Saturday, 13 September 2014

SERVING THE REICH: The Struggle for the Soul of Physics Under Hitler by PHILIP BALL

SERVING THE REICH: The Struggle for the Soul of Physics Under Hitler
Vintage, 2014, 320 pages, $19.99 (pb)

Review by Phil Shannon

Nuclear physicists in Nazi Germany did not build an atomic bomb but, as the science writer, Philip Ball, shows in Serving the Reich, this was more by good fortune than by clever (mis)management by the likes of one of the regime’s favourite scientists, Werner Heisenberg, whose reputation-salvaging claim to have deliberately ‘falsified the mathematics’ to sabotage Hitler’s nuclear war option has been roundly discredited.

Such self-exoneration, says Ball, was common to almost an entire cohort of non-Jewish German physicists who, although rarely Nazi sympathisers or anti-Semites, colluded with the Nazi regime’s military ambitions and racial ‘cleansing’ policies.

The physicists either carried out the required dismissals of their Jewish colleagues, did not resign their academic posts or emigrate in protest, or self-interestedly welcomed the career advancement opportunities suddenly opened up by the purge of Jewish physicists.  Expressions of dismay were voiced privately not publicly whilst disapproval of Nazism was at best symbolic – Professor Max von Laue, Einstein’s friend, never went outdoors without a parcel under each arm to avoid having to give the obligatory, raised-arm ‘Heil Hitler’ salute.

The over-riding motive for the physicists’ “lethal indifference” was to maintain the intellectual status of German science and the best way to do this, they reasoned, was by protecting themselves from the Gestapo’s gaze.  Their social position and consciousness, however, also predisposed them to collaboration, however reluctant.  Intensely patriotic, they were privileged members of a conservative intellectual elite that was often “favourably disposed towards some elements of a totalitarian state”.  They believed that their first duty was obedience to the German state, including a genocidal, warring Nazi one.  The law was the law, reasoned the physicists’’ intellectual and institutional leader, Max Planck, and if respectful petitioning through official channels proved inadequate then there was nothing to be done.

The physicists were, writes Ball, “more tragic than despicable” in seriously misapprehending, or selectively denying, the true nature of Nazism but some were also compromised by mixed attitudes to fascism, like Heisenberg who believed that, over time, ‘the splendid things will separate from the hateful’.

Whilst it is understandable that fear of reprisal made a heads-down silence attractive, what is ultimately damning about the physicists’ behaviour was their “almost universal inability … to acknowledge, or even recognise, their failures in retrospect” when the concentration camp no longer threatened.

As electronic bugging of their conversations, when prisoners in England after the war, revealed, there was an almost total lack of remorse or moral self-examination.  Some even took the perverse moral high ground by arguing that the ‘democratic’ Allies actually built and used a nuclear bomb but totalitarian Germany did not.  This ignores the main reasons for the Nazis’ nuclear tardiness – the purge of Jewish physics talent (one quarter of the profession) which seriously depleted the relevant skills base, and the Nazi rulers opting for their V1 and V2 rocket program as more technically feasible than atomic bombs in a fast-narrowing timeframe.

Nazi Germany, says Ball, exposed the ‘apolitical’ stance of the German physicists as a delusion.  It prevented them from criticising their governmental paymasters and turned their retreat to ‘pure’ science into de facto professional support for the regime’s political program.  Their failure to see that science can not be “morally neutral” resulted in their political failure to resist Nazism.

The social and political implications of scientific research are inescapable, says Ball, not just in the specialist field of nuclear physics, with its still deadly applications of nuclear energy and weapons, but equally as much, concludes Ball, in contemporary, and potentially calamitous, technologies such as genetically modified crops, nano-technology, fossil fuels and all things military.  Contemporary scientists supporting such research may care to reflect on the damage done to society by Hitler’s physicists who tried, and failed, to remain ‘above’ politics.

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