Using Science For The Greater Evil

German scientists led the world at the turn of the 20th century, transforming lives with advances like Wilhelm Konrad Rontgen's X-rays and Fritz Haber's nitrogen fertilizer created from thin air. Einstein's theory of relativity and Max Planck's work on quantum theory altered the entire field of physics. But was it all for the global good? In a new book, "Hitler's Scientists: Science, War and the Devil's Pact" (564 pages. Viking), John Cornwell explores the fraught process by which the Nazi regime co-opted this scientific powerhouse in the 1930s--and how scientists dealt with the deep ethical dilemmas their work raised.

The extent to which researchers acquiesced in Nazi theories of racial purity and eugenics is disturbing: more than 300 qualified doctors and university professors participated in concentration-camp experiments. They included some of the country's most eminent, like Prof. Heinrich Berning of Hamburg University, who carefully noted the symptoms of Soviet prisoners of war as they starved to death. A very few, like Max von Laue, who won the Nobel Prize in 1914 for his work on the diffraction of X-rays by crystals, showed it was possible to work under the Nazis and retain some integrity. Von Laue practiced a quiet resistance, helping persecuted Jews by driving them over the border into Czechoslovakia. He also made a speech discussing the oppression of Einstein by using Galileo's persecution by the Roman Catholic Church as a thin cover.

But despite this promising, complex subject, Cornwell's superficial analysis fails to match his lively narrative. "Were these cases of Germans behaving according to type as Germans?" he asks blandly. "Or scientists in Germany behaving according to type as scientists?" In important, controversial debates--such as whether Werner Heisenberg deliberately blocked progress on a German atomic bomb--he doesn't move the ball. Still, the highly readable "Hitler's Scientists" raises big questions about the responsibility to act ethically, and Cornwell's eye for character brings the dark world of Nazi science alive.