Science and Authoritarianism

With authoritarianism making headway in both Europe and America, it might be instructive to take a look back at what has historically happened to scientists and their supporting institutions when democracy wanes.  Here, I’ll take a look at Nazi Germany.  This might tempt some to invoke Godwin’s law as this is the extreme case study.  However, the Freedom Party of Austria has its roots in the Nazi party while Greece’s Golden Dawn party employs an altered swastika for its emblem inviting the comparison.  In America, the rise of Donald Trump trends more towards the celebrity cult/buffoonery of Gabriele d’Annunzio/Benito Mussolini, but the same can not be said of his most strident Twitter followers.  We’ll focus on the three most prominent German scientists of the era, Albert Einstein, Max Planck, and Wernher von Braun.

The Refugee

Over a decade before Hitler rose to power, Albert Einstein became the most famous scientist in the world during 1919 when the Eddington expedition provided experimental confirmation of general relativity.  Einstein’s troubles in Germany started only a couple of years later as Philipp Lenard and Johannes Stark, Nobel Prize winners in their own right, began to wage an anti-Semitic campaign against Einstein.  Lenard was a fine experimental physicist, but had been left behind in the modern physics revolution.  Stark also had difficulty comprehending the mathematics of the new physics.  Unable to critique relativity on its merits, both referred to modern theoretical physics as “Jewish science” and eventually espoused what was referred to as Deutsche Physik or Aryan Physics.  This politicization of science discarded modern physics and was intended to ride the wave of Nazi power.

Events in Germany came to a head as Hitler became Chancellor in January of 1933.  Shortly afterwards, Jews were forbidden to hold university or research positions.  Einstein had been in Belgium during early 1933 with the intention of returning to Germany.  However, as the situation deteriorated (Einstein’s house had been raided and sailboat confiscated), Einstein appeared at the German consulate and renounced his German citizenship (Einstein was still a Swiss citizen) and resigned his position at the Prussian Academy of Sciences, the same academy where he announced his final general relativity theory in 1916.  During the summer of 1933, while still in Belgium, word was put out that a $5,000 bounty had been placed on Einstein’s life.

On October 3rd, four days before he left Europe never to return, Einstein gave a speech at the Royal Albert Hall.

During the speech, Einstein asked, “How can we save mankind and its spiritual acquisitions of which we are the heirs? How can we save Europe from a new disaster?”  The eventual answer, of course, was at a cost of millions of lives.

After arriving in America, Einstein took up a job offer at Princeton where he had remained until his death in 1955.  Einstein worked to get other unemployed German Jewish physicists jobs in America.  In all, over a thousand Jewish scientists relocated to America including  several Nobel prize winners.  This represented a significant shift in intellectual and innovative resources from Europe to America.  In 1939, Einstein wrote a letter to President Roosevelt warning about the potential for Nazi Germany to produce an atomic bomb.  Many top refugee scientists worked on the Manhattan Project, whose final result would have been used against Germany had it not surrendered a couple months before the first atomic test.

The essential lesson here is that Einstein’s enormous talent did not spare him from Nazi persecution.  Purging or banning an ethnic group, besides the obvious ethical considerations, results in an intellectual drain.  Segregating an ethnic group from educational resources presents a loss of potential economic growth, which is why ideologues need to resort to ethnic stereotyping to deflect attention from the negative by-products of their policies.  Einstein, to his last days, spoke out for civil rights, lectured at black colleges, and was rewarded for his efforts with an 1,800 page FBI file.

As a pacifist, Einstein deeply regretted the letter that started the Manhattan Project.  As a scientist, to this day, his work has held up to every rigorous test experimental physicists have thrown up against it.  Relativity theory has provided us with the Big Bang, black holes, time dilation, and gravitational waves.  Einstein will be long remembered while those who chose the expedient path of supporting Nazism have had their scientific legacy tarnished greatly.  Not everyone in the German scientific establishment jumped aboard the Nazi bandwagon, some tried to mitigate the effects of Nazism by working within the system.

The Statesman

When Hitler ascended to power, Max Planck was president of the Kaiser Wilhelm Society.  Planck had revolutionized physics in 1900 by discovering energy was emitted in discrete packages dubbed quanta.  This would kick-start the quantum mechanics breakthroughs in the decades to follow.  Planck was among the first to recognize the significance of Einstein’s work in 1905 on special relativity, and as editor of the journal Annalen der Physik, published Einstein’s work.  It was Planck, as dean of Berlin University, who opened up a professorship for Einstein in 1913.  It was here that Einstein finished up his work on general relativity.

