"Serving the Reich: The Struggle for the Soul of Physics under Hitler by Philip Ball – review"
The Nobel Prizewinners and the Nazis: were Heisenberg et al tacit collaborators?
November 6th, 2013
Many scientists see themselves as disinterested pursuers of knowledge, working above politics, cultural whim and intellectual fashion. Yet the public is not always ready to accept this. Despite decades of well-intended initiatives that aim to help scientists "engage" with non-specialists, there remains a deep-seated mistrust of their activities and sometimes even of their results, especially when the findings are ideologically or commercially unpalatable.
Brian Cox's most recent TV series Science Britannica appeared in part to be a thinly disguised plea to his fellow Britons to get behind their boffins. Although science is an international pursuit, Cox celebrated it Britocentrically, aiming to win support for financially hard-pressed scientific researchers in the UK. The message seemed to be: trust me, scientists won't hurt you – just give us all the dosh we ask for, and let us get on with our work. We'll deliver, just as we have before.
It would be interesting to see a German version of Science Britannica. Germany has made colossal contributions to science but it would be hard to argue that, when Hitler came to power, all its scientists were above politics. The behaviour of its physicists and chemists is a source of enduring fascination because the discovery of nuclear fission in the German capital on the eve of the second world war could have resulted in handing the world's first nuclear weapons to Hitler.
The story of physicists under Hitler has been studied frequently and in great depth, though no account has aimed to be quite as comprehensive as this one by Philip Ball, a writer of exceptional versatility and productivity. He discusses the cases of the most prominent physicists, concentrating on three Nobel laureates: Max Planck, discoverer of the concept of energy quanta and doyen of German physics in the 1930s and for decades before; Werner Heisenberg, a pre-eminent theoretician in the 1920s and 30s, having been the first to set out a quantum theory of matter; and Peter Debye, a Dutchman whose work on the electrical forces at the heart of matter earned him the sobriquet "master of the molecule".
It is brave of Ball to focus on this trio, as two of them have already been the subjects of well-known works that have helped to shape our understanding of physicists under the Reich. Planck is considered in the masterly Dilemmas of an Upright Man by the distinguished historian John Heilbron, who shows us how a thoroughly decent patriot struggled to deal with a government of appalling depravity. The case of Heisenberg has been much more widely debated, especially in the wake of Michael Frayn's brilliant play Copenhagen. This turned the spotlight on the meetings between Heisenberg and his Danish friend Niels Bohr, another leading physicist. The cocky Heisenberg, who was based in Germany, talked with Bohr in occupied Copenhagen about the possibility of harnessing nuclear energy, though the details of their conversations are clouded with uncertainties.
Peter Debye is the focus of most of Ball's new material. For many years after the war, it was commonly accepted that Debye was a pragmatist and not a political animal, that he disliked the Nazis and left Germany when they made it impossible for him to continue his work in peace. He left his post as director of the physics section of Berlin's Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in 1940, when he emigrated to the US where he accepted a post at Cornell University that he held until his death in 1966. Forty years later, a Dutch journalist cast doubt on Debye's reputation, suggesting that he had colluded with the Nazis. The accusations were later largely discredited, but Ball considers them again, having made a close study of Debye's archive.
In many of the other books on this subject, authors are prone to accept a "simple-minded dichotomy that makes exiles from Nazi Germany blameless and those who stayed culpable", as Ball neatly puts it. There is none of that here. The behaviour of Debye, Heisenberg, Planck and several others are discussed with even-handedness and empathy, though Ball is not afraid to point the finger occasionally. He notes that, after the war, Debye and Heisenberg often seem to be surprised that they had any case to answer. They seemed to believe that they could wash their hands of all the horrors visited on millions by the government that paid their salaries.
Heisenberg launched a protracted charm offensive to try to restore his reputation, but it was an uphill struggle. Opinions about his wartime behaviour differed widely, even among members of families he knew well. His British friend Paul Dirac would not hear a word against him ("It is easy to be a hero in a democracy") but Dirac's wife had no time for Heisenberg, believing him to be shifty and self-serving.
No matter how many archives are trawled and how many new letters turn up, I doubt that there will ever be a consensus on the morality of the scientists who served under the Nazis. There will always be room for multiple interpretations, even by writers like Ball, who patently have no axe to grind. He has done a fine job of surveying the literature and generously quotes the views of other experts, notably the American historian Mark Walker, the foremost authority on science and technology in Germany in this era. This does, however, weaken Ball's authorial voice and sometimes gives his book the feel of a well-informed review rather than a wholly original work.
Nonetheless, this is an impressive assessment; Ball's judgments on his three protagonists are well-reasoned, nuanced and, in my view, fair. Planck emerges as a good man, though "paralysed by a predicament for which his conservative education had never prepared him". Heisenberg, craving approval from the regime he disdained, seems not to have been the covert opponent of the Nazis that he later presented himself to be, but a tacit collaborator. In many ways Debye behaved honourably, but his refusal to reflect openly on his time working under the Nazis "is itself an act of moral irresponsibility", Ball concludes.
One of the virtues of Ball's book is that it helps us to appreciate better the contribution of other physicists during the war. Less than four months before it broke out, the head of Birmingham University's physics department, Mark Oliphant, was soothing the fears of locals worried by the nuclear experiments he was doing. His new cyclotron was purely "for humanitarian work … not to release energy for destruction", he reassured them repeatedly. Ten months later, two of his colleagues – both refugees from mainland Europe, one of them a former student of Heisenberg's – became the first scientists to discover how to build the Bomb. They and other British colleagues continued to work on this, and a little over three years later joined the Manhattan Project, whose results were later to astonish the world.
Serving the Reich: The Struggle for the Soul of Physics under Hitler