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

Serving the Reich
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The political scientist and historian Alfred Weber at the University of Heidelberg resisted crude Nazi propagandizing in by insisting that the local police chief remove the swastika banner from his institute and then, when it was restored, simply closing the institute down. As with some other modern dictatorships, the Nazis realized that strength comes not from brutal repression but from winning support with propaganda and populism, including the creation of a leadership cult. Time and again one finds Hitler disassociated in the minds of many Germans from the ugly acts of his underlings: whatever the failings of the Nazi Party, the Fiihrer himself retained his popular appeal as a symbol of national pride, hope and regeneration.

Even perhaps especially Nazi sympathizers clung to this vision of a flaw- less leader presiding over bungling and infighting bureaucrats. When the German press did carry complaints about the regime, these were typically expressed as economic rather than political dissat- isfactions.

People might not trouble themselves too much about moral principles or academic freedom, but they cared about food. When the economic situation deteriorated in , leading to food shortages, there was unrest among the working class. But many of these grum- blers would be found eagerly proclaiming their support at the next Nazi rally.

All this should prevent us from attributing too much specialness to the rise of the Nazis. It is not fanciful to draw a parallel between the extreme polarization of political culture in Weimar Germany, which made the country all but ungovernable, and recent political trends in the United States. At any event, the question of how German intel- lectual, scientific and academic cultures fared in the s is not devoid of contemporary relevance. Everywhere friends declare their faith in Adolf Hitler. It is as if an airless stratum surrounds us few who remain unable to make such avowals.

Of my young friends it is the best who now radically proclaim their allegiance to National Socialism. They run around in the plain Hitler Youth uniform, radiant with happiness and pride.

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That was clear enough from its leader's early manifesto Mein Kampf. The Jewish people, with all its apparent intellectual qualities, is never- theless without any true culture, especially without a culture of its own. For the sham culture which the Jew possesses today is the prop- erty of other peoples, and is mostly spoiled in his hands. Of course, anti-Semitism was already deeply ingrained in the culture of the German-speaking nations.

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Gustav Mahler's travails as director of the Vienna Court Opera from to are but one well-known example: even after converting to Catholicism as many of Jewish origin did , he was relentlessly attacked by the press on ethnic grounds. Vienna was particularly nasty, but there was little there that would raise eyebrows throughout Germany. A homo- sexual and something of a hack who could write fast and with versatility, he appeared to dislike the National Socialists, and helped to hide his Jewish secretary.

Yet some of his fiction and screenplays written during the Nazi era were approved by the authorities, and Goebbels in particular defended him - a favour that Ebermayer repaid after the war by co-authoring a biography of Goebbels called Evil Genius.

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In the late nineteenth century the Berlin-based historian, politician and philosopher Heinrich von Treitschke, a member of the Reichstag, publicly supported anti-Jewish sentiment and accused the German Jews of failing to assimilate. While Treitschke did not actually voice this opinion, merely writing that it was one heard all over Germany, it's not clear that he would have disagreed with it. To both Jews and non-Jews in Germany, Nazi anti-Semitism must have seemed, at least initially, just more of the same.

As the Jewish writer Joseph Roth commented bitterly, writing in exile from Paris in the autumn of , If you want to understand the burning of the books, you must under- stand that the current Third Reich is a logical extension of the Prussian empire of Bismarck and the Hohenzollerns, and not any sort of reac- tion to the poor German republic with its feeble German Democrats and Social Democrats.

Even shortly after the war, when the realities of the Final Solution had become known, one survey indicated that about one in five Germans agreed with Hitler's treatment of the Jews and another one in five were broadly in favour but felt that he went too far.

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Germany was not alone in any of this, as the Dreyfus affair in France illustrated. But although distrust of the Jews was widespread in Europe, it didn't have the same flavour everywhere. We are apt now to make the assumption that anti-Semitism was a clearly defined and uniform position associated with the conservative right, predicated on a general disparagement of non-European races, and opposed when at all for moral reasons. But none of these things is generally true.

One could, for example, identify with many liberal beliefs while indulging pronounced, even virulent anti-Semitism. There was no social stigma, no self-censorship, that might restrain one from casually expressing anti-Semitic sentiments, any more than other forms of prejudice and stereotyping.

