Beyerchen, Alan D. Scientists Under Hitler: Politics and the Physics Community in the Third


Beyerchen, Alan D. Scientists Under Hitler: Politics and the Physics Community in the Third
Reich. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1977.

Here is an examination of the physics community in Germany during the Hitler years. First of all,
Hitler was willing to tolerate the loss of about a quarter of the physicists of Germany in the years
1932-33. The top Nazis did not know what they were losing and, of course, their loss was our
gain. Consider, for example, the names of some of the physicists who worked for our A bomb
project: Szilard, Teller, Wigner, Bethe, Bloch, Franck, Nordheim, Rabinowitch, Fermi and Bohr.
Clearly, developing our bomb would have been more difficult without these theorists. Secondly,
the physics community left in Germany did not, generally, oppose Hitler. In 1932, he may have
been a hooligan but he certainly was not a mass murderer. Those who argue that the scientific
community should have opposed Hitler argue from a hindsight perspective.

There were two physicists in Germany who were identified with Aryan Physics, the Nazi notion
of "their physics." These two were Big Names, Nobelists who had been alienated from their
physics community in the '20s, and this author suggests that their identification with the Nazis
was the result of their being loners. Both used Nazi ideology as a substitute for professional
relations, which they had never developed. The two were Philipp Lenard and Johannes Stark.
Lenard felt he had been cheated by English scientists out of claims to priority (and he may well
have been), and he used his hatred of the English physicists to promote Nazi physics. Stark is
here described as brilliant but a "pain in the neck." He, too, felt alienated from and ostracized by
his professional peers. Both men were lionized by the Nazis but both promoted poor physics and
could not integrate any new community of physicists. They blundered politically, perhaps
because of their inability to get organized at all. In any case, they did no service to Hitler. Indeed,
the physics community in Germany was nowhere near the production of an atomic bomb.

Those physicists who stayed in Germany tolerated the Nazis and developed ways of working
with them. Hitler supported the sciences well. Unfortunately, this meant politicizing the science
community. This included game playing with the Party Apparatus, with the government
bureaucracy, with the SS, and with various people who sought political position. The important
point is: science can work in a totalitarian state, it can be supported and seen as an ally by the
powers that be.