4 - A “Nazi” in the Academy

The “Little Hitler” in the Academy In February 1937 the scientific class nominated the mathematician Theodor Vahlen and the race hygienist Eugen Fischer for election to the academy.319


Bieberbach and Planck were among the sponsors of both proposals.320


Although Fischer’s science, anthropology, and eugenics, were more relevant to National Socialist science policy, Vahlen had extremely impressive political credentials for the Third Reich, even better than Philipp Lenard or Johannes Stark. Vahlen was born in 1869, was a decorated veteran of World War I, and had been a member of the NSDAP from the very beginning. He served as regional leader for Pomerania and member of parliament during the twenties, joined the Storm troopers in 1933, and switched over to the SS in 1936.

Vahlen became full professor of mathematics at the University of Greifswald before World War I and university rector in 1924. Moreover, Vahlen was one of the few professors in the Weimar Republic to embrace early and openly Hitler’s movement.


In 1924 Vahlen incited a crowd at a rally against the republic and took down the Prussian and Reich flags from the University flagpoles. The republican government Immediately placed Vahlen on leave and eventually fired him without a pension for political abuse of his function.


Vahlen was offered a professorship outside of Germany, at the Technical University in his birthplace, Vienna.321

Theodor Vahten, 1934.

(Courtesy of the UHstein Bilderdienst.)


Vahlen was also a respected, although not first-class, mathematician. His main interests lay in the areas of ballistics and nautical navigation. During World War I he had led an artillery battery.


Devastating criticism in 1905 from a Jewish colleague not only pushed Vahlen into applied mathematics, what he characterized as the natural, concrete way of thinking of the “Aryan” race, but may have made him more anti-Semitic. As early as 1923 Vahlen characterized mathematics as a mirror of the races.322 In 1934 Vahlen began his close collaboration with Ludwig Bieberbach to propagate Deutsche Mathematik through a journal of the same name.

But Vahlen also tried to use more rational arguments in the service of National Socialist science policy. For example, Vahlen was more circumspect than the adherents of Deutsche Physik on the subject of the theory of relativity and took care to use scientific arguments when attacking Einstein’s work. In 1933 he responded to a proposal that this theory and its supporters be forcibly eradicated by insisting that to use the Education Ministry’s power in this matter would mean regressing back to medieval methods. The National Socialists would be more successful in the purification and clarification of their spiritual life by placing the best men in the best positions.323


Eventually Vahlen adopted the common tactic of ascribing the theory of relativity to other “Aryan” physicists, thereby accusing Einstein of plagiarism, but also making the theory palatable to the National Socialist state.324

Vahlen gained power and influence over science policy in the Third Reich mainly because he was a fascist, not because of his mathematical prowess. In March 1933 Vahlen was appointed to the University Division in REM. A little more than a year later he was in charge. He was especially active in implementing the Law for the Restoration of the Career Civil Service and decisively molded the Ministry’s science policy towards the Kaiser Wilhelm Society, the PAW, and the Research Foundation. On 1 January 1937 Vahlen was relieved of his duties in the Ministry.325


As his subsequent conduct would show, Vahlen was most probably eased out because he was no longer able to fulfill his function.

In the spring of 1936 Vahlen tried to take over the Kaiser Wilhelm Society through the back door. The mathematician sent an emissary to Philipp Lenard and asked him to accept the presidency of the Society as a figurehead. Vahlen would do all the work.326 Lenard replied that Vahlen should take the job himself.327

If he could have, he probably would have, but the Society had influential allies within the National Socialist state, Lenard could arguably have been pushed through in the face of opposition, but not Vahlen. One of Vahlen’s successors at REM hinted to Johannes Stark that Vahlen had been forced to give up his position in the ministry.328 In any case, Stark believed that Vahlen, who in his opinion had little understanding or character, wanted to become president, not to further a National Socialist revolution in science, but instead out of desire for money.329

It was no coincidence that Vahlen was nominated for the PAW after his efforts to manipulate the presidency of the Kaiser Wilhelm Society had been thwarted. Vahlen’s entry into the academy was coerced by his National Socialist allies. As usual, two competent experts assessed his scientific career and justified his admission, but made clear in subsequent publications that they in fact thought little of the very work they had previously praised.330

However, Vahlen’s election was complicated by the traditional method of voting in the PAW. New members had to be nominated within a class, elected by that class, and finally elected by the academy at large. All these votes were taken by a special form of secret ballot: each member would place either a black or white sphere in a container.


If the candidate received a large enough majority of white spheres, then he was elected. The spheres posed problems for scientists who were intent on transforming the PAW into a National Socialist institution, but at the same time wanted to keep the appearance that the long-standing traditions of the academy were still being respected.

When the vote on Fischer’s and Vahlen’s candidacy was held on 15 April, it ended with a shocking result. Although Fischer was elected by a wide margin, Vahlen did not achieve the necessary majority.331 Such a defeat was almost unheard of at the PAW, and revealed how problematic the black and white spheres could be: there was no way to stop a member from professing support in public but casting the black sphere in secret. For example, although Planck had been one of the sponsors of Vahlen’s appointment, he could nevertheless have secretly voted against him.

However, Vahlen and his supporters were not finished and the victory* of Vahlen’s opponents proved short-lived, if not counterproductive. Bieberbach immediately called for the following changes in how the PAW elected members: only the members of the relevant class would vote; each member would be asked for his opinion publicly, i.e., no more secret ballots; and the secretary alone would then decide whether or not this name should be proposed to the ministry.332


Less than a month after he made this threat, Bieberbach simply started the process all over again. Vahlen was proposed by several members of the scientific class,333 nominated by a wide margin,334 and on 24 June was finally elected by a sufficient majority.335

It was also no coincidence that Vahlen retired from REM a few months later, when he received the unusual honor of a personal letter of congratulations from Hitler.336 Vahlen was still an honorable long-standing National Socialist activist, but he had gotten older and had noticeably slowed down. When the SS accepted him in 1936, the SS Security Service pointedly requested that he not be assigned to them.337


As far as the SS and REM were concerned, the academy was a suitable rest home for an aging old fighter. In contrast to the more powerful and independent Kaiser Wilhelm Society, the PAW could not resist a takeover.

In October 1938 Minister Rust informed PAW that the statutes of the academy would be changed corresponding to the fundamental ideology of National Socialism. The leadership principle had to be introduced, thereby installing a strict hierarchy and eliminating any remaining democratic elements. The structure of the academy leadership would be altered to include a president, vice president, and two secretaries, one for each class. One of the two secretaries would also handle the business of the entire academy and have the title of General Secretary.

The number of full members would be expanded, which was an effective way to create a majority of National Socialist members while retaining a sense of continuity with the old academy. REM not only had to approve the election of all members, but the PAW had to report Its nominees to REM before any public announcement was made.


Election to the academy was also no longer permanent. REM could withdraw its approval of a given member at any time.
Full members could be only Reich citizens, i.e., “Aryans,” who lived in Prussia,338 The Reich Citizenship Law had previously redefined the Jews as “subjects” without the full rights of German citizens.339


This subtle measure provided a very effective mechanism for persecuting “non-Aryans.” Henceforth laws and decrees needed merely to assign certain rights exclusively to citizens in order to take them away from the Jewish subjects.

Finally, and as expected, the remaining “non-Aryan” full members had to leave the academy. Furthermore, the PAW was supposed to persuade these few Jewish members to resign quietly. The contrast between these final purges and the earlier Einstein affair is stark.


Whereas in 1933 REM wanted to generate publicity for getting rid of Einstein, the ministry now did not want to draw attention to the fact that it had tolerated Jews in the PAW for so long. However, the National Socialist leadership did make a concession for the moment with regard to the foreign members: REM would not require that external and corresponding members satisfy the same requirements. Finally, REM gave PAW less than a month to report back to Rust.340

The academy membership and leadership capitulated immediately. The “non-Aryan” members were informed of Rust’s decree by unofficial and confidential letters. The three scholars, Adolf Goldschmidt, Eduard Norden, and Issai Schnur, responded by resigning from the PAW. When the chairman reported this to the general meeting of the academy, he requested and received permission on behalf of the academy to express thanks to their former colleagues for their many years of valuable work. The PAW immediately began altering the statutes as ordered.341


On 14 October 1938 the academy reported to REM that its Jewish members had left the PAW.342


Thus the academy had purged itself of its last Jewish members before the infamous pogrom dubbed the “Night of Broken Glass” and the radical escalation of anti-Semitic terror and anti-Jewish legislation that followed.

For the Jews in Germany, 1936 and 1937 were relatively calm years in large part because the Third Reich wanted to present a good image for the 1936 Olympic games.


But that changed dramatically in 1938. In the night of 9 November 1938 a murderous pogrom was unleashed by Minister of Propaganda Josef Goebbels, ostensibly in response to the assassination of a German diplomat in Paris by a Polish Jew. Throughout Germany, SS and SA (not in uniform) burned synagogues, destroyed seven thousand businesses, killed 100 Jews, and sadistically tortured thousands more. There were 20,000 Jewish men arrested and sent to concentration camps. Most Germans were shocked by the pogrom.


Many people privately complained about the vandalism, lawlessness, and destruction of property. However, there was little or no opposition to the legal measures that followed. The National Socialists used the “Night of Broken Glass” as a cynical excuse for far-reaching decrees against the Jews, thereby excluding them from the economy and removing most, if not all, of their remaining freedom.343

The academy also felt the change in official policy towards Jews. Without warning in late November, REM specified additional changes in the new statutes. Members who were half-Jews, who had some Jewish ancestry, or who had Jewish wives had to leave the academy as well. Indeed, they were to be handled exactly as PAW had treated their full Jewish members. Rust considered exceptions inappropriate. Thus the National Socialists used an obvious yet effective tactic: no mention was made of the intention to get rid of the “half-Jews” until the full Jews were gone. Although the PAW was confronted with a series of escalating demands, each was presented as if it was the last and final concession and gave no hint of further measures to come.

Since only Reich citizens could become full members, in the future no Jews would be elected. Furthermore, the same standards would of course be used for the election of new corresponding or honorary members. In particular, REM would reject the election of a foreign member if he was a Jew in the sense of the Reich Citizenship Law.


Existing corresponding and honorary Jewish members living In Germany would be asked to resign. If they refused, then
Rust would take advantage of the power given him by the new statutes and dismiss them. Finally, REM would postpone further action on Jewish foreign corresponding members until it had discussed the matter with the German Foreign Office.

Henceforth Rust would appoint the academy president, vice-president, and two secretaries, although the PAW was free to make suggestions. In order to rejuvenate the academy, full members over the age of seventy could be relieved of their duties, making possible the election of a younger full member.


This apparent reform was a transparent method of silencing several recalcitrant older members and replacing them with younger scholars more congenial to National Socialism. Finally, REM asked the PAW to consider changing its name to “Berlin Academy of Sciences.” As usual, the PAW had only a month to submit the new statutes to Rust.344

The external pressure on the PAW to transform itself was complemented by agitation by the National Socialist fifth column within the academy. On 1 December Vahlen, Bieberbach, and three other NSDAP members confronted the PAW leadership. These party comrades told their colleagues in the PAW that they had heaved a sigh of relief when REM demanded new statutes for the academy. Indeed, Vahlen, Bieberbach, and the others had felt ashamed that the academy had remained silent and not already voluntarily done what was needed.


In other words, the academy should have voluntarily transformed itself into a completely “Aryan,” National Socialist institution rather than waiting for the Ministry to force them to do so.

However, the five party comrades noted that a new epoch in the history of the PAW was beginning. They disagreed fundamentally with the argument made by many academy members that the PAW had to save what could be saved. Bieberbach and Vahlen reminded their colleagues that they all had been living since 1933 in a National Socialist state, where everything was to be arranged according to fascist principles, including science. It was not a matter of saving something, they argued, rather of building something new and National Socialist.

Since party comrades were best suited for such work, Vahlen, Bieberbach, and the others demanded that they be included in the committee charged with changing the statutes,345 After a short discussion and one substitution, the academy agreed.346


At the same meeting the PAW also capitulated to the demand that all members with some Jewish ancestry leave the academy. Acting chairman Planck read the REM decree requiring the removal of the members who were “part-Jewish or had part-Jewish wives” to the meeting. He then requested and received the permission to thank these members on behalf of the academy for their valuable contribution to the scientific work of the academy.

Implementation of the decree was entrusted to the statutes commission, now dominated by Bieberbach and Vahlen.347


The academy did risk one pathetic request: that REM not apply this policy as strictly as had been done in the universities. Apparently some academy members still clung to the delusion that the National Socialist state would grant exceptions for Jewish members. Shortly before Christmas, the academy learned that the PAW members who were part Jewish or had part-Jewish wives, Max Sering, Otto Hintze, and corresponding members Felix Jacoby and Hans Horst Meyer, had resigned.348

On 22 December, PAW officially submitted its new statutes, which corresponded completely with the REM decree. However, the academy cautiously declined the suggestion of renaming the academy because the title “Prussian Academy of Sciences” was so well-known internationally.349


The new statutes created the position of academy president, and the Ministry of Education immediately named Vahlen acting president.350 A few weeks later Bieberbach was appointed acting secretary of the scientific class. When an academy member complained that the four academy secretaries had resigned their offices and cleared the way for Vahlen and Bieberbach without informing the academy and thereby forestalling any discussion, he was told that there had not been enough time.351


This was either an excuse or the result of the tactics skillfully employed by REM to seize control of the PAW.

Thus the leadership principle was finally introduced to the academy in 1938 on the eve of World War II, a few months after the brutal pogrom of Germany’s Jews and in the same year when Hitler purged the leadership of the armed forces. Conservative generals who had been critical of Hitler’s foreign policy were forced to resign and replaced by more pliable men. The traditional German elites lost what little remaining autonomy they had within the National Socialist state. Now nothing stood in the way of Hitler’s war.352

When the scientific class met on 19 January 1939, acting secretary Bieberbach announced that they had five free positions as replacements for older members. First, Bieberbach pointedly noted that he did not want to elect other relatively old scientists, rather the academy should bring in suitable younger colleagues. Here “suitable” had a specific meaning. Racial acceptability was now taken for granted. These new appointments had to meet an especially high standard with respect to political desirability, i.e., not merely being politically harmless, rather having special political qualifications or backing.


However, Bieberbach artfully passed the buck. Neither he nor acting president Vahlen would make such a decision; that would be up to the responsible political offices.

The secretary went on in the January meeting to develop what must have been a deceptively seductive argument: of course, political qualifications would not replace scientific performance. Bieberbach assured his colleagues both personally and in the name of Vahlen that no one would be prepared to support the election of a member who did not completely and entirely fulfill the usual scientific requirements. In short, Bieberbach and Vahlen wanted only to require especially high political qualifications while maintaining the usual scientific standards.

In fact, there was no shortage of qualified scientists who also met these special political qualifications. Many of Germany’s best scientists actively or passively supported National Socialist policies.


Moreover, Bieberbach had been met with understanding from the political officials when he had argued to them that high scientific qualifications were an absolute prerequisite of any election. Bieberbach had taken the liberty of preparing a list of suitable names for new academy members, but assured his colleagues that he was prepared to discard any name for whom the representatives of the discipline had objections with regard to the scientific qualifications. In contrast, the mathematician did not offer to include any additional names in the list.

Next Bieberbach brought up the case of the physical chemist Max Volmer, yet he was not named specifically.353 Although the academy had previously nominated him, representatives of the National Socialist state had found his political conduct unacceptable.354


Thus Bieberbach drove home the point that he and Vahlen had not invented the high political standards for new academy members. That had been done by National Socialist officials in REM. What had happened with Volmer had been very unpleasant, and the academy had to avoid such situations in the future. Here Bieberbach and Vahlen also began another effective tactic; telling their colleagues - whether true or not - that the two of them had barely managed with great effort to keep the political authorities from punishing the academy for some matter or, even worse, from restricting the freedom of the PAW even further.

However, Bieberbach probably revealed his hypocrisy when he moved on to the next order of business; electing the future National Socialist Armaments Minister, Fritz Todt, as an honorary member of the academy.


After arguing (rather implausibly) that Todt’s scientific achievement matched that of the other honorary members and his political and economic significance for the German people far outweighed them, Bieberbach not only called upon his colleagues to elect him, he broadly hinted that any black spheres might cause problems for the academy. Todt was nominated with only a few votes against him.355


A week later the full academy nominated Todt by a similar margin.356

However, the National Socialist leadership of the PAW had not yet won over their colleagues. Vahlen closed an academy meeting in late January with a personal and serious appeal to the members. They had to put aside their personal resentments, jealousies, friendships or antagonisms, he urged, in order to place the good of the whole above that of the individual. The time had come for camaraderie and support ci the acting leaders. Otherwise, Vahlen noted menacingly, the academy might suffer heavy damage.357

A few months later Vahlen turned his attention to the traditional secret ballot.


