“As long as the Nazis are seen as the epitome of evil, there will be a demand for explanations” (Image: Topham Picturepoint)
From Churchill’s nuclear predictions to Darwin’s influence on the Nazis, four books explore the deeper levels of a history that continues to fascinate us
THE idea that we can learn from the past and avoid repeating it makes sense only if someone else is around to remember what happened. Historians have been aided in this task by memory traces that increase in quantity and quality the closer we get to the present. A watershed was reached in the second world war, the first major international conflict to be readily available to the mass media.
But why are we still fascinated by an event that ended nearly 70 years ago? Part of the answer is because so many people who are still living were involved in or affected by the war. Another part lies in a need to settle old scores, especially with the Nazis. As long as they are seen as the epitome of evil, there will be a demand for explanations that enable us to cordon off that “evil”. And then there is the worry that we too may be living in times when the heady mix of science, power and exigency could result in actions as extreme as the ones taken by the Nazis and their opponents.
It is rare to see anyone stressing the positive legacies of the second world war for science and technology. These are fairly obvious: the research agendas of nuclear energy, rocketry, genetics, cancer and ecology were all expedited by the war. Arguably the threat of sustained military engagement has the best track record in hastening the advancement of science and technology. Academia and market forces can appear desultory by comparison, as the efforts of the former are divided into ever more specialised problems, and those of the latter are expended in chasing fickle consumers. There is nothing like the fear of annihilation to focus the best minds on taking us to the next level of technical achievement. Certainly this was Winston Churchill’s opinion.
As biographer Graham Farmelo shows in Churchill’s Bomb, Churchill managed to redeem his faltering performance as a minister in the first world war by elevating the “atomic bomb” from a neologism created by H. G. Wells to an existential risk in one deft essay, “Shall We All Commit Suicide?” Published in 1924, the essay stands as a brilliant testimony to the power of science fiction to fuel the political imagination.
Three other recently published books attack the Nazis from various angles. Was Hitler a Darwinian? is a “greatest hits” package from Robert J. Richards, a US historian of evolutionary theory, that aims to settle scores against historians on both the political left and right who, he thinks, overplay Darwin’s influence on the Nazi imagination.
Richards sees this problem as urgent. But he never quite explains why, and ends up devoting much space to the obvious non-Darwinian roots of Hitler’s racism and anti-semitism, which was to do with a kind of biblical naturalism that would have black people descend from cursed sons of Noah, and Jews cursed for having killed Christ.
He becomes more interesting when he discusses the tortured arguments of the professional biologists at the time. These are very much worth revisiting today.
Unfortunately, there is an elephant in the room: “racial hygiene”, the most influential German medical ideology in the 50 years preceding the second world war. Unlike the biblically based racists, the biologists raised issues of population control, euthanasia and eugenics. They targeted “counter-selectionist” social policies that perpetuated the lives of “unfit” people who would have perished (or never have been born) had natural selection been given a free hand. Policies such as mass vaccination were held responsible for rates of population growth and resource consumption that allegedly stoked imperial expansion – and the violent reactions to it.
Racial hygienists generally positioned themselves on the political left, identifying with ecological and pacifist causes. Their intellectual leader, Alfred Ploetz, was both a Nobel peace prize nominee and a Nazi. On all this Richards is conspicuously – and regrettably – silent.
It is relatively easy to show the Darwinian roots of Nazism, compared to the much harder task of demonstrating the mental pathology of Nazi politicians and scientists. In The Nazi and the Psychiatrist, journalist Jack El-Hai gives a fresh twist to the failure of US military psychiatrists to arrive at a morally satisfying diagnosis of the Nazi leaders for “crimes against humanity”.
He approaches the matter from the perspective of US Military Intelligence Corps officer Douglas Kelley, who was chief psychiatrist at Nuremberg Prison during the war trials. Kelley could not see much difference between the personality of Hitler’s heir apparent, Hermann Göring, and that of a highly motivated top corporate executive. El-Hai suggests that Kelley shared some of these qualities, and Kelley even ended his life Göring-style, by taking a cyanide capsule.
A subtler moral appraisal lies in science writer Philip Ball’s Serving the Reich, which focuses on the physics community. It generally confirms a thesis introduced by historian Ute Deichmann in her book, Biologists under Hitler. She argued that scientists (especially non-Jewish ones) found Nazism a permissive, even proactive regime for scientific research, but they suffered when the international community began to refuse to engage with them because it could not tolerate the Nazi society.
The Deichmann thesis scuppers the idea that deformities in Nazi science were attributable to an “unfree society”. They were simply the result of isolation, which continued after the war through a taboo on references to Nazi research.
Ball supports this view by highlighting the Rockefeller Foundation’s shifting position on the Nazi regime’s viability for cutting-edge research. The US-based foundation was interested in improving the human condition biologically, and wanted to involve physicists and chemists. Germany was a natural place to find talent. When the foundation severed ties, its decision was less influenced by the removal of Jewish scientists from major posts than by the destabilising effect that this and other political interventions had on the general research climate.
The German scientists did not help their case by keeping arms’ length from Nazi decision-making. This merely made them appear clueless and unreliable. Had the German scientific community been a more consolidated and visible presence in Nazi policy, the Rockefeller might have continued its support.
Against this backdrop, Ball provides an interesting twist on Werner Heisenberg’s failure to realise a Nazi atomic bomb. The dominant narrative, constructed by wartime Dutch-US physicist Samuel Goudsmit, was that the “unfree society” of the Nazi physicists closed them to the necessary information. What really happened was that the rest of the scientific world gradually closed its doors to the Nazis because it could not tolerate their society.
We have yet to disprove the hypothesis that an open-door policy to an authoritarian regime would lead to superior science. In our time, China may be the test case: its capacity for cutting-edge science has been increased by the West’s self-interested open-door policy on scientific knowledge.
This article appeared in print under the headline “The war with a past that never ends”
Steve Fuller is the Auguste Comte Chair in Social Epistemology at the University of Warwick, UK
- Book information
- Churchill’s Bomb: A hidden history of science, war and politics by Graham Farmelo
- Published by: Faber & Faber
- Price: £25.00
- Book information
- Was Hitler a Darwinian? Disputed questions in the history of evolutionary theory by Robert J. Richards
- Published by: University of Chicago Press
- Price: $27.50
- Book information
- The Nazi and the Psychiatrist: Hermann Göring, Dr. Douglas M. Kelley, and a fatal meeting of minds at the end of WWII by Jack El-Hai
- Published by: PublicAffairs
- Price: $27.99
- Book information
- Serving the Reich: The struggle for the soul of physics und\aser Hitler by Philip Ball
- Published by: Bodley Head
- Price: £20.00