Scientists under Hitler: Politics and the Physics Community in the Third Reich
Proletarian Science? The Case of Lysenko
In August 1945 British military intelligence unwittingly performed a splendid experiment in the social psychology of natural scientists. They delivered the news of Hiroshima to interned German atomic scientists, and secretly recorded the conversation that resulted. Only fragments of the record have got past restrictions on “classified” material, but they are enough to reveal the German scientists’ mentality—their soul, if I may use an outmoded term. They were conscience-stricken; they had failed “German science.” Casting about for reasons, they took note of the obvious disparity in size: the American A-bomb project had been enormously larger than their own. But that contrast only deepened the anguish of self-accusation. “We would not have had the moral courage,” Werner Heisenberg, the originator of the Uncertainty Principle, exclaimed, “to recommend to the government in the spring of 1942 that they should employ 120,000 people.”1
Implicit in that soul-searching was one measure of the scientist’s social and moral worth: his capacity to beat the competition, to win, whether fame for himself or wars for his country, or both together. When Heisenberg emerged from internment and discovered that the winners were uneasy, he turned to a different measure of the scientist’s worth. He and his colleagues had shown moral courage, he decided, of a higher order. They had dragged their feet, to withhold the A-bomb from their Nazi masters. Heisenberg inspired a gullible journalist to write that
the German nuclear physicists…obeyed the voice of conscience and attempted to prevent the construction of atomic bombs, while their professional colleagues in the democracies, who had no coercion to fear, with very few exceptions concentrated their whole energies on production of the new weapon…. “The scientists of totalitarian countries [said one of the German scientists] are rarely good patriots.”2
C.P. Snow went further, picturing scientists of all countries as unpredictable free spirits because they apply critical thought to all realms, not merely to their special fields. “Engineers and civil servants working on the A-bomb,” he wrote, “buckled to their jobs and gave no trouble, in America, in Russia, in Germany; it was not from them, but from the scientists, that came heretics, forerunners, martyrs, traitors.”3
The historical record does not sustain that romantic vision. An overwhelming majority of scientists have shown themselves to be single-minded devotees of winning, to the extent that they are venturesome, or of keeping their comfortable jobs, to the extent that they are cautious. They are prizefighters or pay-rollers, or some mixture of the two types. heisenberg’s initial anguish in August 1945 was that of a world-renowned champion realizing, in his mid-forties, that he had funked the chance at another great trophy. He was probably recalling a conference with the high brass in Berlin, June 7-8, 1942, at which he kindled their enthusiasm by declaring the A-bomb a feasible project within the time they estimated the war would last. A whole city…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.