The academy president noted that black spheres had repeatedly been deposited without any member having openly expressed his objections. This result is hardly surprising. It had always been common for a candidate to receive a few black spheres, and few members wanted to oppose openly a candidate backed by the PAW leadership. The implication of Vahlen’s remarks was clear. The academy members could continue to enjoy their traditional secret ballots only if they always voted yes. The academy responded by electing twenty-four members en masse.358

Vahlen’s increasingly dictatorial handling of the academy led to a modest revolt. Three senior academy members, Planck, Hein-rich Luders, and Hans Stille, criticized Vahlen’s actions in writing and sent copies of their letter to all academy members. The acting president reacted by accusing his critics of unfairly mistrusting and trying to pressure him. Since Planck and his colleagues were hardly in a position to threaten Vahlen, the mathematician’s response suggests that he was either concerned about his scientific reputation, or senility was causing him to lose his grip on reality.

Vahlen brought up the matter of confidence before the entire PAW and challenged anyone to discuss the supposed uneasiness among the members which had led to mistrust of the acting president. Planck now backed down and argued that the letter should not be seen as a statement of mistrust, rather they had merely expressed their concern for the future of the academy.


The physicist went on to say that, in his opinion, the academy should have full confidence in Vahlen and be thankful for his efforts on its behalf. Vahlen was pleased to note that no one had expressed mistrust in him or the other academy officers, and thanked them for their support.359

Vahlen’s acting presidency was due to run out on 15 June. When the academy met that day, the members were informed that Rust had accepted the new statutes with a few minor changes and that the PAW now had to nominate a new president, vice-president, and two class secretaries. Not surprisingly, Vahlen suggested that the academy vote on the four offices as a bloc, that is, they should vote to make the acting officials permanent. No doubt Vahlen hoped to avoid a referendum on his personal popularity.

But Planck stirred himself to raise a dissenting voice. In his opinion the academy president should be someone with very good connections to scientists in foreign countries and therefore could well represent the academy outside of Germany. Planck nominated Hans Stille as president. Another member supported Planck by noting that, even according to the new statutes, the PAW had to vote on its nominations for the four academy offices. Yet a third disagreed, and a long discussion with many participants followed.

Vahlen saw that an election was unavoidable, and called for a two-stage secret ballot for PAW president using slips of paper. The first round of voting determined the candidates and produced twenty-three votes for Vahlen, twenty-five for Stille, one each for Heymann and Planck, and five empty pieces of paper. The second round, now between Vahlen and Stille, ended in a tie.360


The other three acting officers ran unopposed and were elected. Vahlen laconically noted that he would report these results to REM.361 Two weeks later Minister Rust appointed the acting officers, including Vahlen, to their permanent positions.362 The historian John L. Heilbron has characterized Planck’s final challenge of Vahlen as a “moral victory” because Planck and the academy did not go down without a fight.363


If so, it was one of the last such victories in the history of the PAW under Hitler.



International Relations

The PAW and other academies of science played an important role in the international commerce of science, often organizing or sponsoring conferences, corresponding with foreign institutions, and providing a forum where science policy on an international scale could be debated and created.


Before World War I, German science dominated the international scientific community, German was the main language of science, and the PAW played a decisive role in the international politics of science.

When Germany lost World War I, the victorious allies imposed the Treaty of Versailles, a peace settlement which forced Germany to give up large amounts territory, to restrict its military, and to pay large reparations to some of the victors. Many Germans considered the treaty unfair and punitive, especially because of the war guilt clause which forced Germany to accept all blame for the war. Germany was now ostracized, and so was German science. In 1919 two new international scientific organizations, the International Research Council and the International Academic Union for the Humanities, were created in order to exclude Germany and Austria.

Many Allied scientists argued that time would have to pass and passions cool before they could reaccept their former enemies into the international community of science. The Germans simply considered it a boycott. This ostracism was fairly effective during the first postwar years. Congresses were not held in Germany, the German dominance of scientific journals was broken, and German was even replaced slowly by English. But the boycott had never been complete, and by 1925 it was beginning to crumble.


By the late twenties many scientists in the United States and Europe wanted to reopen the channels of scientific cooperation. However, when the former allies became willing to accept the Germans, the latter began playing hard to get.

For the German scientists, the boycott was a moral issue. Their pride had been wounded.


They tried to put up a united front and condemned the few deserters like Einstein, scientists who accepted personal invitations to attend conferences when Germans officially were banned or at least unwelcome. When German foreign policy changed in the course of the Weimar Republic from confrontation to cooperation with the League of Nations and the German Foreign Office turned to German scientists for assistance in reestablishing international ties, the German scientific community refused to cooperate.


When Germany was invited to join the International Research Council in 1926, the cartel of German academies and Union of German Universities refused. It quickly became obvious that they simply did not want to join this organization, in large part because of the bitterness caused by the boycott.364

Although the PAW refused to participate in international scientific activities coordinated by the Council, it did take an active part in National Socialist cultural policy. In late June 1937 REM asked the academy if it was able and willing to name foreigners or Germans living outside of Germany who were actively working for German interests as honorary or corresponding members for the sake of cultural and political considerations. The academy was willing, with two conditions: the individual must fulfill the academy’s usual scientific requirements and the relevant experts must be willing to propose him.365


This was the same bargain that Bieberbach had offered with respect to full membership. The PAW was willing to bestow scientific honors for political reasons, so long as they went to good scientists.

The National Socialist government closely monitored and controlled the international activities of academy scientists. For example, in the summer of 1938 REM informed PAW that all invitations to an international medical congress in Strasbourg were to be turned down, perhaps because Germany had been forced to return Alsace to France as part of the peace settlement.366


In late October PAW received an invitation to attend a congress on cancer research in Paris. Since REM considered German participation undesirable, PAW turned down the invitation with thanks.367 However, scientists were welcome to get involved in politics, so long as it suited National Socialist interests. Shortly after Germany had absorbed Austria and took one of the first major steps towards World War II, Walther Nernst suggested that the Berlin academy send a telegram of greetings to the Vienna academy and welcome them home to the Reich. His colleagues agreed.368

The successful German Lightning War (Blitzkrieg) radically changed the quality of the PAW’s international relations. It was no longer a matter of whether German academies would cooperate with international organizations in Belgium and France, rather what the conquering Germans would do with them and the rest of occupied Europe. War also brought with it additional financial restrictions. Vahlen announced that the academy finances were being reevaluated and that until further notice the academy would not publish the work of non-Germans.369


But exceptions were made. In April Bieberbach successfully argued that the work of a Bulgarian mathematician should be published because the work was of high quality and it would be good for Germany’s cultural relations with Bulgaria.370

The 1939 German-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact on the eve of World War II surprised and dismayed Germany’s neighbors. The two totalitarian states set aside their deep ideological differences, agreed not to attack each other, and in a secret clause of the treaty divided Poland and the Baltic states between them. Hitler wanted the treaty so that his back would be free when he attacked western Europe, even though he intended to attack the Soviet Union eventually. Stalin wanted more time to prepare for the confrontation with Germany, because he in turn considered German aggression inevitable.

This pact also caused a radical about-face in official cultural policy. Cooperation between the PAW and Soviet institutions had previously been tightly controlled. In December 1936 the Reich Exchange Office in the Prussian State Library, which controlled and coordinated all exchanges of publications with foreign institutions, had ordered the PAW to provide them with a detailed list of every exchange with the Soviet Union, and informed the academy that any new exchanges would have to be approved in advance.371

Three years later, cooperation with Soviet institutions was positively encouraged. REM decreed on 30 November that scientific relations with the Soviet Union would be renewed.372 By the new year the PAW was able to report that the previous exchanges of publications between the PAW and the Soviet scientific institutes had been reinstated, along with many new requests for German publications. The academy tried as best it could to fulfill the many requests.373


The situation changed abruptly once again in the summer of 1941, when Germany tore up its pact and invaded the Soviet Union.

War had an immediate effect on the academy’s international communication. Almost no exchanges remained with hostile countries. Allies were another matter. In November 1940 two more requests for publication exchanges from friendly countries were approved: a geophysical institute in Italy and a mathematical institute in Japan.374


Countries that had been conquered by Germany offered special opportunities for international scientific cooperation. REM instructed Bieberbach to support an “Analytical Bulletin” being published by the “National Center for Scientific Research and Documentation” in Paris. This bulletin provided brief summaries of the contents of articles from scientific and technical journals from around the world, and was designed to facilitate the absorption of French industry by its German counterpart by encouraging the French to collaborate with the Germans.375

The academy also took part directly in the plunder of European science. In the summer of 1940 the Prussian State Library informed the PAW that manuscripts and library material of German origin were being returned, i.e., removed, from French and Belgian libraries. Furthermore, the academy was encouraged to place orders for such material.376


In fact the PAW did order materials from libraries in occupied countries and thereby participated directly in the German rape of Europe and fundamentally perverted the purpose of an academy of sciences. This ruthless collaboration with National Socialism was an ironic twist on the academy’s traditional fostering of international cooperation in science through an exchange of publications.

Perhaps the most consequential role played by the PAW in the cultural exploitation of countries under German occupation came in occupied Poland.377 In late August 1940 the PAW informed the director of the university library in Berlin that there were nineteen publications of the Krakow academy which the PAW did not have. The PAW asked this official to arrange that these publications be sent to the Berlin academy from the former Krakow academy, which had been closed by German officials.378

In November the PAW was contacted by the newly established State and University Library in Posen, also in occupied Polish territory. The librarian was trying to build up a German-language library, and hoped to receive PAW publications.


Although the new Reich University of Posen had only just been established and the librarian did not have much German literature to offer in exchange, he did have large collections of Polish literature which he would be willing to send to Berlin. The PAW responded immediately that it would be pleased to begin a publication exchange. It would send its usual publications to Posen together with a list of one German and eleven Polish publications which it would like in return.379

Sometimes this process was pushed by higher officials as part of the German policy of assimilation. When Education Minister Rust visited Posen, he pointedly noted that its library only had PAW publications through World War I. REM instructed the academy to send the missing publications to Posen.380 Shortly after the new year the Posen library sent eighteen volumes to the PAW.381


A few weeks later, the German occupation government in Poland sent PAW volumes from the archives of the former Polish Academy of Sciences.382 The PAW also elected the rector of the University in Posen a corresponding member of the academy in 1941.383

The Polish scientists and scholars had little opportunity to protest the plunder of their country, but the special National Socialist brand of international scientific cooperation was not always passed over in silence.


Early in December 1943 the PAW and the other German academies received a polite yet accusatory letter from the Swedish Academy of Sciences. Sweden was one of the few neutral countries during World War II. The German authorities in Norway had responded to student protests by closing the University of Oslo, arresting the male Norwegian students along with many teachers, and announcing that they would be deported to Germany for forced labor.


How, the Swedes asked, did the PAW justify this?384 The PAW’s first reaction was to do nothing before first checking with the Foreign Office.385 REM forbade both official and personal responses by any academy member.386


One scholar nevertheless disobeyed the ministry and answered his Swedish colleagues in the spring of 1944 by reciting a list of destruction done to German culture by Allied bombs.387



Vahlen’s Presidency

Vahlen and Bieberbach stuck to their promise and only elected competent scientists as full members, some of whom were National Socialists, some who were politically useful, and others who were politically harmless. In June 1939 Otto Hahn and two colleagues proposed Adolf Thiessen for full membership in the academy.388


Thiessen was a capable scientist and long-standing National Socialist who had taken over the old institute of the Jewish physical-chemist Fritz Haber, after the institute had been purged of its “non-Aryan” scientists and Haber had been driven into exile.389

In 1943, Werner Heisenberg and Otmar Freiherr von Ver-schuer were elected unanimously to the academy.390 Verschuer certainly fit the image of a “Nazi” scientist. He was the mentor of Josef Mengele and carried out research with the remains of concentration camp victims which his former student sent him from Auschwitz.


However, Heisenberg’s election demonstrates that another type of scientist was also acceptable to the academy: an apolitical scientist who was nevertheless considered valuable by the National Socialist state. In a modest act of defiance the scientific class voted in early March 1941 to nominate Volmer once again as a member.391


However, the academy leadership simply ignored them.

By 1939 the PAW was completely integrated into the National Socialist state. In late February the PAW finally eliminated voting by spheres in favor of what was cynically described as free and open voting.392


REM and the PAW also continued their relentless expulsion of “non-Aryan” members. In the summer of 1939 Ernst Heymann informed the academy that the Jewish scientist Richard Willstatter had been expelled as a corresponding member of the PAW. Willstatter had merely been informed that, according to the new statutes he was no longer a corresponding member because he did not fulfill the requirements for the Reich citizenship. No member of the academy raised any objections.393

In November 1941 REM informed the academy that the Italian corresponding member Tullio Levi-Civita was a full Jew. Vahlen noted that he must now be removed from the list of corresponding members, and the academy moved to do so. The physicist and corresponding member James Franck was supposed to be a full Jew, but since he was in the United States, REM decreed that a decision in his case would have to wait until after the war.394


However, once Germany was at war with the United States the situation changed. In November 1942 both Franck and Max Bom as “non-Aryans” were removed from the list of corresponding members.395

Although in a sense Vahlen had now reached the zenith of his power within the PAW, the start of World War II revealed that his mental facilities were deteriorating rapidly. In October he requested that REM transfer him to a position where he could actively contribute to the war effort. In November 1939, the septuagenarian mathematician informed the personnel office of the SS that he was available if the personal protection of the Fuhrer needed strengthening. A few months later he asked the same office for permission to wear a field gray uniform and for assignment to the front. But Vahlen’s superiors kindly turned down his offers.396

In early 1943 Vahlen, who was clearly steadily losing his grip on reality, submitted his resignation to Rust in order to go to war. The matter was passed onto the SS, where Vahlen’s colleagues tried to say no gently.397


The Ahnenerbe, the SS scientific research branch, thought that Vahlen’s offer was a nice gesture, knowing full well that Vahlen’s faculties were not what they used to be. Of course, no one wanted to hurt Vahlen’s feelings. Perhaps SS leader Heinrich Himmler could himself tactfully decline the offer.398 In fact, on 25 March, Himmler told Vahlen that an old fighter like himself had nothing to prove. Instead, he should devote himself to his scientific research.399

Vahlen’s memory began failing him so often that the academy business suffered, creating difficulties and embarrassing situations. The mathematician was finally relieved of his duties as academy president in the summer of 1943. But Himmler did promote Vahlen within the SS 400 and early in 1944 the SS finally gave Vahlen permission to wear a field gray uniform.401 Vahlen tried one last time in February 1944 to join the Waffen-SS, the military arm of the SS. Once again, Vahlen was gently advised to devote himself to science.402

The war finally came home to the academy in the summer of 1941. The president began one meeting by honoring two former scientific employees of the PAW who had fallen on the eastern front.403


In 1943 Allied bombing raids became common over Germany, causing death and destruction and revealing the impotence of Goring’s air force. However, the raids did not have the hoped-for effect on morale. The more the Germans suffered, the more they stuck together and fought their enemies. Goebbels’ propaganda now emphasized the “total war” and the atrocities which the Soviets would commit if they made it to Germany.
In late November several academy members lost everything they owned to Allied bombs. 404


By mid-December, the bombing had made further printing of the academy publications impossible for the duration of the war.405 The first meeting of the academy in 1944 was held in the air raid shelter because the usual meeting room had been damaged.406 The air raids and small number of members present ended the meeting on 9 March after just ten minutes. Vahlen lost his apartment to an Allied air raid and moved to Vienna, where he was immediately given a honorary professorship by the Vienna Technical University.408 In July 1944 Rust told the PAW that no new president would be named until after the war.409


The last minutes of an academy meeting in the Third Reich noted merely that the meeting had to be postponed.410





After the fall of the Third Reich, what was left of the PAW scrambled to accommodate itself to the new political realities. The academy began meeting again In June 1945, even though many members were no longer in Berlin and the city was occupied by Allied and in particular Soviet forces.


The acting secretary, Hermann Grapow, told his colleagues that the local mayor was very interested in cultural matters and had offered to help find a permanent meeting place for them - they were now meeting in the local city hall. However, a different academy member, Eduard Spranger, objected to the apologetic tone of the draft report which was to be submitted to the authorities. In his opinion, there was no reason for the academy to begin apologizing for its former conduct.411


He was soon proved wrong.

