*** World War II NAZI science

World War II: NAZI Science

Table 1.--Nobel prize awards, by major World War II beligerant countries, 1901-2015
COUNTRY 1901-1945 1946-2015 TOTAL
France 31 36 67
Germany 46 56 102
Italy   7 13 20
Japan  0 24 24
Russia  4 23 27
U.K 32 86 118
U.S. 29 328 357
Note 1: These are totals for all categories, but science and medicine are the majority of awards.

"It might be though extrodinary that the most prestiious universuties in the world [speaking of American universities in the 2010s-early-20s] should have been infected so rapidly with a politics imbued with antisemitism. Yet exactly the same thing has happened before [speaking of German universities in the 1920s]."

-- Niall Fegusson, 2023

Germany developed perhaps the leading scientific establishment in Europe built on the back of its universities. Germany was universally acclaimed for its universities. So great that for example that it was Göttingen University that Robert Oppenheimer went to get his PhD. Germany proved to be a leader in the chemical industry as dyes were an important part of the developing textile industry in early years. Germany from an early point in the industrial revolution emerged as a leader in chemistry. German scientists became important in in many other areas, including physics. They also excelled in mathematics (for which there is no Nobel award), basically the language of science. Prussia was not particularly noted for its scientific excellence, but the various German states that united to form the German Empire (1871) created an industrial and scientific powerhouse. Imperial Germany in the early-20th century had the strongest scientific establishment in Europe. German scientists routinely received the largest number of Nobel prices in scientific fields. The Versailles Peace Treaty ending World War I (1919) put limits on the German armaments industry, but these could be evaded by working on related areas (like civil aviation) or in neighboring countries. This scientific dominance did not change until the NAZI's seized power (1933). The persecution of Jews and anti-NAZIS caused a substantial number of scientists to flee the country including leading scientists like Albert Einstein. It also affected scientific work. Einstonian physics (called' Jewish' physics), could no longer be taught. Rather nonsensical concepts called 'German' physics emerged. Many found refuge in Britain and the United States. The German scientific establish was so large and deep, however, the NAZI weapons industry had access to some of the best scientific minds in Europe. At the same time, NAZI persecution of the Jews and dissidents as well as the dilution of academic standards undermined the future of science in the country.

German Universities

Today universities are seen as having left-wing orientations. And many assume that this has always been the case. Quite the opposite was true. Until after World War II, universities tend to have a right-wing tilt. Note that throughout the 19th century there was no great criticism of slavery coming out if universities--that cane from the Christian church. Even in the first half 20th century, universities did not were not generate major support for the Civil Rights movement in America. German universities had right-wing tendencies well before the NAZIs. At the same time, German universities were seen as many if not most of the great universities in the world, especially in science and math. 【Frgusson】 So great was the eminance of German universities that it was Göttingen University, for ecample, that Manhattan Project leader Robert Oppenheimer chiose to get his PhD. This was very common in both Western Europe and the United States. Many eminent scientists completed their education with German advanced degrees. But German universities began to change after World War I (1914-18). The universities had a right-wing tilt throughout the history the 19th century, including the Imperial era (1871-1918). Germany loss in World War I was a huge shock to the German people. A shock that drove the country's universities even further to the right. The movement toward the NAZIs did not come from workers. They gravitated to the Socialists and Communists. It came from the middle-class and intellectuals and the universities were part of that. And along with hyper-nationalism and criticism of the Anglo-Saxons (America and Britain) came increasingly virulent antisemitism. 【Fergusson】 It is useful to note the historical connection between free speech and anti-antisemitism. Science and other forms of learning are fertilized by free speech and open exchange of ideas. Just as anti-semitism is generated in countries and institutions where free speech is limited. We saw that in German universities in the 1920s and American universities (2024) with countless flag waving university students championing of all groups Hamas. Hitler can not be credited with much in the way of positive achievements, but this proved to be one. By driving Jewish scientists to America and Britain we was helping to ensure Germany's defeat in World War II and the Soviet defeat in the Cold War. Hitler more than any other single person transformed American universities into the world leaders they became. The eminent German scientist, Max Plank, warned Hitler in 1933 that his antisemitic campaign was disarming Germany in physics. And that is exactly what transpired.

