October 27, 2003


Measurements of evil: a review of Hitler's Scientists by John Cornwell (Alan Judd, 14/09/2003, Daily Telegraph)

Half of all Nobel prize-winners in the natural sciences and medicine during the first two decades of the 20th century were German. Germany was the Mecca of science, yet, from 1933 onwards, many of the intellectual inheritors of this great tradition - themselves no less gifted and educated, and including Heisenberg, of quantum physics fame - worked for a government that exterminated millions for being Jewish, developed an entire pseudo-science of racial hygiene and based much of its industrial and scientific effort on slave labour.

Some were passively co-operative but others were more enthusiastic, competing for funds and prestige - 44.8 per cent of German physicians joined the Nazi party, the highest representation of any professional group (lawyers were next, with 25 per cent).

This prompts big questions, which John Cornwell poses at the start of his thought-provoking account: "Can we by studying the history of science in Germany… draw significant conclusions about the relationship between science and the good society? Does doing science make human beings more rational, sceptical, internationalist, objective?" [...]

Cornwell makes some comparisons between the Nazi attitudes towards science and those of the democracies during the Cold War - and even now: "The Faustian bargains lurk within routine grant applications, the pressure to publish… the treatment of knowledge as a commodity." He might have developed this theme in relation to the former Soviet Union - particularly with regard to biological warfare - and he might have made more of 19th-century German attitudes towards the state and the professions, but his fundamental judgments are sound.

The brute truth is that science follows funding, that the greater the state's role, the more the state culture dominates; and that most scientists, like most non-scientists, co-operate with tyrannies because the consequences of not doing so are dire.

And where religion is allowed to atrophy there is no competing culture and when scientists personally abandon religion they've no moral compass to slow their surrender to the State. It's an ugly cycle that secular Statism establishes.

Posted by Orrin Judd at October 27, 2003 12:25 PM

German society actually put a pretty high value on religion. It was the rest of the West they regarded as godless materialists.

Posted by: M Ali Choudhury at October 27, 2003 2:21 PM

And what percentage of German priests and pastors cooperated with the Nazis?

It was way over 44.8%.

There is, or course, some slight justification for a German to cooperate with a German regime, however hateful. At least the German has to balance patriotism and love of country with politics, as Heisenburg did. (To say that Heisenburg "cooperated" with the Hitler regime is, at the very least, naive and if the reviewer claims actually to know what he's talking about, dishonest. The balance of the evidence is that Heisenburg stayed in order to see that that part of Nazidom did not progress, and if one is to condemn him, then there are some others also in line, like Magsaysay.)

The real test would be, what percentage of non-Germans cooperated with the Nazi regime.

Here we would find a great deal of enthusiasm for Hitlerism among priests and preachers, rather less among scientists. It was the American and British schools of physics and chemistry that filled up with refugee scholars, not the seminaries.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at October 28, 2003 1:40 AM

Harry, one might request some numbers rather than your assertion. Furthermore, the 44.8% is the figure of physicians who actually joined the Nazi Party. Although of course one can debate the precise reasons and significance of that figure. At the same time, it was much easier for physicists and scientists to relocate and work, rather than priests who wanted to stay with their churches. Also, I rather suspect that there were far more Jews among the scientists than among the Christian ministers. Quite many of the fleeing were Jewish, for whom there was obviously a greater incentive to leave.

In the US and elsewhere, unlike Nazism, Mussolini's fascism had wide support, especially among literary and progressive types, but also scientists and others, early in its days. And of course others led their allegiance to the Communists. Klaus Fuchs of course is one example of a German physicist who fled the Nazis, but not an example to look at favorably.

Posted by: John Thacker at October 28, 2003 2:24 AM

The real problem seems to be an unassailable concentration of power that claims to possess absolute truth.

In terms of kind, if not absolute degree, of results, there seems to be little to tell between Nazism, theocratic Iran, Communism and the Taliban.

Two had supernatural deities overseeing the universalist/salvationist belief system, two did not.

Regardless, the results were/are all ugly.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at October 28, 2003 7:52 AM

Jeff --

Exactly! (Well, not exactly. You overstate slightly, but very, very close.) That is why in the West, where the state is becoming more and more powerful -- where it is invited and expected to regulate every stage of our lives -- it is critical that we (not government, but we as individuals) strengthen and support other strong contending institutions within society, including the church.

