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Hitler's Scientists: Science, War, and the Devil's Pact

Hitler's Scientists: Science, War, and the Devil's Pact

4.7 3
by John Cornwell

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When Hitler came to power in the 1930s, Germany had led the world in science, mathematics, and technology for nearly four decades. But while the fact that Hitler swiftly pressed Germany's scientific prowess into the service of a brutal, racist, xenophobic ideology is well known, few realize that German scientists had knowingly broken international agreements and basic


When Hitler came to power in the 1930s, Germany had led the world in science, mathematics, and technology for nearly four decades. But while the fact that Hitler swiftly pressed Germany's scientific prowess into the service of a brutal, racist, xenophobic ideology is well known, few realize that German scientists had knowingly broken international agreements and basic codes of morality to fashion deadly weapons even before World War I. In Hitler's Scientists, British historian John Cornwell explores German scientific genius in the first half of the twentieth century and shows how Germany's early lead in the new physics led to the discovery of atomic fission, which in turn led the way to the atom bomb, and how the ideas of Darwinism were hijacked to create the lethal doctrine of racial cleansing.

By the war's end, almost every aspect of Germany's scientific culture had been tainted by the exploitation of slave labor, human experimentation, and mass killings. Ultimately, it was Hitler's profound scientific ignorance that caused the Fatherland to lose the race for atomic weapons, which Hitler would surely have used. Cornwell argues that German scientists should be held accountable for the uses to which their knowledge was put-an issue with wide-ranging implications for the continuing unregulated pursuit of scientific progress.

Author Biography: 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.

Editorial Reviews

The Washington Post
… a comprehensive, well-documented and, above all, thoughtful account of the scientists who served Hitler -- or, at least, Germany -- during the Third Reich. — John Cornwell
Publishers Weekly
Cornwell's devastating bestseller Hitler's Pope is a tough act to follow. Here, the author again claims the moral high ground to critique the ethical and political choices of scientists in Hitler's Germany and to caution that science under the Western democracies in the Cold War and the war on terrorism also wielded and continues to wield the "Janus-faced power for good and evil." Today's best writers on the Hitler era have outgrown the kind of marginalizing polemic Cornwell employs here. His analysis of Nazi science, while built on sound research and often thoughtful critique, sinks to the sensationalism of "Faustian bargains," "scientific prostitutions" and Arendt's "banality of evil." Unsavory concepts are qualified as "pseudo-science," "half-baked," or simply "science" in quotation marks so that the undiscerning reader won't mistake them for the real thing. All the hot-button issues are on display here: racial hygiene; eugenics; the Nazi purge of academia and Germany's forfeiture of its greatest physicists to the Allies because they were Jewish; and human experimentation on concentration camp inmates. The author also details the science of war in Germany, from rockets and secret codes to radar and the atomic bomb, and how the Allies plundered the country's military technology and expertise after the fall of the Third Reich. Cornwell is a gifted writer with a fascinating story to tell, which he ably and engagingly accomplishes despite the hyperbole. But in his pursuit of comfort in right over wrong, the author forfeits objectivity and perhaps a greater understanding of the sources and the whys of the Nazi phenomenon. Despite this,, the author's articulate though subtly lurid repackaging of Nazi-era crimes and curiosities should guarantee much attention and brisk sales with general readers. Illus. not seen by PW. Agent, Bob Lescher. (On sale Oct. 13) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Foreign Affairs
Cornwell, author of the provocative Hitler's Pope, has turned his attention to the German scientific establishment in the Nazi period and to the moral issues raised by the eagerness of prominent scientists to serve the German cause in World War I and under Hitler. Given the prominence of German science in a multitude of fields, it is a fascinating subject. Unfortunately, this is not a satisfactory book. Cornwell mixes chapters about different branches of science — or pseudoscience, like "racial hygiene" — with chapters about the applications of science (poison gas, rockets) and portraits of individual scientists, such as Fritz Haber, the gas maniac and a converted Jew, and Werner Heisenberg, whose mystery (did he deliberately sideline the development of nuclear weapons?) is not dispelled here any more than in Michael Frayn's play Copenhagen. Digressions into postwar relations between Western and German scientists are similarly unoriginal. The result is too much and too superficial. Moral issues are not examined in depth, and Cornwell offers only a glimpse of the diversity of scientists' motives for cooperating with a murderous regime. Only a fraction were true Nazi believers; others were cynics and opportunists, and many behaved as people who simply put their country above all other considerations. Cornwell's look at Western science in the Cold War raises comparisons, but they are too cursory to be more than disturbing.
Library Journal
A common question raised in the many histories of the Third Reich is, Why did the German people comply, despite the regime's obvious brutality? This question is perhaps even more baffling when applied to Germany's scientific community. Early in the 20th century, German science was as advanced as any in the world. Hitler co-opted Germany's genius, purging Jewish scientists and leaving them with no option but flight. The remaining scientists almost universally acquiesced to Hitler's agenda-often in word only, but some embraced the Nazi cause wholeheartedly. Cornwell, an historian and author of the controversial Hitler's Pope, focuses more on the effects than the causes of scientific racism. His book is a broad survey of Nazi science, in all fields, with details on some of its more heinous aspects. There are no bombshell revelations; for example, it comes as no surprise that Hitler twisted Darwinian theory to suit his purposes. Even if we acknowledge that the scientists were under enormous pressure, the vexing issue of why they behaved as they did remains unresolved. Therein, Cornell might argue, lies the problem, for science in the service of government contains an inherent conflict of interest. For academic and larger public library collections in the history and sociology of science. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 6/15/03.]-Gregg Sapp, Science Lib., SUNY Albany Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A timely study of the world’s first great scientific-military-industrial complex. Ideally, observes Cornwell (History/Cambridge Univ.; Hitler’s Pope, 2001, etc.), science is about the free exchange of ideas and information for the social good. Such qualities marked German science throughout the Enlightenment and into the 20th century. But even before the rise of the Nazi regime, German scientists were busy developing theories to prove the supposed superiority of their people—and, of course, perfecting plenty of death-dealing technologies. When Hitler came to power and pressed science and industry into the service of the state, many of those scientists, "notably doctors and anthropologists," obliged—promulgating, among other things, a nationwide anti-smoking campaign in the bargain. Many other scientists fled, including some of the nation’s best physicists and chemists. To counter the brain drain, Cornwell writes, the renowned scientist Max Planck called on Hitler to plead "that certain Jewish scientists were worth nurturing for the benefit of the state"—which Hitler rejected, saying, "A Jew is a Jew." Germany’s loss was the Allies’ gain in such critical areas as cryptography and, of course, the development of nuclear weaponry, which, Cornwell observes, Hitler was not much interested in anyway, in keeping with what Albert Speer remarked was his "antimodern" stance "in decisions on armaments." Anti-modern in most other aspects of science, Hitler nonetheless kept legions of scientists busy, forging strong links among the Reich’s death and labor camps and Germany’s universities, research facilities, and hospitals. Cornwell’s account is mainly straightforward, and he rightlypoints out how pseudo-science came to dominate pure science as the Third Reich evolved. Ever the controversialist, he closes with a rhetorical likening of modern politicized and militarized science to that practiced under Hitler’s regime—save that, he writes, scientists in those days could emigrate, whereas today "in the globalized domains of science and technology there are no oases of irresponsible purity into which a scientist can retreat." A lucid survey synthesizing a broad range of historical research. Author tour. Agent: Bob Lescher
From the Publisher
Wide ranging and accessible . . . [A] disturbing and important account. (The Economist)

