cover image Serving the Reich: The Struggle for the Soul of Physics Under Hitler

Serving the Reich: The Struggle for the Soul of Physics Under Hitler

Philip Ball. Univ. of Chicago, $30 (320p) ISBN 978-0-226-20457-4

German science led the world until Hitler ruined it, as British science writer Ball (Curiosity: How Science Became Interested in Everything) claims in this fine account of how it happened. Ball builds his story around three Nobel laureates: Max Planck, Peter Debye, and Werner Heisenberg. Under anti-Jewish Nazi laws, a quarter of German physicists were dismissed. Planck (1858–1947), one of Germany’s most respected scientists, appealed to authorities on behalf of Jewish colleagues, but refused to repudiate the law. A loyal patriot, he believed the legality of the dismissals did not make them right, but it made them incontestable. Heisenberg (1901–1976) endured attacks for advocating “Jewish” science (i.e., relativity and quantum physics), but participated in Germany’s effort to develop an atomic bomb. Debye (1884–1966) directed the prestigious Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physics, following Nazi policies while also helping Jewish scientists obtain jobs in other nations. He emigrated in 1939 only after the institute was ordered to concentrate on war research. Almost all non-Jewish German scientists fretted, compromised, and looked after their own interests. Others have vilified them as collaborators, but Ball, no polemicist, thinks this was a moral failure, common and not confined to Germans. This is an important, disturbing addition to the history of science. [em](Nov.) [/em]