Dieter Hoffman and Mark Walker, ed., The German Physical Society in the Third Reich: Physicists Between Autonomy and Accommodation. Translated by Ann M. Hentschel. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012, xxiii + 458 pages. $90.00 (cloth).
The behavior of scientists, particularly physicists, during and immediately after the Nazi period in Germany is a subject of immense interest, one that historians of science never tire of exploring. There is a vast literature on the subject,1 including books already written and edited by the highly qualified editors of this volume. Here is yet another effort to explore the external events of that unfortunate period, as well as an effort to get into the heads of all those scientists who either by choice or lack of choice lived through it. But this is not another monograph. Rather, it is a collection of essays written mostly by historians of science, mostly Germans of a younger generation, one that possesses the luxury of being able to scrutinize objectively the generation that spanned the Hitler period.
There are eleven articles, by ten historians. Each addresses a particular aspect of the activities of physicists and their physics during and after the Third Reich, concentrating mainly on the activities of the Deutsche Physikalische Gessellschaft (DPG), the German Physical Society. The topics include, for example, “The German Physical Society under National Socialism in Context” (Walker), “Marginalization and Expulsion of Physicists under National Socialism: What was the German Physical Society’s role?” (Stefan L. Wolff), “The German Physical Society and ‘Aryan Physics’” (Michael Eckert), “The Ramsauer Era and Self-Mobilization of the German Physical Society” (Hoffmann), as well as several articles on the postwar period, and two articles on similar societies of German mathematicians and chemists.
The DPG had a long, distinguished history before Hitler. Germany, after all, was the dominant country of those involved in the enormously productive European physics community for a good part of the century before Hitler. The editors were particularly interested in certain aspects of this broad subject as clearly identified in the qualification to the title that refers to “autonomy and accommodation.” This book does not attempt to cover all aspects of physics and the DPG during the Hitler era but rather it pretty much sticks to the question: how the physics community, as personified by DPG and its leadership, dealt with the constraints imposed on it by the Nazis. To what extent did it maintain its independence and integrity, and to what extent did it adjust itself—that is, “accommodate”—to Nazi control?
First, a short description of the DPG. As it is constituted today (not really different than its traditional role), it is strikingly similar to the American Physical Society (APS). It acts in the service of the German physics community. It runs conferences and workshops, concerns itself with physics and society functions, and in general performs the full gamut of activities required by the physics profession. It has a huge membership—significantly more than APS, with a large international representation. The chief difference between the two societies lies in their publication activities. APS publishes a wide array of top-notch physics journals. It has a multimillion dollar budget for publication, and employs and houses a vast editorial staff. DPG does not publish most of its own journals. Its present form, after predecessors dating back to 1845 (about 50 years older than APS), dates from 1919. Its presidents, like those of APS, reign for only one or two years, with a paid staff actually running the organization.
The book concentrates on the Hitler period, 1933 to 1945, with additional sections on the immediate postwar aftermath. If I may telegraph the general conclusions of the book, pretty much shared by all the authors, physicists by and large and DPG in particular did the best they could to stay independent of the politics swirling around them. But this group of authors were not as tolerant of “accommodation” as were the physicists of that era. While sympathetic to their plight, the virtually unanimously judgment was shall we say not totally benign.
This book is an elaboration of an article with the same title published by Dieter Hoffmann in this very journal in 2005,2 although it covers much more ground and of course presents views of a large group of historians. But, as already noted, there is general agreement among the authors: DPG tried to act “autonomously” of Nazi doctrine, but was forced in one degree or another to accommodate. The question that concerns us as much today as it did three quarters of a century ago is, Should we weigh their behavior in the balance and find it wanting? While fortunately the issues and situations confronting us today are hardly as desperate as they were in the 1930s and 1940s, science and politics are still having a good deal of trouble in remaining independent of each other, not to mention the problem of accommodation.
