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Book Review: Philip Ball's Serving the Reich: The Struggle for the Soul of Physics under Hitler

Book Review: Philip Ball's Serving the Reich: The Struggle for the Soul of Physics under Hitler

We are always reading here at CBRNPro.net. A lot of that includes books related to CBRN history or CBRN issues. So when we finish one of those we like to offer our readers a review. The following book is not directly associated with traditional CBRN topics, but it is worthwhile anyway because it touches on a very real aspect of dealing with CBRN as developed by authoritarian states (which is most of it).  Specifically, the way tyranny affects scientists and the practice of science by forcing moral and ethical compromise.

We'll have more reviews and some new posts on Syria, the recent Nuclear Summit and other topics soon. In the meantime please visit CBRNPro.net read some of our other reviews, follow our Facebook page for more frequent news and updates, and remember, when it doubt, Keep Calm and Decon.

Book Review: Ball, Philip. Serving the Reich: The Struggle for the Soul of Physics under Hitler. London, Vintage, 2014.

Philip Ball’s book is a bit of a mashup. From a CBRN perspective, it offers some critical insight into the nature of moral compromise as it relates to individuals working on offensive CBRN programs, in this case the physicists who worked on the Nazi nuclear project during World War II.  However, it is also a history of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute (KWI) and its physicists. All of the main characters are here, some more than others: Fritz Haber, Albert Einstein, Max Planck, Werner Heisenberg, Lise Mitner, Peter Debye, and a host of other characters and names familiar and not-so-familiar.  If this book was just this, a history of the KWI under the Nazi’s and the effect of Nazism on German science, it would be a good and worthy book. But Ball has other plans.  He is interested not just in what these individuals did, or did not do, under the Nazis and in service to them. No, Ball asks the question, and intends to answer it, “How should we judge them for their actions?” 

Ball claims to focus his work on three individuals to explore this question, Max Planck, Peter Debye, and Werner Heisenberg. Planck takes up a good portion of the book, Debye doesn’t appear until the middle of the book and Heisenberg gets the least coverage of the three.  It is no accident Ball choses these three, for in some ways they represent three different responses (though not the only responses) to Nazi control.  Planck was paralyzed by the Nazi demands. He did not wish to dismiss Jews from the KWI, but as he questions Lise Mitner (who was ofJewish descent), “What should I do?” She questions the morality of such action. Planck cannot square this with his public duty. “It’s the law,” he tells her. 

Heisenberg has quite a different response. He was always unconcerned by the Nazis, and as long as they left him to his work. He was entirely lacking in empathy towards those negatively impacted by the rise of Nazism.  In the recent joint British/Norwegian television series “The Saboteurs,” we see this aspect in their portrayal of Heisenberg, though it is decidedly more subtle. One of the features of that series, explored more deeply in Ball’s work, is how Heisenberg used the idea of an atomic bomb to garner support from the Nazis for continued research, even though his project focused almost exclusively on a heavy water based power reactor.

Heisenberg is the center of a stunning moment captured on audio recordings made by the allies after the end of the war in Europe but before the surrender of Japan.  The British and Americans as part of Operation Paper Clip, focused on rounding up Nazi scientists like Heisenberg. The nuclear physicists found themselves confined to a thoroughly bugged British farmhouse. When the first news of the bombing of Hiroshima broke, the scientists captors announced the news to the German physicists and then listened in to their response. Their responses varied but are informative, none more than Heisenberg’s.   

Heisenberg actually miscalculated the amount of material needed for a weapon, and is forced to recalculate when he realizes his error.  It is in this moment he starts to realize his attempt to garner a position with the US and British like that afforded Werner von Braun was a failure. Until that point, he still believes in the superiority of German science and maintains a self-inflated view of his own importance. In fact, on hearing of the attack on Hiroshima, he at first refuses to believe it possible – to him only the Germans could have accomplished such a scientific feat.

This aspect of Ball’s story, like other historical examinations of the “Nazi bomb,” demonstrates just how far away the Nazi’s were from nuclear weapons.  Further, in the internal competition for resources, the physics department of the KWI was always small potatoes compared to the funds and effort lavished on Werner von Braun and his group, which in relative funding was closer to a Nazi “Manhattan Project” than their nuclear research ever was.  Anyone currently watching the highly fictionalized series “Manhattan” on WGN has seen a story line play out over the last season that echoes this disconnect between the perception of the Nazi atomic program and its reality. 

In fact, from Ball’s work and others, it becomes clear that the physicists at the KWI used the potential outcomes of their science as a way to garner funding from the Nazis, even though their research frequently had little hope of producing such outcomes. Once the funding came through, they largely went their way, pursuing pure research.  This should not come as much of a surprise to anyone familiar with research funding (if you buy us a nice scotch we will tell you a few here at CBRNPro.net). Even today, from DARPA to DHS, there is a lot of “CBRN” related research that has very little to do with CBRN. Those four letters, much like “counter-IED,” if slapped on a research proposal, can really bring home the federal bacon.  

It is the middle of the work where Ball tries, perhaps too desperately, to restore some measure of Peter Debye’s reputation. Now Debye is a lesser-known figure compared to others in this tale. Planck, Heisenberg, Einstein, Haber, are names associated with scientific laws, famous theories, or chemical processes. They all have multiple biographers.  Debye’s scientific contributions, while important, never garnered as much public attention. It is hard to explain what exactly his Nobel prize in chemistry was for.  Debye is also a bit of an odd man out in this story. Born in Maastricht, he was Dutch.  Despite this, he directed the construction of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physics and led it from 1935 until 1940, when he took an extended trip to the United States and a position at Cornell University where he remained until after the war.