Max Planck. Credit: Bain News Service/Library of Congress

Max Planck was born in 1858 and his life arced with Germany’s rise from a patchwork of unorganized states to unification as a single nation in 1871, eventually to  rival the British Empire as a European power.  Conservative in temperament, Planck was inclined to be apolitical publicly.  However, Planck was a firm believer in advancing German science and loyalty to the German state.  In May 1933, as Einstein was severing his ties to Germany, Planck announced at the Kaiser Wilhelm Society annual meeting that:

“The Kaiser Wilhelm Society for the Advancement of the Sciences begs leaves to the tender reverential greetings to the Chancellor and its solemn pledge that German science is also ready to cooperate joyously in the reconstruction of the new national state.” 

In reality, Planck thought the Nazi party would moderate its views once in power (sound familiar?) and personally endeavored to continue the high standard of German research.  That did not happen, of course.  Planck met with Hitler personally in 1933 hoping to moderate his policy to stem the exodus of Jewish scientists from Germany.  The meeting ended with a Hitler rant that science would have to suffer.  Not surprising, as that is how discussions with hopeless ideologues tend to go.  At the annual Kaiser Wilhelm Society meeting in 1934, Planck noted while the society was devoted to science in service of the fatherland, pure research was suffering as a result of Nazi policies.  By 1935, Planck openly defied Hitler and attended the funeral service for Fritz Haber, who had been in exile from Germany.

It is difficult to maintain a functional operation when the overall organization is dysfunctional.  Eventually the dam breaks, and the dysfunctionalty takes control.  Planck in 1933 was also playing the role of the extreme centrist, blaming both Nazi and Jewish cultures equally for the situation in Germany.  In this one can see the danger in not recognizing an asymmetric authoritarian movement.  By 1936, Planck had openly stated that intelligence counts more in science than race.  But despite Planck’s efforts, the purging of highly talented Jewish scientists had been complete.  In 1937, Planck retired as president of the society, but not without offering the parting shot that scientific work required opposition to prove its merit, something Nazi supported science would not permit.

Planck’s experience offers the cautionary tale that an authoritative movement must be defeated before it obtains the keys to governance.  There was no reasoning to be had with Hitler in 1933 and access to power offered no motivation for Nazis to moderate their policies towards Jews.  By the end of World War II, Planck’s Berlin house had been destroyed in an Allied air raid, and he lost his son who was put to death for his participation in the plot to kill Hitler.  Planck had previously lost another son in World War I during the battle of Verdun.

Eight days after the surrender of Germany in 1945, at the age of 87, Planck resumed his role as president of the Kaiser Wilhelm Society.  After Planck had passed away in 1947, the Kaiser Wilhelm Society was renamed the Max Planck Institute.  Under a democratic Germany, the institute has produced 18 Nobel prize winners and over 13,000 scientific publications annually.  ESA’s Planck mission measured the cosmic microwave background radiation – the remnants of the Big Bang.  The spectrum of this radiation is that of a blackbody, the same type Planck studied to determine that energy is emitted in packages.  Blackbody spectra are emitted by objects in a hot, dense state, meaning that was the state of the universe when it was 380,000 years old.  Planck’s legacy has enabled us to understand the nature of the electron and the origins of the universe.

In 2007, the Max Planck Institute completed a ten-year study on the history of the Kaiser Wilhelm Society during Hitler’s reign.  The report acknowledged, especially after Planck’s departure in 1937, unethical scientific research during that period.  It was not just party hacks involved in this behavior, some of the most talented scientists engaged in projects that degraded their reputations.

The Opportunist

On July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first humans to walk on the lunar surface.  It was the culmination of a decade’s worth of work and $150 billion (2016 dollars) to beat the Soviet Union to the Moon.  At the head of the Saturn V design team was Wernher von Braun, who was director of the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.  During the post World War II era, von Braun was the leading public advocate of space exploration.  In many ways, von Braun was the Carl Sagan or Neil deGrasse Tyson of his era.  Unlike Sagan or deGrasse Tyson, von Braun’s reputation originated on the backs of slave labor.