Posted by: David Cohen at October 28, 2003 7:58 AM


Ypur statement has implications regarding reason and science as well.

Posted by: Tom C., Stamford,Ct. at October 28, 2003 10:12 AM

I wouldn't put too much in stock in those 'unassailable' powers claiming to have absolute truth - those people and systems are always the most fearful, no matter what 'denomination'. Their fear makes them fragile, no matter how much they bluster. That is what all tyrants have in common.

But it is our responsibility to recognize and know such truth, because without that awareness, we cannot judge (or even compare) anything. We could not even know the results without some sort of standard (or expectation).

Posted by: jim hamlen at October 28, 2003 11:24 AM

Good points all, John. You reinforce my point.

Germans, despite some people's fantasies about how they were really just waiting to join the democracies to overthrow Communism, embraced Naziism overwhelmingly.

The attempt of Cornwell was tendentious, ill-informed and dishonest.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at October 28, 2003 12:53 PM

I think Cornwell's take on science and the German National Socialist state and the willingness of it scientific elite to involve themselves is intriguing but somehow incomplete. After seeing some of the reviews for his, "Hitler's Pope", I think I can see why. Too much intellectual capital invested in a particular world view that can't quite stand up to honest scrutiny.


Regarding Heisenberg, read the complete Telegraph,U.K. review. I would have thought you to be a fan of Cornwell.

Posted by: Tom C., Stamford,Ct. at October 28, 2003 1:30 PM


You are right, but probably a little late.

I don't know any "secular rationalist" who isn't certain there is only one absolute truth: absolute truth is impossible.

The "scientific materialist" absolutisms had their brief heyday. Now we are back to the good old fashioned, supernatural kind.


That has always been my point of view, just so long as the Church is kept strictly out of government. There may well be better ways to organize a society than by putting a stout barrier between church and state, but they don't seem to have made an appearance yet.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at October 28, 2003 8:32 PM


With all due respect, the secular rationalists began their ascendency with the French Revolution and the inevitable deification of reason and science. You know the history. The tendency has gained traction in the US in particular since the early 20th Century. The effects are now beginning to be felt, I contend, and the momentum is building ( see the Peggy Noonan article, re the "Culture of Death"). The brief heyday you speak about I say is just beginning. The only resistance is coming from the spiritually inclined and their forbearance is remarkable in contrast to the intolerance they face.

Posted by: Tom C., Stamford,Ct. at October 29, 2003 9:30 AM


Name a "materialist" -ism that carries anywhere near the threat Communism or Nazism did.

You can't.

Your thesis can only be correct if reason and science are still widely held to be anything like absolute or infallible. The very people that would have to invoke that sort of thing--materialists--would have to ignore the basis of their entire belief structure, results, in order for the heyday to be just beginning.

One shouldn't be hunting for some secular phantasm when the pissants of security seekers are the ones threatening freedom.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at October 29, 2003 5:19 PM


Do you mean the kind of freedom Peggy Noonan speaks about?

Posted by: Tom C., Stamford,Ct. at October 29, 2003 9:47 PM

No, I am referring to OJ's theses:

The demand for security is the primary threat to freedom.

Unless it is the other thesis. The ugly, unshaven head of Dastardly Secular Atheistic Materialism is the primary threat to freedom.

The evidence for thesis A is pretty substantial. For B, vaporous.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at October 30, 2003 7:53 AM

Applied "atheistic, secular , materialism" has only existed a few times as an organizing social principle. Why would you call the thesis "vaporous" when the evidence about it's practical application is there and within memory of a large proportion of the human race?

Now, I suspect a respone along the lines of, "well, it has never really been properly instituted, etc., etc." but that argument seem to be rapidly losing any meaning, at least to me. Unapolegetic Marxists are comfortable with that excuse which really tends to make their "science" look more utopian and irrational than it already is (if that's possible).

If we concentrate on actual results, the reliance on pure reason in combination with the materialist world view has, at best, questionable utility as an organizing principle. Where has it been successful when taken to its logical extreme? Where has it not diminished liberty in the name of security? Cradle to grave security is a promise of the science of socialism and materialism. Only religion says that liberty, based in morality, is of more value than material security in the here and now.

