ISBN 9781847922489. “Serving the Reich – the struggle for the soul of physics under Hitler” was published by Bodley Head in 2013. In “Serving the Reich” former Nature editor Philip Ball attempts the tricky task of teasing out the story of ‘Nazi Physics’ with focus on the scientists Max Planck, Peter Debye and Werner Heisenberg. What yields though is far more than a simple retelling of their biographies. Unfortunately these scientists prove only too human even if that is NOT what the author wishes you to conclude. You can’t help but empathise with people caught up in impossible circumstances. Which is the point. Has the author spun a tale lacking true objectivity – basing solely upon a narrow version of a victor’s history?
In 2007 the US House of Representatives Committee on Oversight and Government Reform offered these damning words about contemporary science and politics:
“…the Bush administration has engaged in a systematic effort to manipulate climate change science and mislead policymakers and the public about the dangers of global warming…”
Sadly Philip Ball choses only to add this sort of contemporary context in the last pages of the book – in the Epilogue. It is such explicit contemporary meddling in scientific affairs that drew me to this book in the first place. There could be much to conclude from the activities of Germany’s wartime physicists. However this book disappoints. Ball ends up adding very little than a deep and profound (if highly judgemental) ‘shrug’ to proceedings. This is no effort of revisionist history, Ball concludes that these scientists were neither monsters nor saints. What is missing though is a perspective comparing the actions of scientists under a totalitarian system versus a democratic one.
Late in the book the authors mentions work on nuclear weapons done by the Soviets under Stalin. But Ball shrugs-off any suggestion that there needs be moral equivalence between the Axis and the Allied efforts. He goes as far as suggesting that to draw up a list of similar crimes by the British and Americans was imply an attempt to “exonerate the Nazis”. I would strongly disagree. Ball chose to focus on just one nation – one culture – at war. His natural assumption (for it is well internalised – it is never discussed) is that the Nazis were evil because of Auschwitz – and that is that. Period. Any attempt to compare and contrast the German scientists to their counterparts in the USA is dismissed. Ball does not wish to discuss the idea that maybe, just maybe, science under the Nazis is really no different to science today… or the Allied science of wartime.
Hence this entire story is told in a judgemental fashion carrying all the arrogant baggage of a victor’s history. This is despite the fact that Ball is wise enough to make no rash judgements at any extreme. His is a measured wisdom in that he portrays the actions of such scientists as nothing more than foolish errors – not evil. They were reflecting the culture of inter-war Germany where they were
“…equating morality with individual autonomy of thought, not with external actions such as resisting political evil.”
As all humans are naturally trapped in the culture & times in which they are born this is tantamount to saying that scientists are human. They err like humans. They considered themselves patriots just as British scientists did. It is hard to imagine how the American scientists would have reacted under similar circumstances. It is far-fetched to believe that there was some utterly different culture to inter-war Germany that exempts these people from being on contact with their humanity.
Ball goes as far as suggesting that because scientists are the intellectual elite that they should have known about the death camps. This is a sweeping statement that ignores an inconvenient truth: even locals in the towns bordering the death camps didn’t know the nature of activities in the camps. The Americans were so incensed by the ignorance (intentional or otherwise) of the local population that they drove them in trucks and paraded them through the camps. There would be no room for doubt as to what crimes had been committed under their noses.
So, if Ball’s case [that there was something exceptional and borderline-immoral about German physics] lacks substance what about the Nazis themselves? If you thought the scientists themselves were nothing more than a bunch of old fuddy-duddy professors, wanting nothing better than to be left in peace to do their work, then the Nazis are portrayed as equally unexciting. In truth, if we are to believe Ball, the Nazi regime just wanted the scientists to go away and do useful stuff for Germany. There never was a “Nazi physics” that was taken seriously by the Nazi authorities. They never forced their physicists into particular avenues of research beyond the wartime necessities of armaments.
In fact the Nazis appeared relatively naïve – never really understanding the science in detail – they ended up just throwing money at it. Ball tells tales of thousands of German physicists withdrawn from frontline active duty in the armed forces to work on projects “essential to the war effort”. Most of these scientists did no such thing. Many pursued pure scientific knowledge with no particular application. If there was a “struggle for the soul of physics under Hitler” then the scientists won, Hitler lost.
