Serving the Reich: The Struggle for the Soul of Physics Under Hitler
In January 1940, the Dutch physicist and Nobel laureate Peter Debye, formerly one of the leading physicists in Hitler’s Germany, sailed from Genoa to the United States. The official story was that he was taking a leave of absence from directing the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physics in Berlin in order to deliver a series of lectures at Cornell University. In fact Debye never returned to Germany, but settled in America and contributed to the Allied war effort against the country in which he had worked for most of his life.
When Debye died in 1966, his career seemed uncontroversial: he had resisted Nazi interference while in Germany, and had contributed in a small way to the victory over Hitler. But 40 years later he stood accused of collusion with the Nazis and opportunism after his subsequent flight. When Debye’s name was dropped from a Dutch institute and scientific prize, the affair reopened the debate about the conduct of scientists in Nazi Germany.
Serving the Reich takes a fresh look at that debate, contrasting Debye’s career with those of two other leading physicists in Germany during the Third Reich: Max Planck, the elder statesman of physics after whom Germany’s premier scientific society is now named, and Werner Heisenberg, who succeeded Debye as director at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physics when it became focused on the development of nuclear power and weapons. The different choices that these three men and their colleagues made under Hitler’s regime show that there can be no easy answers to any judgement of their conduct – but also that the German scientific establishment as a whole mounted to serious resistance to the Nazis, and in many ways acted as a willing instrument of the state. Serving the Reich considers what this extraordinary time can tell us about the relationship of science and politics today, illustrating that a determination to present science as an abstract and apolitical inquiry into nature – as somehow ‘above politics’ – can leave it fatally compromised and vulnerable.
Bodley Head, October 2013
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