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Serving the Reich

The Struggle for the Soul of Physics under Hitler

Serving the Reich

The Struggle for the Soul of Physics under Hitler

The compelling story of leading physicists in Germany—including Peter Debye, Max Planck, and Werner Heisenberg—and how they accommodated themselves to working within the Nazi state in the 1930s and ’40s.

After World War II, most scientists in Germany maintained that they had been apolitical or actively resisted the Nazi regime, but the true story is much more complicated. In Serving the Reich, Philip Ball takes a fresh look at that controversial history, contrasting the career of Peter Debye, director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physics in Berlin, with those of two other leading physicists in Germany during the Third Reich: Max Planck, the elder statesman of physics after whom Germany’s premier scientific society is now named, and Werner Heisenberg, who succeeded Debye as director of the institute when it became focused on the development of nuclear power and weapons.        
Mixing history, science, and biography, Ball’s gripping exploration of the lives of scientists under Nazism offers a powerful portrait of moral choice and personal responsibility, as scientists navigated “the grey zone between complicity and resistance.” Ball’s account of the different choices these three men and their colleagues made shows how there can be no clear-cut answers or judgment of their conduct. Yet, despite these ambiguities, Ball makes it undeniable that the German scientific establishment as a whole mounted no serious resistance to the Nazis, and in many ways acted as a willing instrument of the state.
Serving the Reich considers what this problematic history can tell us about the relationship between science and politics today. Ultimately, Ball argues, a determination to present science as an abstract inquiry into nature that is “above politics” can leave science and scientists dangerously compromised and vulnerable to political manipulation.

Read an excerpt.

320 pages | 6 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2014

Biography and Letters

History: European History

History of Science

Physical Sciences: History and Philosophy of Physical Sciences, Physics--Popular Books


“I have been studying this subject for decades, but I found new things in Ball’s book. He has put the material together in an accessible way, and there is an extensive bibliography for people who would like to dig deeper. . . . Why should we be interested in this now? There is a lesson to be learned. Before a fanatic regime came to power, Germany had the greatest scientific establishment ever created. In a very few years it evaporated. The ambience for doing science is fragile. I have colleagues in Pakistan who are informed that all true science can be found only in the Quran. China has spent fortunes creating a class of scientists, but not one truly revolutionary discovery in any science has come from China. Revolutionary science thrives on dissent. Without it, science becomes mundane.”

Wall Street Journal

"German science led the world until Hitler ruined it, as British science writer Ball claims in this fine account of how it happened. . . . Almost all non-Jewish German scientists fretted, compromised, and looked after their own interests. Others have vilified them as collaborators, but Ball, no polemicist, thinks this was a moral failure, common and not confined to Germans. This is an important, disturbing addition to the history of science."

Publishers Weekly

"An examination of the response of German scientists to the rise of the Third Reich and its interference with their work. . . . How much did Nazism compromise its scientists? In this polished account, Ball finds that the jury is still out, even as the evidence mounts and the pursuit of firsthand records and documentary testimony continues."


"The story of physicists under Hitler has been studied frequently and in great depth, though no account has aimed to be quite as comprehensive as this one by Ball, a writer of exceptional versatility and productivity. . . . This is an impressive assessment; Ball's judgments on his three protagonists are well-reasoned, nuanced and, in my view, fair."


“Asks important questions, not just about twentieth-century German science but about the nature of science and the response of scientists to the political world we perforce inhabit. All scientists should read and ponder its contents.”

Times Higher Education

"A fine book."

Times Literary Supplement

“Ball’s book shows what can happen to morality when cleverness and discovery are valued above all else.”

New Statesman

“A fascinating account of the moral dilemmas faced by German physicists working within Nazism. Impeccably researched.”


“Ball does an outstanding service by reminding us how powerful and sometimes confusing the pressures were and how it was not implausible to think that scientists could and should stay ‘above politics.’ . . . Packed with dramatic, moving, and even comical moments.”


“A fair-minded and meticulous assessment of the generally weak-kneed response, and especially of the actions of three non-Jewish physicists in Germany, all Nobel laureates.”

Jewish Daily Forward

"An engrossing and disturbing book."

History Today

“Education lays a veneer over our emotions, but it is disconcertingly thin. Perhaps the most powerful of those emotions—or drives—is survival: few of us are heroes in dangerous circumstances and, without question, life was dangerous for many during Hitler’s Reich (especially for thinkers, ‘dissidents’ and ‘outsiders,’ and one could be all three at once). . . . Ball makes the ethical conundrums and dilemmas very clear. They are questions that everyone—not simply scientists, politicians, teachers—must still confront.”


"Ball provides an interesting twist on Werner Heisenberg's failure to realize 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."

New Scientist

"Ball’s real interests lie elsewhere, in what he calls the ‘grey zone between complicity and resistance.’ It is one of the strengths of Serving the Reich that in surveying this territory the analysis is not unduly flattering to the moral and political certainties of the present."


“Much has been written about physics in the period between 1930 and 1945, but Ball’s book is more than just a good history. In exploring the actions and ethical dilemmas of three physicists (Werner Heisenberg, Max Planck, and Peter Debye) working in Nazi Germany, he also argues against the notion that scientists can ever be truly ‘above politics’—a debate that remains intensely relevant more than seventy years after the events described in his book.”

Physics World, Book of the Year Shortlist

Serving the Reich is a remarkable achievement—not only for its popularization of historical debates but also for the depth of its analysis. Both the layperson interested in the moral dilemma of physicists under Hitler and the historian familiar with the controversial debates will find Ball’s account highly instructive.”

Physics Today

“An excellent, concise account of the German side of the most dramatic era in the history of physics.”

Michigan War Studies Review

“This is an outstanding work about the social responsibility of scientists, exemplified by considering the actions of three Nobelist physicists during the Nazi regime in Germany: Max Planck, Peter Debye, and Werner Heisenberg.  . . . Ball, a journalist and prolific author chronicles the pressures on these men to expel Jews from their posts before the war and to pursue war research and support the Nazi ideology during the war.  The retrospective furor about their alleged collaboration, accommodation, or resistance motivates Ball to reconstruct their dilemmas and responses.  The conflicting accounts of Heisenberg’s role in the atomic bomb project are carefully reviewed and their ambiguity noted and discussed.  In these episodes, Ball thoughtfully navigates the nuances of attaching motives to acts, avoiding justifying the more strident contemporary accusations and exoneration.  This is a stunning cautionary tale, well researched and told. Essential.”


"By paying more attention than others have done to the role of the Nobel Prize–winning physicist Peter Debye, director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute of Physics (KWIP) in Berlin from 1936 to 1940, Ball adds to our knowledge of an already well-studied topic. He embeds this work within an engagingly written broader interpretation aimed at a general readership, in which he compares Debye’s career with those of Max Planck and Werner Heisenberg."


Table of Contents

Introduction: ‘Nobel Prize-winner with dirty hands’

1 ‘As conservatively as possible’
2 ‘Physics must be rebuilt’
3 ‘The beginning of something new’
4 ‘Intellectual freedom is a thing of the past’
5 ‘Service to science must be service to the nation’
6 ‘There is very likely a Nordic science’
7 ‘You obviously cannot swim against the tide’
8 ‘I have seen my death!’
9 ‘As a scientist or as a man’
10 ‘Hitherto unknown destructive power’
11 ‘Heisenberg was mostly silent’
12 ‘We are what we pretend to be’

Epilogue: ‘We did not speak the same language’

Image Credits


Choice Magazine: CHOICE Outstanding Academic Title Awards

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