Ball, Philip. Serving the Reich: The Struggle for the Soul of Physics under Hitler

By Dougherty, Jude P. | The Review of Metaphysics, March 2015 | Go to article overview

Ball, Philip. Serving the Reich: The Struggle for the Soul of Physics under Hitler


Dougherty, Jude P., The Review of Metaphysics


BALL, Philip. Serving the Reich: The Struggle for the Soul of Physics under Hitler. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014. ix + 303 pp.--With access to reams of correspondence, other archival material, and public records, Philip Ball provides a valuable account of how German scientists related to the Third Reich under Adolph Hitler. Ball identifies three prominent physicists, Peter Debye, Max Planck, and Werner Heisenberg, to illustrate a range of responses.

Ball begins with a discussion of the work and life of Peter Debye, whose major contribution is found in the field of chemical physics. Debye, who was born in Maestricht, was never a German citizen but was at home in German culture. He was a student of Arnold Sommerfeld, a mathematical physicist whose interests ranged from hydrodynamics to theory of electrical conduction, both fields of study with military implications. Wemer Heisenberg, Wolfgang Pauli, and other prominent physicists like Debye were also interested in such fields. Known for his extraordinary intuitive insight and mathematical skill, Debye decoded the physical character of molecules, especially how they interact with light and form radiation. Never a member of the National Socialist party, he nevertheless served the Reich as head of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physics. In fact, only a small minority of German scientists embraced National Socialism, but German physicists as a group failed to mount any concerted resistance to the autocratic and anti-Semitic policies of the Nazis.

In a brief biographical sketch, Ball depicts Max Planck as a conservative or traditionalist, a member of the German elites who considered themselves to be custodians of German culture. Heisenberg seemingly shared Planck's sense of national pride and patriotism as well as his sense of duty to the state. Ball remarks that "Planck was temperamentally unfit for protests against constituted authority." Given his dedication to service in the interest of the state, open defiance was unthinkable for him.

In May 1933, Planck visited Hitler. Hitler assured Planck that he was not anti-Semitic, only anti-Communist. That same month, The New York Times reported the following: "German scientists rally behind Hitler." Such was not the case. When Fritz Haber, as director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physical Chemistry, was forced to discharge all non-Aryans, he resigned. Writing to Bernard Rust, a Nazi functionary, he said, "My tradition requires of me that in my scientific position I consider only the professional accomplishments and character of the applicants when I choose my co-workers without asking about their racial make-up."

Ball is convinced that by introducing their discriminatory and authoritarian policies in the form of new laws, the National Socialists exploited the German instinct for obedience to the state. One did not object to measures that were enshrined into law. The idea that laws could be criminal was virtually a contradiction in terms.

When Hitler came to power, some knew where Germany was heading, but the German citizenry as a whole seemingly did not. Europe, Ball explains, had no previous experience of state repression and legalized racism. …

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