Deutsche Physik

Philipp Lenard

Deutsche Physik (literally: ‘German Physics’) or ‘Aryan Physics’ was a nationalist movement in the German physics community in the early 1930s against the work of Albert Einstein and other modern theoretically based physics, labeled ‘Jewish Physics’ (German: ‘Jüdische Physik’). The term was taken from the title of a 4-volume physics textbook by Philipp Lenard in the 1930s.

This movement began as an extension of a German nationalistic movement in the physics community which went back as far as World War I. In 1915, during fighting between the German army and Belgian resistance fighters after the German invasion in Belgium, the library of the Katholieke Universiteit in Leuven caught fire when German troops looted and set fire to the town. The loss of the library led to a protest note by British scientists, which was signed also by eight distinguished British scientists, namely William Bragg, William Crookes, Alexander Fleming, Horace Lamb, Oliver Lodge, William Ramsay, Baron Rayleigh, and J.J. Thomson, and in which it was assumed that the war propaganda mentioned corresponded to real behavior of German soldiers.

This led to a counter-reaction in the form of an ‘appeal’ formulated by Wilhelm Wien and addressed to German physicists and scientific publishers, which was signed by sixteen German physicists, including Arnold Sommerfeld and Johannes Stark. They claimed that German character had been misinterpreted and that attempts made over many years to reach an understanding between the two countries had obviously failed, so that conclusions had now to be drawn, in regard to the use of the English language by German scientific authors, editors of books, and translators. A number of German physicists, including Max Planck and the especially passionate Philipp Lenard, a scientific rival of J.J. Thomson, had then signed further ‘declarations,’ so that gradually a ‘war of the minds’ broke out. On the German side it was suggested to avoid an unnecessary use of English language in scientific texts (concerning, e.g., the renaming of German-discovered phenomena with perceived English-derived names, such as ‘X-ray’ instead of ‘Röntgen ray’). It was stressed, however, that this measure should not be misunderstood as a rejection of British scientific thought, ideas and stimulations.

After the war, the affronts of the Treaty of Versailles kept some of these nationalistic feelings running high, especially in Lenard, who in a small pamphlet had already complained at the beginning of the war about England. In 1920 an attempt was made by a young soldier, Oltwig von Hirschfelde, to assassinate Matthias Erzberger, the German Chancellor. Lenard sent a telegram of congratulation to Hirschfelde. In 1922, after the assassination of politician Walther Rathenau, the government ordered the flying of flags at half mast on the day of his funeral. Lenard ignored the order at his institute in Heidelberg. Socialist students organized a demonstration against Lenard, who on the occasion was taken into protective custody by the Jewish prosecutor of state Hugo Marx. This was not a sentiment unique to physics or physicists— this blend of nationalism and perceived affront from foreign and internal forces formed a key part of the popularity of the newly forming National Socialist Party (Nazis) in the late 1920s.

During the early years of the twentieth century, Albert Einstein’s Theory of Relativity was met with much bitter controversy within the physics communities of the world. There were many physicists, especially the ‘old guard,’ who were suspicious of the intuitive meanings of Einstein’s theories. The leading theoretician of the Deutsche Physik type of movement was Rudolf Tomaschek who had re-edited the famous physics textbook Grimsehl’s ‘Lehrbuch der Physik.’ In that book, which consists of several volumes, the Lorentz transformation was accepted as well as quantum theory. However, Einstein’s interpretation of the Lorentz transformation was not mentioned, and also Einstein’s name was completely ignored. Many of these classical physicists resented Einstein’s dismissal of the notion of a luminiferous aether, which had been a mainstay of their work for the majority of their productive lives.

They were not convinced by the empirical evidence for Relativity: the measurements of the perihelion of Mercury and the null result of the Michelson-Morley experiment might be explained in other ways, they thought, and the results of the Eddington eclipse experiment were experimentally problematic enough to be dismissed as meaningless by the more devoted doubters. Many of these doubters were very distinguished experimental physicists—Lenard was himself a Nobel laureate in Physics for his work on cathode rays. Although the opposition to Einstein was expressed in scientific terms, his theories were also rejected as un-German because he was Jewish.