In mid-June PAW member Johannes Stroux met with the local magistrate about the financing of the academy, new statues, and office space. The magistrate asserted its veto power over the election of full members. When the academy subsequently discussed how the elections should take place, one member proposed voting by acclamation, a suggestion perhaps unconsciously reminiscent of the Third Reich, The rest of the members agreed that a secret vote using slips of paper was preferable.412

The PAW now took great care to ingratiate itself with the new rulers. When a local politician suggested that the academy start public lectures as a way to attract attention, the PAW responded by proposing a lecture on the connections between the writer Jacob Grimm and Russian scholars.413 The academy also sent a congratulatory letter care of the Soviet occupation government to the Leningrad Academy on their 220th anniversary.414


The Germans’ concern about the future of their academy was justified. In a subsequent meeting with German officials employed by the Soviet occupation government, the academy representative was told that the government was not certain that the PAW still existed, rather it might have to be refounded. In other words, all of the existing members would in effect be dismissed and the academy rebuilt from scratch. This barely veiled threat was followed by the pointed remark that the PAW still employed former members of both the NSDAP and SA.415

At the next meeting, in July 1945, the academy discussed what to do about their colleagues who had been members of the NSDAP, forcing five former party members to leave the room. Many more employees of the academy had been in the party, and the remaining PAW members decided to dismiss four employees and try to keep two others.


Since the city government refused to allow the academy to impose one policy on its employees but another on its members, the PAW could not delay dealing with its politically tainted members. The officials responsible for the PAW gave its acting president two lists, one of eight members who had to go, and another with the names of eighteen individuals who had to be examined more closely. The members present accepted the two lists and the proposed measures unanimously.416


The list of eight included Vahlen, Bieberbach, Konrad Meyer, Peter Adolf Thiessen, Franz Koch, Carl August Emge, Friedrich Stieve, and Theodor Mayer.417

The PAW had to face criticism for its past under National Socialism and pressure to conform to the wishes of the Soviet Occupation Government. In August the shadow of the Einstein affair reemerged. The magistrate ordered the PAW to use its records to prepare a report on the entire matter.418 The PAW was also informed that its library, like all libraries, would be purged of undesirable political writings.419


In December the PAW began to transform itself once again, this time according to the model of the Soviet Academy of Sciences by incorporating scientific institutes. One of the first to be considered was a new institute for Slavic languages, but the PAW also began to swallow up various scientific state and KWG institutes in and around Berlin that had been orphaned by the division of Germany.420


Thus the introduction of the Soviet model had both ideological and pragmatic justification.

Members also protested in vain against the dismissal of former NSDAP members and the grave dangers this policy had for the academy, the university, and indeed for the cultural life of Berlin in general. The result would be the emigration and persecution of respected scholars on one hand, and the obstruction and alienation of new forces on the other.421


It is worth noting that even though this protest was futile, it went far beyond any criticism made by the academy of National Socialist policy in the early thirties.

Shortly after Christmas 1945 the PAW as such ceased to exist. After a sometimes bitter discussion the academy bowed to pressure to change its name - something not even the National Socialists had insisted upon - and remove the name Prussian. It was now the “Berlin Academy of Sciences.”422


By 1947 it had been renamed the “German Academy of Sciences” and included over nineteen institutes and other scientific institutions.423 This academy in turn became the “Academy of Sciences of the German Democratic Republic” in 1972 and lasted in this form until German reunification in 1990, when the institutes were either disbanded or reconnected to some other scientific institution. What remained has returned to the original model for an academy of sciences, now renamed the “Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences.”

On 5 October 1946, something else happened that was ironically reminiscent of the Third Reich. By order of the Soviet occupation government, all institutions under its control, including the academy, gathered together at a rally celebrating the judgment reached at the Nuremberg Trials. With few exceptions, the surviving National Socialist leadership was sentenced to death for crimes against humanity. The academy was ordered to ensure that all members and employees attended, and that they arrived in a group.424


There were certainly grave differences between the Third Reich, now condemned for the crime of genocide, and the Stalinist society the Soviets imposed on eastern Germany. But the coerced public ceremony recognizing the judgment from Nuremberg is nevertheless reminiscent of the mandatory collective listening to Hitler’s speeches during the Third Reich and illustrates the special tragedy of scientists and other Germans in the Soviet occupation zone and the subsequent German Democratic Republic. They traded a murderous racist dictatorship for a milder, socialist one.

The National Socialist scientist and PAW dictator Theodor Vahlen barely outlived the Third Reich. According to his widow, the seventy-six-year-old Vahlen died on 16 November 1945 in a Prague prison.425


Ludwig Bieberbach, perhaps the other most prominent National Socialist in the academy, was one of the very few professors who never regained a teaching position in Germany. However, the postwar stigma attached to Bieberbach was mainly caused by his infamous Deutsche Mathematik, not because of his role in the subversion of the PAW.

The concessions Max Planck made during the Einstein affair were not forgotten, but have usually been softened by the emphasis placed both on the statement Planck made before the academy honoring Einstein’s scientific achievement, and on the great personal suffering Planck had to endure under Hitler. The final and ultimately futile fight Planck put up for the independence of the academy demonstrates that he saw clearly what National Socialism was doing to the academy, to science, and to Germany.

Perhaps the strongest image associated with the PAW under Hitler is Max von Laue’s barring the door to the “Nazi” physicist Johannes Stark. Von Laue himself published an account of the affair in 1947 as a response to a self-serving article from Stark. Indeed von Laue is regularly portrayed as one of the few German scientists who refused any and all compromise with the National Socialists, and the Stark affair is presented as proof.


The history of the academy under Hitler demonstrates that his conduct in fact was more ambiguous and ambivalent, but nevertheless still laudable.

The PAW was important enough to be brought into line with the rest of German society during the Third Reich, but the slow pace of the transformation of the academy and the subsequent imposition of Vahlen as PAW president also reveal that the academy was really not that important to the National Socialist state. Otherwise its Jewish members would have been thrown out immediately, and it would hardly have been used as a rest home for senile party comrades.


The PAW could delay its purge of “non-Aryan” members because it was relatively unimportant for National Socialist science policy, not because of the personal or professional courage of its members.

The academy certainly did not actively oppose or resist the new regime, but that does not necessarily earn it the “Nazi” label.


On one hand, the academy began immediately to make concessions to Germany’s new National Socialist rulers. On the other hand, with few exceptions the PAW continued throughout the Third Reich to have outstanding scientists and scholars as its members who produced high-quality science and scholarship. The members of the PAW willingly and knowingly cooperated with National Socialist policies while simultaneously trying to maximize their shrinking professional and personal independence.

Bieberbach’s and Vahlen’s argument, that only good scientists would be chosen for membership, even if they also had to fulfill political criteria as well, was no doubt both seductive and effective. Any member who wished to believe that the academy was apolitical and that scientific qualifications were all that mattered could accept this perverse type of affirmative action for professionally competent National Socialist scientists and their fellow travelers.

What such a scientist could not do, however, was to dwell for too long on those scientists who had been driven out of the academy or who were denied admission. As the political scientist Joseph Haberer recognized, compliance and cooperation did not protect the Academy, rather helped transform it into a willing tool of National Socialism. Furthermore, in the long run, the unwillingness to protect colleagues and the concessions made to the regime were the most grave legacy of this period.426

The history of the academy shows that its members were cajoled, coerced, threatened, and seduced step by step into transforming themselves into a willing tool of the National Socialist state.


This transformation culminated in the ruthless purge of “non-Aryan” members and participation in the scientific rape of occupied Europe. But Vahlen did not conquer and subsequently pervert the academy, rather he took over after its members had already collectively sealed a Faustian pact with the Third Reich.


Bieberbach did not undermine the academy by himself, rather he was able to persuade the majority of his colleagues to either help or at least not oppose him. Planck not only regretted the shameful handling of Einstein, he also was forced to preside over the forced resignation of the rest of his Jewish colleagues.


Finally, von Laue did bar the door to Johannes Stark, but he and Planck also had little choice but to step aside when others held the door open to scientists like Fischer, Thiessen, von Verschuer, and Vahlen.

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5 - Physics and Propaganda

The majority of German scientists neither embraced National Socialism nor emigrated from it.


They stayed and worked, either withdrawing as much as possible from the disturbing reality of the Third Reich - often called “inner emigration” - or actively participating in the National Socialist system. The latter individuals inevitably acted in an ambiguous and ambivalent manner. Enthusiastic National Socialists, opponents, opportunists, and the vast silent majority all worked within the system despite having very different motives.


Thus different observers have often described the same activity by the same scientist either as collaboration or resistance. Both labels are problematic because they mirror the black-and-white juxtaposition of “Nazi” and “anti-Nazi.” For most scientists, the day-to-day reality lay in between.

Werner Heisenberg’s guest lectures in foreign countries and resulting participation in cultural propaganda during the Third Reich provide an excellent example of how ambiguous and ambivalent cooperation with the National Socialist state could be. One lecture in particular deserves close inspection. In September 1941, when German armies were pushing deep into Soviet territory, Heisenberg and Carl Friedrich von Weizsacker traveled from Germany to Copenhagen, where they gave talks and visited their Danish physicist colleagues.


This visit remains one of the most controversial events in the recent history of German science precisely because it has been used as evidence for diametrically opposed interpretations of Heisenberg’s and von Weizsacker’s conduct under Hitler:

  1. they went to Copenhagen in order to help their colleague Niels Bohr and to save the world from nuclear weapons

  2. they went in order to help the National Socialists exploit Bohr (who had a Jewish mother) and win the race to the atom bomb 427

Heisenberg’s and von Weizsacker’s 1941 visit to Denmark belongs in the context of National Socialist cultural propaganda in countries occupied by or obedient to Germany during the war. The physicists did not simply go to Copenhagen to help Bohr, They traveled to a Denmark occupied by German troops. While in Copenhagen, they participated in official propaganda by lecturing at a German cultural institute.

Heisenberg’s many guest lectures also facilitate an analysis of two important aspects of science during the Third Reich. First, the National Socialist regime transformed foreign lectures and international conferences into effective tools for cultural propaganda. Second, there was a functional relationship between the changing official attitude towards Heisenberg, the rehabilitation of modem physics under Hitler, and the usefulness to the National Socialists of Heisenberg as a goodwill ambassador.

Perhaps most important, Heisenberg’s and von Weizsacker’s September 1941 trip to Copenhagen must be placed in the context of World War II. For this reason the story of their foreign lectures will be divided up into two chapters.


Chapter 6, “Physics and Propaganda” covers the prewar period and the Lightning War, when it appeared that the war would soon end with a National Socialist victory. In contrast, Chapter 7, “Goodwill Ambassadors” covers the period when the war turned sour for Germany and the persecution of the Jews was transformed into the Holocaust.



The “Coordination” of Foreign Lectures

The National Socialists took care to regulate quickly and strictly any cultural exchange with other countries as part of a thorough “coordination” of the civil service.


Officials at REM informed the rectors of the German universities that they welcomed foreign lectures by German scientists, so long as the scholar was worthy of representing Germany in the National Socialist sense. Only REM could approve a foreign trip by a civil servant or employee under its jurisdiction, which included all university instructors.428


By early 1934 the ministry noted in a threatening tone that individuals with unsuitable personalities and ideologies were being proposed as representatives of the new Germany.

All foreign travel requests for speaking engagements were to be submitted through official channels and had to include and quote verbatim the opinion of the regional leader of the NSDAP.429 The Foreign Office of the new Germany now demanded that it be informed ahead of time of any foreign lectures, and that the speaker contact and work closely with the German Embassy in the country to be visited.430


Moreover, this strict policy was introduced at a time when the Foreign Office was still relatively independent of National Socialist influence.

By early 1935, REM had extended its control to lectures by foreign scholars inside of Germany. Any invitation had to be approved by the ministry in advance, and any such request had to be submitted early enough so that the ministry could check with both the Foreign Office and the German Embassy in the country concerned. The Education Ministry also extended its right of refusal. As of June 1935 no invitation either for a lecture abroad or for participation in an international congress could be accepted without its permission.431


By 1937 the Ministry of Education required that universities and scholars provide complete information on all conferences being planned, both inside and outside of the Reich.432 The Ministry of Propaganda also gained some control over international cultural commerce. Its German Congress Center controlled the technical aspects of such trips by providing the scholars with foreign currency and through the organization of congresses held inside Germany.433

Differences in the treatment of nationalities under these guidelines illustrate how sensitive cultural policy was to political events. In 1935 Germans living abroad could be invited to purely scientific conferences in Germany without consulting REM, but any visits to or from Poland or Alsace-Lorraine had to be approved well ahead of time. In the spring of 1936, the Education Ministry forbade German scholars to have anything to do with any organization or event connected with the League of Nations. By that October, all official visits to Spain by civil servants were to be cleared beforehand. A month later this decree was extended to cover all employees.434

In 1927 the twenty-six-year-old Heisenberg was called to a full professorship in theoretical physics at the University of Leipzig. Heisenberg, one of the creators of quantum mechanics, quickly received honors, recognition, and invitations from abroad. In 1929, Heisenberg was invited to hold a series of guest lectures at the University of Chicago during the summer semester.435


Three years later Heisenberg was granted leave again to lecture at a summer school for physics at the University of Michigan. Heisenberg’s guest lectures continued after the National Socialists took power, but the context in which these goodwill trips took place became very different.436

The year 1933, which included such radical change in Germany, also brought good news to Heisenberg in the form of the 1932 Nobel Prize for physics. The University of Leipzig was very proud of Heisenberg, but concerned that he might now be tempted to go elsewhere. Heisenberg responded with thanks for the appreciation, noted that the philosophical faculty had made his stay in Leipzig as pleasant as possible, and that he hoped to be able to stay at the university for a long time to come.437


In the spring of 1934 Heisenberg received a call to a position at Harvard University with very generous fringe benefits. When Heisenberg informed the dean of this American offer, the administrator in turn assured Heisenberg that he would spare no effort to try and retain the physicist for the University of Leipzig and Germany, The Nobel laureate decided to stay at Leipzig, at least for the time being.438

In February 1936 Heisenberg requested another leave of absence to lecture at the University of Michigan in July and August, and to attend the tercentennial anniversary celebrations of Harvard University. The ministry approved Heisenberg’s trips, granted him leave from July through September, and informed the Foreign Office and the Congress Center of his plans.439


In May he submitted an application to attend a physics conference at Niels Bohr’s Institute for Theoretical Physics in Copenhagen, which was approved as well.440 In his subsequent report on the conference for the ministry, Heisenberg restricted his comments to scientific matters and avoided politics. In contrast, Pascal Jordan, another of the creators of quantum mechanics but an enthusiastic follower of Hitler,441 submitted a report couched in National Socialist rhetoric.

In the spring of 1937, Heisenberg requested permission to attend a congress on statistics to be held that October in Geneva. He had been invited to deliver one of the featured papers, a lecture on “Statements of probability in the quantum theory of wave fields.”442 The rector approved the trip, but the local head of the University Teachers League was ambivalent.443


Although Heisenberg had never been a radical leftist, had always been nationalistic, and had volunteered for military training the previous autumn, the Party official had some misgivings about approving the trip to Switzerland. Heisenberg had close connections with Jewish physicists in foreign countries and, apparently worst of all, rejected anti-Semitism.


One could not expect that Heisenberg would represent National Socialist doctrine while outside of Germany.

But despite these misgivings, the University Teachers League approved the trip because of Heisenberg’s international reputation. He was so well known, inside and outside of Germany, that the prestige of the National Socialist government would be hurt more by denying him the chance to travel to Switzerland than by
giving him permission for the trip.444

Niels Bohr (right) and Werner Heisenberg in the Niels Bohr Institute, Copenhagen, 1936.

(Photo by P. Ehrenfest, Jr., Courtesy of the AIP Emilia Segrt Visual Archives.)


One probable reason for this ambivalence was the fact that public political attacks on Heisenberg had begun, for example in the main newspaper of the NSDAP, the Volkischer Beobachter.445 It is not clear whether Heisenberg went to Geneva or not. When Heisenberg requested permission in the summer of 1937 to go to the annual small conference at Niels Bohr’s institute in Copenhagen, no objections were raised.446


Perhaps Switzerland was considered politically more sensitive than Denmark, or the fact that Heisenberg went to Copenhagen so often made the trip seem less dangerous.

Events surrounding a nuclear physics conference held in Zurich in the summer of 1936, which Heisenberg could not attend since he was in the United States, are instructive of the development of National Socialist cultural policy. Eight physicists asked for permission to attend the meeting, and six applications were approved. For Ludwig Bewilogua, Robert Dopel, Hans Geiger, Gerhard Hoffmann, and Fritz Kirchner, the ministry approved easily, if not swiftly.447


Hans Geiger submitted his request on 23 May, and on 17 June had to write his rector again to accelerate the process. Geiger was scheduled to give the featured lecture in his own special field of research. It was in the interest of German science, Geiger argued, that he be allowed to attend, otherwise a Dutchman or a Frenchman would take his place.448

Rausch von Traubenberg, a professor at the University of Kiel with a Jewish spouse, ran into political trouble. The rector, the dean, and the representative of the University Teachers League, the Party organization in charge of university instructors, all approved the trip. The rector said that he could not imagine any serious danger in sending Traubenberg to the conference, which was to be limited to scientific matters. But Traubenberg had failed in the past to get permission to travel. The regional Party leadership of the state Schleswig-Holstein had killed all previous applications, and refused yet again.449


The Reich Ministry of Education told the rector at Kiel to inform Traubenberg that he could not go to Zurich because of the shortage of foreign currency.

