which was soon to develop its own ideas about atomic power.

In later years Heisenberg would claim that he and his group never intended to deliver a bomb to Hitler. They were more interested in constructing a working nuclear reactor. Others would insist that Heisenberg’s team simply didn’t have the know-how, and military historians would probably point out that Royal Air Force and Norwegian Resistance attacks on Norway’s facilities for producing the all-important heavy water played their part in Germany’s failure. Even in defeat a certain residual chauvinism remained, with Heisenberg initially unwilling to accept that the American team could have been so far ahead of his German colleagues.

A good deal of Serving the Reich concerns the notion of accommodation. Many of the senior men of German science were hardly fervent supporters of Hitler, yet they felt that Hitler was a given who must be dealt with. They twisted and turned, trying to cut a corner here, save a colleague’s job there—but outright defiance wasn’t an option, even for Ftritz Haber who, as a Jew, a Nobel laureate, and a hero of World War I, might have been the logical choice to question Hitler’s program.

Hitler’s personal tastes were distinctly middlebrow, and his taste in art followed suit. Although he himself was a passable landscape artist of the “souvenir of Old Vienna” variety, he hated all forms of modernism, admiring instead such artists as Franz von Stuck and Hans Makart, with their overblown historicism and tasteful eroticism. In questioning how and why the Nazis could mount political objections to a scientific theory, Ball writes, “It was one thing to say that art was decadent—that its elitist abstraction or lurid imagery would lead people astray.” But is it really such a jump? I would suggest to Ball that it is all one. The failure of all too many extreme authoritarians—in literature, in the arts, in politics—lies in their unshakable conviction that they and they alone are right. They live in a black-and-white world in which it is not acceptable to enjoy both Kurt Weill and Richard Wagner. You must take sides. You must choose—and if you choose wrongly, you must be condemned.

Franklin Roosevelt had the good fortune to be surrounded by men like Vannevar Bush and Robert Oppenheimer, who could deal with facts as facts, as opposed to Hitler’s Stark and Lenard, who assigned political and racial faces to them.

The sad takeaway from Serving the Reich is that Germany’s physics establishment committed suicide early on by driving away its best and brightest practitioners because of who they were. To be sure there were good and even great physicists who remained, but they were outnumbered by the ones who fled before the Nazis. In short, Hitler’s Germany was like a sports team in “rebuilding mode” that traded away all its star players to obtain prospects—prospects who proved unable to achieve their goal—or, if you choose to believe Heisenberg, were brilliantly successful at sabotaging that stated goal from the inside.

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