When the Nazis entered the political scene, Lenard quickly attempted to ally himself with them, joining the party at an early stage. With another physics Nobel laureate, Johannes Stark, Lenard began a core campaign to label Einstein’s Relativity as Jewish Physics. For a few years after the Nazi takeover in 1933, this found strong support from Nazi leadership, as it played upon a number of Nazi ideological themes, and gave yet another method to harass and delegitimize Jewish citizens and institutions. Lenard and Stark enjoyed the Nazi support because it allowed them to undertake a professional coup for their preferred scientific theory, an example of using heavy-handed politics to resist an ideologically unwelcome scientific ‘paradigm shift.’ Under the rallying cry that physics should be more ‘German’ and ‘Aryan,’ Lenard and Stark, with backing from the Nazi leadership, entered on a plan to pressure and replace physics positions at German universities with people teaching their preferred theories. By the late 1930s, there were no longer any Jewish physics professors in Germany, since under the Nuremberg Laws of 1935 Jews were not allowed to work in universities. Stark in particular was also trying to get himself installed as the Führer of physics—not an entirely fanciful goal, given the ‘Gleichschaltung’ (literally, ‘coordination’) principle applied to other professional disciplines, such as medicine, under the Nazi regime, whereby a strict linear hierarchy was created along ideological lines.

They met with moderate success, but the support from the Nazi party was not as great as Lenard and Stark would have preferred. After a long period of harassment of the quantum physicist Werner Heisenberg, including getting him labeled a ‘White Jew’ in a 1937, issue of SS’s weekly, ‘Das Schwarze Korps’ (‘The Black Corps’), they began to fall from influence. Heisenberg was not only a pre-eminent physicist whom even the Nazis realized they were better off with than without, however ‘Jewish’ his theory might be in the eyes of Stark and Lenard, but Heisenberg had, as a young boy, attended school with SS chief Heinrich Himmler. In a historic moment, Heisenberg’s mother rang Himmler’s mother and asked her if she would please tell the SS to give ‘Werner’ a break. After beginning a full character evaluation, which Heisenberg both instigated and passed, Himmler forbade further attack on the physicist. Heisenberg would later employ his ‘Jewish physics,’ in the German project to develop nuclear fission for the purposes of nuclear weapons or nuclear energy use. Himmler promised Heisenberg that after Germany won the war, the SS would finance a physics institute to be directed by Heisenberg.

Lenard began to play less and less of a role, and soon Stark ran into even more difficulty, as other scientists and industrialists known for being exceptionally ‘Aryan’ came to the defense of Relativity and quantum mechanics. As historian Mark Walker puts it, ‘despite his best efforts, in the end his science was not accepted, supported, or used by the Third Reich. Stark spent a great deal of his time during the Third Reich fighting with bureaucrats within the National Socialist state. Most of the National Socialist leadership either never supported Lenard and Stark, or abandoned them in the course of the Third Reich.’

It is occasionally put forth that there is a great irony in the Nazis’ labeling modern physics as ‘Jewish science,’ since it was exactly modern physics—and the work of many European exiles—which was used to create the atomic bomb. Even if the German government had not embraced Lenard and Stark’s ideas, the German antisemitic agenda was enough by itself to destroy the Jewish scientific community in Germany. Furthermore, the German nuclear energy project was never pursued with anywhere near the vigor of the Manhattan Project in the United States, and for that reason would likely not have succeeded in any case. The movement did not actually go as far as preventing the nuclear energy scientists from using quantum mechanics and relativity, but the education of young scientists and engineers suffered, not only from the loss of the Jewish scientists but also from political appointments and other interference.

In 1938, Himmler wrote to Heisenberg that he could discuss modern physics but not mention Jewish scientists such as Bohr and Einstein in connection with it. The loss of so much science affected the war little in atomic energy because they lacked the necessary industrial resources to go beyond at most a few small power reactors. It greatly affected their aerodynamics research, but that was so far ahead before the Nazis took over that the Allies did not catch up until after the war. Presumably, it had more decisive effects on other areas of war related research to which physicists normally contribute, such as radar, communications and chemistry.

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