The Extensive Banality of Evil

We had a very late colloquium talk on Monday– on the next-to-last day of our fall term exam period, so student turnout was a little disappointing– by the science historian Dieter Hoffmann from the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, who was in town visiting a colleague in our history department. He told us the story of Fritz Reiche, a student of Max Planck’s whoc ended up having a Union College connection (which was a part of why Hoffmann wanted to give the talk).

Reiche did his Ph.D. under Planck, in 1907, then spent time at a few other great institutions in Germany, eventually becoming a full professor in Breslau in 1921. While there, he wrote a book on the “old” quantum theory (not yet “old,” of course, but soon to be supplanted by matrix mechanics and the Schödinger equation) that was well received and somewhat influential– Hideki Yukawa apparently mentioned it as an important book for him. He made some contributions to the development of the theory, and was fairly successful there, until 1933 when the Nazis took power and expelled him and all other Jewish faculty from their university posts. He returned to Berlin, where he had family, and stayed there until the spring of 1941.

This is, in many ways, a familiar story– the Nazis drove any number of physicists out of mainland Europe, to their own detriment and the lasting benefit of American physics. What’s interesting about it is that I’d never heard of Reiche before. He apparently has his name on an equation– “the Thomas-Reiche-Kuhn sum rule”– but I’m not enough of a theorist to have any idea what that is. And while he was friendly with a lot of famous people– in the aftermath of the Kristallnacht attacks, Otto Hahn and Lise Meitner sent a telegram to Rudolf Ladenburg in Princeton requesting that he be ready to mobilize help if Reiche turned out to be one of the people swept up in the purge, and when he got to the US, he spent a while living with Einstein in Princeton– he’s not a Big Name in physics.

His career in exile wasn’t anything spectacular– he had a few temporary position in New York, including a two-year stint at Union funded by the US Navy’s V-12 Program, then after the war spent the rest of his career in soft money positions at NYU and the Courant Institute for Mathematical Science. A big step down from a full professor in Breslau, but since Breslau ended up in Poland– it’s now Wrocław– he couldn’t very well go back there.

So, like I said, what’s interesting about Reiche’s story is that it’s a sad reminder that WWII had effects well outside the heroic narrative of the Big Name physicists. Everybody knows about the major figures who fled and ended up in important roles elsewhere– Wigner, Bohr and Fermi ended up working on the Manhattan Project; Einstein landed in Princeton and made the Institute for Advanced Study what it became; Eamon de Valera personally intervened to create a job for Schrödinger, and so on. But there are surely hundreds of stories like Reiche’s, and even sadder– people whose names don’t show up in Feynman’s rousing tales of Los Alamos shenanigans, or in chairs created especially for them by heads of state. People who lost their carefully constructed careers, and ended up on soft money in another country, or worse.

To be sure, there’s a degree of banality in reminding people that the Nazis were really, really bad for pretty much everything they came in contact with. But as the war recedes farther and farther into the past, it’s easy to fall into thinking of the science side of things purely in terms of the heroic stories– the people who were driven out and ended up getting some scientific revenge working for the Allies. But those can sort of obscure the total awfulness of everything that happened during that period; for every Bohr and Fermi, there are probably a half-dozen Fritz Reiches, and another half-dozen who just… vanish.

So, basically, history is incredibly depressing. Unless you choose to look at it as a reminder that despite the impression you might occasionally get from overheated social media commentary, things could be a whole lot worse than the present moment…


Wikipedia’s Reiche entry is just a stub, but basically everything we heard in the talk on Monday is also in this PDF article. He was also significant enough to rate an extensive oral history interview at the AIP, though they mostly seem to talk about Planck (I only skimmed it).


  1. #1 Curious Wavefunction
    November 26, 2013

    And while we are on the topic it’s also worth noting the large number of talented and brilliant Soviet scientists murdered by Stalin. In fact I wouldn’t be surprised if this number exceeds the number killed by the Nazis. And I would argue that in some sense Stalin set back Soviet science (especially biology) even further than Hitler set back German science.

  2. #2 soika
    November 26, 2013

    For every Bohr and Fermi, there are millions who died on the fronts.

    Now that I think about the banality of this evil it does occur to me Hitler must have been at least partly inspired by American success. Just like wiping out weak natives gave former colonists room to grow into a world power so he hoped wiping out Jews and Slavs would make room for 3rd Reich to grow and prosper. Same old story, history was written by the victors though…

  3. #3 Niall
    November 27, 2013

    History can be pretty bleak. Even many of the scientists who survived the war ended up working in war industries in some fashion.

    However, after the war, the scientists who survived ended up becoming part of the post war eruption of scientific, social, cultural and industrial progress in the post war period. There is still a lot of positive potential in humanity, waiting for its chance to be unleashed.

    By the way, for a great positive science war story–if you don’t know it already — google aqua regia and nobel prize medals.

  4. #4 Dr . Decay
    November 28, 2013

    There’s a little more information about Reiche in Thomas Powers fascinating book, “Heisenberg’s War”. According to the book, when he emigrated to the US, he delivered a message about the German atom bomb project to the scientists working in the US. His life after the rise of Hitler certainly sounds depressing.

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