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Two Scientists in the 3rd Reich

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In the early 20th century German science was in full ebullition, notably in physics. The most famous among the gifted was, of course, Albert Einstein but other men were also collecting Nobels, notably among them Max Planck and Werner Heisenberg. These two altered our conception of the physical world and both would be inextricably tied to the 3rd Reich- with different outcomes.

MAX PLANCK (1858-1947)

In 1900, Planck shook the scientific world with his bold hypothesis that radiant energy (i.e., light waves) is not emitted in a continuous flow, but rather consists of small chunks, which he called quanta. At first most physicists regarded the hypothesis as a convenient mathematical fiction, but it turned out that Planck’s concept could be applied to various phenomena. Later both Einstein and Niels Bohr used it, the first to explain the photoelectric effect and the second was used in the theory of atomic structure. Planck had discovered quantum mechanics and was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1913.


Planck never again reached such ethereal heights. Nevertheless, he continued to contribute at a high level to various branches of optics, thermodynamics, and other fields. He presided over several scientific societies and in his later years, devoted more and more of his writings to philosophical, aesthetic, and religious questions. Among younger scientists Planck exerted a moral force; his fairness, integrity, and wisdom were beyond question. 

Planck was already over 80 when WW2 broke out in 1939 and five years later his Berlin home was destroyed by Allied bombers. He was never a Nazi supporter- just the opposite- nor was his youngest son, Erwin, who became implicated in the 20 July Plot on Hitler’s life. He was arrested and his father sent Hitler a (recently discovered) anguished letter:

My Führer!
I am most deeply shaken by the message that my son Erwin has been sentenced to death by the People’s Court.
The acknowledgment for my achievements in service of our fatherland, which you, my Führer, have expressed towards me in repeated and most honoring way, makes me confident that you will lend your ear to an imploring 87-year old.
As the gratitude of the German people for my life’s work, which has become an everlasting intellectual wealth of Germany, I am pleading for my son’s life.
Max Planck

But the Reich Chancellery remained silent and in January 1945 Erwin’s death sentence was carried out by the Gestapo. It appears he was hanged ‘cattle-style’, a slow-motion torture, the victim raised off blocks by piano wire tightened around the neck. The merciless act destroyed Planck’s will to live; he died in 1947 at age 89. A fellow physicist commented that his end came to him ‘as a redemption’.


An expert is someone who knows some of the worst mistakes that can be made in his subject, and how to avoid them.

Werner Heisenberg was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1933 for his role in the further refinements of quantum mechanics, the fundamental branch of physics that Planck pioneered. Heisenberg conceived the ‘uncertainty principle’ that ensures that the future behavior of that system can never be completely predicted. This was a profound change; Einstein would never accept it saying ‘God does not play dice with the universe’. However, most modern scientists have felt it necessary to adapt; practical applications such as microscopes, lasers, and transistors followed. More sinister, given Heisenberg’s later career,  it also had applications in nuclear physics and atomic energy.


In his early years, Heisenberg was something of an idealist, joining the youth group similar to the Boy  Scouts called the Pathfinders. ‘I never thought that I could interest myself in politics,’ he wrote to a Pathfinder friend in 1923, ‘because it seemed to me to be a pure money business.’

The same year that Heisenberg was awarded a Nobel Prize also saw the rise to power of the Nazi party. The result was that many academics and professors, deemed unreliable by ‘race’ or political concerns, were expelled from their positions. However, many German scientists, including Heisenberg, resolved to work within the system trusting that ‘Aryan physics’ would be a transitory phenomenon. And Heisenberg was a patriot; prior to the war, he declined generous offers from several American universities.

The most lasting controversy that swirls around Heisenberg was the German nuclear program, such as it was. The outbreak of war in 1939, he was drafted into Germany's secret effort to perfect an atomic bomb and Heisenberg soon became the scientific head. He worked hard on the atomic project with a relatively small team but was pessimistic from the start. Heisenberg told Nazi officials it would take wartime Germany too long to learn how to make the needed quantities of the key bomb material, uranium 235 (he was wrong on that, German stocks were sufficient). He added, that US had devoted ten thousand times more resources to the project than Germany. 

In the final days of the war, an Allied counterintelligence unit discovered the last intact nuclear facility in Haigerloch, Germany. The prize: a nuclear laboratory complete with a test reactor and Heisenberg's office with his copious notes. American agents dredged ****-stained documents from a watertight drum the German scientists had sunk in a cesspool;  these made clear that the Germans were far from developing a workable bomb. Did the noble Heisenberg stall the operation deliberately, a gift to humanity?

 Not so fast.  

Following the war, ten German nuclear scientists were interned at Farms Hill in England, Heisenberg prominent among them. Their conversations were bugged:

Diebner: I wonder whether there are microphones installed here?
Heisenberg: Microphones installed? (laughing) Oh no, they're not as cute as all that. They know the real Gestapo methods; they're a bit old fashioned in that respect. 

 The scientists were stunned that the Americans had successfully detonated an atomic bomb at Hiroshima. Some of the scientists indicated that they were glad that they had not been able to build a nuclear bomb for Adolf Hitler, while others more sympathetic to the Nazi party were dismayed at having failed. The tapes revealed that Heisenberg was clearly dismayed by the failure of the operation.

Heisenberg’s later life was busy and rewarding, welcomed on the lecture circuit in both Germany and Britain. He took a principled stand against the Federal Republic’s arming itself with nukes. He died in 1975, leaving his eight children. (Planck had six)

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