The history of science in war-time Germany

The history of science in war-time Germany

Hitler’s scientists
John Cornwell
London, UK: Viking 2003 | Pp 525 | 20.00 (HB) | ISBN 0670893625
Reviewed by Ian Farrell

I must confess that I expected to read this book and discover that, despite being a genocidal dictator, Hitler was a deeply intellectual man with an appreciation of the subtleties of science. That I was completely wrong probably contributed to my fascination with John Cornwell’s story.

The book opens with a chapter ’Introducing the Germans’, which discusses how the national psyche contributed to the enterprising spirit of the country before the war. I found this section useful as an introduction to Cornwell’s style of writing, which can be a little long winded at times. We then explore Hitler’s rise to power in 1933 and the behaviour of his research scientists in a number of different disciplines. Particularly interesting is the story of Werner Heisenberg: his time in Copenhagen and speculation about why Germany failed to develop an atomic bomb.

Hitler was certainly interested in what science could do for his war effort, but his deep scientific ignorance directly contributed to Germany losing the conflict. Cornwell describes how, in public, Hitler wanted to be seen as a scientific, often medical, man and used much scientific rhetoric in his speeches (infamously referring to the Jews as ’humanity’s cancer’). But at the same time he did not make the effort to grasp the fundamentals of nuclear fission, a subject in which Germany led the scientific world. Cornwell takes this discussion further by pointing out that Germany also led the world in rocket technology. That these two areas of technical development were not combined to produce the world’s first ballistic nuclear missile is evidence of either technical incompetence or ethically-prompted sabotage, rooted deep within the German scientific community.

Cornwell finishes with a thought-provoking discussion of science over the years since World War II, and asks whether modern-day researchers have behaved any better than those working under the Third Reich.

Hitler’s Scientists is a lengthy book (over 500 pages), and at times Cornwell labours some points. But the detailed discussion is both compelling and fascinating. Anyone who has ever researched in science will find this book an excellent read.