Yet German liberalism, more than that of other European nations, found particular room for dislike of Jews. Especially after the First World War, there was widespread doubt in Germany that ethnic minorities could ever be assimilated - or at the very least, assimila- tion was considered the price of social acceptance. The German political writer Paul Rohrbach provides a good example of how such attitudes were expressed among intellectuals. Having travelled exten- sively in Asia and Africa, he had a high regard for Chinese and Japa- nese culture, and was optimistic about the development prospects of Africa.

He held socially progressive views, particularly concerning the status of women.

Serving the Reich

Yet he was a strong patriot, convinced of the need to preserve national honour, and bigoted about race. The Jewish question' was regarded as a matter of politics, not morality. One might debate it in much the same spirit as one discussed the conduct of trade, war or taxation. Like racism today, it could be seen as nothing personal: you could lament an excessive Jewish influence on politics and commerce, or perpetuate anti- Semitic stereotypes, while enjoying good friendships with Jews.

Hjalmar Schacht, Hitler's economic minister, offers an interesting case study of the complexities of anti-Semitism at this time. He was imprisoned after the failed assassination plot of June and sent to Dachau, but survived. Schacht was instinctively averse to racial hatred, and was frequently reprimanded by party officials for speaking out against attacks on Jews and their property.

He argued against some anti-Semitic measures on the grounds that they would weaken Germany domestically and isolate it abroad. He was acquitted at the trials, and later became an adviser to developing countries on economic development. We can find liberals quietly acquiescing to a pervasive anti-Semitism, and on the other hand some prejudiced people driven by the Nazi excesses into defending the Jews.

Few scientists actually served in the Nazi administration; but few, too, spoke out publicly against the regime and actively opposed it. Does this make them better or worse than Schacht?

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Why go looking for trouble? To be an Aryan', one needed to prove that both parents and grand- parents were of Aryan stock - that is, non Jewish.! This meant that people who were formally a quarter Jewish were exempt. The laws also forbade intermar- riage or sexual relations between Jews and Aryans. In practice these exceptions were subject to the whims of the officials.

Warren Weaver describes one veteran scientist, wounded at the front, who was given the impossible task of proving his war record within twenty-four hours to avoid being sacked. In Germany in the s that was by no means clear. Even those who did speak out against Jewish exclusion were mostly careful to emphasize that it was the principle of discrimination that they contested, rather than that they were favourably disposed towards Jews.

They typically sought to defend Jewish friends and colleagues, not some universal human right of Jewry.

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Even that feeling waned as the anti- Semitic laws made Jews ever less evident in daily life: their very invis- ibility helped to promote the lethal indifference that permitted Auschwitz. This situation was more acute than for the other sciences because physics, being a relatively new subject, had been less afflicted with the prejudices that militated against the advancement of those with Jewish heritage in more conservative and traditional disciplines.

Many of these names are now attached to physical laws and principles, institutes, awards, chemical elements: it is a roster of Germanic pre-eminence in mid-twentieth-century physics. Some of those affected left the country at once; Einstein was in the United 56 Serving the Reich States when Hitler came to power, and vowed not to return. Others, like Peierls, had seen which way the wind was blowing and already taken posts abroad.

One or two, like Meitner, managed to stay for several years more, at increasing personal risk. German theoretical physics was decimated. At the University of Gottingen, a major centre for this young discipline, a quarter of the faculty was lost.

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Hardcover , pages. He did not lack responsibility. Sign in. Heisenberg sought official approval while refusing to recognize the consequences of his accommodations. They run around in the plain Hitler Youth uniform, radiant with happiness and pride. Poor Haber left Germany a broken man. After the war most scientists in Germany maintained they had been apolitical or even resisted the regime: Debye claimed that he had gone to America to escape Nazi interference in his research; Heisenberg and others argued that they had deliberately delayed production of the atomic bomb.

Often the dismissals were imposed in the most offhand and brutal way. The biochemist Hans Krebs at Freiburg, a student of Otto Warburg, was told without a moment's warning to get out of the laboratory and never set foot in it again. Krebs went to Cambridge, and won a Nobel Prize twenty years later. The response of the German scientific community to these edicts looks today disturbingly compliant. Even a cynic would have to doubt that a governmental ban on racial minorities in the university posts of a modern European country would fail to incite mass protests and resignations.

But in Germany in there was little more than private expressions of dismay, almost always with reference to the harm that was being done to German intellectual status and international repu- tation rather than to moral values.