Scraping off the Whitewash

By Patricia FaraMarch 30, 2014

Serving the Reich by Philip Ball

IF IT HAD not been for Adolf Hitler, I would not exist — and nor would countless other people scattered around the globe. Although my personal story is unique, it also typifies the extraordinary encounters and opportunities generated by the Second World War. My grandfather, an eminent left-leaning Jewish lawyer, emigrated to Britain from Germany in 1933 with his small son, who later served in the British Army in India. There he met and married my mother, the daughter of an uneducated Midlands factory worker. Like many other baby-boomer children growing up in postwar Britain, I lacked any clear national, religious or social identity. I was puzzled about my allegiances. What if my story had been otherwise?  Suppose I had been born an Aryan in Nazi Germany: would I have had the courage to speak out, to take positive action, or would my instincts of self-preservation have persuaded me to keep quiet and go along with my own country’s official policies?

As Philip Ball observes in his challenging and thought-provoking new book, Serving the Reich: The Struggle for the Soul of Physics under Hitler, moral decisions are rarely black and white, but entail choosing between categories whose moral valence is ambiguous. Ball investigates the dilemmas physicists faced in Nazi Germany, focusing in particular on three men: the elder statesman of science Max Planck, most famous now for the constant named after him (even though he had introduced it as a mathematical convenience); the originator of the uncertainty principle, Werner Heisenberg; and the Dutch-born Peter Debye, a molecular physicist — less famous than the other two, but a Nobel prize-winner none the less.

One of Britain’s top science popularisers, Ball is ideally suited to explaining the niceties of what two Nobel laureates denigrated as “Jewish physics” (notably relativity and quantum mechanics). This said,  the only mathematical symbol in his book is X for X-rays. Even e=mc2 is absent. He does explain the science behind the bomb, but his focus here is on the political crucibles in which modern scientific Europe was forged. This means that, rather than discussing the intrinsic unknowables of fuzzy electron clouds or cats in cages, he analyses the interpretive uncertainties that stem from ambiguous phrases and faulty memories, from unspoken codes of behavior and personal loyalties, from conflicting misapprehensions and deliberate rumors.

To what extent should German scientists be castigated for trying to support their country and protect their families? Should they be condemned as Nazi colluders or pitied as fallible human beings who realized too late that a series of apparently inconsequential steps had led them ineluctably into culpability? Should scientists enjoy special consideration because they are disinterested searchers after truth, or should they be regarded as ordinary citizens who deserve to carry full responsibility for the political outcomes of their research? If such questions have ever troubled you, then you will find Ball’s book an excellent guide through the ethical quagmires. And if you’ve never worried about those topics before, then it’s even more important that you should read this lucid, balanced account of an apparently civilized nation’s slide into depravity. How confident can you be that your country would have the foresight and courage to forestall anything similar? After all, in 1936, the American Rockefeller Foundation sent over a substantial grant to fund German physics.

The murky confusion Ball describes so eloquently reminded me of the old joke about the man who asks the way to the station. “Ah,” comes the reply (from an Irishman if you live in England, but there must be many local variations), “if I were you I wouldn’t start from here.” But so often you never imagined you could possibly get to “here” in the first place. During the journey from a bearable inconvenience towards an intolerable nightmare, it can be difficult to distinguish any one particular point at which to jump off the track. Take the case of Victor Klemperer, the Jewish literary academic who had long ago converted to Protestantism. In his harrowing war diaries, Klemperer describes without self-pity how the Nazi regime gradually restricted his life in almost imperceptible stages. Day by day, what had started out as relatively minor irritations — losing his typewriter, not being allowed to drive — escalated into increasingly mindless acts of ill-treatment. It was not until 1945, on the night before the bombing of Dresden, that he finally decided to tear off his yellow star and leave the country. 

Reciprocally, many Aryan scientists committed themselves proudly to the cause of German science, not appreciating until it was too late that they were being slowly corralled into a morally untenable position, one they would never have dreamt of contemplating in advance. Even the Jewish physicist Lise Meitner initially contemplated Hitler’s rise to power with equanimity, reporting that he had spoken “very moderately, tactfully and personally.” Like many other Germans, her research collaborator Otto Hahn welcomed Hitler as the strong leader the country needed, accepting at face value explanations that the Jews who had been imprisoned were Communist agitators.

