In This Review

Hitler's Scientists: Science, War, and the Devil's Pact
Hitler's Scientists: Science, War, and the Devil's Pact
By John Cornwell
Viking, 2003, 600 pp.

Cornwell, author of the provocative Hitler's Pope, has turned his attention to the German scientific establishment in the Nazi period and to the moral issues raised by the eagerness of prominent scientists to serve the German cause in World War I and under Hitler. Given the prominence of German science in a multitude of fields, it is a fascinating subject. Unfortunately, this is not a satisfactory book. Cornwell mixes chapters about different branches of science -- or pseudoscience, like "racial hygiene" -- with chapters about the applications of science (poison gas, rockets) and portraits of individual scientists, such as Fritz Haber, the gas maniac and a converted Jew, and Werner Heisenberg, whose mystery (did he deliberately sideline the development of nuclear weapons?) is not dispelled here any more than in Michael Frayn's play Copenhagen. Digressions into postwar relations between Western and German scientists are similarly unoriginal. The result is too much and too superficial. Moral issues are not examined in depth, and Cornwell offers only a glimpse of the diversity of scientists' motives for cooperating with a murderous regime. Only a fraction were true Nazi believers; others were cynics and opportunists, and many behaved as people who simply put their country above all other considerations. Cornwell's look at Western science in the Cold War raises comparisons, but they are too cursory to be more than disturbing.