Science in Nazi Germany would be coopted and molded into a source of support for the regime and its ideologies. Racial ideology seeped into a field that was supposed to function on empirical data and scientific observation. The expansion of racial science, eugenics, was a natural step for the Nazi regime; back in the early 20th century eugenics and other forms of racial science were still considered true academic fields. But racial ideology also managed to take hold in other branches of science as well, in one way or another.
The German atomic program, and the field of physics required to understand nuclear fission, also felt the influence of Nazi ideology. Many of the scientists that would help the Allies with their own atomic programs were exiled German or European scientists, such as Hans Bethe, John von Neumann, and Albert Einstein, although he played no direct role in the Manhattan Project. The Nazi racial ideology also had it effects in other scientific projects through more indirect ways. The creation and manufacturing of the infamous V-1 and V-2 rockets relied on huge amounts of slave labor, which was obtained through the Nazi camp system. In effect, Nazi racial ideology permeated through the entire field of science during the Third Reich, either directly or indirectly, and it would lead to a cycle of destruction and domination during the war due to their mutual “support” of each other.
Racial Science & Ideology
Science is supposed to be an “objective” academic field. Using the scientific method and relied on empirical data theories would be developed that accurately depict the workings of nature. But during the Nazi regime science was all but objective and based on empirical data. Adopting pre-existing racial theories, the Nazi regime went ahead with their plan of implementing them wherever they could, and slowly radicalizing the German population so that they would be more open to these extremist views. In order to successfully do this, the Nazis turned to academia. Using a three prong attack, the Nazis took advantage of the disorder that plagued Germany during the 1930’s to bring fringe academics into their influence (Koonz, 47) so that they would add an air of legitimacy to their racist science. Afterwards, racial ideology would be slowly added into education, spreading the Nazi ideals as scientific truths, while its academic “studies” would be used to support their implementations of racial policies.
Education would prove to be imperative for the Nazi plan of a totalitarian ethno-state. Not only would traditional education disappear from the schools and universities, it would be replaced by “proper” education, such as racial thinking and theories. Targeting both young and old, racial education was everywhere in Nazi Germany. Biology books laden with racial theories masqueraded as natural selection and Darwin’s theory of evolution would become part of school supplies; one could find racial pamphlets intended for SS use in school libraries so that they would serve an “educational” purpose. Racial science and theories also dominated the universities and academia. University graduates who studied these sciences would go on to work at a plethora of fields that required their expertise, for example at the Hamburg Institute of Hygiene, one of the “scientific” institutions that would determine how to deal with those that were “unfit.” These institutions would later prove crucial to the Nazis in their implementation of racial policies such as the “Law for the Prevention of Genetically Diseased Offspring” (Stackelberg & Winkle, 3.14) and the infamous “Nuremberg Laws” (Stackelberg & Winkle, 3.26b,c,d) by adding the legitimacy of academia and scientific theory.
Not only did racist ideology seep into the content of academia and science, it also determined who and what types of “science” were worthwhile. Many of the scientists who would go on to work in exile on a variety of projects, such as the Manhattan Project, fled Europe due to fears for their lives or their loved ones. Perhaps the most famous of these exiled scientists was Albert Einstein, the German-born theoretical physicist. Not only was Einstein mocked by the Nazis for his “race”, being a Jew, but also for his science, which some Nazi academics considered “Jewish science”. Although there was no basis for this at all, the notion that some science could only be practice by certain individuals developed in the Third Reich, the concept of “Aryan/Nordic science.” Einstein’s Theory of Relativity for example could only be taught to the next generation of German scientists only if his name was completely removed from it, the Nazis argued, “… the foundations of relativity theory, had, surely, been laid by good Aryan physicists. the Jew Einstein had merely profiteered from their ideas” (Baggott, 26). This attitude towards many prominent scientists would cause them to flee Europe and search refuge in countries that would later defeat Germany in the war.
Science in the Third Reich was a varied academic field. The Nazi regime had multiple goals during its existence, one of these was the creation of a pure ethno-state dependent on territorial domination. Science would help the Nazis achieve these goals through different means. Racial science and military science were two scientific endeavors that would become intermixed and dependent of each other, mixing two strong aspects of the Nazi regime, racial ideology and militarism. Combined, both of these aspects would support each other in a cycle that would generate great technological innovation, but great human suffering as well. Through the use of military technology such as atomic weapons and rockets the Third Reich would be able to further its goals of conquest, which in turn would fuel its economy, bringing in much needed natural resources, and provide vast amounts of human capital from the conquered territories. In turn, the Nazis would implement their racial ideology and hierarchy in these new territories, performing heinous experiments on the “lesser races” while also converting parts of its populations into a massive force of slaves that would fuel its military industry, therefore allowing the German war machine to continue operating.