Fritz Sauter, who taught physics at the University of Gdttin-gen, and in 1939 joined the NSDAP, submitted his request to attend the Zurich meeting, and as far as he knew, it went through without any problem.450


In fact, REM approved the trip, only to learn that Sauter was being watched by the Gestapo, the domestic secret police branch of the SS. The ministry did not want to take responsibility for sending Sauter under these circumstances to Switzerland. Officials from the ministry then reached a compromise with the secret police.451 Sauter could go to Zurich, but he would have to submit a report to REM on the attitude of Swiss physicists toward the new Germany.452

The request of Erich Regener, a physicist at the Technical University in Stuttgart, was forwarded on to the ministry with an unofficial letter that implied that Regener and his wife were not “Aryan.”453


REM responded by asking the Wurttemberg Ministry of Culture whether Regener had submitted the questionnaire required of all civil servants, and in particular, whether Regener had ever belonged to a Freemason Lodge and whether evidence had been presented that Regener and his wife were “Aryan.”


The Reich official made clear that, if at all possible, this information should be gathered without Regener’s knowledge.454 The Wurttemberg Ministry responded that Regener had never belonged to a Lodge and was of “Aryan” blood. His wife was Jewish.455


A few weeks later, REM directed the Minister of Culture in Stuttgart to inform Regener that his trip could not be approved because of the shortage of foreign currency.456




The “White Jew” and “Ossietzky of Physics

The National Socialist regime went to considerable lengths in 1935 and 1936 to present its best face, for example during the 1936 Olympic games. But during the last few years before the war, the more radical and disturbing aspects of the new Germany emerged, including the pogrom known as the “Night of Broken Glass” and the aggressive German military expansion.457


These years were also very hard on Heisenberg. He suffered political attacks that were not only dangerous in themselves, but injurious to his personal and professional pride.

On 15 July 1937 he was attacked as a “white Jew” and “Jewish in spirit” by his colleague, fellow Nobel laureate, and president of the Imperial Physical-Technical Institute, Johannes Stark, in an article published in the SS weekly Das Schwarze Korps.458


Heisenberg called upon his superiors to protect him against Stark’s attacks, A fundamental decision was necessary. If the ministry considered Stark’s viewpoint in Das Schwarze Korps correct, then Heisenberg would resign; if the ministry did not support such attacks, then Heisenberg demanded the sort of protection which the armed forces would grant to its youngest lieutenant. Heisenberg suggested that perhaps the Leipzig University Student Organization could do something, since it was affiliated with the NSDAP, He apparently thought that he had National Socialist allies in Leipzig.459

The bureaucracy did not welcome Stark’s attack. Very many individuals lost their positions or were denied promotions on political grounds during the Third Reich. But the Ministry of Interior insisted that such decisions as well as any complaints about the political reliability of civil servants go through official channels.460


Both the Ministry of Propaganda and the Party Chancellery had decreed in 1936 that attacks on civil servants in the press should be avoided.461


The rector of the University of Leipzig - who brought the matter to the attention of the Reich regional representative in Saxony - observed that Stark had implicitly criticized those parts of the National Socialist government responsible for personnel policy and requested that the government enforce its policy towards such attacks in the press.462

Heisenberg continued his aggressive tone with his superiors. Almost seven months after he had insisted on either resignation or protection, he demanded to know whether the ministry believed that his performance deserved insults like “white Jew” and the “Ossietzky of physics”?


Stark’s attack and the inaction of his superiors had crippled Heisenberg’s work. A student had turned down both a place and a stipend at Heisenberg’s institute after Stark’s attack out of fear that association with Heisenberg could harm him politically. This case showed that unless a clear decision was made concerning the attack in Das Schwarze Korps, work in Heisenberg’s institute would be made almost impossible.463


(The socialist and pacifist Carl von Ossietzky was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize while imprisoned in a German concentration camp, thereby embarrassing the National Socialist government and prompting Adolf Hitler to forbid German citizens thereafter to accept the Nobel Prize. Ossietzky died In the camp.)

Heisenberg also contacted the SS directly, but a low-ranking official informed him that they could do nothing for him. It appeared that SS Leader Heinrich Himmler and Minister of Education Bernhard Rust had decided not to answer Heisenberg’s requests for the Munich professorship and for public recognition of his service and loyalty to the fatherland. Heisenberg saw no alternative but to submit his resignation at Leipzig and to leave Germany. He did not want to emigrate, he told his mentor Arnold Sommerfeld, but he also had no desire to live in Germany as a second-class citizen.464

Meanwhile, Johannes Stark had not prospered. He had refused as president of the German Research Foundation to fund some scientific research desired by the SS, and was subsequently sacked by the REM and replaced by SS man Rudolf Mentzel.


In the spring of 1936 Adolf Wagner, one of the most powerful and rath-less regional party leaders in Germany, instituted legal proceedings to throw Stark out of the Party for having meddled in the politics of Wagner’s region in southern Bavaria. Stark fought back and remained in the NSDAP, but his trial dragged on until 1938. After 1936, he was viewed with increasing disapproval within the SS and influential Party circles.465

Influential colleagues also intervened on Heisenberg’s behalf. During the summer of 1938 the aeronautical engineer Ludwig Prandtl convinced Himmler that Germany could not afford to lose Heisenberg, who was still relatively young and could train a generation of scientists.466 Prandtl was in a position to influence the SS.


In 1937 the Party official in charge of Gottingen described him as a typical scientist in an ivory tower. Prandtl was an honorable, conscientious scholar from an older generation concerned with his integrity and respectability. However, given Prandtl’s exceptionally valuable scientific contributions toward the expansion of the Air Force, he was also someone the National Socialists neither could do without, nor wanted to alienate.467

The leader of the SS forbade further political attacks on Heisenberg, invited the physicist to meet with Mm, and made it clear that he expected Heisenberg to stick to physics, not politics.468 Heisenberg responded immediately, agreed to avoid politics, but insisted on a public rehabilitation.469


In November a messenger from Himmler arrived and asked Heisenberg for more detailed information on the “physics war” between Deutsche Physik and the established physics community, which Heisenberg considered to be a good sign.470 At the same time a Party official told Prandtl that the struggle against the theory of relativity had been stopped by someone in a high position.471

Despite its power, the SS could not end Heisenberg’s troubles. In December 1938 an official from the Saxon Ministry of Culture paid an unofficial visit to his Berlin colleague in the Education Ministry and asked about the Heisenberg case. Minister Rust had not made up his mind, in part because the Heisenberg affair was only one part of the controversy between theoretical and experimental physics.


The two bureaucrats agreed that Stark had gone too far. But they also agreed that Heisenberg had brought much of his troubles upon himself. In the summer of 1934, for example, Stark had arranged a public declaration of support for Adolf Hitler that Heisenberg had refused to sign. The excuses he gave for his past conduct were no defense.


Nevertheless, the official from the Saxon ministry assured the rector in Leipzig that Heisenberg would not be disciplined for this previous politically unacceptable conduct. Heisenberg would just have to have a little more patience and wait for Reich Ministry of Education to act.472





The last foreign lecture tour Heisenberg undertook before the coming war cast its shadow over international scientific relations was a trip to Holland in January 1939. The physical colloquium of the University of Leyden invited Heisenberg to give a talk on “the penetrating components of cosmic rays.”473


The trip was approved without any objection. As usual, Heisenberg was required to submit a report upon his return.474 Heisenberg arrived in Leyden on 25 January 1939, and stayed with his colleague and friend Hendrik Antony Kramers, professor at the University of Leyden. Heisenberg gave his talk that afternoon before an audience that included physicists from the University of Amsterdam and the Philips Factory in Eindhoven.


A long discussion followed in which Kramers, Hendrik Casimir, and other Dutch scientists took part. The colloquium continued the following day with presentations from Kramers’ students and colleagues on pressing problems of modern physics.

Heisenberg also gave a lecture on nuclear forces at the Philips Company, which included a hundred researchers from Philips’ scientific staff. After the talk, Heisenberg toured the impressive experimental apparatus in the company laboratory.


On 28 January, Heisenberg went with Kramers to the Hague, and there, in cooperation with the German embassy in Holland, the two physicists visited Prince Bernhard zu Lippe. In the afternoon, Heisenberg heard a talk in Amsterdam on the magnetic properties of solid state materials. He then visited his colleague Jacob Clay to discuss cosmic radiation and returned to Germany that evening.475

In April 1939 Heisenberg proposed another trip. He wanted to participate in three prestigious and very visible international physics meetings: a June conference at the University of Chicago on cosmic radiation, a September meeting on nuclear physics at the Technical University of Zurich, and the October Solvay Conference in Brussels on the properties of elementary particles.


His travel costs would be paid for by the organizers of the conferences, and Heisenberg wanted to stay in America for six weeks in order to visit several institutes 476 The rector passed on the request together with the approval of the head of the Leipzig University Teachers League.477


REM approved the trips without special comment.478 However, neither of the last two conferences took place.




The SS Report on Heisenberg

A day before Heisenberg’s trips were approved, bureaucrats from another part of the National Socialist state completed a document that would silence Deutsche Physik 479 rehabilitate modern theoretical physics, and change Heisenberg’s life. The SS had finally finished with Its thorough examination of Heisenberg and his work.


The SS sent the report to the Party Chancellery. When the SS forwarded a copy to REM, it told the ministry that Heisenberg should be given another appointment, where this new professorship should be, and why this post was suitable. The SS report, which apparently forestalled a parallel investigation in the Party Chancellery, was definitive.480

Heisenberg could not be called to Munich, for that would be seen as a victory over the Party officials there. Members of Himmler’s staff independently informed Heisenberg why he could not receive the Munich professorship. It was the vacant professorship for theoretical physics at the University of Vienna that the SS wanted to be Heisenberg’s new home.


Most of the physics professors in Vienna had joined the NSDAP when it was still illegal in Austria, and were politically and ideologically reliable. The SS was cautiously optimistic that this circle of physicists would awaken Heisenberg’s interest in political events and eventually attract him to National Socialism.481

According to the SS, Heisenberg was a man of surpassing scientific reputation. His strength lay in the school of physicists he had trained, which included Siegfried Flugge and Carl Friedrich von Weizsacker. As for the controversy raging over the foundations of physics, Heisenberg argued that no conflict was possible between experimental and theoretical physics, because every theoretical physicist regarded experimental physics as an absolute necessity for his own work.


Moreover, the converse was also true.

Heisenberg preferred to make a sharp distinction between “good” and “bad” scientists and was willing to agree that physicists who were “divorced from true experience” (a vague classification used by advocates of Deutsche Physik) were poor.


The SS argued that Heisenberg’s concept of bad physicist could be regarded as equivalent to the concept of “non-Aryan” (artfremde) thinker in physics. In particular, Heisenberg had agreed that some of the Jewish physicists and “Aryan” physicists from Jewish schools of physics, for their “Jewish” physics, who had been attacked by Lenard and Stark, were bad physicists.

The SS admitted that Heisenberg had been trained in a school of “Jewish physics.” Consequently, his first great successes like quantum mechanics were influenced by “non-Aryan” physics. However, according to the SS, Heisenberg’s work had recently become more and more “Aryan” (artgemasse). For Heisenberg, the theory was merely the working hypothesis with which the experimenter investigates nature by means of suitable experiments.


Theory confirmed by experiment was therefore the clear description of observations made in nature aided by the exact tools of mathematics.

Werner Heisenberg (middle) in military training, ca. 1937

(Courtesy of the Library and Archives of the Max Planck Society.)


The SS also gave Heisenberg good marks for character.


He was a typical apolitical scholar but nevertheless ready at any time unconditionally to serve Germany, because, as he told the SS, “someone is either born as a good German or not.” Furthermore, Heisenberg had a strong military record. As a teenager in Munich he had fought with the Lutzow paramilitary force (Freikorps) against leftists during the revolution and short-lived Bavarian Soviet Republic following World War I.482


After Germany repudiated the Treaty of Versailles in 1935 and announced that it would rearm, Heisenberg had volunteered for the Army reserve.


Finally, during the crisis of September 1938, when war with Czechoslovakia was forestalled only by the infamous Munich conference, where France and Britain forced Czechoslovakia to give up the Sudetenland to Germany, Heisenberg had volunteered to fight and was one of the many German soldiers standing on the front waiting to attack.

Werner Heisenberg (far right) in military training, ca. 1937

(Courtesy of the Library and Archives of the Max Planck Society.)


The SS added that unfortunately Heisenberg’s political attitude had not been as clear as would have been desirable. He had declined to take part in an election rally in 1933 (one of the many elections manipulated by the National Socialists) because his foreign colleagues, with whom he had very good relations, might have misunderstood.


When invited to sign Stark’s declaration for Hitler, Heisenberg had declined. But the SS argued that in the mean time Heisenberg had become more and more convinced by the successes of National Socialism and was now positively inclined toward it. However, he still believed that, aside from the occasional participation in an instructional (i.e., indoctrination) camp or the like, an active political role for a university professor was inappropriate.

Finally, the SS hoped thai Heisenberg could be brought to accept anti-Semitism. The report claimed that even Heisenberg now rejected the “excessive alienation by Jews of German living space.”483


A few weeks later Himmler informed Heisenberg personally that he would be called to Vienna and, exactly as Prandtl had requested, be allowed to publish his views in the Zeitschrifl fur die gesamte Naturwissenschaft, the house journal of Deutsche Physik.484

But the Ministry of Education could not send Heisenberg anywhere without the explicit permission of the Party Chancellery, which had veto power over all important appointments in Germany, including university professorships. The SS could merely provide an assessment of Heisenberg’s character and suitability and make a suggestion. When shortly before Christmas the SS proposed sending Heisenberg to Vienna,485 the Chancellery rejected it. Party officials responded that Heisenberg’s political conduct, especially after the National Socialist seizure of power, made this call unacceptable.486

This conflict over the fate of Heisenberg was typical of the polycratic institutional rivalry under National Socialism. Different agencies jealously guarded their own authority and sought to usurp that of others. No one power bloc, not even a force as powerful as the SS, could consistently dominate the others and get its way.


In June 1939 the Party Chancellery learned that Heisenberg’s three foreign trips had been sanctioned - which suggests that some REM officials opposed such permission - and pointedly reminded the Education Ministry that the Party had already opposed two proposed appointments for Heisenberg because of his political conduct. Conceding that it was too late to do anything about the trip to the U.S.A., the Party officials wanted the opportunity to express an opinion with respect to the Zurich and Brussels conferences, that is, to reverse the decision made by the ministry.487

But the Ministry of Education, now supported by the SS report on Heisenberg, stood its ground. Abraham Esau, a Party member since the spring of 1933 488 and a physicist with considerable political and professional influence, was to lead the massive German delegation to Zurich.489


He intervened on Heisenberg’s behalf. Esau had often had the opportunity to observe Heisenberg at international meetings, where, he said, Heisenberg had always conducted himself in a completely unobjectionable manner. Moreover, with respect to the prestige of German science, Esau emphasized that Heisenberg’s presence in Zurich was very desirable.490


REM pointed out to the Party Chancellery that the local leader of the University Teachers League, the responsible Party official, had no political objection, and that Heisenberg was going to be one of the major speakers at the Zurich and Brussels meetings. Although in the past the Party had successfully put pressure on the Ministry of Education, this time Minister Rust politely told his colleagues in the Party Chancellery that they would have to live with his decision.491


Heisenberg was too hot to be rewarded with a prestigious professorship, but he could be used as a propaganda tool.



Lightning War and New Opportunities For Cultural Propaganda

The German invasion of Poland in September 1939 represented a turning point for Heisenberg the Itinerant lecturer.


Whereas he had previously represented German science at international conferences, now he became a goodwill ambassador for the German war effort and, whether he liked it or not, for National Socialism. A reserve officer, Heisenberg was called up in September 1939,492 conscripted by Army Ordnance for military research on nuclear fission, and allowed to return to his teaching in Leipzig a week later 493 Heisenberg hoped that the conflict would not cost too many lives - unfortunately, he was wrong.494


Most Germans were unenthusiastic about the war when it began.495 Heisenberg was no exception, yet he was also determined to help his fatherland win the war.

The successful Lightning War provided new opportunities for National Socialist cultural policy outside of the Reich. Germany attacked, defeated, and occupied most of Europe in quick succession; Poland, Denmark and Norway, Holland, Belgium, Luxembourg, and finally France, Henceforth the great majority of Heisenberg’s guest lectures would take place in countries either occupied by or obedient to Germany.


