Book – “Serving the Reich: The Struggle for the Soul of Physics Under Hitler” by Philip Ball!

Serving the Reich: The Struggle for the Soul of Physics under Hitler by [Philip Ball]

Dear Commons Community,

I have just finished reading Serving the Reich: The Struggle for the Soul of Physics Under Hitler (2014)  by Philip Ball, an editor for Nature.  It is an interesting read and goes deeply into the state of physics research  and specifically into the lives of three researchers under the Nazi regime. While some scientists embraced the Nazi directives, others made compromises and concessions during the 1930s and World War II.  Ball specifically examines the situations of Nobel laureates Max Plank, Peter Debye, and Werner Heisenberg. As described by one reviewer, “it is a gripping exploration of moral choices under a totalitarian regime..and three lives caught between the idealistic goals of science and tyranny.”  Here is an excerpt:

“Plank was always acutely conscious of doing the right thing  – his difficulty was in resolving conflicting notions of what was “right.” One can’t help but feel sympathy for this man, inculcated with a deep sense of duty towards the German state and culture, when suddenly faced with a government of such criminal depravity….He was paralyzed by a predicament for which his conservative education had never prepared him.  He is a genuinely tragic figure.”

Below is a review that appeared in Physics Today.

If you are interested in the period or subject matter, give it a read but prepared for slow and careful reflection as Ball goes about trying to explain the choices and decisions these physicists made under Hitler.



Physics Today

Book:  Serving the Reich: The Struggle for the Soul of Physics Under Hitler  by Philip Ball!

reviewed by Michael Eckert

Several books have been written about the German scientists who worked under the Nazi regime. One early classic was Alan Beyerchen’s Scientists Under Hitler: Politics and the Physics Community in the Third Reich (Yale University Press, 1977). Other examples are Mark Walker’s Nazi Science: Myth, Truth, and the German Atomic Bomb (Plenum Press, 1995) and the more recent monograph edited by Walker and Dieter Hoffmann, The German Physical Society in the Third Reich: Physicists Between Autonomy and Accommodation (Cambridge University Press, 2012).

Most of that literature is motivated by such underlying questions as the following: How could men like Max Planck, Werner Heisenberg, and other pioneers of modern physics proceed with their work while Adolf Hitler ruled their country? Did they display moral qualms? Philip Ball, a freelance writer with 20 years of experience as an editor for Nature, attempts to answer those questions in Serving the Reich: The Struggle for the Soul of Physics Under Hitler. Has he anything new to add to this oft-debated topic?

The notes and bibliography show that Ball is aware of the most pertinent literature, including a good deal of the extensive German-language contributions and some archival sources, such as the Rockefeller Foundation Archives and the Samuel A. Goudsmit Papers at the American Institute of Physics (which publishes Physics Today). In addition to Planck and Heisenberg, Ball focuses in particular on Peter Debye, who in 1938 signed an infamous letter requesting the resignation of Jews who had remained members of the German Physical Society.

In his introduction, Ball writes that the case histories of Planck, Heisenberg, and Debye display “the grey zone between complicity and resistance adjusted to Nazi rule.” With regard to Planck, he adopts, without further probing, the conclusion of biographer John Heilbron, who summarized Planck’s case with the title of his book The Dilemmas of an Upright Man: Max Planck as Spokesman for German Science (University of California Press, 1986). Heisenberg’s case is more controversial, but here, too, Ball adds little new information; mostly he relies on David Cassidy’s authoritative biography, Uncertainty: The Life and Science of Werner Heisenberg (W. H. Freeman, 1991).

Among historians, Debye’s case is most controversial. It turned into a scandal when science writer Sybe Rispens portrayed him as a Nazi sympathizer; others regarded him as a victim. Ball’s analysis of those diverging historical accounts deserves attention. In some details the narrative violates its stated goal to avoid black-and-white interpretations. For example, Philipp Lenard and Johannes Stark, the spokesmen for the Aryan Physics movement, appear from the beginning of the book as outspoken villains. Lenard, however, only became an aggressive enemy of Albert Einstein in 1920; in 1913 he revealed in a letter to Arnold Sommerfeld how much he appreciated Einstein. Stark, too, was one of Einstein’s early admirers.

Both Lenard’s and Stark’s conversion to fanatic enemies of “Jewish“ physics was largely a result of German nationalism resulting from World War I—right-wing Germans associated the Jews with the defeat of Germany and the rise of communism. Also, Stark did not have to defend himself before the Nuremberg court, as Ball suggests on page 254, but before a Spruchkammer, a local denazification court.

Another deficiency concerns the annotation. In most places, Ball pulls quotes from the secondary literature without reference to the original archival sources. Furthermore, he only references direct quotes, which makes it difficult for the reader to discern the source of other, unquoted material. This critique may sound like historical pettiness, but a narrative concerned with controversial interpretations should avoid any doubts about the sources from which its conclusions are derived.

Apart from those few criticisms, Serving the Reich is a remarkable achievement—not only for its popularization of historical debates but also for the depth of its analysis. Both the layperson interested in the moral dilemma of physicists under Hitler and the historian familiar with the controversial debates will find Ball’s account highly instructive.


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