Before the outbreak of the Second World War German scientists Otto Hahn and his student Fritz Strassmann discovered that it was possible to split an atom into lighter elements, leading to the possibility of a chain reaction that would release incredible amounts of energy (Richelson, 19-20). This new discovery had great destructive potential, the creation of a super-weapon. Writing in early 1939, the exiled German scientists Albert Einstein wrote to U.S. president Franklin Roosevelt, “recent work… leads me to expect that the element uranium may be turned into a new and important source of energy in the immediate future… this new phenomenon would also lead to the construction of bombs, extremely powerful bombs of a new type.” Germany had a massive head start in the atomic race, having some of the best scientists and institutions needed for the creation of a nuclear weapon, for example the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physics, which would be used in the nuclear program. Later that year top German scientists were summoned to Berlin. The German army, interested in this new technology, created the “Uranium Club”, also known as the Uranverein. This would be the secret research group that would pursue the creation of a fission bomb for the German government under the supervision of the army.
Although the Nazis were never able to get close to a functioning uranium bomb, instead focusing on a nuclear reactor as a source of energy, the prospects of Hitler having his hands on an atomic weapon was a terrifying prospect. Supported by the government, although always treated with skepticism, the Uranverein went ahead with their task of giving Germany an atom bomb. Some of the scientists complied with the demands due to being loyal Nazis, while others worked on the program with skepticism (Baggott, 347). The Nazi quest for an atomic bomb was not without issues. Heisenberg, one of the top German scientists who would lead the charge in this pursuit stated that, “I believe hat the war will be over long before the first atom bomb is built” (Baggott, 20), but that wouldn’t stop him and his colleagues to help the Nazis from harnessing the tremendous power of the atom. Although the Germans were the first to discover the potential of nuclear fission, research into the uranium bomb was abandoned early on. The atomic bomb program would therefore become a “loose association of rival research teams that would sometimes squabble over supplies of uranium and heavy water” (Baggott, 38).
Although in the end Hitler never managed to get his hands on a nuclear weapon, the Allies were always afraid that the Germans would succeed before they did. The Manhattan Project was, “…built on fear. Fear that the enemy had the bomb, or would have it before we could develop it” (Atomic Heritage Foundation). Not taking any chances, the Allies recruited many of the exiled scientists that had been forced to flee due the Nazi racial laws (Baggott, 1-4), and actively took any chances to disrupt the German nuclear program (Gallagher, 9). The most famous and daring of these disruptions would be the sabotage of the Vemrock heavy water facility. The Norsk Hydro Hydrogen Electrolysis plant at Vemrok, Norway was the only working facility in the world that could be capable of producing the required quantities of heavy water, but before the Germans were able to secure enough heavy water the Allies successfully launched a daring sabotage operation into Nazi occupied Norway that destroyed the facility (Gallagher, 145-161). With the loss of the materials needed, the ongoing war, and believing that it would take years to successfully create a working nuclear reactor and uranium bomb, the Nazi scientists would eventually abandon the project. After V.E. day, captured German scientists under arrest at Farm Hall in the U.K. would be surprised when they received the news that the United States had successfully created and dropped two atomic bombs on Japan, in their secretly taped conversations, known as the “Farm Hall Transcripts”, the scientists discussed in disbelief the ability of the Americans to succeed were they had failed and why the Uranverein program had failed (Rose, 206-222).
One of the most infamous scientific endeavors of the Nazis was the development of rocket technology. Although rocket technology had been a dream of German scientists’ decades before the Second World War, during the last years of the Nazi regime the world would be introduced to the Nazi “wonder weapons”, the Vengeance 1 and Vengeance 2 rockets, also known as the V-1 and V-2 rockets.
