Scientists Under Hitler

Alan D. Beyerchen’s illuminating study of physicists in the Nazi period fills an important need in furthering our knowledge and understanding of the Third Reich. Numerous studies have appeared on Nazi ideology, art, and films, but very few have been written on the role of science and scientists in the Hitler period. The effect of the Nazi regime on physics was particularly important, for it would help to determine whether the Nazis would succeed in their aim of world domination.

This study has effectively used the correspondence of German physicists, tape-recorded interviews, unpublished archives of physics institutes, and a very wide range of pertinent books and articles. In addition to this, Beyerchen has taken on the difficult task of elucidating and summarizing the murky source materials of “Aryan physics.” His research is used to great advantage in illustrating how the German physicists responded individually and as a group to the pressures of Nazi rule, and what the important results of their responses turned out to be.

Until 1933 the German scientific community constituted a patriotic, privileged group in the upper civil service, since the universities were under government control. Moreover, the scientists in general and physicists in particular looked upon themselves as being above political concerns. When the Nazis seized power in 1933, the physics community was particularly vulnerable because of these special circumstances. At first most physicists thought that they would not be adversely affected by the politics of the Nazi regime, but the Civil Service Law of April 7, 1933, applied directly to the physicists. This was not primarily because they were scientists, but because they were part of the civil service. As a result they were among the first groups in Germany to feel the direct impact of Nazi totalitarianism and persecution.

From the short interval of the exclusionary Civil Service Law of 1933 that dismissed “non-Aryans” and “political unreliables” to the Nuremberg racial laws of 1935, Germany lost about twenty-five percent of her finest physicists, including eleven Nobel Prize winners. In these early years of the Nazi state the physics community was divided on how to deal with the Nazi threat to professional autonomy and individual and group research. Einstein was perhaps the first to see the handwriting on the wall when he resigned in protest against both the actions of the government and the passivity of most of his colleagues. Another perceptive observer was the physicist Szilard, who had predicted as early as 1931 that Hitler would come to power. In addition to Einstein and Szilard, most Jewish physicists were dismissed or resigned in the period from 1933 to 1934. Some emigrated to Britain and most to the United States. A few physicists, such as Max von Laue, remained in Germany to protest openly against the decimation of the physics community. The majority of distinguished non-Jewish physicists, such as Heisenberg, Planck, and Sommerfeld, adopted a nonpolitical position of what Beyerchen aptly calls “prudential acquiescence” toward the regime. They attempted to retain their professional autonomy by using whatever influence they had in the government, by affirming their loyalty to the state rather than the party, and by keeping out of political controversies. Like many other Germans of the time, the scientists hoped that the unpleasant features of Nazi rule would prove temporary.

But by 1934 many of Germany’s finest physics institutes were decimated. The universities became supervised by the Reich Ministry of Education in its attempt to coordinate intellectual life. By 1935 the institutional organizations of German physics were largely destroyed. This was also true for the universities, where 1,145 teachers of physics (eight hundred of whom were Jewish) were driven from their posts. The totalitarian regime also deprived the German physicists of the scientifically creative advantages of participation in international conferences and subscriptions to foreign journals, and German physics quickly fell behind that of America and Britain. It seemed that ideological commitment and Aryan ancestry were more important to the system than scientific talent. Vacant chairs of physics were filled by mediocre scientists and doctrinaire deadbeats. For example, when Arthur Sommerfeld retired from his professorship of theoretical physics at the University of Munich, his position was not filled by the Nobel Prize winner Werner Heisenberg, who was the choice of the faculty. Selected instead was one Wilhelm Müller, an anti-Semitic pamphleteer who knew nothing about theoretical physics. Hitler had told Max Planck in 1933 that if it were in the interests of ideology, “we...

(The entire section is 1936 words.)


Library Journal. CII, October 1, 1977, p. 2059.