Hitler's Scientists: Science, War, and the Devil's Pactby John Cornwell
An eye-opening account of the rise of science in Germany through to Hitler’s regime, and the frightening Nazi experiments that occurred during the Reich
A shocking account of Nazi science, and a compelling look at the the dramatic rise of German science in the nineteenth century, its preeminence in the early twentieth, and the frightening developments that… See more details below
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An eye-opening account of the rise of science in Germany through to Hitler’s regime, and the frightening Nazi experiments that occurred during the Reich
A shocking account of Nazi science, and a compelling look at the the dramatic rise of German science in the nineteenth century, its preeminence in the early twentieth, and the frightening developments that led to its collapse in 1945, this is the compelling story of German scientists under Hitler’s regime. Weaving the history of science and technology with the fortunes of war and the stories of men and women whose discoveries brought both benefits and destruction to the world, Hitler's Scientists raises questions that are still urgent today. As science becomes embroiled in new generations of weapons of mass destruction and the war against terrorism, as advances in biotechnology outstrip traditional ethics, this powerful account of Nazi science forms a crucial commentary on the ethical role of science.
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Hitler's ScientistsScience, War, and the Devil's Pact
By John Cornwell
Penguin BooksCopyright © 2004 John Cornwell
All right reserved.
Chapter OneHitler the Scientist
On his twenty-seventh birthday, 23 March 1939, Wernher von Braun, Germany's brilliant young rocket engineer, met Adolf Hitler for the first time. The F|hrer had agreed to be briefed on the progress of the army's advanced ballistic missile programme at Kummersdorf West, a research facility south of Berlin.
Walter Dornberger, von Braun's superior, has left an eye-witness impression of Hitler's encounter with one of the most significant high-tech inventions of the century. It was, he reported, 'a cold, wet day, with an overcast sky and water still dripping from the rain-drenched pines'. Hitler's thoughts seemed elsewhere. 'His remarkably tanned features, the unsightly snub nose, little black moustache and extremely thin lips showed no sort of interest in what we were to show him.' Dornberger put on a series of demonstrations of roaring rockets and guidance systems to impress his F|hrer: he demonstrated the power of a 650-pound thrust rocket motor, then showed off one with a 2,200-pound thrust for comparison. But Hitler 'kept his eyes steadfastly fixed on me', wrote Dornberger. 'I still don't know whether he understood what I was talking about.'
Next the young von Braun, a fleshy-looking young man of Junker stock, gave a presentation of the internal workings of an A3 rocket using a cutaway model; Hitler apparently listened, closely at first, but then stalked off shaking his head as if uncomprehending. Another static demonstration took place, this time with an A5, which was to precede in development a much larger and more sophisticated missile-the A4, the army's missile of choice as a long-range weapon.
At lunch Dornberger sat diagonally opposite Hitler. 'As he ate his mixed vegetables and drank his habitual glass of Fachingen mineral water ... [Hitler] chatted with Becker about what they had seen,' wrote Dornberger. 'I couldn't tell much from what was said, but he seemed a little more interested than during the demonstration or immediately after.' Later Hitler made the laconic remark, 'Es war doch gewaltig!' (That was tremendous). Dornberger remained puzzled. The visit had seemed 'strange' to him, 'if not downright unbelievable'. Dornberger had been used to visitors being 'enraptured, thrilled, and carried away by the spectacle', like Luftwaffe chief Hermann Goering, who, on being shown the rocket hardware, leaped about laughing and slapping his thighs with unrestrained glee.
Reflecting on the episode after the war, Dornberger wrote that Hitler did not grasp the significance of missile technology for the future. 'He could not fit the rocket into his plans, and what was worse for us at that time, did not believe the time was ripe for it. He certainly had no feeling for technological progress, upon which the basic conditions for our work depended.'
The episode encapsulates Hitler's approach to new technology: his tendency to make decisions in isolation, depending on the certitude of his personal intuition and inspiration, rather than on the basis of careful inquiry and the conclusions of committees. As it happened, Hitler was right to be suspicious of the imminent effectiveness of ballistic missiles in 1939; nor did his apparent lukewarm reaction indicate an unwillingness, as Dornberger infers, to fund further research, at first on a medium level of priority. In time, however, the story of the F|hrer's decisions and ambitions for the Nazi rocket programme-a technology in which Germany was a generation ahead of the rest of the world-would reveal profound flaws in his capacities as leader of one of the most advanced scientific nations. Hitler became seriously interested in rockets only at a point when defeat seemed inevitable: the deployment of the V2 was to be no more an act of ritualistic vengeance, a gesture of what the novelist Thomas Mann described as 'technological romanticism', than a rational strategy that could help win the war.
