Hitler’s Scientists by John Cornwell

Some questions need to be asked, but depending on who asks these questions and in what manner he asks these questions, the responses may be worlds apart. In Hitler’s Scientists : Science, War, and the Devil’s Pact, John Cornwell asks probing questions that the West specifically and the world community in general must consider. Fortunately, Cornwell asks these divisive questions in a manner that encourages introspection and self-examination.

Cornwell frames his questions against the backdrop of the scientific community over the last one hundred years. He focuses the book on the twenty years of German history that begins with the end of World War I and finishes with the fall of Germany in 1945. He covers the shift from a small academic science (mostly for pure research) to Big Science (funded by and inextricably bonded with governments and corporations). Beginning in the late 1800’s, German corporations led chemistry for the sake of advancing their commercial interests. By the time Hitler rose to power, German science (the most advanced science in the world) and research were being led by the government. The Allied governments were forced to follow suit and absorbed researchers into military installations in an effort to combat the Nazi war machine. After the Allied victory in 1945, science did not revert to the patterns of the past. Governments found the need to keep these wartime scientists and to develop continually new methods of destruction.

Specifically, Cornwell focuses on the scientists who worked for the Nazis and the political, economic, and social circumstances in which they operated. He delves into the pressures that shaped their choices. In the final chapters, Cornwell reveals that there were three types of scientists: Heroes, Villains, and Fellow Travelers. The Heroes resisted the Nazi rise to power and either fled Germany (i.e. Max von Laue) or were executed. The Villains worked very hard as party members and they swallowed completely the teachings of the Nazis (i.e. Philip Lenard). The book focuses on the lives and decisions of the Fellow Travelers. These Fellow Travelers argued that the research of a scientist was amoral and apolitical. They argued successfully before the world that they were not responsible for their deplorable actions. They “had” to use prisoners as guinea pigs. (As an aside, the book does not go into graphic details. It is more concerned with the larger picture and does not emphasize the gratuitous violence that occurred at the hand of the Nazis.) They claimed that they just did the research; they said that they had no control over how the research was used by the leaders.

Here are some of the questions Cornwell posed in the final chapters. Were the Fellow Travelers, those who worked for the Nazis, morally guilty for supporting the Nazi government? If so, are scientists who work for Western governments morally responsible when their science is used to kill? Who is morally responsible? The government? The scientist? The corporations who profit from the science of war?

Were the Allied forces right to use the Bomb? The others Allies would have used it on Germany had it been ready in time and there support of the research makes them culpable. Was it right to kill 300,000 Japanese civilians to save American soldiers? Was the bomb necessary? Were two bombs necessary? Should they have been built? Cornwell does not outright condemn the use of the bomb, but he does pose troubling questions about its continued development, its use, and the current nuclear programs. Ironically, it was German secrecy and bravado that spurred the allied forces forward in their research.

What about the scientific plunder of Germany? The Allied plundered the scientific achievements of Germany and forced the German Fellow Travelers to work on the bomb program (among other things) through the 1950’s and 1960’s. Where the Allies right in using technology built on and information learned through murder and torture? Was the Nazi researched forever tainted by its development? If so, what about the derivative science we have developed today?

These are some of the questions posed by Cornwell. Whether or not you agree with his conclusions, he depicts a point of view that demands consideration. In his evaluation of the moral culpability of scientists, Cornwell makes a fantastic statement: “Resolving moral dilemmas in science, however, involves not merely isolated choices but a committed pattern of behavior, long-term resistance to compromise leading to feelings of self-respect: integrity (Page 462).” He unintentionally takes this subject back full-circle to the Bible. In Psalm 15:2, David writes that the man who will dwell in the tent of God “walks with integrity, works righteousness, and speaks truth in his heart.” Man is moral and therefore every action of man has a moral character to it.


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