Each trip required extensive approvals and notifications: the cultural-political section of the Foreign Office, the foreign branch of the NSDAP, the German Congress Center, and the German Academic Exchange Service all had a say. Most important, in the country to be visited the “German Cultural Institute” (GCI), which was under jurisdiction of the Foreign Office, or the local branch of the Exchange Service was to be informed.

The traveler had to acquire the necessary exit visa, foreign currency, leave from military service, and tickets. Foreign currency could be requested from the Congress Center only after REM had approved the trip. The Congress Center was to be informed of the exact duration, travel schedule, and any intermediate stops for the trip, as well as the exact topic of the lecture. Once the scholar had entered the foreign country, he had to Immediately contact the official German delegation and either the GCI or Exchange Service.

GCIs, branches of the Exchange Service, or comparable institutions existed in Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia, Denmark, France, Greece, Italy, Holland, Hungary, Norway, Portugal, Rumania, Serbia, Slovakia, Spain, and Sweden. In France and Belgium the traveler was to visit the military occupation authorities, in Norway the Reich Commissioner for the Occupied Norwegian Territories.


If at all possible, the scholar was ordered to drop in on the foreign branch of the NSDAP. Once in the foreign country, if a scientist was asked to give an additional talk, then he had to ask permission from the German embassy.


He also had to submit a report to REM upon his return, including discussions of his general impressions and experiences, his contacts with foreign colleagues, and the local attitude toward Germany and German policy.496

Special rules applied to different countries. Scholars in the protectorates of Bohemia and Moravia, parte of what had been Czechoslovakia, could attend conferences only in foreign countries as part of the German delegation, and if they wanted to speak a language other than Czechoslovakia^ it had to be German.497


Czech scientists could not lecture in Germany; indeed the German occupying authorities made few exceptions to their policy of not allowing any foreign scholars to travel to Germany.498 Lecturers visiting Hungary and Rumania, both allies of Germany, were forbidden to discuss the relations between the two countries, especially their border dispute.499

Trips by German scholars to the General Government, part of what had been Poland, were placed under especially stringent restrictions. Any and all contact between German scientists and Polish colleagues was forbidden.500 The General Government was in a sense a laboratory for the most extreme National Socialist policies, including German colonialism, slave labor, and from 1941 onward, genocide.501

The German Foreign Office and Ministry of Education together worked out guidelines for German scholars suitable to represent Germany in neutral (and presumably occupied or puppet) countries during the war. The scholar not only had to be a good scientist, he had to be well-known outside of Germany and able to contact his foreign colleagues immediately. Furthermore, the scientist had to show complete understanding of National Socialist domestic and foreign policy. Being apolitical did not suffice. Finally, the scientist had to possess social graces and, where necessary, knowledge of foreign languages.502


The German authorities continued to use Heisenberg as a guest speaker, but since he stubbornly maintained his apolitical nature, the responsible officials became more and more ambivalent about his value for cultural propaganda.

As the program grew, officials became concerned about the uneven quality of the lectures by its touring scholars. Several reports of poor performances provoked threats and new guidelines from the Education Ministry. The speaker had to make a clear decision whether he intended his talk for a general audience or for a group of specialists. Every lecture was to be seen as a scientific performance and as a contribution to the cultural and political status of Germany. A lecture before academics which merely repeated known results and offered nothing new harmed the prestige of Germany as well as the personal reputation of the scholar.

Scientists who spoke to general audiences should also speak to a closed circle, seminar, or institute in order to make contacts with the foreign experts in their field. Finally, lecture topics should be chosen so as to offer something new to scholars outside of Germany. The Ministry gave the deans and rectors responsibility to judge the quality of the scientist when approving their applications to speak abroad. If valid criticism was made of a speaker, then REM would not allow him to travel abroad again.503

Since the speaker usually knew little about the political situation in the country he visited, the ministry suggested that he discuss the text of the lecture beforehand either with the GCI or the cultural department of the German mission.


In September 1942 the SS informed the ministry that severe restrictions were being placed on any and all written materials taken across German borders. Any document, including the text of a lecture, had to be submitted beforehand for inspection and approval by the university intelligence officer.504 In principle, the German scholar was instructed to avoid politically controversial topics while abroad. The scientist lectured in order to impress the natives with German culture, taking pains not to cause problems for the German political authorities or representatives.505

In November 1940, Heisenberg received an invitation through the German Foreign Office to speak at the Paris “German Institute” on “The current goals of physical research.” Around the same time, Heisenberg was asked by the Hungarian “Union for Cultural Cooperation” to come to Budapest in early 1941 to deliver a paper on “Newton’s and Goethe’s theory of colors in the light of modern physics.”


Since Heisenberg was technically considered a soldier, he assumed that only the Army had to approve his talks, and that he did not have to consult REM.506 The University told him that he was mistaken.507

Heisenberg dutifully wrote the ministry, noting that he had a letter from his superior in the Army granting him permission to give the talks.508 The Leipzig representative of the University-Teachers League supported the request, noting that Heisenberg was suitable in every respect to represent German science in foreign countries.509 Both the dean and the rector agreed that Heisenberg was an appropriate candidate as well.510 REM responded by rejecting the Paris trip511 and approving the lecture in Budapest.512


Apparently the distinction between a conquered enemy and an ally was important.

In May 1941, Heisenberg received an invitation to speak at the “German Institute for Eastern Work,” located in the General Government.513 The Germans had set up the institute at the site of the former University of Krakow. With very few exceptions, the Polish faculty of this university had been arrested by the German occupation forces and had been sent to the concentration camp in Sachsenhausen.


Hans Frank, the governor of what In effect was a German colony on the eastern border of the Reich, was also the founder and promoter of this institute. The Institute’s goal was to prepare for German expansion into this region by providing preliminary scientific research for German colonization of eastern Europe.

The Institute’s work anticipated future “eastern research” of the sort that the National Socialists needed for their policy of acquiring “living space” for Germans at the expense of other peoples. For example, the Institute’s section for astronomy and mathematics employed the forced labor of Russian prisoners of war and concentration camp inmates for mathematical research.514 Wilhelm Coblitz, institute director, stated in 1941 that the Eastern Jewish question required scientific investigation as preparation for the final postwar solution of the European Jewish question.515

The invitation to speak in Krakow had originated with the governor himself.516 Frank had been a schoolmate of Heisenberg’s and may well have wished to show off one of the scientific institutes under his control. Heisenberg was willing to go.517 The rector in Leipzig thought that he was perfectly suited for a foreign trip, both in the scientific and social senses.518


A month later the officials in Leipzig sent on an additional letter from the Army, granting Heisenberg permission to travel to the General Government.519 But in 1941 when Coblitz asked REM for permission for Heisenberg to hold a lecture at the German Institute for Eastern Work, the request was denied.520

The German Institute for Eastern Work did not give up easily. Coblitz pointed out it was the personal wish of Governor Frank that Heisenberg be invited to Krakow. The ministry did not give permission, but provided an explanation. Heisenberg was a politically controversial figure. Because his connections to Jewish physicists and their followers in foreign countries were so extensive, the Party Chancellery had rejected two attempts to call this talented scholar to universities in Munich and Vienna.

Moreover, the Education Ministry understood the concerns of the Party. The Ministry of Propaganda had monitored Heisenberg’s talk in Budapest and judged it unacceptable from the standpoint of National Socialism.


All of his foreign talks were apolitical popular or specialized scientific lectures. The main problem in Hungary was his audience. The local “Jewish-influenced” physics community attended and enthusiastically applauded Heisenberg’s lecture - no doubt embarrassing the National Socialist officials who were also present.


Heisenberg could not go to Krakow, but REM assured Frank that it was more than willing to assist his cultural policy in any way it could. Frank had only to ask.521



The German Astrophysics Conference at the Copenhagen German Cultural Institute

In March 1941 Heisenberg’s friend, colleague, and former student Carl Friedrich von Weizsacker held several lectures in occupied Copenhagen and thereby set into motion a series of policy decisions that led to Heisenberg’s most controversial foreign lecture.


Von Weizsacker spoke before the Danish Physical and Astronomical Society on “Is the world infinite in time and space?” The lecture, given in Danish, was both well attended and successful. He repeated the performance at the collaborationist Danish-German Society.

The German occupation authorities reported that von Weizsacker knew how to make a difficult topic stimulating. The lay audience, including the commander of the German troops in Denmark, could follow it without difficulty. Finally von Weizsacker took up an invitation from Niels Bohr’s Institute of Theoretical Physics, and before a purely scientific audience, spoke on “The relationship between quantum mechanics and Kantian philosophy.”


A lively discussion followed. Although von Weizsacker’s conclusions were controversial, he managed to convince many of his Danish colleagues. Clearly the occupation authorities were also well informed about what went on in Bohr’s institute.

The official report on von Weizsacker’s talks in Denmark judged that he had an exceptionally good influence on both lay audiences and purely scientific Danish circles. The German authorities in Denmark wanted to invite von Weizsacker back to Copenhagen in the fall, this time together with Heisenberg, as part of a week-long conference on mathematics, astronomy, and theoretical physics at the newly-founded German Cultural Institute (GCI).522 The German Foreign Office forwarded the request to REM with its approval.523

The initiative for Heisenberg’s invitation came from von Weiszacker, who has recently recalled that their concern about their Danish mentor Niels Bohr was one of the main reasons for their desire to visit Copenhagen.524


Since Bohr’s mother was Jewish, the German occupation officials considered him a “non-Aryan.” However, Bohr and the other scientists at his institute had been able to continue work because during the first few years of the war Germany treated both Denmark and the Danish Jews relatively gently as part of the fiction that the Danish government had invited the German forces and was cooperating with the Third Reich.

A month later REM agreed that von Weiszacker should return to Copenhagen, but ignored Heisenberg. The Kaiser Wilhelm Society, von Weiszacker’s employer, told the Minister that von Weiszacker would be happy to take part in the Copenhagen conference.525 The Ministry of Education, in turn, informed the Foreign Office in early June that von Weiszacker would come.526 But the German Cultural Institute wanted Heisenberg too.527

On 14 July von Weiszacker met with an official from the German Academic Exchange Service In order to plan the Copenhagen conference. A week later he submitted a written proposal. Three German astronomers, Hans Kienle, Albrecht Unsold, and Ludwig Biermann, should be invited along with von Weiszacker and Heisenberg.


The common theme of the conference could be the composition of the atmospheres of stars, a subject for which Kienle represented the best German empirical work, Unsold and Biermann the best theoretical. In addition - and probably the main reason for the choice - the subject was also the main field of research for the Danish director of the Copenhagen observatory, Bengt Stremgren. Heisenberg would present his own work on cosmic radiation, while von Weiszacker would discuss the transformation of elements in stars.

In his letter, von Weiszacker recommended Heisenberg, as the leading theoretical physicist in Germany and someone who could not be surpassed for cultural propaganda. Since Heisenberg had spent years in Denmark and spoke fluent Danish, his participation in a conference in Copenhagen would be especially effective.528


The Foreign Office informed REM in early August that both Heisenberg and von Weiszacker had been consulted, and asked whether the authorities in Copenhagen could count on the participation of Kienle, Biermann, and Unsold as well529 Von Weiszacker wrote to Bohr, informed him that he and Heisenberg were going to speak at the astrophysics conference at the GCI, and invited all of the Danish scientists to attend.530

But REM, which had just turned down Frank, resisted the idea of sending Heisenberg to Copenhagen. They argued that a conference in astronomy had already been planned for Wurzburg for October 1941, that many foreigners and especially Danes had been invited, and that the special event desired by von Weiszacker overlapped with, and would detract from, the Wurzburg meeting.


Additionally, the ministerial official criticized the choice of scientists proposed for the Copenhagen meeting. Heinrich Vogt, Heinrich Siedentopf, Bruno Thiiring, and Paul ten Bruggencate - all politically acceptable to the National Socialist state - were supposedly the leading German scientists in the field of the atmospheres of stars.531


The ministry wanted to use the Wiirzburg meeting to abort the Copenhagen conference. A decree to this effect was drafted, but never sent.532 The Foreign Office intervened again and requested a meeting with REM.533

An official from the Foreign Office, the director of the Copenhagen GCI, and a representative of the ministry got together on 2 September. The director pointed out that the conference had already been announced. A cancellation now, when the GCI was just beginning its work in Copenhagen, would be very damaging. The objections voiced by REM were irrelevant.


The GCI did not particularly care what the theme of the* conference was, or - with an obvious exception - which Germans took part. The meeting in Copenhagen would be a scientific colloquium and have no official character. The Wiirzburg conference would not be harmed, especially since the two Shwtgrens - father and son - were going to Wiirzburg as well. Moreover, Heisenberg would only be in Copenhagen for two or three days.534

After some discussion, a proposal was cleared with Rudolf Mentzel, the head of the science section in the ministry,535 to pass the buck. The Education Ministry would approve the conference if the Party Chancellery approved Heisenberg’s participation. The head of the Cultural Political Section of the Foreign Office considered the matter very important. If the Copenhagen conference was rejected, then State Secretary Ernst von Weiszacker, the father of Carl Friedrich, would intervene.


Thus for tactical reasons it was desirable that von Weiszacker’s proposal be approved.536

The Education Ministry accordingly wrote to the Party Chancellery that von Weiszacker, in close cooperation with the GCI in Copenhagen and after successful lectures in Denmark, wished to hold the proposed conference in Copenhagen, at which Danish and German scientists, including Heisenberg, were to take part. The workshop would take place in the GCI without being advertised to the greater public. Did the Party object to Heisenberg’s attendance? Given the need for haste, the ministry telephoned the Party Chancellery in order to hear the decision as soon as possible.537

The Party Chancellery responded that there was no objection to Heisenberg’s going to Copenhagen, provided that he kept a low profile and stayed only a few days.538 This decision went out the day before the rejection of Heisenberg’s trip to Krakow.539 The Foreign Office was more powerful than Frank, and Denmark a less sensitive area than the General Government. The Party did take care to emphasize once again that a high profile visit from Heisenberg was undesirable.540

Heisenberg, von Weiszacker, the German occupation authorities, and later, the Danish scientists, all wrote reports of this visit. Heisenberg evaluated opportunities for Danish-German cultural relations poorly.


Because he had to return to Germany before the conference was over for personal reasons, Heisenberg received permission from the Foreign Office to go to Copenhagen a few days early. He was welcomed by an official from the GO on 15 September, met with Stromgren at the Copenhagen Observatory the following day, when he agreed on the schedule for the workshop, and contacted his colleagues at Bohr’s institute.
The meeting began on 19 September.


The only Danes who attended were the two Stremgrens and the staff of the observatory. The physicists from Bohr’s institute boycotted the conference. Several members of the German colony in Copenhagen appeared just in time for Heisenberg’s talk on cosmic radiation. Afterward, Heisenberg met with the NSDAP representative in Denmark and the following afternoon the German scientists were the guests of the German ambassador in Copenhagen, on 21 September Heisenberg left Denmark.

German relations with scientific circles in Scandinavia had become very difficult, he wrote in his report. Everywhere he went, he encountered a very reserved, if not dismissive attitude. Very few Danish colleagues were prepared to engage in scientific cooperation within an official institution like the GCI, Heisenberg concluded with a nonsequitur.


The Danes took this position even though almost all of his Danish colleagues told him that they did not have the slightest criticism of the conduct of German troops in Denmark. Where Heisenberg’s Danish colleagues saw “Nazi” invaders, he saw German soldiers.541

Von Weiszacker tried to present a positive picture. Instead of mentioning that most Danish scientists boycotted the meeting, he emphasized that five did attend, and that the meeting was exceptionally fruitful. Instead of referring to members of the German Colony in the audience, von Weiszacker noted that representatives of the German occupation government and the NSDAP attended, as well as at least one other Dane, the rector of the University of Copenhagen.


Von Weiszacker argued that the conference was living proof that scientific research continued in Germany despite the war, and ended rather weakly by suggesting that the opportunity in personal conversations to set right several false judgments about Germany was “not without significance.”542

At the end of the war, Danish scientists explained that they perceived the policy of the GCI as an attempt to coerce Bohr and his colleagues into cultural collaboration. Although pressed to attend the lectures - von Weiszacker told the Danes that if they did not come to the GCI, then the SS would open their own cultural institute - the Danes refused.


During the conference, von Weiszacker brought the director of the GCI into the Institute of Theoretical Physics and pushed him without an appointment past Bohr’s secretary.


