Friday, August 25, 2017

The Relative Reich

There weren't really any songs about Nazis that I could tastefully used as a title, so I improvised this week.  I assume that most of you have, at some point, watched a movie where Evil Nazi ScientistTM does Evil Nazi Science.  The Evil Nazi science might have been aimed at creating a devastating new weapon, or a race of super soldiers, or a four dimensional power cube, but regardless, it would change the course of the war and is up to our intrepid (American) hero to stop him.  

Not to be too farcical.  Nazi science was absolutely a real thing, and that's what we're talking about today.  The Nazi party, under the direction of Dr. Josef Mengele, engaged in horrific human experimentation.  I'm not going to go into that, because a) most people are somewhat aware of these experiments and b) I don't want to do the research into that, because there are some things you just don't want to read.  Ever.  So instead, I'm talking about a very different kind of Nazi science (that I'll still be able to sleep after): Deutsche Physik.

"Deutsche Physik" literally means "German physics", and was a direct result of the interaction between ego, scientific controversy, and nationalism.  A lot of the scientific sentiment I'll be writing about today is deeply and inescapably entwined with larger, historical patterns in Germany at the time, and I'll do my best to add historical context as we go.  While ideas of nationalism had been percolating through German elites since the 1600s, nationalism in the form that is usually associated with the World Wars began really spreading through the German population in the late-19th century, driven by Prussian authoritarianism after military unification of Germany in 1871.1 This nationalism emphasized the ideals of the German crusaders of the Teutonic Order (1198-1525) as a basis for a national identity- the ideas of willpower, loyalty, honesty, and perseverance.2  Also important to our story is the emphasis on pro-Protestant, anti-Catholic ideas in nationalist philosophy.3  German nationalists began to use modified scientific theories, such a social Darwinism and the idea that races are fundamentally biologically different, as a way of cementing their beliefs.4  Nationalism, not just of Germany, was one of the major causes of WWI, starting with the building of tensions between ethnic groups within countries, leading up to Archduke Franz Ferdinand being assassinated by a Serbian nationalist that was the spark for the whole thing.

Symbolism of the Teutonic order was integrated into Nazi symbolism

By the start of WWI, these nationalist ideas had found their way into universities, specifically into the fields of physics and math, fueled by disagreements between German and non-German physicists.  On August 25, 1914, the German army burned the library of the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven (Catholic University of Leuven) in Belgium.  This made book lovers everywhere and British scientists very angry.  Eight British scientists, five of whom were Nobel laureates (including Alexander Fleming, who developed the first antibiotics, and JJ Thompson, who discovered subatomic particles), wrote a letter in protest of the burning of the library.  One of the signees was Sir Oliver Lodge, who was exceptionally good at producing children (he had twelve) and being involved in scientific feuds, and this was no exception.5

Sixteen German physicists, led by Nobel Prize winner Wilhelm Wien, reacted to the British document with an appeal of their own, directed not at the British scientists, but rather at German scientists and scientific publishers, stating that they could no longer facilitate productive scientific interactions with British scientists, and urging four main points: 1) that English scientific literature should not "find stronger consideration" than German science, 2) that German scientists no longer publish in English journals, 3) that German journals only accept papers written in German, and 4) that public money is not spent translating articles.6  This was followed up by the "Manifesto of the Ninety-Three", in which 93 prominent German scientists and artists gave their full support to German military action in Belgium.7  Given that the international community had taken to calling the invasion "The Rape of Belgium", that was probably not the right side of the issue to be on, but that didn't stop a further wave of nationalism from sweeping through German universities following the declaration.  This nationalistic movement was just a reflection of what was happening across Germany.  After WWI, there was another surge of nationalism, as many Germans felt wronged by foreign actors through the terms of the Treaty of Versailles.
Burning of "un-German" books
As WWI raged on, there was another intellectual war being fought.  Einstein's special theory of relativity was published in 1905, followed up by his general theory of relativity in 1915.  Special relativity was, for all intents and purposes, revolutionary.  In fact, the abovementioned Wilhelm Wein actually nominated Einstein, along with Hendrik Lorentz, who developed the mathematical equations underlying the theory, for a Nobel Prize (they did not receive it).8  Despite the general acceptance of the theory of relativity, underlying anti-Semitic tensions led to some rejecting the theory on personal, as opposed to scientific grounds.  Galvanizing anti-Semitic publisher Theodor Fritsch wrote about the role of the "Jewish spirit" in relativity, and went on to discuss the negative consequences of this spirit, an idea that was picked up and propagated by the far-right press.9  Engineer Paul Weyland organized an entire society, the aptly named Anti-Einstein Society, based on conservative and anti-Semitic scientists who disagreed with the theory of relativity (though they only had one meeting).10  The Wikipedia page on Weyland has only one line, which reads "Weyland was a key figure involved in organising an anti-semitic campaign against relativity. He was later granted American citizenship.", which, frankly, sounds about right.11  Many believed that the only reason the theory of relativity was becoming so popular, and Einstein himself a celebrity, was that Jews controlled the media.11  Wilhem Muller called relativity a "Jewish affair" that corresponded to the "Jewish essence".  Bruno Thuring emphasized the correspondence between relativity and the Talmud, one of the central texts of Judaism.12

