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

2016/07/27

While several German religious leaders, writers and artists, industrialists and politicians mounted strong opposition to Nazi rule at great personal cost, sometimes of their lives, there was nothing comparable to be found in German science.

I stumbled upon the book thanks to this article that mostly dealt with the effort of constructing an Aryan version of Physics. What an interesting book. By using the stories of giants like Max Planck, Peter Debye and Werner Heisenberg during the Nazi rule the author explores the apolitical stance many scientists used to have (and depending the field continue to adopt) on the results of their work and the repercussions of them being used. Planck remained glued to the Fatherland regardless of who was ruling it (and whether being true to the Fatherland), Debye tried to walk though the rain without getting wet and Heisenberg with the arrogance that came with his ability tried to rebuild German Physics by assuming the role of its curator.

Together with these we learn of the noble stance by Max von Laue and Fritz Strassman  (“I value my personal freedom so highly, that to preserve it I would brake stones”) and the grey stance of the rest who stayed and did science within the regime. Even Lise Meitner and Debye left at the very last moment they could. Correspondence between many prominent scientists from the beginning of the Nazi rule till after WWII is also included. Very interesting points of view and commentary of the situation these people were in.

While you cannot completely enjoy the book without remembering your Physics, you will highly enjoy the questions of ethics and moral compass that it poses. I know it troubled me and it makes me answer questions about the work I am doing and the sector it applies too daily. And DevOps is not exactly science yet.

While the stories we read about for 11 or so chapters serve largely as a preamble to the fantastic epilogue on Science and Ethics, they do describe the situation we are in today and questions we need to answer. Prior to reading the book I used the get a bit sad when a scientist or an engineer I admired failed me on other standards that I supposed they were concurrently holding. I do not get sad any more. Within the realm of politics they are equally fallible like the rest of us.

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