Posted by: Tom C., Stamford,Ct. at October 30, 2003 10:52 AM


My point here is that the -isms of which you speak were peculiar to a time and place that won't likely occur again.

That is, shortly after the industrial revolution provided the means for mass slaughter, and before the limits to "scientific" reasoning were widely known. Scientific is in scare quotes because calling Marx' effluvia scientific just because he does is to betray a nearly touching naivete.

After all, applying even superficial reason (never mind actual evidence) to Das Kapital, or Mein Kampf is sufficient to collapse either like a house of cards. Simply put, those -isms had nothing to do with pure reason, and everything to do with blind faith.

But I am calling the evidence vaporous because the evidence for ongoing or impending, compelling, "materialistic" -isms of the 20th century variety is just that--vaporous.

Now, if you want to talk about the religious kind, well, that is another story altogether.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at October 30, 2003 2:38 PM

Few who study the matter will go so far as Tom and Orrin and claim that Marxism or Naziism are rational.

Naziism, which was based on blood and soil, is irrational on its face, like Christianity.

Marxism is superficially in a more ambiguous position. Its author claimed it was science, just as Wilhelm Reich claimed that orgone was science.

No one who understands how to evaluate a scientific argument will accept either.

Hugh Thomas, whom no one ever accused of leftism, said of Marxism, "No general theory of human behavior based on conditions in Manchester in the 1840s can have any validity." (Quoted from memory, "A History of the World," sadly out of print.)

It was not obvious in 1848 that that was so. Experience has provided better evidence.

To continue, in the 21st century, to chant "Marxism? Science!" is as intellectually responsible as to chant "Geocentric orbits! Science!"

Posted by: Harry Eagar at October 30, 2003 3:12 PM


The French Revolution was the earliest manifestation of pure reason applied. When I isten to the current crop of leftist politicians I wonder just what lessons have been learned? Touching naivete indeed! Your reasoning makes sense only in retrospect.Obviously Marxism is not science,but again, only in retrospect. If only humanity had known what you and I find so obvious.

Posted by: Tom C., Stamford,Ct. at October 30, 2003 3:17 PM


The last thing I would do would be to claim Marx's dialectical materialism rational. I Leave that to the materialsts and rationalists of the time. They are your intellectual bretheren, not mine.

Posted by: Tom C., Stamford,Ct. at October 30, 2003 3:23 PM


BTW, speaking of human frailities and the very human tendency to be decieved or demagogued by what used to be called the political or economic levelers, I recently saw an interview of Robert Mugabe by a fawning NYC TV reporter who apparantly is attached to Mugabe for no other reaso that I could discern other than their common geographical heritage and skin color. In light of your comment regarding naivet,I think you give credit where none is due regarding the ongoing susceptibility of human beings to political and ideological hogwash. Human nature has not changed nor should we expect it to change anytime soon.

Posted by: Tom C., Stamford,Ct. at October 30, 2003 4:02 PM


You are right, it hasn't and it won't.

But any attempted resurgence of some -ism like those you so rightly excoriate will get well and truly trounced in the contest for fitness.

That is what I mean by ongoing and compelling--there will always be the rump 1% who are fervent communists, just there will always be the rump 1% who are Bible literalists.

50 years ago the outcome of the fitness test wasn't clear. Well, it is now.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at October 30, 2003 8:26 PM

Maybe you don't, but Orrin does.

To claim that the Nazis were rational is akin to postulating an arithmetic in which 2 + 2 = 5 and then deriving all the theorems from that by rational inferences.

It can be done, and the results can be internally consistent (that Naziism was not). But if the exercise began with a deliberate choice of an irrational postulate, it is absurd to call it rational.

The same objection can be lodged with justice against your hero Aquinas. Thinking hard about nonsense does not create sense.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at October 30, 2003 8:28 PM

Nazism was just a test of fitness theory.

Posted by: oj at October 30, 2003 10:07 PM

You're just trying to be provoking, but if it was a test, it was poorly designed and the failure of Naziism tells us nothing about fitness theory, as such.

You started out by stating that where religion atrophied, scientists lost their moral compasses.

But religion was not atrophied in Germany in the 1920s and '30s. And the criminals were not, to any great extent, scientists. Most of them were religious.

I will have more to say about this in a review of "Judgment at Dachau" that I'm working on.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at October 31, 2003 12:51 AM