Physics was especially badly hit by the National Socialists’ decree in April 1933 that all Jewish civil servants, including university academics, should be “placed in retirement” — management speak for fired. A relatively new discipline, it had previously been less badly affected by long-standing anti-Semitic prejudices, so that a quarter of the nation’s physicists were officially deemed to be non-Aryan. As president of the Kaiser Wilhelm Society (KWG), Planck paid a customary visit to the new head of state, using the opportunity to remonstrate with Hitler about his treatment of Jews. In the absence of any definitive records, nobody knows exactly what happened, although rumors abound — that Hitler threatened Planck with deportation to a concentration camp, or that Planck drew a distinction between valuable and worthless Jews. Whatever passed between them, the upshot was that Planck agreed to keep quiet in return for extra state funding. His detractors accuse him of complacency, of safeguarding his own position by selling out to Nazi oppressors, but Planck was far from alone in putting pragmatism above ideals. His loyalties lay with German science, so it seemed preferable to lie low and accept assurances that persecution would not intensify. Yet although his motives may be understandable, his actions had the same consequences as if he had endorsed Jewish oppression.

Time after time, men in positions of responsibility decided to compromise in the interests not merely of their own careers, but also for the sake of German science. At a public ceremony in 1934, Planck’s audience watched in tense anticipation to see if he would follow the latest diktat and raise his hand in a “Heil Hitler” salute. It was only on the third attempt that he managed to do it. As the crystallographer Paul Ewald (who was officially categorized as “quarter-Jewish”) put it, “Looking back, it was the only thing you could do if you didn’t want to jeopardize the whole KWG.” Citing similar justification, Debye sent out a letter to his colleagues that ended “Heil Hitler!” and asked all Jewish members to resign.

But taking the easy route is very different from active persecution. Ball identifies the dangers of critical hindsight: “If we are to pass judgement, it must be on the moral failings of this capitulation to fate rather than with shrill accusations of anti-Semitism or collaboration.” The steps Debye took to preserve his institute may seem distasteful, but he certainly did not condone Hitler’s policies — indeed, it was thanks to his initiative that Meitner managed to flee in the nick of time. In retrospect, the criterion of honorable behavior might seem to be having actively attempted to overthrow the Nazi regime, but that would mean celebrating people who at the time were condemned as traitors: spies. Paul Rosbaud, for instance, loathed National Socialism so intensely that he worked for British intelligence by infiltrating the German army’s upper echelons and passing over military secrets. Not everybody would agree that such betrayal of his own country was commendable. 

Under Ball’s discerning gaze, many scientists emerge from the shadows not as villains but as moral cowards who blustered arrogantly to conceal their lack of influence. He is not, however, willing to exonerate the guilty. Ball systematically picks apart the convenient postwar myth that, in contrast with their evil American counterparts, German physicists were valiantly obstructing the construction of an atomic bomb by deceiving colleagues and governments alike. In particular, he examines in forensic detail the case against Heisenberg, exposing the inconsistencies in his stories and analyzing why so many people have chosen to ignore the slipperiness of his behavior. Fresh evidence appeared 20 years ago: secret recordings were at last released of conversations between German scientists incarcerated in Farm Hall, a remote English manor house, in 1945. Unaware that the rooms were bugged, they bickered amongst themselves, fretting at the injustice of being held captive and casting blame elsewhere. Their own words undermine their subsequent attempts to massage the truth. Falsely accusing the Danish Neils Bohr of having helped the Americans, one of them boasted “I thought I would try and save German physics and German physicists, and in that I succeeded.” Such deluded self-aggrandizement enabled former Party supporters to salve their consciences and resume their scientific careers after the War by collecting their Persilscheine — whitewash certificates.

Ball’s own moral compass points towards the future, not the past, and his arguments are rational as well as passionate. To protect themselves against ever again being manipulated by a corrupt regime, scientists must accept that they are political agents. As illustrated by just two obvious current examples, genetic engineering and nanotechnology, the pursuit of knowledge involves ethical decisions. Doing research entails learning how to play the game of fundraising — and that renders meaningless any attempt to claim intellectual purity or superiority, and thus evade responsibility. By spotlighting the dirt in the soul of Nazi physics, Ball aspires to cleanse our own scientific future. 


Patricia Fara is the Senior Tutor of Clare Cambridge, Cambridge. Her books include Science: A Four Thousand Year History (Oxford University Press, 2009).

LARB Contributor

Patricia Fara is the Senior Tutor of Clare Cambridge, Cambridge. Her books include Science: A Four Thousand Year History (Oxford University Press, 2009).


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