Von Weiszacker thereby forced Bohr into a confrontation he had taken pains to avoid, in part because he feared that the Danish resistance would believe that he was collaborating with the Germans. The Danish scientists also recalled that Heisenberg had callously offended them by remarking that war was a “biological necessity” and behaving as an intense nationalist, with the characteristic German deference to authority, here to the German state.543

In 1961, Bohr told a Soviet colleague a similar story. Heisenberg came to Bohr in the autumn of 1941, when Hitler had already defeated France and was advancing quickly into Russia. Heisenberg had wanted to convince his mentor that Hitler’s victory was inevitable and that it would be unwise to doubt it. The National Socialists did not honor science, which was why they treated scientists so badly. Bohr had to join forces with Heisenberg and help Hitler. When the National Socialists were victorious, then their attitude towards scientists would change. In particular, Heisenberg told Bohr that he had to cooperate with the GCI.544

Moreover, Heisenberg made similar statements after the war. In their obituary for Heisenberg, Neville Mott and Rudolf Peierls gently criticized him for his obtuseness. When Heisenberg visited a German refugee physicist in Great Britain late in 1947, Heisenberg argued that if the National Socialists had been left in power for another fifty years, then they would have become quite decent. As Mott and Peierls note, that was a strange remark to make to a colleague who had first lost his job and then relatives and friends in extermination camps.545

Perhaps most interesting, the report of the 1941 visit from the German authorities in Copenhagen was very positive. According to an official from the German occupation forces, the workshop had been run by the Danish scientist Stromgren and the significant Danish astronomers as well as some theoretical physicists had attended.


This German official was also the only reporter who mentioned that the German physicists Walther Bothe and Kurt Diebner, both of whom were involved with the Army research into the military applications of nuclear fission, participated in the conference as well. In the opinion of the German officials in Copenhagen, both the workshop and the popular lectures at the GCI were great successes, for they drew new Danish researchers into the GCI.546


That had been the purpose all along.

The Foreign Office did not stop there. In November 1941, it informed the Ministry of Education that the Party Chancellery intended to make a definitive decision: should Heisenberg be used for foreign lectures in the future?


The Foreign Office had no doubt that with regard to cultural political considerations, Heisenberg was extremely valuable. The reports on his lectures in foreign countries - and here the report on Budapest seems conveniently to have been forgotten - had all been very positive. Moreover, several independent suggestions had been made for using Heisenberg more often as a guest lecturer.


The Foreign Office wanted to know: was Heisenberg an acceptable goodwill ambassador for German culture or not?547

There is one important aspect of Heisenberg’s and von Weiszacker’s 1941 visit with Niels Bohr which Heisenberg and von Weiszacker rarely mentioned in their many postwar descriptions of the event. When they traveled to Copenhagen, the German Lightning War was driving deep into the Soviet Union. Most Germans, and most probably Heisenberg and von Weiszacker, believed that Hitler’s victory was imminent. It is unlikely that the two German physicists would have been concerned about the prospect of developing nuclear weapons for this war.

The historian Philippe Burrin has convincingly argued that the decision to launch the Holocaust, the physical extermination of all Jews under German control, was made on 18 September 1941, one day before the conference began at the Copenhagen German Cultural Institute.548 Of course it took some time before the National Socialist leadership’s policy change, from forcing the Jews to emigrate or planning to concentrate them on a “reservation” to murdering them, would become known to Germans like Heisenberg or conquered nationals like Bohr.


But in retrospect, the German astrophysics conference in September 1941 was a watershed in many respects. Up until this point, Heisenberg had consciously or unconsciously been a goodwill ambassador for National Socialism and German military aggression.


Henceforth he would consciously or unconsciously be an ambassador for genocide.

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6 - Goodwill Ambassadors

Rehabilitation Ludwig Prandtl made a second, more vigorous assault on National Socialist policy towards physics in the spring of 1941, this time seeking allies in German industry, including Carl Ramsauer, a leading physicist at German General Electric.549


Germany’s misfortune in war also played into the hands of Prandtl, Ramsauer, and company. Shortly after the Soviet defense had frozen the Lightning War in its tracks during the winter of 1941, it was clear that the entire German war economy had to be reorganized and made more efficient. Although victory still appeared possible, the war now appeared much more difficult to win.

Ramsauer now succeeded in convincing Major General Friedrich Fromm, the commander of the German Reserve Army and chief of armaments production, that German physics, and with it Germany’s ability to wage war, was in grave danger.550 By early December 1941, Prandtl had received a favorable response from Field Marshall Erhard Milch, Hermann Goring’s deputy in the Air Force Ministry.551


The Air Force appreciated the connection between academic physics and the industrial production of modern weapons.552


After assembling such powerful political backing, Ramsauer submitted a twenty-eight page memorandum with six appendices on the sorry state of German physics to REM.553 Ramsauer did not expect Rust to react to this challenge, nor did he, but the Ministry of Education was not the main target.554 Ramsauer’s memorandum circulated widely. The highest agencies of the government, including the military, developed a great interest in theoretical physics.555

Perhaps the best example of such interest was the popular nuclear fission lecture series held on 26 February 1942 in Berlin-Dahlem before a restricted audience of representatives of the National Socialist Party, the German state, and German industry.556 Minister of Education Bernhard Rust, Albert Vogler, the President of both the Kaiser Wilhelm Society and Germany’s largest steel concern, and the Reich Research Council were in attendance.557


Along with popular talks on the latest research results given by the responsible project scientists, the Army representative Erich Schumann discussed the military applications of nuclear fission, the Reich Research Council representative Abraham Esau stressed the significance of nuclear power for the state and industry, and Hans Geiger, a politically and professionally very conservative experimental physicist, made the connection between research and application.558

These lectures gave the members of the nuclear power project the opportunity to sell their research for financial, material, and institutional support. The vivid and suggestive contributions by Otto Hahn,559 Paul Harteck,560 and Heisenberg561 were exemplary in this respect. Hahn did not mention his former Jewish collaborator Lise Meitner in his historical account of the discovery of nuclear fission; instead he described enthusiastically the potential of nuclear-fission chain reactions.562 Harteck was even more colorful in his justification of heavy water research. Heavy water could be used to ignite a nuclear fission chain reaction. Once lighted, no one knew how long or how powerfully this flame could bum.563

Heisenberg used a diagram of the various possible nuclear reactions in uranium and moderator to provide his listeners with a layman’s description of how uranium machines and nuclear explosives should work (see diagram below).564

Chain reaction in uranium machines (left) and in nuclear explosives (right).

The solid black circles represent uranium 238,

the ruled circles uranium 235, and the small circles moderator

(Prom Walker, p. 56.)


The left-hand portion of the diagram represented a schematic uranium machine and the various nuclear processes that a fission neutron could experience in uranium.


A fast neutron can fission a uranium 238 nucleus, but, as Heisenberg realized, with very low probability. After a few collisions, the slowed neutron might be absorbed by a uranium 238 nucleus, and disappear from the scene. If, instead, the slow neutron collided with a uranium 235 nucleus, it might cause fission. But that was very unlikely. Therefore the desired chain reaction could not proceed in ordinary uranium; new techniques were needed in order to force the chain reaction.565

Heisenberg then made an analogy both in the spirit of the times and tailored to the level of comprehension of his audience.566


The behavior of neutrons in uranium could be thought of as a human population, where the fission process represented an analogy to a child-bearing marriage and the neutron capture process corresponded to death. In ordinary uranium, the death count overwhelms the birth rate, so that a population must die out after a short period of time. For survival, the number of births per marriage or the number of marriages must be increased, or the probability of death reduced.

Heisenberg told his audience that nature prohibited an increase in neutron births. An increase in the number of fissions/ marriages could be achieved by enriching the uranium 235 in the uranium sample.


If pure uranium 235 could be produced, Heisenberg noted, then the processes represented in the right-hand side of the diagram could take place. Unless a fission neutron escapes through the outer surface of the uranium, every neutron would cause a further fission after one or two collisions. In this case, the probability of death was vanishingly small compared to the likelihood of neutron increase.

If a large enough amount of uranium 235 could be accumulated, then the number of neutrons in the uranium would increase tremendously in a very short period of time. The isotope uranium 235 might make an explosive of “utterly unimaginable effect.” Heisenberg hastened to inform his audience of prospective patrons that the explosive uranium 235 was very difficult to obtain.


As for reducing the probability of neutron death, Heisenberg noted that a uranium machine composed of uranium and a neutron moderator could facilitate fission in uranium 235 without great danger of neutron absorption by the heavier isotope uranium 238.


Heisenberg observed that, like uranium 235, large amounts of the moderator heavy water were not easy to obtain.

Heisenberg recommended uranium machines as heat engines which could produce energy and power vehicles or ships. These machines would be particularly suitable for submarines, since a nuclear reactor does not consume oxygen. But these uranium machines had an even more important application.


The transformation of uranium in the machine created a new substance, element 94 (plutonium), which most probably would be as explosive as uranium 235, and much easier to manufacture since it could be separated chemically from its parent. Uranium enrichment made nuclear energy and explosives possible.


A uranium machine could function as a heat engine and produce another unimaginably powerful explosive. To achieve all this, Heisenberg recommended strong financial and institutional support for the nuclear power project. In short, Heisenberg went out of his way to illustrate clearly and vividly the warlike aspects of nuclear power.567

As Hahn noted in his diary, the lectures before the Reich Research Council made a good impression.568 They were subsequently publicized in a newspaper account under the title, “Physics and National Defense.” Although the words atomic, nuclear, energy, or power did not appear, a reader would have learned that the meeting dealt with problems of modern physics decisive for national defense and the entire German economy.569


The physicist and Party official Wolfgang Finkelnburg could soon tell Heisenberg that his lecture before the Reich Research Council and the subsequent press accounts had had a good effect. Finkelnburg had received several inquiries from Party positions concerning the military importance of theoretical physics and especially of Heisenberg’s work.570

The military potential of nuclear power penetrated into the highest circles of the National Socialist state.


On 21 March, less than a month after Heisenberg’s lecture, Reich Minister of Propaganda Josef Goebbels noted in his diary that he had received a report on the latest developments in German science. Goebbels learned that research on atomic weapons had progressed so far that it might be used in the ongoing war.


His reports claimed that tremendous destruction could be wrought with a minimum of effort, with terrifying prospects for war. Modern technology placed means of destruction in the hands of human beings, the Reich Minister of Propaganda noted, that were incredible. It was essential that Germany be ahead of everybody, he recognized, for whoever could introduce such a revolutionary innovation into the war had the greater chance of winning it.571

By this time, no one involved with the research or administration of the nuclear power project believed that nuclear fission could influence the outcome of the war. But by dangling seductively the prospect of unimaginably powerful weapons sometime in the future, scientists from the German nuclear power project could, and did, enjoy exceptional political and financial support from several diverse sections of the National Socialist German state.

For example, in the spring of 1943 Hahn and Heisenberg lectured at the Reich Postal Ministry before a small circle of around fifteen people, including Postal Minister Ohnesorge, Minister of Armaments Speer, and General Keitel, head of the supreme command of the Armed Forces. Hans Meckel, a former staff member of the Navy commander Admiral Donitz, attended this meeting and remembered one statement from Heisenberg very clearly: even though there were a few still unsolved problems, within one to two years the scientists hoped to be able to offer the National Socialist leadership a bomb with “hitherto unknown explosive and destructive power.”572

The rehabilitation of modern physics and the great interest in nuclear power improved Heisenberg’s position in the National Socialist state. In June 1942, he became director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physics in Berlin-Dahlem. A professorship at the University of Berlin usually went with the directorship. The planned appointment caused another round of political reports on Heisenberg from various branches of the NSDAP.


These investigations573 cleared the way for Heisenberg’s call to Berlin. The unlikely combination of the SS’s positive report and the newly found support for modern physics in German industry had fully rehabilitated him.

The Ministry of Education stressed the importance of Heisenberg’s appointment for the national defense. Both Albert Speer’s Ministry of Armaments and the Armed Forces had great interest in Heisenberg’s research.574


Indeed Heisenberg subsequently told a colleague that Speer took a great personal interest in nuclear physics research.575 Alfred Rosenberg’s office echoed Ramsauer’s memorandum and argued that the Party could not intervene in the “difference of opinion” between Lenard’s and Heisenberg’s schools of physics.576 The Reich University Teachers League merely repeated some of the positive statements made about Heisenberg in the SS report and added pointedly that Himmler had personally called a halt to political attacks on Heisenberg.577


The contrast with the previous attempts to bring him to Munich and Vienna is stark.



Lectures in Switzerland and Budapest

In the spring of 1942, Heisenberg received an invitation to speak before the Swiss League of Students. Switzerland was one of the few countries in Europe to remain neutral during the war.


The Swiss physicist Paul Scherrer, who had recommended his German colleague for the lecture, asked Heisenberg to give a talk before the physicists at the Zurich Technical University as well,578 Heisenberg became inundated with offers for speaking engagements. In the end, he agreed to lecture before the Science Faculty of the University of Geneva, the Swiss Physical Society, and the student organizations of Bern and Basle as well.579


The rector at the University of Leipzig noted as usual that the dean considered Heisenberg suitable for the trip and that the University Teachers League representative had no objections. He asked REM for its approval,580 which was granted in late October.581


The Party reminded him of his obligation to call upon its foreign branch while in Switzerland.582

On 17 November 1942, Heisenberg arrived in Zurich and was met by the head of the Swiss Students League. The next day, he spoke at the university colloquium on the observable variables in the theory of elementary particles. Afterward he visited his old colleague Scherrer at the Technical University. Heisenberg’s next lecture came before the Swiss Physical Society on 19 November, which included dinner afterward as the guest of the president of this society. The next day he went to Basle, paid a courtesy call on the physicists there, and in the evening spoke before the local student organization on the current goals of physical research.

Two days later, he gave an evening lecture before the Zurich student organization on changes in the foundation of the exact sciences.


On 24 November, he visited the German ambassador to Switzerland and the representative of the Party in Bern and lectured to the Bern student organization. Heisenberg reported that he was treated throughout in a very friendly fashion in Switzerland, and not just by old colleagues. He encountered frequent political condemnation of the German “re-ordering” of Europe, but this ill will did not carry over to personal relationships. His lectures had attracted great interest.583

In October 1942, the German ambassador to Hungary, a German ally, complained to the Foreign Office about REM’s unwillingness to allow Heisenberg to return to Budapest. With his Nobel Prize and his call to the Kaiser Wilhelm Society, Heisenberg was so well known that a lecture from him guaranteed a cultural and political success.


Hans Freyer, who had been professor for philosophy and sociology at Kiel and Leipzig during the Weimar Republic, and who was now the president of the Budapest GCI, wanted to invite Heisenberg for a talk in his institute. However, Freyer did agreed that, because of the controversy Heisenberg’s previous trip to Hungary had caused, other lectures in Budapest would not be a good idea.584

The Budapest GCI managed to get around the recalcitrant ministry by joining forces with the Kaiser Wilhelm Society. In early November the Society informed the ministry that a joint scientific meeting had been planned with the Budapest GCI, including talks not only by Heisenberg, but also from Max Planck and Carl Fried-rich von Weizsacker.585 The Education Ministry reacted angrily.


Another talk by Heisenberg in Budapest would undoubtedly attract foreign scholars of Jewish origin or liberal political views who had been connected with German physics before the National Socialists took power. For example, Heisenberg had former students and colleagues in Hungary. The ministry was afraid that some members of the audience would see the affair as a political demonstration for Jewish scientists.

However, the request by the Budapest GCI was very much strengthened by the Kaiser Wilhelm Society’s participation.586 The joint series which would present Heisenberg along with Planck and von Weizsacker to the Hungarian public would not be easy to cancel.


REM informed the Foreign Office that they considered German initiatives for sending Heisenberg abroad inappropriate because his visits always ended up being so controversial. But since Ernst Telschow, General Secretary of the Kaiser Wilhelm Society, had gone so far ahead with preparations for the lectures without consulting either the ministry or the Foreign Office, REM agreed to go along - this time.587

Heisenberg, von Weizsacker, Planck, and the German ambassador to Hungary submitted reports on the lectures. Heisenberg’s was the most sober. On 30 November 1942 he arrived in Budapest and joined Planck and von Weizsacker as the guests of the Budapest institute. Planck and von Weizsacker spoke on the first two days of December, respectively. Heisenberg had lunch with the director of the GCI on 2 December, tea with the German ambassador to Hungary, and lectured that evening on “the current goals of physical research.”


An informal party at the institute brought the activities of the day to a congenial close.

The three German physicists met the physics professor at the University of Budapest for lunch on the following day and Heisenberg joined his counterpart at the local technical university for dinner. He returned to Germany on 4 December. When Heisenberg reported his impressions of the political climate in Budapest, he judged that the GCI had succeeded in keeping alive the Hungarian interest in German cultural goods in a most auspicious manner.588

Von Weizsacker reported that he spoke on “atomic theory and philosophy” before invited guests, including officials and the representatives of physics and the neighboring disciplines at the local universities. After the talks, he had a pleasant opportunity to meet with Hungarian colleagues. Von Weizsacker’s remarks about the Budapest trip stand in sharp contrast to his 1941 report on the Copenhagen conference. The apparent interest in cultural politics he showed at that time disappeared shortly after the tense meeting in Denmark, never to return.589

Planck’s report enthusiastically praised the export of German culture. He gave his standard talk on “The senses and boundaries of the exact sciences.”