German Science

Germany in the early-20th century had the strongest scientific establishment in Europe, followed by the British, France and the United states. German scientists routinely received the largest number of Nobel prices in scientific fields (table 1). This did not begin to change until the NAZI's seized power in 1933. After the NAZI seizure, Jewish scientists as well as anti-NAZIs lost their positions. Many emigrated to Britain and America. After World War II, America became increasingly dominant in Nobel scientific awards. And Germany rather than being a world leader, produced a much smaller percentage of Nobel laureates. Most countries significantly increased the number of awards. Only France and Germany did not significantly increased the number of awards. Germany was winning something like a third of the Nobel awards among the major World War II belligerent countries. This impressive scientific The German scientific establish was so large and deep, however, the NAZI weapons industry had access to some of the best scientific minds in Europe. This scientific capability, evasions of the restrictions, and the massive rearmament program funding huge increases in research on disciplines like aeronautics, metallurgy, electronics, and other military related areas was why the NAZIs were able to so rapidly rebuild the country's military capability. The persecution of Jews and anti-NAZIS caused a substantial number of scientists to flee the country including leading scientists like Albert Einstein. It also affected scientific work. Einstonian physics (called' Jewish' physics, could no longer be taught. Rather nonsensical concepts called 'German' physics emerged. Many found refuge in Britain and the United States. After the war it was only about 10 percent--a massive decline. France during the German occupation also lost most of its Jewish scientists. Despite a decline in German scientific dominance, the NAZIs still had access to a huge scientific establishment for their weapons and armament program. It is important to note that the NAZI scientific achievements were accomplished by the scientists produced during the Imperil and Weimar era. NAZI educational policies were diluting the quality of German education. If this had continued it would have inevitably affected the scientific establishment.


German scientists were one of the sectors of German society that were successfully co-opted by the NAZIs. Researchers like Werner Van Braun were attracted by contracts offered by the military and NAZIs. Others were attracted by opportunities in advancing their careers, in many cases replacing fired Jewish colleagues. A British historian recalls as a youth during the Blitz wondering if there was not "something congenitally malevolent about German people". 【Cornwell】 Many when thinking of German science during World War II think of the horrendous experiments conducted on concentration camp inmates. Mengele's experiments on children are especially horrifying. German anthropologists obtained Human skeletons from the camps, in some cases selecting individuals still alive. There are many detailed accounts of these atrocities. 【Cornwell】 It is not, however, the depraved individuals that are perhaps most disturbing, but the large number of serious scientists who loyally served the regime. One historian uses the term "irresponsible purity" which he explains using a letter written by a German physicist--"The world out there is really ugly, but the work is beautiful." 【Cornwell】 University morality was also on display when we witbnessed three university presidents in testimony before the senate thatb geniocide was not by itself evil, but it had to be vuiewed in 'context' (2024). Only two of them were subsequaently grudgingly forced to resign.

NAZI Pseudo-Sciences

Beside the highly respected German scientific establishment, NAZI German is notable for a number of pseudo-sciences: eugenics and racial-hygiene and phrenology. These were no creations of the NAZIs, but they were disciplines well established in Germany before the NAZI take over. They achieved far greater prominence under the NAZIs because they could be used to support NAZI ideology. Germany was not the only country in which these disciplines were pursued. There was a considerable following for eugenics in both America and Britain.

World War II

NAZI Germany in the first years of the War seemed unstoppable. Hitler launches World War II with the invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939. The initial operations were dazzling successes for the Wehrmacht and Luftwaffe. Poland was smashed in a few weeks (1939). After Denmark, Norway was seized in a daring operation (1940), providing the Germany Kriegsmarine bases that greatly enhanced their operations. Then the stunning offensive in the West seized not only the low countries--but France. The French Army was the bulwark of the Allies war effort and was decimated by the Luftwaffe and Wehrmacht in weeks (1940). The Wehrmacht next launched a stunning attack on Yugoslavia and Greece (1941). Then Hitler launched the operation he had dreamed of for years, the invasion of the Soviet Union which at first appeared to be a huge success.