Philipp Lenard
And so, a group of scientists in Germany, led by Philipp Lenard and Johannes Stark, began a movement that would control their Jewish relativity problem- creating a new physics, a German, Aryan physics. Deutsche Physik.  Deutsche Physik emphasized all things German and suppressed all things Jewish.  Lenard contrasted "Aryan physics or physics by man of Nordic kind" with "formal dogmatic Jewish-physics".13  Aryan physics was marked by rigorous experimentation and tangible proof, while the Jewish spirited physics was more based on ideas, theory, and equations.  It was a difference between discovery and proposal.  It was the representation of German nationalism in science, that science that isn't done in done in keeping with the German method, indeed much of theoretical physics, was fraudulent.  It sought to oppose this fraudulent, anti-German thought by simply pretending it didn't exist.  Movement member Rudolf Tomaschek rewrote Grimsehl's Lehrbuch der Physik, to remove all mentions of Jewish physics, even among conversation where it was almost impossible to avoid.  For example, the book discussed Lorentz's mathematical equations, but made no mention of relativity, how the equations were applied, or Einstein himself.14  

As the Nazi party came to power in the 1920s, the movement began to gain even more steam.  A German mathematics journal, Deutsche Mathematik, was published following the same ideals.15  It wasn't just Jewish scientists that were getting left out- "honorary Jews", essentially anyone who agreed with Einstein, were also having their contributions cut from scientific thinking.16  With the endorsement of the Nazi party, Lenard and Stark began a campaign aimed at eliminating Jewish physicists at German universities with Aryan physicists.  This plan never came to exact fruition, though the outcome was identical, due to the implementation of the 1935 Nuremberg Laws, which forbade Jews from working in universities, as well as a number of other businesses.17

In the end, Deutsche Physik fell out of favor, in large part due to the upper echelons of the Nazi party.  Theoretical physics, Jewish physics, turned out to have some extraordinarily important weapons implications- as long as no one mentioned Einstein or Bohr.  

The story of Deutsche Physik is one from the 1910s to 1940s, but similar patterns are cropping up again today.  Extreme nationalism.  Censoring scientific findings due to political ideology.  Believing that the media are controlled by liberals and Jews and only spreading their ideologies.  Politics over truth.  Letting petty squabbles and strained egos drift into policy making.  Rejection of the ideas of "others".  Politics has no place in science.  It's been done.  It failed.  Be different.  Be better. 

Follow me on Twitter and Facebook.  The Facebook page keeps you updated on the blog and new posts, Twitter has links to articles, cool stories, and retweets about the eclipse.  Most importantly, a plea- I'm still getting this blog off the ground, and I'm trying to break into the science communication field.  I would appreciate it so much if you enjoy something you read on here, share it with someone, share the whole blog with someone, retweet me, leave a comment.  Tell someone about me, and tell me about someone you think I might like!  I love what I do, and I would love even more to share it with more people.  


  1. Interesting post. This seems not to have been only a German may have covered this already (I just discovered you), but the Lysenko Affair in the Soviet Union occurred at roughly the same time period and destroyed the study of genetics in that country for decades.

  2. I haven't yet, but I just added it to my list of future topics. Thanks for the tip!!