Ball explores this journey in detail. While he is clearly sympathetic toward Debye, and openly contemptuous of the work of Sybe Rispens and others that claim Debye was a clear Nazi collaborator, he never completely makes his case. Debye was a clear opportunist and most worried about his own reputation, a fact Ball never hides. Rather Ball is critical of clear-cut black and white judgements of individuals under Nazi rule are too simplistic. The individuals, Debye especially, were “fallible, improvising, and often unreflective” human beings.   

While never acknowledging it, Ball is touching on a factor of tyranny explored in greater depth by Natan Sharansky. Debye is clearly a “double thinker” to use Sharansky’s model, which divides societies living in tyranny as composed of a small group of true believers, a small group of dissidents, and a great mass of double thinkers.  Double thinkers, in this case, act like the scientists Ball examines. They can see the error and morally compromised positions of those in power, but resign themselves to it, separating their own actions from those who control and run the state. They make mental compromises in order to get on with their lives with the least amount of trouble.  As long as the weight of tyranny falls on someone else, then it is someone else’s problem. 

This of course can create a cognitive dissonance. That dissonance is the factor Ball focuses on. In particular he notes that this “otherness” engendered by doublethought (he doesn’t call it that, but that is what is he talking about) is a long-term and increasingly problematic part of science in general.  Science somehow exists on a higher plain, above the grubby politics of the rest of us, at least in this widely held model. It seeks only the truth. Of course, such a model absolves scientists, isolating them from those who might misuse their work. This produces the double thinking.

Ultimately, there has to be a squaring of the double-thought circle for the physicists who stuck it out under Nazi rule. Even some, like Debye, who fled under less than admirable circumstances, had to come round to dealing with their post-war cognitive dissonance. Those who had some skill the West or the Soviets found ready projects and quick rehabilitation and just “moved on.” The nuclear scientists who had nothing  useful to offer the allies were “rehabilitated” more slowly within the scientific community, even though their sins under the Nazis were arguably less odious than others, like von Braun and the rocket scientists and engineers who used slave labor under appalling conditions. 

The process of slow rehabilitation needed justification, and many of those justifications first appear in 1945 in that well-bugged British farmhouse. In Debye’s case, like the philosopher Heidegger, he spun his tales in the hallowed halls of academia.  Over time these justifications became the truth, and the new story became internalized, displacing the dissonance of their actual wartime actions. Men like Debye and Heidegger came to believe their own lies, because it made the past easier to deal with.

The tapes of the farmhouse conversations reveal the scientists’ attempts to create new narratives around their actions under Nazi rule, a nationwide process in post war Western Germany.  This required separating the science from the political sphere.  For most Germans, it meant separating themselves from “those Nazis.” Even though the history contradicts many of these later stories, the stories worked in large measure. In more than a few cases it helped to have the support of Jewish scientists and colleagues like Einstein and Mitner who had also fled Nazi rule. Strikingly, such support was much rarer from Jews that managed to survive the concentration camp, in fact opposition to rehabilitation was centered in the survivor community.  A similar dynamic played out in the case of the philosopher Martin Heidegger. For nearly half a century his philosophic supporters separated his philosophical work from his support for the Nazi’s, at least until the recent publication of his diaries called such assumptions into question.

Ball’s book is many things, but it never crosses the threshold of doing one of them well, or gives any of these stories complete justice. Despite a few minor errors and tendency to turn an overwrought phrase, or use a ten-dollar word in place of a cheaper one, Ball’s work is still quite readable, and very thought provoking. It is also blissfully short, a rarity in this subject. From a CRBN aspect it is a great adjunct to anyone reading their way through the history of nuclear weapons. However, the real value lies in exposing the complex nature of life under increasing tyranny and the compromises we make in order to cope with such circumstances.   That is a valuable examination in any circumstance, but a particularly important one for those who deal with the most destructive weapons humanity can create.

It is this that makes Ball’s book worth reading, even if I cannot give it a full-throated recommendation.  Astute and knowledgeable readers will find plenty to argue with within its pages, but the questions readers of this book will find themselves asking are worth the price of admission. In a world were tyranny of all sorts is again on the rise, it is worth examining how individuals live under such conditions. For CBRN professionals such questions are especially important. Anyone familiar with the scientists and engineers involved with the Iraqi WMD program prior to 1991 will see aspects of Balls story in that case. In fact, a similar dynamic appears in many CBRN programs, even the history of the US and British programs.  This alludes to some of the questions Jacques E.C. Hymans raises in his excellent examination Achieving Nuclear Ambitions: Scientists, Politicians, and Proliferation, a book CBRNPro.net heartily recommends, more so that Serving the Reich.  

That said, CBRNPro.net recommends Serving the Reich, but only for those who have at least digested Richard Rhodes excellent works on the early US and Russian nuclear programs The Making of the Atomic Bomb and Dark Sun, or tackled Robert S. Morris’s outstanding Racing for the Bomb.  As for a more general history of the Nazi program, David Cassidy’s Beyond Uncertainty: Heisenberg, Quantum Physics, and the Bomb is one of the best recent works.  Of course, Serving the Reich is not the only one in this vein, though the most recent. Alan D. Beyerchen, John Gimbel, and Kristie Macrakis, among others, have all explored Nazi science. For those intrigued by the goings on inside that well-bugged British farmhouse and the Nazi scientist’s post war justifications, look no further than Jeremy Bernstein’s Hitler's Uranium Club: The Secret Recordings at Farm Hall.

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