The Struggle for the Soul of Physics Under Hitler

Science must always be aware of its ethical dimension–now, as then
September 18, 2013
Serving the Reich: The Struggle for the Soul of Physics Under Hitlerby Philip Ball (Bodley Head, £25)

There is a substantial literature dealing with the compromises made by writers and intellectuals under the Third Reich—the cases of the philosopher Martin Heidegger and the jurist Carl Schmitt, to name only two, have received exhaustive treatment. The behaviour of scientists under National Socialism, however, has attracted rather less attention—in English at least.

Philip Ball’s latest book, his 17th, seeks to remedy this. Although he devotes a chapter to the wretched attempts of men such as Philipp Lenard and Johannes Stark to devise an “Aryan physics,” Ball’s real interests lie elsewhere, in what he calls the “grey zone between complicity and resistance.” It is one of the strengths of Serving the Reich that in surveying this territory the analysis is not unduly flattering to the moral and political certainties of the present.

The book has three protagonists, each of them physicists and each of them denounced, at one time or another, by the proponents of Nazi science: Max Planck, Werner Heisenberg and the Dutchman Peter Debye. The charge against them is not that they prostituted scientific truth to power, as Lenard and Stark did, but that they failed to recognise that science carries with it certain unavoidable ethical obligations. That, of course, is a charge that continues to be laid against scientists today.

Also in this month’s Prospect Arts & Books:

All this really happened: Simon Schama’s Story of the Jews excels at bringing the past to life—even if he fails to capture the richness of Jewish culture in medieval Europe, says Robert Alter (£)

False starts and red herrings: Thomas Pynchon’s cult novels are magnificently complex but ultimately empty, says Jennifer Szalai (£)

Lessons about ourselves: Reviewing Ian Buruma’s new book, Zero Hour: A History of 1945, Samuel Moyn argues we must see the aftermath of the Second World War in terms of institutions, not just individuals (£)

Paul Klee’s distorted reality: An exhibition at Tate Modern shows Klee’s unique combination of realism and surrealism, says James Woodall (£)