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Book Review Dieter Hoffmann and Mark Walker (eds.) УPhysicists between Autonomy and Adaptation

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Ann. Phys. (Leipzig) 18, No. 1, 71 – 72 (2009) / DOI 10.1002/andp.200810334
Book Review
Dieter Hoffmann and Mark Walker (eds.), “Physicists between Autonomy and Adaptation.
The German Physical Society in the Third Reich” (in German), Wiley-VCH, Berlin 2006,
ISBN 978-3-527-40585-5, 676 pp., EUR 105.–
Hubert Goenner∗
Georg-August-Universität Göttingen, Institut für Theoretische Physik, Friedrich-Hund-Platz 1,
37077 Göttingen, Germany
Key words History of science, German Physical Society, Third Reich.
PACS 01.30.Vv
In 2001, the governing board of the German Physical Society (DPG) commissioned a study concerning the
role of this organization during the national socialist regime (1933–1945). Expert historians of science Mark
Walker, Schenectady, and Dieter Hoffmann, Berlin, were entrusted with leading an international group of
researchers carrying out the project. The results of the investigation have been collected in the book “Physiker
zwischen Autonomie und Anpassung. Die Deutsche Physikalische Gesellschaft im Dritten Reich”.
Studies of selected topics in the form of twelve articles by eleven authors (including the editors) provide
insights into the self-understanding of those German physicists represented by the DPG. The stage is set
by three articles, the first one being on the general political environment in the national socialist context
(M. Walker). A reprint of a paper from the 80s concerning physics in the Weimar republic (P. Formann)
follows suit, and a discussion of the societal boundary conditions and authoritative structures in the physics
community (R. Beyler).
The next five essays focus on various different subjects such as the exclusion and expulsion of, particularly
Jewish, physicists (St. Wolff), the skirmishes with the adherents of “German Physics” (M. Eckert), the period
under the president of the DPG, C. Ramsauer (1940–1945) (D. Hoffmann), the bestowment of the Max
Planck medal (R. Bleyler, M. Eckert, and D. Hoffmann), and on the attitude of the DPG with regard to physics
research (G. Simonsohn). Two further articles deal with the mentality of physicists after the 2nd world war
(K. Hentschel), and the apologetical arguments put forward by representatives of the DPG (G. Rammer).
The collection of essays is completed by two reports concerning the behaviour of professional organizations
in mathematics (V. Remmert) and chemistry (U. Deichmann), the latter with a rather narrow focus. At the
end of the book, the texts are complemented by appendices providing ample relevant documentary evidence
and many photos of leading figures of the time.
The gist of the investigation is that the DPG aimed at the avoidance of conflicts and confrontations with
the national socialist authorities, in order to safeguard what it understood as being “freedom of scientific
research”. This understanding did not include solidarity with those members who were discriminated against
and persecuted for racial and/or political reasons, but it did include the demand for better funding by the
national socialist state, offers for cooperation in the war effort, and an occasional exalted greeting address
to Hitler. Of course, individual scientists like Max Planck, Max v. Laue, and others did intervene in favour
of Jewish colleagues (cf. Planck’s visit to Hitler, or the memorial service for Fritz Haber). There certainly is
a connection with the myth, long maintained by scientists, that physics and other scientific endeavours are
unrelated to politics and must be kept separated from it. The DPG was less obedient to the various national
socialist authorities than other German professional societies. In my view this was a lucky consequence of
the incompetence and anti-intellectualism of the national socialist organizations relevant to science. On the
© 2009 WILEY-VCH Verlag GmbH & Co. KGaA, Weinheim
Book Review
other hand, M. Walker claims the “absence of a conscious, coordinated and intended attempt of the national
socialist leadership for controling, changing, or damaging organized science in Germany” (p. 9).
After 1945, a strong attempt was made to secure continuation of the outstanding role German physics
research had played in the past. For a believable justification of the DPG’s role since 1933, documents
were published in which incriminating passages had been removed without proper notice. Due to a political
decision supported by the German Federal Parliament, within a decade, all academic scientists with a
reputation in physics had again obtained decent positions in the university system – whether they had
intensely supported the Nazis, or not. Some precious few protesting against this course of affairs fell silent,
or even emigrated.
For having initiated and carried through in a sobering but rewarding way this project on the history of the
DPG during the Nazi regime, the German Physical Society, together with the researchers involved, deserve
our respect and appreciation. The book is very readable and merits a wide readership; a translation into
English might be helpful.
© 2009 WILEY-VCH Verlag GmbH & Co. KGaA, Weinheim
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