Hitler's Bio-political Rhetoric
Hitler's knowledge and appreciation of science and technology were warped, degenerate and profoundly racist. At the Nuremberg trials of the Nazi leadership, Albert Speer, Hitler's architect and his Armaments Minister from February 1942, proclaimed that he, Speer, was 'the most important representative of a technocracy which had showed no compunction in applying all its know-how against humanity'. In a statement to the judge, Speer commented that in a mechanized age dictatorships required, and had produced, a type of individual who took orders uncritically. 'The nightmare of many people that some day nations will be dominated by technology,' he declared, 'almost came true in Hitler's authoritarian system. Every state in the world is now in danger of being terrorized by technology. But this seems inevitable in a modern dictatorship. Hence: the more demanding individual freedom and the self-awareness of the individual. The former Nazi minister had revealed no such refined ratiocinations while serving the Third Reich, yet faced with the hangman's noose he admitted the insidious exploitation of science and technology in Hitler's totalitarian state, while intimating future dangers for the victors of World War II.
What was absent, however, from his 'confession', which alludes principally to weapons technology, communications and the media, was an acknowledgement that Adolf Hitler's view of science, at its most influential at the outset of the regime, featured crude borrowings from the ambit of pathology and racist 'genetics', to articulate his notion of the German nation state and its destiny. Hitler's favoured rhetorical metaphors, as he rose to power, have been described as 'bio-political'. Hitler subscribed to the idea of the German nation state as a type of anatomy, subject to circumstances of health and disease like the human body.
Hitler betrayed a profound ignorance of Mendelism and particulate inheritance. His 'biological' notions of race evidently found their origins in Joseph Arthur de Gobineau, the French nineteenth-century man of letters and early exponent of racial theory, and a tradition of latter-day racist 'philosophers': Houston Stewart Chamberlain, Erwin Baur, Eugen Fischer and Fritz Lenz. Hitler believed that the purity of the Germanic-Aryan race had been compromised through a 'blending process'. The task ahead was to encourage and preserve uncontaminated stocks of Aryan blood.
By 1925, as Hitler completed his political testament Mein Kampf, the racist epithets of Teutonic supremacy, culled from the pamphlets of his lean days in Vienna, were giving way to a vulgarized version of geopolitics, Lebensraum-the quest for living space, allied to pseudo-scientific quasi-medical imagery. He harped on the introduction of undesirable hereditary strains into the healthy Nordic body, the Volkskvrper, and extraneous factors operating like pathogens. Jews were invaders, undermining the integrity of the German organism-bacilli, cancers, gangrene, tumours, abscesses. His political programme was seen in terms of cures, surgery, purging and antidotes. He lamented in 1925 that the state did not have the means to 'master the disease' which was penetrating the 'bloodstream of our people unhindered'. Such ideas, bogus as they were pernicious, culled from the so-called discipline of racial hygiene, contained inevitable propensities towards solutions which saw the German Volk as a patient, the Jew as a sickness and Hitler as the beneficent physician.
The images of Jews as a disease were all too familiar by the mid-1930s as the ideological bio-political content merged with Nazi medical science. The cofounder of the Nazi Physicians League, Kurt Klare, talked of the 'decomposing influence of Jewry'. The vvlkisch body was in need of 'cleansing', according to the physician and Nazi plenipotentiary Dr Gerhard Wagner. Hence the race laws of 1935 were underpinned by images of immunity and calls for radical therapy, the 'cauterizing of the tumour'. By 1940, Hitler was seen as the great 'healer'. In a basic text, explaining the necessity of the invasion of Poland, the Nazi publicist Ernst Hiemer declared that from Poland 'these Jewish bacilli crossed over to us, bringing the Jewish sickness to our land. Our people almost died from this sickness, had Adolf Hitler not delivered us in the nick of time.' As the war progressed, the bio-rhetoric saw the convergence of images that argued a continuity between medical metaphor and prophylactic realism, hastening to an inevitable conclusion. Jews were not only a parasitical invasion of the host body of Germanhood, they were responsible, it was claimed, for actual current epidemics in the East requiring immediate isolation and quarantine-degenerate euphemisms for the ghettos and the camps. In the pathological paradox that frequently attends science as salvation, the purveyors of death thus become those who respect and preserve human life. Just as a physician acts to cut away an infected appendix from a patient, the 'Jew', as declared by Auschwitz physician Fritz Klein, 'is the gangrenous appendix in the body of mankind'.
Hitler and the Bomb
As Hitler's thoughts turned to the conquest of Europe, however, his need to understand the power and scope of applied science and technology for war-making assumed a practical urgency. He was keenly interested in weapons and quick to grasp how a piece of equipment worked. It was often remarked that he could rephrase a long-winded technical account with a terse, highly accurate summary. Speer wrote that Hitler 'was antimodern in decisions on armaments'. Hitler opposed the machine gun because, according to Speer, 'it made soldiers cowardly and made close combat impossible'. He was against jet propulsion, because he thought its extreme speed was an obstacle to aerial combat, and distrusted German attempts to develop an atomic bomb, calling such efforts, according to Speer, 'a spawn of Jewish pseudo-science'.