German Atomic Bomb Project

The Germans initially had some advantages in the race to build an atomic bomb and through 1941 led in the race. The invasion of Norway 1940 gave them possession to heavy water plants. They had access to uranium ore. The Germans also possessed a nearly completed cyclotron. Germany despite 10 years of NAZI rule still possessed capable scientists and engineers and what many believed was the world's most important chemical engineering industry. There were many factors that doomed the German atomic bomb program. The major factor was that building an atomic was an enormous undertaking requiring the massive allocation of resources. Germany never allocated the needed resources. There were several reasons for this. Perhaps the two greatest were the success in the early years of the War which led the Germans to believe that they were going to win the War without major economic sacrifices or expensive new weapon systems. Also Hitler was never convinced that the atomic bomb was a practical weapon. Some claim that the chief theoretical physicist (Heisenberg) deliberately pursued unproductive directions to prevent the NAZIs from building an atomic bomb. 【Powers】 This is intensely debated by historians. 【Pais】 Heisenberg visited noted Danish physicist Niels Bohr in occupied Denmark (September 1941). This is perhaps the most disputed scientific meeting in history. Bohr and Heisenberg have very different accounts of their meeting. Heisenberg after the War maintained his purpose was to broker a deal between scientists on both sides not to pursue an atomic bomb. Bohr strongly disputes this. Given that the NAZIs were not actively pursuing a bomb, many contend that Heisenberg's purpose was espionage. 【Cornwell】 Bohr escaped from Denmark to Sweden (August 1943), and subsequently to London, and on to Los Alamos. An important NAZI scientist (Lenard) argued that nuclear/Einsteinian theory was degenerate "Jewish science" which helped to deny nuclear science the huge allocation of resources needed to build a bomb. Jews were an especially important compoent of the German physics community. The NAZIs thus seriously weakened Germany's ability to build a bomb. In this regard it should be remembered that the American Manhandle Project was an international effort, including not only American and British scientists, but scientists from countries overrun by the NAZIs. 【Rhodes】 There were as was common in NAZI Germany, serious internal bureaucratic struggles. An important scientific error also impeded progress. As the War began to turn against Germany, resources became more difficult to obtain and the bomb project required a massive industrial effort. In addition, the allied bombing campaign further complicating any important industrial project. The Allies after the War arrested nine leading German nuclear scientists. Recordings made surreptitiously at Farm Hall in England reveal that the German had in fact made little progress in building an atomic bomb. They had achieved so little success that thy did not belief that that the Americans had exploded atomic bomb when they heard the first reports. (Typical NAZI attitude.) The Germans never were able to build a self-sustaining nuclear reactor. They failed to appreciate the difference between an atomic explosion and a reactor. Nor were they able to calculate the critical mass needed for a bomb. They even believed that plutonium was element 91. 【Klotz】

Limitations of NAZI Science

One author argues that NAZI science could not match the competency of science in democratic counties. The "totalitarian climate" of NAZI Germany led to complacency, politics in science and hero worship which impaired the German research effort. 【Goudsmit】 We are not sure about this, but it does appear that isolation and secrecy does affect science in a totalitarian country. In the German case Government research grants in areas related to arms production did effectively utilize the country's scientific community.

NAZI Health Science

Interestingly German scientists during the Third Reich did some innovative work in public health. German scientists established the relationship between smoking and cancer and took steps to ban smoking in public buildings (1943). NAZI officials decreed that German workers harmed by asbestos deserved compensation. These were measures that government officials in America and Britain did not take until decades after the War. 【Proctor】 Scientists working for American and British companies dutifully denied these claims for years.

NAZI Education

The NAZIs gave particularly attention to education and control of the German educational system. NAZI education did not, however place the same attention to academic standards that had been the case under previous regimes. The NAZIs were relying on a scientific base built under the former regimes, especially Imeerial Germany. The NAZIs in fact had a disdain for intellectuals and their efforts to man the county's classrooms and research institutes with committed NAZIs regardless of competency was weakening what once was Europe's premier educational system. The campaign against the Jews also denied German science many important minds.

Moral Equivalency

The question needs to be asked whether the German scientific establishment support of the War was the moral equivalent of the work done by Allied scientists. This is a difficult question to answer. Many German scientists served their country out of a patriotic duty as did Allied scientists. We see, however, some differences. First the NAZI war-effort was one of aggression and genocide. German scientists had different levels of understanding of this, but certainly many appreciated what their country was attempting to do. Secondly, war crimes were committed in association with many scientific programs. The V-2 were, for example, built by slave labor in horrendous working conditions. One historian writes that the German scientific community including the foremost figures acquiesced virtually without exception in the NAZI war effort and were essentially "morally anesthetized" to the evil of the NAZI regime. 【Cornwell】


Corwell, John. Hitler's Scientists: Science, War, and the Devil's Pact (Viking, 2004), 535p.

Fergusson, Niall. "Nial Fergusson: The treason of the Intellectuals: Anyone who has a naive belief in the power of higher education to instill morality has not studied of German universities in the Third Reich," The Free Press (December 10, 2023). Dr. Fergusson is entirely correct in his essay. Only the subtitle is wrong. The decline of German universities began before the NAZIs seized power. Notice that many the people tossing books onto vast piles in the NAZI book burning campaigns were university students and this was as soon as the NAZIs seized power not after they had a chance to mold German thought.

Goudsmit, Samuel. ALSOS (1947).

Klotz, Irving M. "Captives of Their Fantasies: The German Atomic Bomb Scientists" J. Chem. Educ. 1997 74 204.

Overy, Richard. Why the Allies Won.

Pais, Abraham. Niels Bohr's Times, in Physics, Philosophy and Polity (Oxford University Press, 1991).

Powers, Thomas. Heisenberg's War (Knopf, 1993).

Proctor, Robert.

Rhodes, Richard. The Making Of The Atomic Bomb.

Walker, Mark. "The German Atomic Bomb" from "Heisenberg, Goudsmit and the German Atomic Bomb," Physics Today (January 1990).


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Created: May 16, 2003
Last updated: 1:38 PM 3/3/2024