Unseeded players

Biologists under Hitler
July 19, 1996

Why did German biologists achieve so little during the Nazi rule and after? Dismissal of Jewish scientists, lack of support or political interference have been blamed, but Ute Deichmann disposes of these explanations. Not more than 13 per cent of biologists were dismissed on racial or political grounds, while financial support for those who stayed increased dramatically and continued to depend largely on scientific quality rather than Nazi ideology.

Deichmann is a teacher who obtained leave to find answers to her question as a subject for a PhD under the supervision of Benno Muller-Hill, professor of genetics in Cologne whose book Deadly Science exposed the participation of German geneticists and doctors in the Nazi crimes. Deichmann searched the records of grant proposals, reports and publications of biologists in Germany and recorded them all in her book, together with summaries of the research of all those in exile.

This may be essential for a PhD thesis, but in a book Deichmann's comprehensive enumeration makes tedious reading. Most of the biologists' research was the same as they would have done in normal times; it was largely harmless, even though it was sometimes dressed up as essential for the war effort or relevant to "racial hygiene". With two exceptions no great discoveries resulted. There was a penicillin circle that failed to isolate penicillin and an antibiotics laboratory under the Nobel laureate (and Nazi) Richard Kuhn that discovered no antibiotics. Why were these crucial discoveries made in England and America instead? Their detailed history offers no single explanation, but in general the greater independence given to young scientists in England and North America gave, and still gives, these countries a big advantage over Germany and much of continental Europe.

Several German botanists benefited from the party's plans for the Germanisation of Eastern Europe. The biologist and SS leader Konrad Meyer, professor in Berlin, drew up a General Plan East that foresaw the final solution of the Jewish question, the expropriation and expulsion of millions of Poles and Russians to beyond the Urals, the deportation to Siberia or "shredding by labour" of racially undesirables, and the repopulation of the new Lebensraum by carefully selected German farmers. In one lecture Meyer stressed that "the supreme aim of our colonisation plans must be the total Germanisation of the (eastern) territories". Research on the eastern European flora was therefore generously supported. Parties were sent out to strip the seed banks at Soviet institutes of their contents and take them to Germany, and an experimental station for the growth of rubber plants was established at Auschwitz, to be worked by prisoners.

The two best-known of the many biologists mentioned by Deichmann responded very differently to the Nazi rule. Both were born and raised in Vienna. Karl von Frisch, professor of zoology in Munich, is famous for his discovery of the dancing language of bees. He had no documents to prove that the blood of one of his grandmothers was undiluted Aryan; for this Nazi students' and teachers' organisations attacked him as an eighth, if not a quarter Jew; and they were indignant that Frisch failed to draw the parallel between the monolithic organisation of the beehive and the "natural" structure of the people's state (Volkstaat). In 1941 the State Race Office told the Bavarian ministry of education to order Frisch's retirement, but after a prolonged battle his retirement was postponed to the end of the war.

By contrast Konrad Lorenz, famous for his research on animal behaviour, joined the party shortly after Hitler's annexation of Austria in 1938 and became a member of the Party Office for Race Policy, with authority to lecture. At first he lectured on the rise and decline of human and animal populations, likening city dwellers to domesticated animals from which natural selection had failed to eliminate the unfit and undesirables. Later he called for a deliberate, scientific race policy, and for the elimination of defective, asocial and ethnically inferior elements. In a radio interview Lorenz gave 40 years later, he denied having realised that "elimination" was synonymous with murder and explained that he had been naive, stupid and gullible at the time.

After being drafted into the army, Lorenz joined a unit for aptitude tests to be conducted on people in the conquered Polish town Lodz. The results showed that Germans there had "persistence, dependability and energised dynamism", whereas Poles had "joie de vivre, anxiety, instinctive dynamism and vital rootlessness", whatever that may mean. Polish-German hybrids had lost the "German ability for professional achievement". "The substantial damage caused by interbreeding produces a troublesome population that is hard to direct and causes extensive disturbances of practical, civilised life." How could a biologist familiar with the laws of hybrid vigour subscribe to such pernicious idiocies that lent scientific support to Nazi dogma?

Deichmann found records proving that Hans Nachtsheim, after the war professor of genetics at the Free University in Berlin, used children from a Nazi euthanasia institution for experiments on hereditary epilepsy, by subjecting them to reduced oxygen pressures to provoke epileptic fits, before the Nazis killed them. He was later much honoured for his work on human genetics.

Deichmann's book contains much interesting material and has extensive references. In conclusion, she accuses German biologists of failing to protest against the misuse of science so as to enjoy freedom and support for their own research. Her book ends with a moving letter by the great physicist Lise Meitner to her long-time friend and colleague Otto Hahn, the discoverer of atomic fission, written from Stockholm shortly after the German defeat. "You have all worked for Nazi Germany and never even attempted passive resistance. Certainly, to ease your consciences, you occasionally helped a person in distress, but you allowed millions of innocent people to be murdered without a protest. I must write this to you, because for you and for Germany so much depends on your realising what you have allowed to happen."

Max Perutz is former chairman, Medical Research Council, and a Nobel laureate.

Biologists under Hitler

Author - Ute Deichmann
ISBN - 0 674 07404 1
Publisher - Harvard University Press
Price - £24.95
Pages - 468

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