Serving the Reich

Why I looked at this book

This book is a contender for the 2014 Royal Society Winton Prize for Science Books

First impressions

This book looks at three German scientists, Planck, Debye and Heisenberg, who lived through the Nazi era, and asks: how much did they buy into the Nazi ideology (and not merely the heirarchical nature of German science). How much do people 'go along with the system' and what responsibility they bear for doing so are important questions, and I hope that this book will go some way to answering them. So far, from the sample, it looks very promising.

Main review

I found this to be a very thought provoking book. Accusations have been levelled at the three scientists that in one way or another they supported the Nazi ideology. Ball shows how such accusations generally lack substance. In particular the accusation that all they were interested in was furthering their own careers falls rather flat. Debye said he would be 'Führer in his own lab'. Was this mocking the system or supporting it? Or is the important point that he was standing his ground against interference from state officials. If these three hadn't had a certain amount of egoism we might never had heard of them, in which case this book would have been about three other scientists who did have sufficient egoism to achieve a position of fame. One is led into counterfactual thoughts such as: could Germany have emerged from Nazism without the war, and if so would those who had stayed in positions be seen as heroes who had held on during the hard times? It's hard to know.

We hear how Heisenberg and others tried to make it sound as if they actively delayed the German work on the bomb, but the evidence doesn't seem to support this. On the other hand Heisenberg didn't make a lot of effort to get the project the resources it would have required. Was this an attempt to deny Hitler the bomb. Or was Heisenberg's worry that it would make him a small fish in a big pond. Or was it just that he wanted to get on with the science, rather than politics? As Ball points out, the situation is always more complicated than simplistic explanations with hindsight suggest.

There are a few things I would like to have been discussed in more detail in this book. One is the status of scientists in Germany at the start of the 20th century. It's easier to understand the egoism of scientists if we know what their expectations are. Another is the idea of a peculiarly German science. It's easy to see this as wholly misplaced, a dumbed down science for dictators, but was that all there was to it? Certainly Kant and Goethe had ideas opposing Newton. Do these fit into the picture. I understand that there is limited space for such things, but Ball gives space to a chapter on the development of nuclear science. I think there could have been space for these 'big picture' questions.

I like a book like this to have notes at the end, and it does, but in this case I would have liked more: for such a thought provoking book it would have been good to have a few pages of recommended further reading.

I wouldn't choose this as the winner of the 2014 Royal Society Winton Prize, as on balance it's more about politics than science (yes I know that there's no such thing as apolitical science, but still), but I think it deserves it's place in the shortlist, and it's well worth reading.

Reviews Elsewhere

Only a few Amazon Reviews and similarly few Goodreads reviews, mostly giving it 4 stars which is what Brian Clegg gives it at PopularScience. Graham Farmelo has written a detailed review for The Guardian as has Patricia Fara for the Los Angeles review of books