The president of the GCI, who as Planck noted approvingly had set himself the task of cultivating the cultural relations between Germany and Hungary, met Planck and his wife at the train station and looked after them throughout their stay. Planck’s talk was held on 1 December in the cozy atmosphere of the GCI. Guests included representatives of the German delegation to Hungary of the NSDAP, and many Hungarian dignitaries, including Archduke Joseph, the president of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, and the Archduchess Anna.

Following Planck’s talk, an official reception was accompanied by pleasant personal conversation. Planck was impressed both by the good will towards Germans expressed by the Hungarians and especially by Freyer’s exceptional skill. He understood how to awaken and maintain interest in German culture among the educated circles in Hungary. Planck reckoned that the entire event completely fulfilled its goal, to support the intellectual connections between Germany and Hungary.590

The account by the German foreign service stressed the collaboration of the Kaiser Wilhelm Society. The Budapest GCI previously had sponsored only lectures in the humanities; they decided to try physics in order to attract Hungarians interested in science. The Kaiser Wilhelm Society was happy to send a few scientists.


At first its president, Albert Vdgler, planned to attend as well and provide a brief survey of the society. General Secretary Ernst Telschow went instead. As Freyer noted approvingly, Tel-schow’s talk provoked great interest among the Hungarian scientists and the representatives of the Ministry of Culture. The Hungarians had lost the research funds they previously had received from America; Freyer believed that Germany could fill the gap.

As far as the scientific talks were concerned, Freyer noted with approval that the aged Planck spoke with astonishing freshness, inner dignity, and intellectual elegance. Heisenberg, in his presentation of the current problems in physics and promising research areas, lectured with a clarity and maturity which only a researcher working on the furthest boundaries of science could provide.


Von Weizsacker, who spoke without notes, impressed Freyer with his ability to combine physics with philosophy so productively. The discussion provoked by von Weizsacker’s talk lasted until midnight. The lectures by Heisenberg and von Weizsacker were followed by a concert of Bach and Mozart.

From the perspective of the president of the Budapest GCI, the lectures were a complete success. The audience had been hand-picked, and almost no invitations were declined. Along with the Archduke and Archduchess, the guests included the ambassadors or representatives of Italy, Finland, Croatia, and Slovakia, the Hungarian Minister of Culture, all the relevant professors from the University of Budapest, and representatives of other Hungarian universities.


Best of all, great interest had already been expressed from the Hungarian side for more such cultural events, which was what Freyer wanted to hear.591




The Goodwill Ambassador

Heisenberg’s trip to Budapest was the last time he experienced difficulty in traveling abroad. Henceforth, if he declined an invitation to speak, then it was his decision.


The delayed effect of his dual appointment in Berlin and the ever-worsening state of the war inspired the change in policy.592 Heisenberg’s secret research had been classified important for the war. As the German position in the conflict deteriorated, his standing inside the National Socialist state climbed slowly but steadily, as demonstrated by his election to the Prussian Academy of Sciences in early 1943.593

Heisenberg received two invitations to France in 1943. The German Embassy in Paris was sponsoring a lecture series at the College de France, and wanted Heisenberg to deliver a strictly scientific talk in French.594 The dean at the University of Berlin forwarded the invitation to Heisenberg with the remark that he, the rector, and the representative of the University Teachers League naturally would support the trip.595


The German Institute in France also wanted a lecture from Heisenberg.596 He turned down both offers because his French was not good enough for lecturing.597


In contrast, Cart Friedrich von Weizsacker did give a lecture in Paris, but both his talk and the lunch in his honor were boycotted by his French colleagues. When the French physicist Frederic Joliot-Curie criticized his German colleague for the “bad taste” he had showed by accepting an invitation from the German occupation authorities, von Weizsacker replied that he had been forced to accept.598

In February 1943, the Slovakian University in Pressburg (Bratislava) sent an invitation by way of REM for Heisenberg to lecture in the Slovakian Protectorate. In a striking about-face a ministry official now told Heisenberg that they wanted him to accept the invitation.599 Heisenberg agreed to go.600


On 28 March Heisenberg met the president of the local technical university, the dean of the Slovakian University, and a representative of the German Academic Exchange Service. That afternoon Heisenberg was the guest of the president, who took him to the opera in the evening. The next day, Heisenberg had an audience with the German ambassador, lunch with the dean and the president, an evening lecture on the state of atomic physics, and a late dinner with some Pressburg scientists.


The following day brought more of the same: a walk through the old town hall with the mayor of Pressburg, lunch with the dean, the president, the local head of the German Academic Exchange Service, and the German ambassador, an evening lecture on cosmic radiation to a small group of scientists and students, and dinner with Pressburg scientists and a visiting Italian mathematician.


The Pressburg scientists were very friendly. Heisenberg reported that the relations between Germans and their Slovakian colleagues were very good.601

A second popular lecture series on nuclear power was held before the Air Force Academy in May 1943.602


By demonstrating the usefulness of modern physics, these lectures became part of the continuing battle against Deutsche Physik. Indeed Heisenberg’s foreign lecture tours in general also contributed to the continuing campaign against the forces of Lenard and Stark - the advocates of Deutsche Physik were of no use when it came to foreign cultural propaganda. A month earlier, Carl Ramsauer had repeated his arguments about the dangerous decline of German physics before this same sympathetic audience. Since Ramsauer had kindled the interest of Academy members in nuclear physics, Heisenberg was asked to arrange a lecture series to keep it alive.603

Abraham Esau, the administrator in charge of nuclear physics research, opened the series with a status report on the nuclear power project and followed it with a talk on the production of luminous paints without the use of radium, a pressing topic for the manufacture of aircraft dials.604


Otto Hahn spoke on the artificial transmutation of elements - and this time, before a less political audience, mentioned Lise Meitner by name as contributing to the work that led up to the discovery of nuclear fission.605 Klaus Clusius discussed isotope separation,606 and Walther Bothe lectured on the research tools of nuclear physics.607


All of these speakers stressed the utility of physics as well as the need for increased governmental support.

Heisenberg’s contribution paralleled his 1942 lecture before the Reich Research Council. But two differences are significant. In contrast to the winter of 1941-1942, the uranium research now enjoyed secure political and financial support; in contrast to Heisenberg’s February 1942 talk, he now represented nuclear fission as irrelevant to the war effort. A chain reaction in uranium 235 would produce large amounts of energy explosively, Heisenberg noted, but that was as close as he came to mentioning nuclear explosives.


He told his audience that the first step toward a very important technical development had been taken. Nuclear power could be liberated for large-scale applications. However, he closed on a more somber note. The practical execution of this process was greatly hindered by the strained economy and the great external difficulties presented by the war.608

Shortly before the lecture series before the Academy, Heisenberg received an invitation from the SS.


In 1942 the first “SS-House” outside of the Reich had been established in Leyden. Himmler entrusted it with two tasks: providing Dutch students with a Germanic education and establishing contact with intellectuals in Holland. The Dutch were to become acquainted with German “ideological goods.” In a year’s time, the director of the SS-House believed that he and his colleagues had made a good start towards their cultural and political goals, but they recognized that the German military setbacks of the previous winter as well as political developments inside Holland had created difficulties.


For this reason the SS decided to invite leading German scholars to Leyden in order to demonstrate the prowess of German intellectuals to Dutch academics. Heisenberg was asked to visit Leyden in the spring of 1943.609 He declined because he was too busy, but encouraged another invitation in the fall. The SS apparently did not contact him again.610

In June 1943, the collaborationist Dutch Ministry of Education sent Heisenberg another invitation to visit Holland. The Reich Commissioner for the Occupied Dutch Territories, the highest German official in Holland, encouraged Heisenberg’s acceptance.611


REM welcomed the proposal, especially since the invitation had come from the Dutch Ministry.612 Heisenberg told the ministry in Berlin that he was willing to visit Holland in principle, but only under certain conditions. He already had asked the Dutch officials to tell him which of his Dutch colleagues wanted to see him and what the exact details of his itinerary would be. He wanted to know what his Dutch colleagues - including friends and former students - thought of the idea before he committed himself.613

A Dutch official in the Dutch ministry collaborating with the German authorities called in Kramers and showed him Heisenberg’s letter. Kramers wrote directly to Heisenberg to describe the poor working conditions of Dutch academics. An official of the Dutch Ministry of Education had intimated that this situation might be improved by reestablishing personal scientific contacts between Dutch and international - in other words, German - colleagues.

The Dutch and German authorities wanted Heisenberg to spend a week in Holland. He would visit all the physics institutes, meet with his Dutch colleagues, and give talks drawn from his own research before small groups of Dutch physicists. Thus Heisenberg’s itinerary would fulfill the new governmental guidelines for foreign lectures.


Kramers added that he had discussed this matter with Casimir and other Dutch scientists. All would welcome a visit by Heisenberg - which was exactly what Heisenberg wanted to hear.614

The adverse working conditions which Kramers mentioned may be illustrated by the state of the physical laboratory at the University of Leyden, where Kramers was professor of theoretical physics. German authorities had seized and closed the laboratory. The scientific equipment was to be shipped to Germany as war booty. Dutch scientists were prohibited from entering the laboratory.615

As soon as he received the letter from Kramers, Heisenberg told REM that he would visit Holland and implied that the personal invitation he had received from his Dutch colleague had been a crucial factor in his decision.616 Heisenberg simultaneously wrote to Kramers and expressed his pleasure in the upcoming visit.617 Kramers replied in kind.618 The German officials were pleased that Heisenberg was coming, but also displeased that Kramers, who was not cooperating with the occupation authorities, had become involved.619


They informed Heisenberg that although he was free to see Kramers informally, Kramers would not be an official participant in the program for Heisenberg’s visit. Furthermore, Heisenberg was ordered to visit the German occupation authorities at the very beginning of his visit in order to be briefed on the political state of the Dutch universities.620

Heisenberg traveled to Holland in October 1943, following a summer of protests by students and professors at Dutch universities over German occupation policies, including the persecution of Dutch Jews, The Germans responded with harsh repression and deportations of Dutch Jews to the death camps.621 As soon as Heisenberg arrived in the Netherlands, he met with collaborating officials from the Dutch Ministry of Education and with representatives of the German occupation authorities.


The following day he paid a courtesy call on the physics institute in Utrecht, and dined with the theoretical physicist Leon Rosenfeld. In the morning Heisenberg journeyed to Leyden, visited the famous Kammer-lingh-Onnes Laboratory, and met Kramers. On 21 October, Heisenberg gave the first talk of his trip, a lecture on the theory of elementary particles, at a small colloquium at the Leyden physics institute.

Heisenberg spent the next few days in Delft, where he visited his colleague Kronig as well as the nearby technical university. On 24 October, Heisenberg and the physicists from the Philips Company and from the University of Leyden attended an informal colloquium presented by Kramers at Rosenfeld’s house. The next day Heisenberg traveled to Amsterdam, where the physicist participated in some experiments on cosmic radiation.


On 26 October, Heisenberg discussed his visit with Dr. Seyss-Inquart, the German Commissioner in Holland. According to Heisenberg’s subsequent report, everywhere he went he met a most cordial reception. He avoided politics wherever possible; when it did come up, Heisenberg reported, his Dutch colleagues harshly rejected the German point of view. However, he nevertheless assured his official readers that cooperation with the Dutch on a purely scientific basis was definitely possible.622

Shortly after the end of the war, Hendrik Casimir was questioned by the astronomer Gerard Kuiper, a former countryman and now a member of the American Armed Forces. Kuiper wrote a report that vividly captured the impression of callous nationalism that Heisenberg had made on his Dutch colleagues. According to Casimir, when Heisenberg visited Holland in 1943, he said that history legitimized Germany’s rule over Europe and the world. Casimir reported that Heisenberg had been aware of the German concentration camps and the looting of other countries, but he nevertheless wanted his country to control Europe.

Heisenberg justified his position to Casimir by arguing that only a nation that ruled ruthlessly could maintain itself. Democracy was too weak to rule Europe. Therefore, in Heisenberg’s opinion, it was a contest between Germany and Russia. Heisenberg, a pronounced anti-Communist, betrayed his great insensitivity to the plight of his colleagues in occupied Europe by making harsh statements. He coldly drew the logical conclusion from his own arguments, that “a Europe under German leadership might well be the lesser evil.”623


Heisenberg’s Dutch colleagues did not appreciate the obtuse message that he gave them, that Germany had to win the war; nor could he understand how or why he had alienated them. He believed that his visit to Holland had gone well, despite all the politics.624

Heisenberg had been asked by his Dutch colleagues to visit their country in order to improve their working conditions. This is exactly what he did.


On Heisenberg’s intervention, Rosenfeld received permission to visit his mother in Belgium.625 After Heisenberg’s visit, the German occupation authorities suddenly announced that the Dutch scientists might be allowed to retain some scientific instruments vital to their research. Kramers and his colleagues immediately submitted a modest list of apparatus they wished to keep. A German official visited Kramers, mentioned that he had spoken with Heisenberg in Berlin, and expressed surprise that the Leyden Laboratory was still closed. This official ostentatiously lifted the ban on research and promised that the Dutch physicists would be told as soon as possible what equipment would not be removed. Heisenberg’s Dutch colleagues were sincerely grateful to him.626

The German occupation authorities had asked Heisenberg how his visit might be extended and the cultural cooperation between Dutch and German scientists increased. For a long time, he felt unable to answer, but at last gave an apolitical response. Given the state of the war, which was steadily deteriorating for Germany, further visits did not appear to him to be a good idea.


He counseled the occupation authorities to wait patiently. But Heisenberg also noted that he considered his trip to have been a success, since it had reopened channels of scientific communication between Dutch physicists and him. His recent correspondence with Kramers had been very valuable. Heisenberg told his countrymen in Holland that he was convinced that scientific relations between the Germans and the Dutch would resume very quickly once the war had come to a happy end.627

A little more than a month after returning to Germany from Holland, Heisenberg went east to speak at the German Institute for Eastern Work.628


Coblitz submitted a second petition in the spring of 1943, and this time it was approved. The ministry made so prompt a decision, and informed Heisenberg so quickly,629 that he could tell Coblitz of his willingness to speak in the General Government630 even before the director of the German Institute for Eastern Work had sent him an official invitation.631

Around the same time, Heisenberg received recognition from the east of his enhanced professional prestige in another form, the “Copernicus Prize” for excellence in physics. This prize, originally awarded by the University of Konigsberg, was now awarded jointly by the university and Frank’s institute.632 Both Heisenberg and Gustav Borger, a Party official from the University Teachers League, saw this honor as yet another blow against the forces of Lenard and Stark.


Borger sent Heisenberg his hearty congratulations, since this award represented yet another gratifying official recognition of Heisenberg’s work and thereby of theoretical physics.633 Heisenberg replied that this prize especially pleased him, because it could be interpreted as an official rehabilitation of theoretical physics.634


As Germany’s position in the war grew worse, Heisenberg’s prestige as a scientist in Germany rose higher and higher.

Coblitz took care to remind the “in-house physicist” at the German Institute for Eastern Work to attend Heisenberg’s lecture, especially since Frank, who was a “close friend” of Heisenberg, had personally invited him.635 Heisenberg’s visit to Krakow was delayed until the end of the year. Frank was either busy or on vacation.636 Heisenberg had to wait until the dates of his trip to Holland were set in October.637


A month later, he fell ill.638 He finally delivered his lecture in the second week of December, only a few months after the German authorities had begun to annihilate the Jewish ghettos in Krakow, Warsaw, and Lodz.639

There is no record of how or whether Heisenberg reacted to the razing of the ghettos, but he probably knew that it was happening. Similarly, Heisenberg knew that throughout Europe Germans were pillaging occupied countries and deporting their Jews to concentration camps. But Heisenberg was hardly alone. Every German with eyes to see and ears to hear knew about the concentration camps and that the Jews had vanished from Germany.


After the war, many people inside and outside of Germany assumed that Germans like Heisenberg knew about the Holocaust, but nevertheless either did nothing, or even worse, continued to work for the National Socialists. Is this criticism fair?

Philippe Burrin’s analysis640 of the decision to launch the Holocaust helps put Heisenberg’s activities into context. According to Burrin, Hitler was torn by two conflicting, if both malevolent, intentions towards the Jews. On one hand, Hitler wanted to purge them from Germany.


This goal did not necessarily require genocide, for Hitler and the National Socialist leadership spent a great deal of time and effort on plans to deport Jews to a “reservation” like Madagascar or a region deep in Asiatic Russia. On the other hand, Hitler also wanted to use some Jews as hostages against the international Jewish conspiracy he saw threatening him, his movement, and the German people.

Obviously Hitler could not both eliminate the Jews from the German sphere of influence and simultaneously hold them as hostages. Thus his policy toward Jews vacillated during the first nine years of the Third Reich. His decision to forego both options in order to murder the Jews was the result of a third theme in his irrational worldview. The National Socialist leader blamed the Jews, both inside and outside of Germany, for the German defeat in World War I.