The creation of rocket technology was a German scientific endeavor that combined the latest technological and scientific innovation of the time, with the cruel Nazi war machinery and camp system that relied on their extremist racial ideology. In order to accomplish their goal of developing the “wonder weapon”, the Nazis created a vast underground factory for rocket technology called Mittelwerk. With the assistance of the concentration camp system, the Nazis forced thousands of slave laborers to toil in inhuman conditions underground in order to produced their famed rockets. Inside this hellish factory slaves were worked until death. The conditions inside Mittelwerk were so horrendous that after Albert Speer and some of his staff took a tour of the underground factory, “they were so severely shaken that they were ordered to take vacations to restore their nerves” (Piszkiewicz, 136). Nazi racial ideology and Nazi science went hand in hand in the Third Reich, one providing the “scientific” and moral basis for the treatment of the “lesser races”, the other providing military technology that would create a vast amount of human capital.
Although Mittelwerk would not be abandoned until the end of the war, the slaves that worked within its tunnels interfered with its rocket production capabilities as an act of defiance. The rockets were complicated, and throughout the production process the slaves that worked on them could sabotage them in a variety of ways, “Prisoners loosened screws, removed or left out vital parts, urinated on wiring, or produced welds that looked solid but would snap like a cracker under the stress of being fired” (Piszkiewicz, 177). The German war machine was an insatiable beast that demanded tremendous amount of resources as well as a disposable work force, one that would be obtained from the ranks of the enemies.
The role of the Nazi rocket scientists and architects, such as Wernher Von Braun and Albert Speer, didn’t end after the defeat of Germany in the Second World War. Speer, a high ranking Nazi and architect and supporter of the rocket program, would be tried at Nuremberg for his involvement at Mittelwerk and the use of slave labor taken from the conquered territories and enemy prisoners of war (Piszkiewicz, 244). Von Braun, the lead rocket scientists, would have a very different treatment. Even though he was heavily involved in the program that lead to the death of many in Britain through the use of the “wonder weapon,” Von Braun, and many of his staff, would actually be recruited by the United States government to work for NASA. He would go on to work for the government for many years and help in many famous missions due to his expertise in rocket technology, such as Apollo 11 (Piszkiewicz, 245-246). The recruitment of prominent Reich members into the service of the United States government would form part of a secret program called “Operation Paperclip.” Despite the dubious moral choices and loyalties of some of these workers, due to their collaboration with the Nazi regime, many of them were able to live somewhat regular lives in the aftermath. Racial ideology and Nazi science went hand in hand within the Third Reich. The effects of the Nazis extremist views on race would have many consequences; the tainting of academia and science through the promotion of eugenics and racial theory and “Aryan science,” the ability to justify the conquering and enslaving of entire peoples based on their supposed race in order to support a cruel and inhuman regime and war machine, to the exile and recruitment of scientists before and after the war. Germany had the ability to generate great innovations in the field of science and technology, but it could, and also would, use them for the worst of causes.
By: Nicolas Medina, Department of History and Political Science, Loyola Marymount University, Class of 2019.
For Further Reading
Stackelberg, Roderick, and Sally A. Winkle. The Nazi Germany Sourcebook: An Anthology of Texts. New York: Routledge, 2002.
Koonz, Claudia. The Nazi Conscience. Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2003.
Rose, Paul Lawrence. Heisenberg and the Nazi Atomic Bomb Project: A Study in German Culture. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1998.
Baggott, Jim. The First War of Physics: The Secret History of the Atom Bomb 1939-1949. New York: Pegasus Books, 2010.
Gallagher, Thomas. Assault in Norway: Sabotaging the Nazi Nuclear Bomb. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1975.
Richelson, Jeffrey T. Spying on the Bomb: American Nuclear Intelligence from Nazi Germany to Iran and North Korea. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2006.
Piszkiewicz, Dennis. The Nazi Rocketeers: Dreams of Space and Crimes of War. London: Praeger, 1995.
German History in Documents and Images. “Nazi Germany (1933-1945).” Accessed May 9, 2019. http://ghdi.ghi-dc.org/section.cfm?section_id=13
German Propaganda Archive. “Nazi Propaganda: 1939-1945.” Accessed May 9, 2019. https://research.calvin.edu/german-propaganda-archive/ww2era.htm#ww2
Central Intelligence Agency. “Library.” Accessed May 9, 2019. https://www.cia.gov/library/center-for-the-study-of-intelligence/csi-publications/csi-studies/studies/vol-58-no-3/operation-paperclip-the-secret-intelligence-program-to-bring-nazi-scientists-to-america.html
Atomic Heritage Foundation. “Atomic Heritage Foundation.” Accessed May 9, 2019. https://www.atomicheritage.org/