Nazism and the science of survival
EDUCATION lays a veneer over our emotions, but it is disconcertingly thin. Perhaps the most powerful of those emotions — or drives — is survival: few of us are heroes in dangerous circumstances and, without question, life was dangerous for many during Hitler’s Reich (especially for thinkers, “dissidents” and “outsiders”, and one could be all three at once).
It is not easy for Australians, when few of us are in any danger on account of our religion, nationality, our intellectual and artistic activity or simply our opinions, to appreciate the menace of that time. So there is no place for smugness when thinking about it, or for the delusion that we should expect greater courage from educated and professional people: in general, academics are a pretty timid lot.
Even worse, in Germany, where they were overwhelmingly drawn from the upper-middle classes and the social elites, university people felt the “injustice” of the Versailles Treaty deeply, had suffered badly from the Weimar-era inflation and tended to agree with the principal thrust of Hitler’s policies even while claiming to recoil from some of his supporters’ violence.
Thus, while striving to be fair, we should not err so much as to exculpate the German nation — who mostly knew all too well the kernel of what was happening — while being realistic about the little that could be achieved when one is confronted by a loaded gun. This moral ambiguity — and putting ourselves into that picture to speculate on our own responses — is the essence of the reason for the enduring fascination with that evil era.
There have been many books about it and several have focused on the activities of scientists. So what justifies another one? Books go out of print, of course, and some (such as Robert Jungk’s Brighter Than a Thousand Suns, in English in 1958) are too unbalanced in their support of German scientists to be taken seriously these days. Sometimes significant new documents are rediscovered, and certainly that is what stimu- lates Philip Ball in Serving the Reich: The Struggle for the Soul of Physics Under Hitler. Thus he deals with the extended recent controversy about the motives and the integrity of Peter Debye who won the Nobel prize in 1936 for his important work on the electro-chemical interactions of elements and molecules. In Scientists under Hitler (1977), Alan Beyerchen had little more to say of him than that he “was forced to leave Germany”, though it is now clear that no principle was involved and that more needed to be written than that trivial comment, even if Ball seems to let him off rather lightly.
Debye really left (as he admitted to Albert Einstein) because, to remain as director of the important Kaiser Wilhelm Institute of Physics in Berlin, he would be compelled to surrender his Dutch citizenship and become a German. An FBI report noted Einstein’s view that he “would not accept things that Debye says as a man as necessarily being true”. Furthermore, Debye lied to the FBI in a citizenship application and, as Ball concedes, had not renounced Germany for good but, indeed, would have been prepared to return to the institute if Hitler had won the war.
Was he a Nazi sympathiser? Probably not. Or a collaborator? Almost certainly. As president of the German Physics Society he complied with the policy of the regime to request all Jewish members to resign. Like so many scientists, he seemed to believe that this was not acting “politically”, simply in the interests of physics, specifically German physics. Even the great Max Planck (another Nobel laureate and president of the powerful Kaiser Wilhelm Scientific Society) had failed to show courage in a meeting with Hitler and capitulated morally and personally. By his own account, he had told the Fuehrer there were “all kinds of Jews, some valuable for mankind and others worthless ... it would be self-mutilation to make valuable Jews emigrate since we need their scientific work”. When Hitler threw a tantrum, Planck said, “I had no choice but to fall silent and leave.”
Such a misplaced, even craven, loyalty to their science was not simply political; it was also clearly racist because — under the impulse of truly Nazi scientists such as 1905 Nobel laureate Philipp Lenard and the rebarbative Johannes Stark or the appalling ideologue Bernhard Rust, Hitler’s minister for science — there was a strong movement to promote “Nordic” or “Aryan” physics and mathematics (the pernicious notion of culture-specific mathematics has recently had an airing in Australia, too).
The renowned Werner Heisenberg (also a Nobel winner) was never part of those movements, but his own moral position was forever dubious: he was ambitious and ethically flexible and could never be believed about what preparations Germany did (or could) make for atomic weapons. After the war, he blatantly attempted to rewrite his own history as well as that of German nuclear physics, even suggesting that (out of moral concern about the intense power of those weapons), German scientists had deliberately delayed their research. It was all false.
And that is the real moral issue. Opportunistic behaviour after 1933 so the scientists and their families might survive was one thing; lying or obfuscating after 1945 — to avoid a war trial or to secure a future academic position — was another issue entirely. The secret tape-recordings of captured German scientists that were made at Farm Hall in Britain tellingly revealed their mendacious perversity.
Of course, as the cliche asserts, history is written by the victors. They conduct the war trials, too. Had the outcome of World War II been different, the participants in the Manhattan Project might have been on trial instead, and their defence might have paralleled the Germans’ pleas. Was Hamlet perhaps correct when he said, “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so”?
Though Ball’s narrative is at times tortuous — in telling his story as themes he is apt to be repetitive and less clear than Beyerchen and John Cornwell ( Hitler’s Scientists, 2003) — and though he lets Heisenberg off too easily, I believe, he nevertheless makes the ethical conundrums and dilemmas very clear. They are questions that everyone — not simply scientists, politicians, teachers — must still confront.
Nazi leaders Joseph
Goebbels, Rudolf Hess, Adolf Hitler and