As Burrin demonstrates, Hitler consistently threatened the Jews with physical extermination if there was a repeat of World War I, in other words, if “the Jews” once again threatened to betray and defeat Germany.

In the late summer of 1941, it became clear to the German military leadership that the conflict with the Soviet Union would be a long difficult affair, and that ultimately the United States would enter the war on the side of Great Britain. World War II was thereby transformed from the quick painless lightning war to a world-wide war of attrition similar to the conflict Germany lost in 1918. Hitler now ordered a sudden and definitive change in his policy towards the Jews. Emigration, which had been encouraged, was now stopped. Plans for a Jewish reservation were dropped. The uncoordinated murder of Jews by special SS forces in the occupied regions of the Soviet Union was transformed into a systematic, efficient, bureaucratic genocide.

Five or six million Jews were murdered, many killed in gas chambers after being shipped to death camps in overcrowded cattle cars. The Jews were not the only victims of the National Socialists. Another nine or ten million people were starved, shot, or overworked. The National Socialists treated Gypsies like the Jews and murdered forty percent of the one million Gypsies in Europe. Around four million Slavs lost their lives as slave laborers in Germany. Finally, the Germans deliberately allowed two or three million Soviet prisoners of war to die in captivity.641

It hardly seems fair to accuse Heisenberg or anyone else of responsibility for the Holocaust before the National Socialist leadership itself decided to commit genocide. Thus Heisenberg’s appeal to the SS for a political rehabilitation, his willingness to travel abroad as a goodwill ambassador for National Socialist Germany, and his participation in the wartime German “uranium project”642  - in other words, his decision to remain in Germany and work within the system - all happened or began before the Holocaust became inevitable. However, Heisenberg knew he was working for a ruthless, racist, and murderous state.

Moreover, Heisenberg did not stop working on nuclear fission, traveling abroad, or enjoying the political backing of patrons in the Third Reich once he learned of the rape of Europe, the deportation of Jews, the razing of the ghettos, or of the death camps. That would have meant taking a clear, courageous, and potentially dangerous stand against National Socialism, something Heisenberg did not do.


However, it hardly seems fair to blame Heisenberg for the Holocaust. His conduct was consistent over the course of the Third Reich. It was Hitler who changed his mind.



Copenhagen in 1944

During the winter of 1943-1944 the war entered its last, and for the majority of Germans, most hopeless phase.


The steady deterioration of German society, including the destruction of cities from the air, interruptions in the transportation system, and increasing shortages of basic necessities, hampered, but did not stop Heisenberg’s guest lectures. He did not go to the GCI in Bucharest643 or to the “German Academy” in Klagen-furt.644


Instead he stayed in Berlin for the 1944 summer semester to lecture at the university.645 But he did go to Copenhagen.646 Heisenberg learned in January that the German occupation authorities had occupied the Bohr Institute. Jurgen Beggild, the Danish physicist who had been left in charge after Bohr and the Jewish or partly Jewish members had been forced to flee Denmark for Sweden, had been arrested and accused of working with Germany’s enemies.

Once the remaining physicists at the Bohr institute realized that their German colleagues had not been responsible for the German takeover, they decided to alert Heisenberg to the occupation and asked the physical chemist Hans Suess - who was passing through Copenhagen on his way south from Norway - to pass on the message. Heisenberg learned of the occupation from Suess on 5 January 1944 and arranged to be part of the German commission that would investigate whether the research at the Bohr Institute had been contributing to the Allied war effort.647

Von Weizsacker found out to his dismay that the German officials in Copenhagen were considering making him the new director of Bohr’s old institute. He did not want to confront his Danish colleagues as a conqueror and asked Heisenberg to use his influence to kill the plan.648 In the company of the Army physicist
Kurt Diebner and others, Heisenberg traveled to Denmark on 24 January and met with the plenipotentiary of the German Reich in Copenhagen.649


The German authorities were debating whether to staff the Bohr institute with German physicists, to force the Danish scientists at this institute to contribute to the German war effort, or to strip the institute of all equipment needed in Germany.650

Heisenberg obviously wanted to arrange as beneficial a settlement as possible for the Danes. He toured the high-voltage equipment and the cyclotron at the institution with some occupation officials, emphasizing how complicated the equipment was and how difficult to move. The next day, the German authorities informed the Danish Foreign Office that the Bohr institute would be reopened without conditions and released Beggild.651 Heisenberg subsequently told Johannes Jensen, a colleague who had many friends and acquaintances at the Bohr institute, that the Danes were very happy about this outcome. 652

A month after his visit to Denmark, Heisenberg received an invitation by way of the Foreign Office and the German occupation officials to speak again at the Copenhagen GCI.653 Heisenberg accordingly spent four days in Denmark, April 18 to 22, as guest of Otto Hofler, the new director of the GCI.


On the evening of 19 April, Heisenberg gave his talk, “The smallest building blocks of matter,” before an audience made up almost completely of Germans. Heisenberg’s Danish colleagues refused to attend, including the scientists who had attended the 1941 astrophysics conference and who, until the resignation of the Danish government, had participated in the programs of the GCI.


The following day Heisenberg had lunch with the plenipotentiary of the Reich, Dr. Best, and spent the evening as Hofler’s guest with several representatives of cultural politics in Scandinavia.

On 19 April, Heisenberg also paid a visit to Bohr’s old institute, whereupon Heisenberg’s Danish colleagues invited him to give them a talk on his own work. Heisenberg subsequently met with several Danish colleagues and their wives as the guest of Professor Mailer. On 21 April Heisenberg lectured on “the theory of elementary particles” in Danish, followed by a brief institute tea.

Heisenberg asked the Danes why they had not come to his talk at the GCI. They replied that, because of the tense political relationship that had existed between Germany and Denmark since the Danish government resigned in 1943, they wanted nothing to do with the political GCI.


After discussing all this information in his report, Heisenberg went on to support energetically what the director of the Copenhagen GCI had told him: Hofler would never be able to win over the Danes and gain their cooperation unless, for the time being, he restricted himself to purely scientific and scholarly work.


The side of his work that had more to do with propaganda, such as guest lectures and the like, should be postponed to a later, more opportune time. Heisenberg closed his report with the same conviction he had expressed after his last trip to Holland: once the war had come to a happy end, scientific cooperation with the Danes would not be difficult.654


Indeed, after the war Heisenberg had a great deal of difficulty understanding why he had alienated his foreign colleagues.

The director of the Copenhagen institute during the last years of the Third Reich may have been typical of the scholars sent as cultural emissaries to foreign countries by the National Socialist state. Hofler’s specialty was Germanic philology. He had spent many years in Scandinavia and had taught at the University of Uppsala. The Copenhagen GCI did not limit its activities to Denmark, but attempted to influence cultural policy in Sweden and Norway as well. He had connections with Scandinavian colleagues, knew the countries, and spoke the languages.655

Shortly after Hofler joined the NSDAP in the spring of 1937 656 he was appointed to the Research Council of the “Ahnenerbe,” a branch of the SS.657


The Ahnenerbe supported a wide range of research. Some topics would now be considered unscientific or even pseudo-science, such the “World Ice Theory” developed in the early twentieth century by Hanns Horbiger. Both Himmler and Hitler were very interested in Horbiger’s work, which argued that the universe was composed of ice.658 The Ahnenerbe also sponsored respectable science, such as entomology and plant genetics. Finally, the Ahnenerbe was the branch of the
SS which planned, financed, and carried out inhuman experiments with prisoners of war and concentration camp inmates.659

In 1938, the SS helped Hofler trade his professorship at Kiel for a more prestigious one at Munich, and in return he placed his expertise in Germanic philology and close connections in Scandinavia at the service of the Ahnenerbe’s efforts to use the field of Germanic prehistory in order to justify the dominance of the “Aryan” race.660


In 1942, before moving from the University of Munich to the Copenhagen GCI, Hofler visited Denmark with SS papers to do research the SS characterized as intelligence work.661

After the second world war Hofler applied for a teaching position at the University of Munich. A university official asked Heisenberg in 1949 whether Hofler had strictly limited himself to scholarship while in Copenhagen, or had engaged in cultural propaganda.662 Heisenberg’s evasive answer663 provides insight into his perception and continued support of the GCIs. First, he claimed that he had never met Hofler personally. Perhaps he had forgotten about his 1944 meeting with Hofler,664 of which Hofler reminded him in 1947.665

Next Heisenberg asserted that the Copenhagen GCI had not had an entirely bad reputation and that it had not been a source of explicit National Socialist propaganda. If the Danes had stopped frequenting the GCI, that was not Holler’s fault. They had merely concluded that the Germans would lose the war. Heisenberg said that he had never heard criticism of Hofler by the Danes, although he did admit that the Danish scientists would hardly have expressed such complaints to him.


Heisenberg closed his report on Hofler by noting that even if the latter had not been as successful as Freyer, the president of the Budapest GCI, Hofler had not left a negative impression behind in Denmark.666

As late as 1949, Heisenberg had few misgivings either about his past associations with, or the goals of, these institutes. Heisenberg may have been unaware of Hofler’s connections to the SS, but that would hardly explain the physicist’s participation in National Socialist cultural propaganda. From Heisenberg’s perspective, the GCIs afforded him the opportunity of retaining contact with colleagues all over Europe, A boycott of them would have done him no good, nor would it have benefited German physicists or scholars in other countries.

After the war Heisenberg wrestled with this dilemma in a memo entitled “The active and passive opposition in the Third Reich.” This essay - apparently never published or circulated -  offers a unique opportunity to get inside Heisenberg’s mind and arguably demonstrates his postwar denial of the true nature of both the Third Reich and the role he played in it.

If the vast majority of Germans had refused any collaboration with National Socialism in 1933, Heisenberg noted, then much misfortune would have been avoided. But that did not happen. Rather, the National Socialist system had understood how to win the support of the masses. Once the National Socialists had gained control of the government, the relatively thin layer of people whose certain instinct told them that the new system was bad from the ground up, now only had the opportunity of “passive” or “active” opposition.

Heisenberg noted that, on one hand, these people could have condemned the National Socialist system as basically bad and a threat to Germany and Europe, but concluded, nonetheless, that there was nothing that could be done. Whoever reasoned that way could either emigrate or deny responsibility, and wait until the system was overcome from the outside.


Heisenberg designated this behavior as “passive” opposition. Another group, he went on, judged the situation as follows. A war, even if it served to overthrow National Socialism, was such a horrible catastrophe, and would cost so many millions of people their lives, that everything had to be done to avoid it or to reduce its horror. Many people who thought so, but did not comprehend the stability of a modern dictatorship, tried the path of open, immediate resistance during the first years and ended up in concentration camps.

For others, Heisenberg added, individuals who recognized the hopelessness of a direct attack on the dictatorship, the only path remaining was the acquisition or preservation of a certain amount of influence. Such people risked being branded collaborators. Heisenberg now argued that this course was the only way to bring about change in National Socialism and described it as “active” opposition. This position was much more difficult and ambiguous than passive opposition, since the activist had to make concessions at unimportant places in order to be able to influence important matters.667

Heisenberg’s retrospective portrayal of “active” and “passive” opposition during the Third Reich makes clear what he chose to believe after the war. By staying and working within the National Socialist system, accepting responsibility and thereby being in a position to wield influence, Heisenberg had “actively” opposed Hitler.
Heisenberg’s last foreign lectures took place in Geneva and Zurich in the autumn of 1944.668


When he met with his Swiss colleagues, Heisenberg repeated what he had told their Dutch counterparts a year before: only Germany stood between Russia and European civilization.669 Furthermore, when Heisenberg was asked about the prospects for a German victory in Europe, he said that it would have been nice if Germany had won.670

This answer did not please either the Swiss or the Germans. The former would assume that Heisenberg wanted National Socialism to dominate Europe, if not the world. The latter would consider Heisenberg’s comment defeatism, something which became a serious offense during the last, terrible months of the war. Finally, Heisenberg’s remark need not have been a conscious endorsement of National Socialism.


Once the war began, many Germans separated in their own minds their support of Germany from that of Hitler’s movement. This self-deluding distinction was important, for it allowed the National Socialist state to harness the energies of the many Germans who did not support Hitler, but also wanted Germany to win the war.

Significantly, Heisenberg never got around to sending in a report on his 1944 trip to Switzerland. In late March 1945 REM reminded him of his omission,671 but by this time Heisenberg was more concerned about the advancing American forces than about the bureaucrats in Berlin.

Foreign scientists have shown a great deal of ambivalence toward Heisenberg and von Weizsacker since the end of World War II.672 This ambivalence derives largely from the talks the two German physicists gave in foreign countries during the war as well as the postwar apologia they have used to justify their conduct in the Third Reich, But Heisenberg and von Weizsacker did not merely participate in National Socialist cultural propaganda. They were also exploited by Hitler and his followers, as were many Germans.

Heisenberg never spread vulgar National Socialist propaganda. Even his comments to Casimir were couched in terms of Germany, not Hitler’s movement. Every one of Heisenberg’s official visits was restricted to scientific talks.


But that was precisely what the National Socialist officials responsible for cultural propaganda wanted him to do as part of an effective division of labor. Heisenberg represented the “better side” of National Socialist Germany as a “good German,” an apolitical Nobel laureate willing to serve as a goodwill ambassador for German culture while other Germans were invading, occupying, exploiting, and sometimes murderously ravaging the very same countries.

The German Cultural Institutes and comparable institutions such as the German Institute for Eastern Work provide vivid examples for the distortion and abuse of science and culture. In the eyes of many native scientists, these institutes were centers of scientific and cultural collaboration with National Socialism as well as symbols of the German occupation and exploitation of their homeland.


As long as he could lecture in German, Heisenberg accepted all offers of speaking engagements at such institutes and thereby alienated and deeply disappointed many of his foreign colleagues.

Heisenberg was either unable to understand or unwilling to confront the cause and effect of this alienation. By delivering lectures there, he supported and thereby legitimated the National Socialist policy of cultural propaganda. When he could, he aided foreign colleagues in trouble, including Jewish scientists. He did this at considerable risk to himself, and his colleagues were grateful. But this gratitude could not make up for the alienation caused by his participation in cultural propaganda and his personal identification with the German war effort and German armed forces.

The National Socialist state reexamined its policy toward modern physics during the course of the Third Reich and especially during the war, with the result that the irrational and barren Deutsche Physik was eventually discarded in favor of modern physics, with its recognized economic and military utility. But it was first and foremost Heisenberg, and not modern physics, that came under dangerous political and ideological attack in the Volkischer Beobachter and Das Schwarze Korps, and it was first and foremost Heisenberg, not the theory of relativity or quantum physics, who emerged victorious with a political rehabilitation and enhanced prestige.

The SS report on Heisenberg suggests that scientific arguments alone did not win this battle. Industrial scientists and researchers with close ties to the armed forces played a crucial role. The SS and the Party accepted the judgment of Ludwig Prandtl and Carl Ramsauer, that modern physics was useful and needed support, and found a politically and ideologically acceptable justification for its rehabilitation.


Heisenberg’s appeal as a “good German” and especially his long-standing association with the armed forces made it easier for the National Socialist state to accept his physics. Once the ideological taint had been removed from modern physics, Heisenberg could be also used as a cultural propaganda tool.

The political rehabilitation of Heisenberg was necessary before the National Socialist state could take full advantage of his propaganda value. For Heisenberg to be useful in a cultural propaganda sense - or for that matter, to be useful in the training of physicists or for research - he had to be used; for him to be used, he had, to some degree, to be trusted; for him to be trusted, the National Socialist state had to make some concessions with respect to the ideological purity of physics.


The very utilitarian and international character of modern physics was used to facilitate cultural cooperation and ultimately collaboration between scientists in foreign countries and National Socialism.

Finally, Heisenberg’s foreign lectures illuminate the problematic black-and-white dichotomy of resistance versus collaboration. Heisenberg’s 1941 visit to Copenhagen has been portrayed as proof that either:

  1. the physicist willingly collaborated with the “Nazis” to exploit Bohr

  2. or he resisted Hitler by warning the Allies of the German atom bomb 673

When this visit is seen in context, it is clear that the truth lies somewhere in the middle.

Carl Friedrich von Weizsacker has insisted that intent, not action, is most important. He and Heisenberg traveled to Copenhagen in order to help their Danish colleague Niels Bohr.


But what kind of help did Heisenberg and von Weizsacker offer Bohr in the fall of 1941, when German victory appeared certain?


They urged him to cooperate with the German authorities and especially the German Cultural Institute in Copenhagen. Today it is clear that this was bad advice; at that time it may not have been so clear. It is hardly surprising that Heisenberg and von Weizsacker offered Bohr precisely this advice.


They merely advised Bohr to do what they were doing.

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