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Serving the Reich: The Struggle for the Soul of Physics Under Hitler Hardcover – 20 Oct 2014

4.2 out of 5 stars 9 customer reviews

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Hardcover, 20 Oct 2014
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Product details

  • Hardcover: 303 pages
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press (20 Oct. 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 022620457X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0226204574
  • Product Dimensions: 15.2 x 2.5 x 22.9 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (9 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 1,247,394 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Product Description


"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) --This text refers to the Paperback edition.

Book Description

An incisive and revealing exploration of the fate of physics under the Nazis – and how scientific idealism led to accommodation with a totalitarian regime. --This text refers to the Paperback edition.

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Customer Reviews

4.2 out of 5 stars
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Top Customer Reviews

By Brian R. Martin TOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on 31 Dec. 2013
Format: Hardcover
The role of scientists in Hitler's Germany has been the subject of several books. This one is concerned with just physicists and concentrates on three senior figures: Peter Debye, Max Planck and Werner Heisenberg. None were Nazis in the sense of being active party members, but all three have been strongly criticised for compromising with the regime, in the full knowledge of its true nature. This is examined in great detail by the author, using extensive archival research, and he concludes with a judgment that is not as harsh as that of some previous authors.

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.
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Format: Hardcover
Subtitled ‘the struggle for the soul of physics’, Philip Ball’s book takes us deep into the conflicted (and conflicting) stories of how German physicists responded to the growing power of the Nazis, their attitude to Jews, and their responses to the strictures of the Second World War.

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.
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Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
Philip Ball does an excellent job of showing how the leading physicists who didn't flee Nazi Germany accommodated themselves to the regime. It seems fairly clear that despite justifications afterwards, the likes of Heisenberg got on with their jobs and looked after their own interests. There is no evidence that research into the development of an atomic bomb was deliberately slowed down or sabotaged (and some indication that Heisenberg got his sums wrong).
Of course, this is not a phenomenon unique to Germany. The physicists were members of a middle class that shared the prejudices of their time, including a general anti-semitism and were firm believers in law and order and obedience to authority. Given that we are now in danger of entering another period where demagogues exploit prejudice and fear for their own ends, the lessons of this book are timely. .
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Format: Kindle Edition
Serving the Reich

At the end of the Second World War the allies were chasing down scientists as quickly as possible in a game of cat and mouse not just across Germany but especially around Berlin. The biggest race was that between the USA and Russia and they were looking for physicists specifically so they could put them to use for their own specific purposes using developments that had come about under Nazi Germany. We just have to look at the nuclear physicist and rocket specialist that in some cases were literally smuggled out of Germany to various research facilities the allies had. This book is an interesting explanation as to the development of the importance of science and specifically physics under Nazi patronage and how those scientists used this to their advantage while ignoring the consequences of their actions.

This area of historical research has been written about well and often by many others the difference with this book by Phillip Ball is that it is far more comprehensive and well written making it a pleasure to read. What I like about Ball's research and writing is that he does his best to be even handed, while not afraid to point the finger when necessary.

While Ball discuss' the physics community at large he also focuses especially on three Noble laureates in Max Planck, Werner Heisenberg and the Dutchman Peter Debye. A lot of the new material in this book comes from the archives of Peter Debye who moved to America in 1940 which makes fascinating reading. I can highly recommend this book as an important addition to the debate on the Sciences during the Nazi Period.
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