Nazism and the sci­ence of sur­vival

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

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

Hein­rich Himm­ler

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