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Serving the Reich

The Struggle for the Soul of Physics under Hitler

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 judgement 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 of 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


“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

“The biggest problem with the behavior of Heisenberg, Planck, and Debye is not, Ball suggests, that they failed to actively resist the Nazis. After all, he writes, ‘it is a brave person who asserts without hesitation that he or she would have done better.’ Instead, it is their failure even to engage with the idea that they, as scientists, bore some responsibility for the work they did and the regime under which they did it. Being an ‘apolitical scientist’ is itself a political decision, Ball argues, and as his book demonstrates, it is not always the right one.”

Physics Today

“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.”

Wall Street Journal

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

“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.”


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

Michigan War Studies Review

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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