Even the story of the Nazi atom bomb suggest a farce not a struggle. Most German scientists thought it couldn’t be built… but were happy to dangle the possibility in front of the German Generals to get funding for the latest toys. Even then there was no German Manhattan Project. Most efforts went into building a reactor. Much to their post-war chagrin the German physicists messed up their efforts to make a reactor by using heavy water as a moderator when pure graphite would have been better. Information released after the war by the Russians suggested that the Germans initiated more than one explosion using nuclear materials. However these appear to be nothing more than accidents with hydrogen. No doubt the Germans would/could have built a bomb eventually, but who is to say that they would have been bounded by any more ethics than the team that built the devices destined for Hiroshima and Nagasaki?
This is yet another point that Ball simply dismisses. The Germans made only a half-hearted attempt at a bomb where as the Americans not only built a bomb, they used it against innocent civilians. Post-war research now strongly suggests that the dropping of the bombs on Japan were merely a “demonstration” to ward off the threat from the Russians. It may have hastened surrender a little but it was highly unlikely that Japan would have been subject to a land war on its mainland. As such it is generally accepted that the Americans acted in an unnecessarily aggressive fashion. That is a war crime. We live with this fact. Is it too much to ask that someone of Ball’s intelligence and skills should not, at least, consider the morality of the team members on the Manhattan Project? In comparison the German theoretical physicists appear to play nothing more than a bit-part in the war.
So why has Ball shone a torch upon one of the most unenlightening episodes in history? Why theoretical physics? Germany under the Nazis committed many horrendous crimes with science. Much progress was made in many fields by using unwilling human guinea pigs from the death camps. If you sit in a comfy airline seat whilst flying over the Atlantic then you owe this to pressurisation experiments conducted under highly unethical circumstances for the Luftwaffe. The Allies agonised over what to do with this research after the war. There were other forms of Nazi science in the area of genetics which are equally notorious. In comparison there was little in the way of a “struggle” for the “soul” of German Physics under Hitler.
So, why attempt isolating such a narrow target? Considering how vast the crimes of Nazi Germany were it should be a ‘target-rich’ environment. Why focus on such a disappointing story? Obviously the potential to generate the atom bomb might have ‘spiced it up’ a bit! However, by their own admission (after the war) the German Physicists didn’t have clue how to build the bomb and believed it would takes years. The episode that was really noteworthy was the story of the pushing of “German Physics” as opposed to Jewish Physics. The former had no part in the story of the Nazi Regime but the ideology was conjured into existence by a few of the scientists themselves.
This job fell to Philip Lenard and Johannes Stark who saw themselves as the new Fuhrers of German Physics. Their concept of “Aryan physics” (Deutsche Physik) was ignored by the Nazi regime and the author speculates that it was entirely motivated by a wish to seek favour with the powers-that-be – albeit that it was fuelled by anti-Semitism. What made it rise from the murk of run-of-the-mill ignorant racism was that Stark & Lenard were Nobel Laureates. More importantly (for Ball)
“…the story explodes the comforting myth that science offers insulation against profound irrationality and extremism.”
These words find poignancy today in a world where science can be bought by the highest bidder. The highest bidder these days is big business… and few come bigger then big oil. Today you can get whatever truth you can afford. There are some pretty big egos out there who love the limelight – its as true today as it was in 1930s Germany. Lenard found Einstein’s Theory of Relativity hard to understand. Being an experimental physicist he concluded that the Physics derived from pure mathematics was suspect, it was different, it was “Jewish”. Hence it was nonsense to him. He labelled it a fraud.
The Nazis relationship to science was itself somewhat complicated as it blended elements of mysticism, “New Age” beliefs, anthroposophy and pseudoscience:
“Reified worship of nature (as opposed to respect for it) has always teetered on the brink of a fundamentally fascist ideology.”
..to which many an extreme, right-wing, anti-green has used as evidence of the obvious totalitarian nature of the environmental movement.
Through the 1920s and 1930s Einstein’s Theory of Relativity came under attack from the far-right in Germany. The attacks sometimes happened in debates such as one talk:
“…allegedly organised by the Working Group of German Scientists for the Preservation of Pure Science. There was in fact no such body, it having been concocted for the purpose by one Paul Weyland, a far-right fantasist without any real scientific training, who deplored Einstein’s theory on the sort of ‘common sense’ grounds that cranks still choose to employ today.”
