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

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University of Chicago Press, 2014 M10 20 - 320 pages
After World War II, most scientists in Germany maintained that they had been apolitical or actively resisted the Nazi regime, but the true story is much more complicated. In Serving the Reich, Philip Ball takes a fresh look at that controversial history, contrasting the career of Peter Debye, director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physics in Berlin, with those of two other leading physicists in Germany during the Third Reich: Max Planck, the elder statesman of physics after whom Germany’s premier scientific society is now named, and Werner Heisenberg, who succeeded Debye as director of the institute when it became focused on the development of nuclear power and weapons.

Mixing history, science, and biography, Ball’s gripping exploration of the lives of scientists under Nazism offers a powerful portrait of moral choice and personal responsibility, as scientists navigated “the grey zone between complicity and resistance.” Ball’s account of the different choices these three men and their colleagues made shows how there can be no clear-cut answers or judgement of their conduct. Yet, despite these ambiguities, Ball makes it undeniable that the German scientific establishment as a whole mounted no serious resistance to the Nazis, and in many ways acted as a willing instrument of the state.

Serving the Reich considers what this problematic history can tell us about the relationship of science and politics today. Ultimately, Ball argues, a determination to present science as an abstract inquiry into nature that is “above politics” can leave science and scientists dangerously compromised and vulnerable to political manipulation.

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Serving the Reich At the end of the Second World War the allies were chasing down scientists as quickly as possible in a game of cat and mouse not just across Germany but especially around Berlin. The ... Read full review


Nobel Prizewinner with dirty hands
1 As conservatively as possible
2 Physics must be rebuilt
3 The beginning of something new
4 Intellectual freedom is a thing of the past
5 Service to science must be service to the nation
6 There is very likely a Nordic science
7 You obviously cannot swim against the tide
10 Hitherto unknown destructive power
11 Heisenberg was mostly silent
12 We are what we pretend to be
We did not speak the same language
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8 I have seen my death
9 As a scientist or as a man

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About the author (2014)

Philip Ball is a freelance writer who lives in London. He worked for over twenty years as an editor for Nature, writes regularly in the scientific and popular media, and has written many books on the interactions of the sciences, the arts, and the wider culture, including, most recently, Curiosity: How Science Became Interested in Everything, also published by the University of Chicago Press.

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