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Hitler’s Scientific Army: Megalomania through Engineering

Book Essay on: John Cornwell, Hitler's Scientists: Science, War and the Devil’s Pact
( Ney York: VIking Press, 2003), 560pages.

by Brian Hoffman
March 23, 2010

for Prof. Marcuse's lecture course
The Holocaust in European History
UC Santa Barbara, Winter 2010

About the Author
& Abstract
Book available at http://www.amazon.com/Hitlers-Scientists-Science-Devils-Pact/dp/0670030759

About Brian Hoffman

I am a senior mechanical engineering major. I traveled in Europe before high school and enjoyed it. I chose to write about Cornwell’s book because I am interested in the technology and motivations behind the chaos, and its effects on modern industry and warfare.

Abstract (back to top)

As depicted in Cornwell’s Hitler’s Scientists and the Devil’s Pact, controversy surrounds the motivations and allegiances of 20th century scientists; however, the effects of Nazi scientists on the war and their contributions modern science are profound. Cornwell argues that the Nazi program was not successful due to internal competition and wasteful management of resources. The author uses specific examples to depict the megalomaniac, yet self destructive nature of Hitler’s application of science and technology. Even with some of the worlds’ most renowned scientists at his disposal, Hitler was unable to attain his goal for a variety of reasons and inefficiencies. In addition to assessing these reasons, Cornwell provides an in-depth look at the motivations and ethics facing Hitler’s scientists. Cornwell also presents the argument of scientists who opposed The Third Reich and ultimately created the most destructive weapon ever. Hitler’s Scientific Army: Megalomania through Engineering analyzes the influence of Nazi scientists on science and technology during and long after WWII.

Essay (back to top)


Cornwell’s narrative of WWII, in terms of the technology and science behind the chaos, is an enthralling read that touches on the motivations, actions, and repercussions of many key figures in Germany, as well as its oppositional countries. The majority of Cornwell’s analysis centers on the German scientists whose innovation fueled a war which resulted the death of an estimated 60 million people and the birth of the world’s first atomic weapons. The crux of his argument is that the Nazi program was not successful due to internal competition and wasteful management of resources. As depicted in Cornwell’s Hitler’s Scientists and the Devil’s Pact, controversy surrounds the self-promoting motivations of 20th century scientists as their work was applied for good and evil.

In the years following WWI, Germany climbed to the top of many academic and scientific communities. The list of renowned scientists whose major work was completed in the first half of the twentieth century has a noticeable Germanic flair. These scientists include some of the greats: Shrodinger, Born, Pauli, Haber, Plank, Einstein, and Heisenberg. The work that these scientists produced was high quality, original research that unlocked new doors to our world’s secrets. The growth of nuclear understanding can be traced back to a report on the fission of a uranium atom by Otto Hahn, Fritz Strassmann, and Lise Meitner. Leo Szilard and Enrico Fermi went on to co-patent the idea of an exothermic nuclear chain reaction that could generate usable power using a heat exchanger. During his employment by the Nazi government, Heisenberg used this principle to lead the atomic research team in order to create an unprecedented new weapon. This resulted in a non-functional research reactor on the German side, and a risky arms race between the USA and Russia.

Max Planck was a prestigious scientist whose work included the creation of quantum theory, which is used extensively in the understanding of the very large, and the very small parts of our universe. The actions of Planck during the Nazi rise to power are an excellent example of the attitudes of most German scientists of the time. As head of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute research center, Plank had to portray a particular image to his fellow researchers and Nazi officials. The first time he raised his hand to give the familiar Nazi salute, he stuttered and dropped his hand before completing the salute (Cornwell); likely due the cognitive dissonance he felt by the action. After a delay, he gave the full salute and showed no problem with subsequent displays of respect. Many German scientists depicted in the book reacted similarly. Many scientists felt as if they needed to quiet their beliefs, as it was not their duty to determine the ethical considerations behind their work. This is the main argument of those who claim that true science is void of political repercussions. By this model, knowledge is procured by scientists and it is up to politicians to employ it. Cornwell’s analysis centers on a contradiction to this idea. He supplies evidence to show that science without morals will lead to loss and destruction. He summarizes his argument by quoting Otto Hahn’s opinion on the topic: ‘We are humans first, and scientists second’ (Cornwell).

Max Planck’s theories polarized the physics community and gave rise to a confrontational response. This division of opinion can be seen throughout the war in terms of scientists’ attitudes towards employment under a ruthless dictator. Some responded to the rise in the Nazi movement by immigrating to a politically more docile country, while others took front line positions on the German expansion project. These scientists researched all areas related to Germanic technological superiority including rocket technology and nuclear energy.

