Organized Session

New Light on Science and Nazism


Mark Walker

Union College


Kathryn Olesko

Georgetown University


Session Abstract

This session will reexamine science, and in particular physics, during and after the National Socialist period by means of three case studies: (1) the very political relationship between two very different and influential science policy makers during the Third Reich, Max Planck and Johannes Stark; (2) the surprising strategy used after the war by members of the so-called "Aryan Physics" movement to defend themselves against criticism; and (3) the deeply ambivalent relationship Werner Heisenberg had with National Socialism. All three papers draw upon recently available sources and offer new perspectives on these subjects.

Presenter 1

Max Planck (1858-1947) and Johannes Stark (1874-1957): Science Policymakers during the Third Reich

Dieter Hoffmann

Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, Berlin


Max Planck is well known as the scientist who introduced the quantum into physics, but he also played a very important role in science policy in Germany from the Weimar Republic through the first years of the Third Reich, first as an influential referee for the Emergency Society for German Science, then as president of the Kaiser Wilhelm Society, one of the premier scientific institutions in the world. In this latter role he oversaw the accommodation and reorientation of the Society to Nazi policies, including both the purge of politically and racially unacceptable scientists, as well as research for rearmament.

In contrast, Johannes Stark, a Nobel laureate in physics like Planck, was denied positions he felt entitled to during Weimar, turned early on towards Nazism, and was rewarded with two powerful positions once the Nazis came to power, the presidency of the German Research Community (successor to the Emergency Society) and Imperial Physical-Technical Institute, as well as having influence over academic appointments. Unfortunately for Stark, rivalries within the Nazi elite led him to squander most of his influence by 1936, just four years into the Third Reich.

This talk will use newly available sources to illuminate the very political relationship between these two physicists with ambitions in science policy.


Presenter 2

Aryan Physics after Hitler

Ryan Dahn

Consortium for History of Science, Technology, and Medicine, Philadelphia


The group of scientists known as the "Aryan physicists," who proposed an antisemitic vision of physics often termed deutsche Physik, are rightfully infamous due to their vitriolic Nazi-era crusades against Einstein, relativity theory, and quantum mechanics. During the Cold War, they were a signal example for how totalitarianism could warp science, while more recent research has focused on how the Aryan physicists were never as powerful as they seemed, and indeed became a convenient scapegoat for theoretical physicists like Werner Heisenberg, Carl Friedrich von Weizsäcker, and Pascual Jordan after World War II. These theorists claimed that the Aryan physicists collaborated with the Nazi regime by attempting to inject Nazi ideology into "apolitical" science, and were thus the "true" Nazis. In contrast, they argued, theoretical physicists tried to "save" science from Nazism; yet many physicists like Heisenberg and Jordan were also entangled with the Nazi regime.

Yet little focus has been given to what happened to the Aryan physicists after the fall of the Nazi regime. Many of them survived the war and attempted to rehabilitate their image. Surprisingly, in doing so, they made similar arguments as theorists like Heisenberg and Jordan. Inverting the argument made by the theorists, the Aryan physicists claimed that theoretical physicists had associated with high-ranking Nazis and used their connections with regime leaders to denounce the Aryan physicists-thus making figures like Heisenberg and Jordan the "real" Nazis. While futilely attempting to oust the academic physicists from their posts, the Aryan physicists also began to resurrect their theories, stripped (somewhat) of Nazi ideology, in new denazified journals. In this paper, I examine what happened to this infamous group of scientists after Hitler's fall.


Presenter 3

Werner Heisenberg and National Socialism

Mark Walker

Union College


The physicist Werner Heisenberg is well-known and honored for his uncertainty principle and contributions to quantum mechanics, but has also been scrutinized and criticized for the role he played during the Third Reich, including, but not limited to his work on nuclear energy and weapons for the National Socialist government.

Recently available materials, analyzed in the context of other sources, allow a reassessment of Heisenberg's support for the Second World War as well as his subtle and ambivalent relationship with National Socialism.



Richard H. Beyler

Portland State University