I list here the time line of the DFG Presidents from 1931–1945: Max von Laue 1931–1933; Karl Mey 1933–1935; Jonathon Zenneck 1935–1937; Peter Debye 1937–1939; Carl Ramsauer 1940–1945, with Wolfgang Finkelnburg as deputy; for nine years thereafter the DPG was split into regional groups defined by the occupational powers. Without exception these individuals were firmly on the side of autonomy, that is, they did their best to insulate the physics community from the always strong effort to Nazify physics. Nazifying physics meant trying to abide by the “Fuhrer principle,” that is, a strong leader at the top (a Nazi, of course) following what passes for Nazi philosophy. This included unrelenting Anti-Semitism and a strong belief in experimental physics, coupled with distain for pure theory, as exemplified by opposition to relativity (Einstein!) and quantum mechanics.
The authors take on various aspects of the conflict, as can be seen by the chapter titles noted above. Even so there is a duplication of material, inevitable because of the closely related issues confronting the DPG. Occasionally one comes across the same primary quotations in different chapters. But the duplications add to the consensus—there is little disagreement I could discern in the various approaches taken—an indication, I believe, of the remarkable objectivity and fine scholarship of this generation of historians of that period.
The tone of the DPG was set early in the Nazi period by its leadership. In a famous address in 1933, Max van Laue very subtly referred to the conflict between Church and science in the seventeenth century (Galileo), fooling nobody, but without burning bridges. Von Laue, an anti-Nazi throughout, survived the entire Hitler period essentially unscathed. The various presidents and others consistently resisted Nazification. Many worked diligently to help allay the suffering of their non-Aryan colleagues. The integrity of the physics supported by DPG was rarely if ever compromised. They were not shy in complaining that politicization and deportations were harming the war effort. But herein lies the fatal flaw that prevents the authors from expressing unqualified admiration for their behavior. As the leaders of DPG never tired of pointing out, if the Nazis were less blinded by their hatreds, they might actually have had a better chance of winning the war! And where would the world be then? After everything that has been written on the subject, my own conclusion is that there should have been only one right course of action, which only a few German scientists took, including Schrödinger and Pauli: get the hell out of there!
I am fully aware of how easy it is to judge their behavior from the distance in time and culture that separate us. And I am hardly the first to judge from a distance. Here is what Sam Goudsmit said, in a review of the excellent Beyerchen book: “I can not make out who are the good and who the bad guys. I doubt that it matters, I think all were bad…. The question is often asked why the German scientists did not protest more openly and vigorously against the persecution of their colleagues…. I have tried to find an answer by imagining myself in their circumstances. If I had been living in Europe I would not have known how to react and my actions would have appeared cowardly, especially in retrospect.”3 You can see in this short quotation how ambivalently even the wisest of us judge the actions of those who were in the most part not only wonderful physicists but decent people as well.
Thus the fundamental question: suppose we found ourselves living in Hitler’s Germany (and being not Jewish). How would we behave? To be sure, not many of us are particularly interested in becoming dead martyrs, which is what would surely transpire should one overtly confront Nazism during its heyday. But—and this is a big but—how hard did people try to leave Germany? We find that apart from the Jews—who had to leave–precious few physicists chose to. Instead, even the most moral of the physicists chose to “ride it out,” for a variety of reasons. For senior physicists such a painful dislocation would seriously disrupt their lives, both professionally and personally. The conventional belief was that after the first wild days things would calm down. Or, after the Hitler regime ended they would be ready to reconstruct physics to its former glory.
Shortly after Hitler took power, in 1933, there was a concerted effort by Nazi physicists, led by Philipp Lenard and Johannes Stark, to capture the DPG leadership, but this effort was easily squelched. Thereafter throughout the war DPG remained essentially independent, although of course there was hardly any effort to actually oppose the regime. It should be borne in mind that aryanizing German physics was hardly a trivial undertaking. Probably 25% of physicists were not Aryan, to one degree or another, as defined by the Nuremburg laws, and of course some of them were of the very highest quality.