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Viking Adult
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Hitler's Scientists

Science, War, and the Devil's Pact
By John Cornwell

Penguin Books

Copyright © 2004 John Cornwell
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0142004804

Chapter One

Hitler 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.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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From the Publisher
Wide ranging and accessible . . . [A] disturbing and important account. (The Economist)

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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Hitler's Scientists: Science, War, and the Devil's Pact 4.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Don't get distracted by the title! When I noticed it while browsing in the book store in an airport, I was at first worried that this would another one of these overly opinionated books, more interested in imposing a view on me the poor reader than in good writing, and in letting me make up my own mind. I started reading in the plane, and was pleased to find that the author manages to paint a captivating portrait of a group of German scientists who were faced with a Faustian choice; Fritz Haber (poison gas), Werner von Braun (rockets), Werner Heisenberg (atomic bomb), Otto Hahn (fission), Max von Laue (nuclear physics) to mention only a few. For the most part, the book reads like a novel, and with his superb writing, the author Cornwell brings the characters to life. Many of the German scientists in the 1930ties were Jewish, or partly Jewish, and they were dismissed by Hitler in 1933, or the years up to the war. Many of them emigrated, and others ended up in concentration camps. Some ( Albert Einstein, John von Neumann, Hans Bethe, and more) went to the USA, and became the core of the team, the Manhattan Project who built the first atomic bomb, the one used by the US government against Japan in 1945. The bigger picture in Cornwell's book is the role of ethics in science. By weaving together the individuals, their thoughts, their ambitions, and their flawed judgments, Cornwell is not excusing anyone, but rather, he is helping us understand that we all must take responsibility for our actions. We can perhaps understand how present day scientists, and in fact all of us are faced with Faustian choices of our own. I liked this one of Cornwell's books a lot better than his perhaps better known one, `Hitler's Pope'. It had me hooked from the start, and I couldn't put it down. Cornwell is not just relying on old historical sources. Since Michael Frayn's play `Copenhagen' a few years ago about the meeting in Copenhagen in the fall of 1941 between Werner Heisenberg and Niels Bohr, new documents have been made available from Bohr's archives which help us understand Heisenberg's motives better. Cornwell displays a remarkable judgment in making use of them My reading of Heisenberg: If you accept a dinner invitation with the Devil, it is best to eat with a tea spoon. While Heisenberg, a humanist at heart may have understood this, at least initially, he soon found himself, perhaps as a result of blind ambition, eating at the trough with both hands deep into the stew, all the way up to his elbows. It is perhaps ironic that the theme of the Faustian choice has a prominent place in German literature, from the medieval 'Faustus' tale to Goethe, Weber's Freischuetz, to Martin Luther's Protestantism, and to Thomas Mann's Doctor Faustus (Mann's moral despair over his country's complacent embrace of Nazism). In fact the theme of Cornwell's novel is universal, and it is as timely now as it was 60 years ago, and even 300 years ago. Review by Palle Jorgensen, May 2005.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
At first I thought this was going to be another very prejudiced war book. With the cover of the book looking like something out of a horror movie and the title having a reference to a pact with the devil, this book looked like a very one sided argument. The first few pages were very dry and pretty boring, but as you get into it you get sucked in. I think it's more of a fact book, written as a story. It's engaging and talks about not only the American side, but of the trials the scientists had to endure. It would be a great book to read because of its unbiased position. Throughout the book it talks about the hardships the scientists had to face. Most of them didn't volunteer, and were simply told that if they didn't work for the Nazis, then they would be killed. I loved the details and the truth of it, and didn't really have any complaints other than how long this book was. Overall I would give it 8.3 out of 10.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This was the kind of book that you had to read it like you were watching a documentary. Personally it took me awhile to get through it. Good for cold and dreary days. I am pleased to have it in my library. There was plenty to learn from this book.