Reading Diary: Serving the Reich: The Struggle for the Soul of Physics under Hitler and Planck: Driven by Vision, Broken by War

Serving the Reich: The Struggle for the Soul of Physics under Hitler by Philip Ball and Planck: Driven by Vision, Broken by War by Brandon R. Brown are two of the best history of science books I've read in a very long time. And even though they're both about World War II, some seventy years in the past, they've both also very topical because they are both very much about the relationship between politics and science. In a sense, what comes first, the political chicken or the scientific egg. Are scientists responsible for how their work is put to use by their political "masters?" Do scientists' responsibilities as citizens outweigh their curiosity and inquisitiveness?

All difficult questions with perhaps no right answer. But both Ball and Brown deal with those issues very directly in their books. Ball looks at how physics and physicists thrived, survived and struggled under Hitler, covering a lot of ground but basically concentrating on the story through the lives of a few key people: Werner Heisenberg, Peter Debye and Max Planck. Heisenberg and Planck are, of course, well known figures but the choice of the Dutch-borh Debye as a focal point of the book was very interesting. In Heisenberg we see the opportunist, someone who perhaps played with fire a little and tried to wiggle a bit at the end of the war. In Planck, we see someone who tried to be apolitical and "do the right thing" in a political world but in his eighties perhaps lacked the energy and perceptiveness to truly see the more just path. But Debye's story is different. Without giving too much away, it's filled with nuance and uncertainty. Who knew what and when? Why did he do that particular thing? What were his true motives? There's lots to explore and his chapters were very interesting and certainly was a very new part of the story for me.

In fact, there was lots here that was new too me, even after having read John Corwell's Hitler's Scientists a few years ago, mostly because of the way Ball really focuses on the story of physics under the Nazis, the men and the institutions and the political wrangling.

But mostly the strength of Ball's book is the way it surfaces questions about the role of science in politics, how society should see science and mostly how scientists could perhaps see their roles in a complex and dangerous world. Is science free from human concerns? When scientists insist they should be free to do pure science and not be concerned with politics or morality, are they just being delusional? What is the nature of collaboration and co-operation with the authorities of your own country in wartime? It allows us to see our own moral challenges and failings through the lens of an admittedly extreme situation. As stereotypical as the charge of "Godwining" is, the extreme lens is useful.

Brown on the other hand, does a kind of deep dive, and takes a look at the struggles Max Planck dealt with while under Nazi rule during the last decade or so of his long and illustrious career. Planck: Driven by Vision, Broken by War does cover all of Planck's life but mostly focuses on his final years, from 1933 when the Hitler came to power until he passed away, a broken old man but still honored and revered, in 1947.

If Ball treated the issues of science and politics from a relatively high level, Brown uses a microscope, looking at the challenges that Planck undertook as the proud standard bearer and leading light of the German physics establishment. Under the Nazis, science was to be put in the service of war; to what extent was someone like Planck able to see the dark, evil side of the Nazi regime and to what extent was his stiff upper lip essentially leading to a go along to get along attitude? So this is a book about weakness -- Planck's inability to come to grips with the deeper reality of Nazi rule is a theme. But it's also about the human side of weakness too, as Planck is presented as a principled, moral man whose weakness was deeply embedded in a culture of obedience to the state and a rigid conception of how scientists should relate to their political "masters."

At the end of the day, these are both terrific books that I would recommend to any library that collects in the history of science and technology or the history of World War II.

Ball, Philip. Serving the Reich: The Struggle for the Soul of Physics under Hitler. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014. 320pp. ISBN-13: 978-0226204574

Brown, Brandon R. Planck: Driven by Vision, Broken by War. New York: Oxford University Press, 2015. 272pp. ISBN-13: 978-0190219475

(Review copy of Planck book provided by the publisher.)


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