One glaring example of a scientist faced with competing motivations is Werner Heisenberg. Cornwell shows both sides of an argument that mystified Heisenberg. Appointed by Hitler as director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute until 1938 (Cornwell), Heisenberg worked through the war attempting to achieve nuclear fission. He did not succeed in this duty, but the reason why is debatable. After the war, Heisenberg never admitted that the goal of his department was to be the first country to own a bomb powerful enough to annihilate an entire city (Cornwell). Whether this is true, or he in fact could not build the weapon with his supplied resources, or his ignorance or inability we will likely never know. Critics have said that he was a great theoretical physicist but his experimental methods were poor and he simply did not fully understand the Bomb. Heisenberg has claimed that he had no ambition to build a bomb and that was not the goal of the Nazi government (Cornwell). Furthermore, the Allies never found any bomb materials. The only thing they found was a low-grade reactor that was non-operational for production use (Cornwell). This gives credence to Heisenberg’s story. However, Heisenberg had been shown to be highly nationalist, so if Hitler wanted the Bomb, it is likely that Heisenberg did as well. He has also claimed that he took the moral high ground by telling Hitler that it would be too expensive and would not be ready in time to make a difference in the war (Cornwell). On the other hand, by telling Hitler that the required volume of radioactive material was much smaller than actually needed Heisenberg bolstered his job security, which was something to be desired in a time of great turn over and restructuring. The tone of Cornwell’s evidence suggests that Heisenberg was indeed attempting to build the Bomb, which would make sense as Hitler was known for his audacious methods and constant pursuit of the ultimate weapon of submission.

Hitler’s aspirations for unparalleled technological warfare follow the model of pioneers who have a predisposition to fail by attempting to meet irrational goals through rational means. Two of the most terror-inducing weapons that were on the minds of citizens in Europe, Russia, and USA were long-range missiles and atomic bombs. These threats were especially disturbing, considering that the world’s most advanced country, in terms of nuclear and rocket technology, was now being ruthlessly reoriented by egotistical, megalomanic tyrant. Cornwell shows this through his analysis of atomic science and rocketry implementation.

The actual atomic threat created by the Nazi regime was in fact much less perilous than what we would expect of a country that had the majority of great physicists within its borders. The technology that was developed under Hitler’s supervision during the WWII years has been adapted and reworked to be suitable to people all over the world. Evidence of this can be seen in how quickly, and aggressively, foreign superpowers, namely the USA and Russia, came in and tried to secure part of the defeated country’s technology industry. This included manufacturing machines, automobiles, military equipment, planes, as well as human labor (Cornwell). Many German scientists, technicians, and engineers were pulled from bed in the middle of the night to be put to work in their respective fields for the benefit of the victorious nation. Any companies that were providing aid for the Nazi war machine had to immediately change their production, as tanks, guns, and other weapons machinery were no longer needed (Cornwell).

The V rocket program was a highly advanced, state-of-the-art technology, yet it did little to sway the power balance during the war. It consumed vast amounts of German steel production and yielded little results. The primary benefit of the program, and the main goal of implementation, was to strike fear into the hearts of British citizens. Of the estimated 10,000 V1 and V2 rockets launched toward Britain, only 25% hit their rough targets and only one had a monumental impact in which over 120 people died while in church service (Cornwell). In total, 6000 Brits lost their lives to the falling missiles, which correlate to less than one kill per launch. This was a very expensive program that never fully achieved its purpose, even with the slave labor supplied from concentration camps to the underground rocket assembly plant. Had Hitler reallocated his energies, and Germany’s resources, from this high visibility program to a more effective program, the outcome might have been different.

One industry that had a severe lack of appropriate attention, mostly due to Hitler’s shortsightedness, was the aircraft program. When USA and Russia came in to collect Nazi equipment at the end of the war, they confiscated over 1,000 airplane models (Cornwell). Another case of too-little, too-late, was Hitler’s choice not to produce a jet-powered fighter when the technology was available because Hitler thought dog fights and bombing missions would be more successful with conventional propeller airplanes (Cornwell). Near the end of the war, the Nazi regime did produce the world’s first jet fighter, with spectacular performance, but it was far too late to make a difference. Throughout the duration of the war, Nazi Germany failed to produce a single heavy-load, quad-engine long-range bomber. Britain employed many of this type of craft in its barrage on German cities; the results were much more devastating than those of the German V rocket program.

Before WWII Hitler had the patronage of the world’s most advanced scientists in the fields of physics, biology, and electricity. He also had the support of his populace for the restructuring and improvements that he had promised. Had he been able to fully harness all of this potential, Hitler surely could have had greater success. His narcissism served to divide the scientific community along the lines of personal allegiances.

Many of these physicists were Jewish. When Hitler enacted his “cleansing” of the state-run offices, he cast out roughly 1000 teachers including about 300 professors. In order to ensure that he had a pure Aryan workforce, Hitler chose to expel 25% of his academic and research labor force; this figure contains 50% of his theoretical physicists (Cornwell). Many less qualified personnel volunteered to fill the empty academic seats and no one stood up to the regime in defense of those dismissed. This shows how self-serving the scientific community can be in dire times. To exacerbate the morale-sinking effects of dismissing a significant proportion of the scientific community, there was a sect of extremists who viewed the validity of scientific research as subject to researcher’s background. These extremists, such as Philip Lenard and Johannes Stark, preached that science developed by a Jew was inferior to that completed by an Aryan (Cornwell).

