A deadly solution

Science in the Third Reich

January 18, 2002

On April 7 1933, the newly installed Nazi government passed the "law for the reconstitution of the professional civil service" ( Gesetz zur Wiederherstellung des Berufsbeamtentums ). Under this law, any professor who had recognisable Jewish blood was dismissed from the universities as these positions were all part of the civil service (war veterans were exempt for a few years). Some 15 to 20 per cent of members of university faculties were affected. Of course, they were not all affected equally. For example, faculties of mathematics and theoretical physics were decimated, while geographers, say, suffered less. In the former category there was, among others, Göttingen, which had nurtured one of the most distinguished faculties in mathematics and mathematical physics - one that had attracted students from all over the world. Its star mathematician was David Hilbert, arguably the greatest, or surely one of the greatest mathematicians of the 20th century. He was in his 70s at this time. He was not Jewish but was noted for choosing colleagues solely on the basis of merit and nothing else; he lost most of them after this decree was passed. Soon after, he was invited to a dinner where he sat next to the newly appointed Nazi minister of education, Bernhard Rust. Rust asked Hilbert: "And how is mathematics in Göttingen, now that it has been freed of Jewish influence?" To which Hilbert replied: "Mathematics in Göttingen? There is really none any more."

I thought of the exchange often while I was reading this fascinating collection of essays that the Austrian historian Margit Szöllösi-Janze has assembled. The essays, all by German or Austrian scholars who one gathers are relatively young, are based on presentations given at seminars at Oxford. I emphasise the probable youth of the contributors because they seem to represent a generation that can look on the German past with objectivity. This was not true of previous generations. After the war, there was a scramble among academics who had remained in Germany to find testimonials as to how "non-Nazi" they were. Most did not have the presumption to claim that they were "anti-Nazi", that they had actually spoken out against the regime. Among the people from whom they wanted testimonials were the very people whom they had passively watched being removed from their jobs - jobs that these Germans were usually only too happy to take over. In her fascinating essay "German-Jewish chemists and biochemists in exile", the German historian Ute Deichmann reports that she could find only one example, the pharmacologist Otto Krayer, who refused to accept the position of a dismissed Jewish colleague. Everyone else was apparently ready to move up the academic ladder by any means, fair or foul.

This insensitivity carried on after the war. Many of these people - most - simply could not or would not accept the moral implications of their actions or inactions. Forgive and forget, mostly forget, was the order of the day. In the early 1950s, Werner Heisenberg came to the United States to give some lectures. He got it into his head that he wanted to see his old inspiration, Einstein. He simply showed up at Princeton and knocked on his door. Einstein was furious. There was only one German physicist he had any use for and that was Max von Laue, who really had been an anti-Nazi at peril of his life.

The generation of German historians that has written these essays does not have these burdens. They see this period in Germany with lucidity - something that has valuable, indeed crucial, lessons to teach us. But the essays also raise another very important question. Was science possible in the Third Reich? Certainly Nazi ideology produced some monstrous and distorted science, if you can call it that. Eugenics fitted right in with the policy of exterminating the physically and mentally ill, Jewish or not. However, the field of aeronautics ultimately benefited by requirements set by the airforce. Huge wind tunnels were built. Physicists managed to ignore or circumvent the restrictions on teaching "Jewish physics", which was really the physics of the 20th century. The attempt by the "uranium club" to make a nuclear weapon did not fail because Heisenberg and his collaborators were restricted in the physics they could use; there were plenty of other reasons.

I should note that these essays do not try to cover all fields of science. In fact physics and mathematics are hardly mentioned - probably because so much has been written about them. But the fields that they do cover are extremely interesting and important. The historian of science Luttgard Marschall, for example, has a fascinating essay on biotechnology that includes a description of the attempts of the Germans to manufacture artificial rubber. As Primo Levi is mentioned in a later essay, I could not help thinking of how this attempt saved his life. In Auschwitz he was able to identify himself as a chemist and thus got to work in the I. G. Farben enterprise that was attempting to make rubber. Not an ounce was ever produced, but Levi was spared and bore witness to what this ideology really meant.

Jeremy Bernstein is the author of Hitler's Uranium Club .

Science in the Third Reich

Editor - Margit Szöllösi-Janze
ISBN - 1 85973 416 2 and 421 9
Publisher - Berg
Price - £42.99 and £14.99
Pages - 289

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