On 23 June 1942, Albert Speer discussed the atomic bomb with Hitler. Speer wrote in his memoirs that the F|hrer's intellectual capacity was quite obviously strained by the idea, and that 'he was unable to grasp the revolutionary nature of nuclear physics'. Speer noted that out of 2,200 points raised in his conferences with Hitler, nuclear fission was raised only once and then only briefly. Hitler, it seemed, had acquired a garbled version of atomic science from his photographer, Heinrich Hoffmann, who in turn had picked it up from a minister who was sponsoring an atomic research project for the Post Office. Speer, meanwhile, reported that the head of the official nuclear research programme, Werner Heisenberg, had been unable to confirm that a chain reaction could be controlled 'with absolute certainty'. There had been suspicions among the scientists that a chain reaction, a release of massive energy in fissile material by the instantaneous splitting of its atomic structure, once started, would continue on through the material of the entire planet. Speer wrote that in consequence Hitler was 'plainly not delighted with the possibility that the earth under his rule might be transformed into a glowing star'. Hitler, Speer went on, liked to joke that the scientists 'in their unworldly urge to lay bare all the secrets under heaven might some day set the globe on fire'.
Yet when Hitler invaded Poland in September 1939 there were physicists in Germany who knew at least as much, if not more, than the Anglo-Americans, and who were organizing research programmes for harnessing the power of the atom as a weapon. In fact, it had been a German, Otto Hahn in Berlin, assisted by Fritz Strassmann, with crucial input from Lise Meitner and her nephew Otto Frisch, who first discovered nuclear fission, or the splitting of the atom, in December of the previous year, even though it had probably been first achieved, unwittingly, by Enrico Fermi in Italy.
At the same time, at Peenem|nde on the Baltic coast some 200 miles north of Berlin, the German army had by 1939 gathered hundreds of scientists and engineers with unprecedented research and development facilities to create and mass-produce supersonic rockets to enable Hitler to strike at his enemies hundreds of miles distant. In the last year of the war the rocket scientists were drawing up plans for booster rockets that would carry payloads as far as 400 miles and even beyond. Had the Third Reich been first to construct an explosive nuclear device, or even a 'dirty bomb' composed of conventional explosive and radioactive materials, it is likely that its first employment against an enemy would have involved delivery by long-range guided missile, and history would have been very different. There can be little doubt that Hitler would have used an atom bomb had he possessed one. Albert Speer remembers Hitler's reaction to the final scene of a newsreel in the autumn of 1939. In montage a plane dives towards the British Isles: 'A flash followed, and the island blew up in smithereens.' Speer wrote that Hitler's enthusiasm was unbounded. Similarly, when Walter Dornberger, head of the German rocket development project, spoke with Hitler about the potential of ballistic missiles in the summer of 1943, a 'strange, fanatical light' came into the F|hrer's eyes. Hitler declared: 'What I want is annihilation-annihilating effect.'
Historians of science have argued to this day about the feasibility of a Nazi atomic bomb. It is clear that Hitler's scientists had not overcome the main technological problems by the end of the war; it is also apparent that Germany lacked the matiriel, the manpower and economic resources necessary to develop such a weapon during the war. Hitler's racist policies, moreover, had resulted in the dismissal of hundreds of key Jewish physicists, skilled in theoretical and nuclear physics. Hitler's ignorance of science and technology, scientists and engineers, as well as the grotesquely inefficient and corrupt 'polycratic' nature of the power structures of the Third Reich, undermined Germany's ability to win a long-term war based on sophisticated science and technology calling for massive resources. The Manhattan Project, the American atom bomb programme, involved two separate paths-a uranium bomb and a plutonium bomb-while the research and development involved some 150,000 personnel and an expenditure of $2 billion at the time. America could call on these vast resources without strain. With Germany, lacking capacity in every area of weapons production, the case would have been different.
But Germany's failures in science and technology were systemic and wide-ranging. When Hitler went to war in 1939, Germany's education system, once the envy of the world, was in chaos, along with the country's national policies for the fostering and exploitation of science and technology.
Excerpted from Hitler's Scientists by John Cornwell Copyright © 2004 by John Cornwell. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
John Cornwell is in the department of history and philosophy of science at Cambridge University. He is a regular feature writer at the Sunday Times (London) and the author and editor of four books on science, including Power to Harm, on the Louisville Prozac trial, as well as Hitler's Pope: The Secret History of Pius XII and Breaking Faith: Can the Catholic Church Save Itself?
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