Serving the Reich: The Struggle for the Soul of Physics under Hitler Paperback – 9 Oct 2014
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"Ball's book shows what can happen to morality when cleverness and discovery are valued above all else" (Philip Maughan New Statesman)
"Ball does an outstanding service by reminding us how powerful and sometimes confusing the pressures were… Packed with dramatic, moving and even comical moments" (Robert P Crease Nature)
"A fascinating account of the moral dilemmas faced by German physicists working within Nazism. Impeccably researched" (Ian Thomson Tablet)
"An engrossing and disturbing book" (Andrew Robinson History Today)
"[A] fine book" (Christopher Coker Times Literary Supplement)
An incisive and revealing exploration of the fate of physics under the Nazis – and how scientific idealism led to accommodation with a totalitarian regime.See all Product description
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Planck was older than the others and found it impossible to break out of the traditional Germanic beliefs of honour and obedience to the authority of the state. He was a tragic figure in many ways and was a broken man at the end of the war. Heisenberg was a very different figure. A supremely arrogant serial dissembler, he was far more willing to comply with the demands of the Nazi rulers for his own advancement, and after the war attempted to justify his actions, often in contradictory ways. But even his supporters were dismayed by the eventual publication of the transcripts of the secret tapes made at Hall Farm, where Heisenberg and others Germany scientists were briefly interned after the war, and letters written to Heisenberg by Bohr (but not sent) after the former's controversial and inflammatory visit to Copenhagen during the war. Both often contradict Heisenberg's own justification for his wartime actions.
Of the three, it is the story of Debye that I found most interesting, because it was new to me and has not been examined in such detail before. For example, in Cornwall's 2003 book `Hitler's Scientists', Debye gets only a passing mention on just three pages. Part of the reason is because Debye was not a nuclear physicist and so played no role in the failed attempt to produce a nuclear weapon, which had been led by Heisenberg. He did not remain in Germany during the war, but in 1940 left for America after refusing to renounce his Dutch citizenship. Although initially under suspicion there, he was soon accepted and spent the rest of his career in the Chemistry Department at Cornell University, latterly as its Head, continuing his research and receiving awards and other recognitions.
However, things changed in 2006 with the publication of a book fiercely critical of Debye's role before he left Germany and even implying that the move to America may have been to continue to work for the Nazi regime. Ball dismisses this attack, and a subsequent official Dutch report set up to re-consider Debye's case, as biased. Certainly, the worse possible interpretation was put on Debye's behaviour in these publications. For example, there is evidence that Debye made some anti-Semitic remarks, but this is to ignore the casual ant-Semitism prevalent at the time. Lord Cherwell, Churchill's wartime science advisor, also had known anti-Semitic leaning, but that did not stop him going out of his way to help find jobs in England for refugee Jewish scientist, and Debye himself helped some Jewish scientists to leave Germany, including Lise Meitner. Nevertheless, he did not help his case when he kept his Directorship of a most prestigious institute in Germany (and still drawing his salary) so giving the impression that his allegiance remained with that country. But Ball does not exonerate Debye. He believes that all three must be condemned for their moral blindness, their incapacity to recognise their responsibilities, and afterwards, never to have admitted that they had done anything wrong.
The book ends with a short section about what we should be learnt from these examples about the future role of scientists in general in society. The principle one is that scientists should cease to believe that their work is apolitical, and there are signs that this is happening with scientists becoming more engaged with politicians and the public over question such as climate change, bioethics and nanotechnology. Only time will tell whether this results in more effective resistance by scientists should another occasion arise when science is used for unethical purposes.
All the above is very positive, but I also have some criticisms. Ball's writing is very clear, and his arguments usually well made, but sometimes a little irritating. He carefully builds up the case against someone on a particular point, only to demolish it in the next paragraph. After doing this several times it becomes repetitive. There are other places where basically the same points are repeated, or questions posed. For example variations of the question `How can anyone make judgments about the actions of others if they were not faced with the same dilemmas?' appears several times. There are also some extended explanations of nuclear physics that are not really essential to the main story. Two final criticisms, both minor: there are only a few, rather uninteresting, illustrations; and the arrangement of the Notes and Index entries make it difficult to relate them to the text, or use them efficiently.
Despite these criticisms, this is a fine book that gave this reader much new information about Debye, and as a physicist myself, forced me to reconsider some of my views about the culpability of German scientists in the Nazi era.
In principle Ball does this by examining the lives and work of three physicists – the old guard Max Planck, a Dutch immigrant Peter Debye, and the seemingly amoral Werner Heisenberg – but in practice we see the impact of the regime and culture on many other physicists from intense supporters of the Nazis to those who did their best to oppose the regime.
Over the years these German scientists have been portrayed as everything from enthusiastic supporters of the Third Reich to secret saboteurs who did all they could to slow down the German development of nuclear weapons. Ball resolutely refuses to paint them either black or white, instead giving us every possible detail of shades of grey.
This is, without doubt, the fairest and most honest approach, given the lack of concrete information, but sometimes Ball’s concern to remain neutral and portray history as it was, rather than the usual ‘as the historian wants it to be’ can make the book a bit of a hard slog. Reading a Philip Ball book is a bit like attending a lecture by a scientist who absolutely knows his stuff, and is prepared to go off on lots of interesting side diversions, but nonetheless is very pernickety and precise, insisting on weighing everything up from every possible angle, so that just sometimes not only is the moral position of the scientists entirely grey, so is the storytelling.
This is a fascinating period in the history of physics, and it is indeed interesting to see how these well known (and less well known) characters played their part. Often the answer is ‘in a human, if rather detached, way – wanting as much as possible to get on with life, even if it meant ignoring some difficult truths.’ There is a feeling that somehow scientists should be more able to face reality – but in fact, in many ways they can be even more withdrawn than a typical citizen. Either way, with such ambiguous circumstances, combined with attempts after the war to modify the record to make things look less unpleasant, the result is inevitably a messy history that can never definitively tell us what happened. So don’t expect to come out of this with a clear picture – but do expect to know a lot more about the thinking of these key figures outside of their work in physics.
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