During the war years, 1940–1944, Carl Ramsauer was president, and Wolfgang Finkelnberg was deputy. There was an informal journal published by DPG—Physikalische Blätter edited by Ernst Brüche, which was started toward the end of the war and continued until 1972, and which could very loosely be compared with Physics Today. It was used partly as a vehicle for the postwar whitewashing efforts of German physicists. I was intrigued by the several discussions in the book about Ramsauer, Finkelnberg, and Brüche, for a personal reason: I was very much involved, at different times, with all of these gentlemen. Decades ago I had spent a sabbatical leave at JILA, in Boulder, with much of the time working on a critical review project with a JILA physicist, L.J. Kieffer, examining the state of electron-atom cross section measurements. At the time this was an experimental field that contained a lot of data, but much of it inaccurate and even erroneous.
I quickly learned of the work of Ramsauer and Brüche. First Ramsauer, and then Brüche, had performed what turned out to be the most reliable of total cross section measurements in a wide variety of atomic and molecular gases. The Ramsauer–Townsend effect, an anomalous variation of cross section with energy that could not be explained on the basis of classical collisions, was one of the experimental consequences of quantum mechanics, and an early confirmation of it. I greatly admired the work of Ramsauer and Brüche, and was able to give them high marks for the quality of their measurements in that critical review. In 1948 one of the first postwar conferences on atomic physics was held at Brookhaven National Laboratory (the forerunner of the International Conference on Photonics, Electronic and Atomic Collisions). I gave a paper there (my first one). A German physicist appeared—Wolfgang Finkelnberg. He was among the first German physicists to get to America after the war. I have to say—he didn’t give a good impression. Very Prussian, I suspected that he was an ex-Nazi. But I was wrong. As Ramsauer’s assistant at DPG he also played a role in protecting the physics community against “Aryanization.” I thus had a very soft spot in my heart for all three. And yet, as stalwart as were these defenders of physics, here is an excerpt from a letter written by Ramsauer in 1942 to Bernhard Rust, Reich Minister for Science, Education, and Culture: “The legitimate struggle against the Jew Einstein and against the excrescences of his speculative physics has spread to the whole of modern theoretical physics and has brought it largely into disrepute as a product of the Jewish spirit,” separately quoted by both Hoffmann and Eckert. Reading this quotation 70 years after it was written was still capable of shocking me!
The uniform conclusion of all the authors is that after the war, DPG and its members essentially closed ranks. Even the “good guys” that Goudsmit refers to were very protective of their more compromised colleagues, and often went out of their way to write supportive letters. Even Lise Meitner did so.
The exemplar of the righteous physicist was Max von Laue. Although rebuked several times, he managed to stay out of real trouble throughout the war. But even he adapted a lenient position concerning some of his more shall we say pliable colleagues.
An interesting case in point is one discussed in detail by Gerhard Rammer, in the last Chapter, “Cleanliness among Our Circle of Colleagues: The German Physical Society’s Policy toward Its Past.” He writes about a doctoral physics student immediately after the war, Ursula Martius. She gave a talk at a postwar physics meeting, published in a German journal for all to read. Abstracting from a long quote contained in Rammer’s article, she states: “People who still appear to me in nightmares were sitting there alive and unchanged in the front rows. Unchanged, if you don’t consider the simple blue suit, instead of the uniform of the missing party badge…,” and much more, written in an angry tone. Rammer states: “this article was absolutely exceptional. Not a single comparable case is known to me of a physicist making such a public appeal.” Shortly thereafter (she did complete her degree) she emigrated to Canada, where she developed a very distinguished career as a physicist–archaeologist (under her married name Ursula M. Franklin—see her impressive entry in Wikipedia). She was, in my opinion, the quintessential embodiment of the child who claimed that the Emperor has no clothes.
To summarize, while I did have similar difficulties on occasion in keeping the various individuals and organizations apart, as did Goudsmit, I was impressed by the vast amount of information contained in this volume. I was equally impressed by the fact that this collection by skilled historians evaluated that miserable period of history both objectively and accurately. As they point out more than once, physicists are human beings as well as scientists, and possess the same qualities—good and bad—as everyone else. Hoffmann and Walker deserve our thanks and congratulations.
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