Perhaps most notable figure among the ‘Jew Science’ discipline was Albert Einstein. Einstein left Germany as a young man, well before Hitler’s rise to power. The young scientist renounced his German citizenship and became independent for several years until he accepted Swiss citizenship due to its neutral status (Cornwell). If he had stayed to perform research in ‘The Fatherland,’ he would have found himself abruptly dismissed from his position due to his Jewish blood. Proven to the world through his theories on relativity, the photoelectric effect, and wave-particle duality, Einstein held a unique role in the events of WWII. Devoting himself to peace, Einstein tried not to interact with warfare or its politics. Through his fame, Einstein held respect from all levels of society. For this reason, it was he who Leo Szilard, the nuclear chain reaction patent holder, sought to add credibility to an Nazi atomic bomb warning letter addressed to President Roosevelt (Cornwell). The strategy was not ill conceived, as Roosevelt swiftly created the Manhattan Project in which the USA invested heavily in immediate atomic research to beat Hitler to the Bomb. The same scientists that Hitler had recently dismissed became employed in the USA, and were working directly against him. The project yielded the world’s first nuclear weapons. In time, Einstein confessed that he regretted sending the letter as the Nazi chances of success were slim, and the unintended consequence was a large-scale arms race between USA and Russia following WWII.

The after effects of the atomic struggle during WWII can be seen today through the cohesion of many scientific research groups that collectively push science beyond its current limits. As our world becomes more technologically advanced, more people begin to contribute smaller pieces of the growing puzzle that is now referred to as Big Science. Now that much scientific investigation is intensely narrow in scope, it is even more important that researchers have a firm background in positive ethics and morals. It will become increasingly easy for scientists to fall into obscurity as their personal contributions are masked by the project as a whole. It is important that they have a predisposition to moral endeavors otherwise the consequences, as we have seen, can be severe.


Annotated Bibliography and Links (back to top)(links last checked 3/23/10)

Book Reviews

  • Antulio J. Echevarria II, World War II Oct2005, Vol. 20 Issue 6, p76-77, 22

    Details the interactions of German scientist with the Nazi party and looks at the relationship and responsibility of scientist with politics and ethics.

  • Stanley Hoffmann, Foreign Affairs Nov/Dec2003, Vol. 82 Issue 6, p163-164, 2p

    Not satisfied with the depth of Cornell’s analysis of the multifaceted subject of the application of science.

  • Gregg Sapp, Library Journal 10/1/2003, Vol. 128 Issue 16, p111-111, 1/4p

    Looks into Cornwell’s analysis of scientific racism and says there are no substantial “bombshell revelations”.

Books and Articles

  • Thomas Powers, Heisenberg’s war: The secret history of the German bomb (Da Capo Press, 2000). 607pages.

    There are a lot of sources that provide the history of the holocaust and the technological advances incubated under Hitler’s Regime. Medawar and Pyke look into the expulsion of Jewish scientists from Germany’s work force and the effect of these scientists on the technological maturation of competing countries. The authors expose surprising statistics as well as a great picture of the chain reaction caused by removing the German masterminds from their Fatherland.

  • Medawar and Pyke, Hitler’s gift: the true story of the scientists expelled by the Nazi regime (New York, Arcade Publishing Inc, 2000). 268 pages.

    There are a lot of sources that provide the history of the holocaust and the technological advances incubated under Hitler’s Regime. Medawar and Pyke look into the expulsion of Jewish scientists from Germany’s work force and the effect of these scientists on the technological maturation of competing countries. The authors expose surprising statistics as well as a great picture of the chain reaction caused by removing the German masterminds from their Fatherland.

Relevant Websites

  • anonymous , V-2 Rocket

    This website looks at the V2 rocket system, its components, the actions of its creators and repercussions of its use. This website also offers easy to follow information about how the V 2 rocket technology has been used all over the world.

  • anonymous , Manhatten Project

    This website discusses the motivations behind the creation of the most destructive weapon known. It provides a comprehensive review of the ethical issues surrounding the decision to create an atomic bomb. This website illustrates how Germany’s technology inspired the quest for scientific superiority in other countries.

  • anonymous , Werner Heisenberg (1901-1976) Kirjasto Science Fiction

    This online article provides a detailed account of Werner Heisenberg’s life. This article is particularly useful because it provides information regarding his interaction with other scientists and the moral complexities he faced while employed by the Nazi Government.

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Any student tempted to use this paper for an assignment in another course or school should be aware of the serious consequences for plagiarism. Here is what I write in my syllabi:

Plagiarism—presenting someone else's work as your own, or deliberately failing to credit or attribute the work of others on whom you draw (including materials found on the web)—is a serious academic offense, punishable by dismissal from the university. It hurts the one who commits it most of all, by cheating them out of an education. I report offenses to the Office of the Dean of Students for disciplinary action.

prepared for web by Brian Hoffman on 3/23/10; last updated: 3/23/10
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