How tragic that such little has changed. Fake grass root movements? Far-right fantasists attacking science they didn’t understand based upon “common sense”? It is all too eerily familiar to anyone following (what constitutes) “debate” about climate change in some quarters. It was Einstein’s turn in the 1930s where it is Michael Mann’s turn today. Same tactics employed by the same usual suspects. Cranks and loons with axes to grind. In Nazi Germany the lunatics had taken over the asylum but most Nazis regarded the science cranks as, well, cranks – since they were not useful to the regime. Cranks don’t make bombs. Smart scientists do. The Nazis were pragmatic people after-all.
Still, for a while the anti-semites in German physics were in the ascendant and it briefly earned them the prestige they yearned for.The 1930s were a turbulent time with the Jews suffering endless purges from public office and the Universities. Stark and Lenard proved to be quite isolated. They alienated the faculties under them. The non-Jewish scientists were not happy with the purges as they were losing worthy colleagues. Appeals were made directly to Hitler to make some exceptions – all to no avail. That is what it is to live in a totalitarian regime. The Deutsche Physik enjoyed little support amongst the academics and died a quiet death. Ball concludes
“One might have expected the National Socialists to embrace a view of physics that discredited the Jews, but they were not quite as foolish as that. Physics under the Nazis was never really hijacked by the ideology, for the political leaders were primarily interested in practical outcomes and not academic disputes.”
The Jewish science promised the Nazis the bomb. That was all that mattered. Few of the other subjects in Ball’s book seemed anything other than slightly naïve gentlemen with an utter disinterest in politics. It is relatively easy (with hindsight) to condemn their lack of action to save their Jewish colleagues but Ball’s work shows just how incredibly complicated the real story was. There were no cartoon good guys and bad guys. Some of the most heinous Nazis occasionally betrayed a more empathetic side whilst even the most apolitical of scientists could be caught signing a letter “Hiel Hitler” (it was the “done thing” apparently at the time). Tolerating the expulsion of the Jews never meant that their colleagues were happy or pro-Nazi. They felt powerless. Indeed, most would feel endangered. Only a remarkable few took a stand at considerable person risk.
What was true for German Physics was true for Germany. At wars end the Allies’ de-nazification process fell into disarray as it proved so hard to prove personal culpability. Supporting your country’s role in a war was merely an act of patriotism – and few remain not-guilty on that count. Germans felt they had been loyal to their fatherland not their government. It fell to outsiders to question the distinction. Many who did not resist the Nazis re-invented their stories after the war. They re-interpreted minor points of disagreement, or other failings, as if they were deliberate acts of defiance. In this they proved themselves all too… HUMAN. These people felt the same yearning for dignity & self-respect as their colleagues over-seas. They were concerned with their honour & their reputation in the eyes of their peers. All too human frailties.
Ball is quick to judge rather than conclude that “it is what it is”. Life is hard. Life isn’t fair. Ball wants so much for it to make sense. He feels compelled to justify his belief that people should somehow behave in a way that would meet post-war approval. He gets well under the skin of what made these scientists tick and then seems to utterly disregard the cultural-straightjackets these men and women wore. It is hard to see why there is such a gap between his understanding for their dilemma and his lack of understanding of the outcome. Yes – some of the post-war claims by these men were absurd. But humanity is absurd. War is absurd. People are not machines.
Philip Ball has delivered a dense and sophisticated work about a difficult and complicated topic. He has negotiated a minefield of modern Western cultural expectation in an attempt to give a fair trial to German physics from between the wars. However his objectivity fades through the book and he betrays himself as being unable to consider moral equivalence between the Germans and the Allies. Somehow, he reasons, these Germans under the Nazis just HAD to be different. Somehow. Unfortunately there is no strong evidence in his work to suggest that their behaviour was anything other than completely normal given who they were, where they were and when they were.
It is easy to wrap up the Nazi nightmare into a neat bundle marked “evil” and kick it around. Ball does prove himself able to go beyond the stereotypes but his work ends in cliché. This seems such a disappointment because this is a story that deserves to be told. So many scientists did appalling things during the war. We live in a world where we take their work for granted and prefer to not know how the research was done. Maybe if the Allies had not won the war then Philip may well have been writing a book about the evils of the men behind the Manhattan Projects. But he seems unable to see it any other way.