In some regards, von Braun was similar to Planck in that he was not a Nazi ideologue.  He was loyal to Germany as a nation, but his main focus, obsession really, was space exploration and rocketry.  His childhood dream was to go to Mars, but as Hitler rose to power, only military rocket research was permitted.  During the early 1930’s, von Braun received a government research grant that permitted him to complete his PhD ahead of schedule.  Unlike Planck, he joined the Nazi party in 1937 to advance his career.

Wernher von Braun (in civilian cloths) at the Peenemünde Army Research Center where the V-2 was developed. March 21, 1941. Credit: Wiki Commons/German Federal Archives.

During World War II, von Braun headed up the German V-2 program.  While the V-2 killed 9,000 in its attacks, some 12,000 slave laborers were killed in the V-2 Mittelwerk production plant.  The facility was adjacent to the Dora-Nordhausen concentration camp which supplied the labor.  While von Braun was not stationed near the plant, he did visit it and was aware of the deaths at the plant.  The V-2 program was not enough to stave off the eventual defeat of Germany in 1945.  Von Braun planned to escape to America as he felt that would provide him the best opportunity to advance his career.  Along with about 1,600 other scientists and engineers, von Braun was shepherded to America as valuable assets for the upcoming Cold War against the Soviet Union in a program code named Operation Paperclip.

Von Braun became famous to the American public during the 1950’s.  In 1952, von Braun played a key role in a influential series of articles in Collier’s magazine.  These articles presented to the public a peek at how future space missions to the Moon and Mars as well as a space station might look like.  In 1955, von Braun started work on a series of television programs for Disney promoting space exploration.  A sample of which is below:

Von Braun was a true visionary of space exploration.  It is difficult to reconcile a man who worked for both Adolf Hitler and Walt Disney.  My first lesson on space exploration was an article written by von Braun for the 1969 World Book Encyclopedia.  When NASA was founded in 1958, it got to choose the pick of the litter from the existing military rocket programs, and that was von Braun’s army team.  The rest is history and cemented von Braun as the face of America’s space program.

Von Braun passed away in 1977, about a decade before Operation Paperclip was investigated by the Justice Department.  While von Braun’s work on the V-2 project was common knowledge, his membership in the SS was not well known to the public until 1985.  Arthur Rudolph, whose contributions were crucial to the development of the Saturn V, was also the operations manager at Mittelwerk.  Rudolph was deported in 1984.  Kurt Debus, the first director of the Kennedy Space Center and an ideological Nazi during the war, avoided the investigation by passing away in 1983.  How would have von Braun fared if probed by the Justice Department?

Wherner von Braun and Kurt Debus, roll out of Saturn V, May 26, 1966. Credit: NASA

Von Braun’s supporters point out that he would have been executed had he opposed the working conditions at Mittelwerk.  No doubt, that is the case.  In fact, von Braun was arrested by the SS in 1944 for carelessly opining that the war was a lost cause and the future of rocketry would be space exploration.  However, this is a variation of the I was following orders routine, and von Braun was too high up in the food chain to use that as a passable defense.  Clearly, von Braun had charted his own course in the Nazi apparatus.  It is difficult to imagine a rigorous investigation ending well for von Braun.

What can we take from all this?  Under an oppressive authoritarian regime, you can leave the country, try to maintain institutional integrity within the system, or advance your career regardless of personal debasement.  If you want to leave, you’ll have more difficulty than Einstein securing a visa and a job.  If Max Planck could not preserve the integrity of the Kaiser Wilhelm Society, what are the chances you’ll be able to where you are situated?  As for careerism, if landing a man on the Moon is not enough to cleanse questionable past associations, do you really think you could pull that off?

The easiest solution is simply to reject authoritarianism before it takes power.  Democracy is far easier to sustain by pushing for needed reforms than it is to re-institute it after it falls.  Authoritarianism typically ends in chaos, war in the case of Germany and Japan in 1945 and Syria today, economic in the case of the Soviet Union in the 1990’s or Venezuela today.  Regardless how you navigate your path through it, don’t think you will get out unscathed one way or another.

*Photo at top of post:  Nazi Germany’s loss is America’s gain. Albert Einstein receives from Judge Phillip Forman his certificate of American citizenship.  October 1, 1940.  Credit:  Al Aumuller/Library of Congress.

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