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Hitler's Scientists: Science, War, and the Devil's Pact Hardcover – October 13, 2003

3.9 out of 5 stars 38 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Neither Hitler's rocket blitz of England, nor his use of unprecedented weapons technology, nor--most horrifically--his systematic program of genocide could have been achieved without the purposeful work of Nazi physicists, biologists, mathematicians, and technicians. In Hitler's Scientists, John Cornwell asks:

"Were these cases of Germans behaving according to type as Germans? Or scientists in Germany behaving according to type as scientists?"

These chilling questions encompass two more specific points. First, did the scientists who developed poison gas weapons and concentration camps do it for scientific, personal, or political purposes? Second, can scientists claim to remain objective when funded by, and working for, military or government entities? Cornwell, whose last book was Hitler's Pope, takes a hard line against those scientists who stayed and helped the Nazis after Jewish scientists were expelled and Hitler's plans became clear. With the weight of evidence, Cornwell lays flat the various personal reasons the scientists gave for their actions during the war and shows that even before World War I, German scientists had shown themselves willing to subvert laws and morality in pursuit of money and power. Cornwell also clearly outlines the popular pseudosciences--"racial hygiene," astrology, glacial cosmogony--that drove Hitler's madness. Were there any German scientists who were swept up unknowing or unwilling in the Nazi war machine? It's unclear, but Cornwell's analysis of whether Werner Heisenberg was a "hero, a villain or a fellow traveler" is crucial to that question. Heisenberg's role in the Nazi's inability to complete an atomic bomb is still a riddle, but Cornwell presents all available facts and allows readers to draw their own conclusions. In his last chapters, Cornwell draws parallels between Hitler's scientists and those working in today's world of political anxiety, terrorism, and attacks on basic science. He demolishes once and for all the outdated, disproven, and dangerous notion of scientists working in a vacuum, free of the "taint" of the outside world, and answerable only to their funders. --Therese Littleton

From Publishers Weekly

Cornwell's devastating bestseller Hitler's Pope is a tough act to follow. Here, the author again claims the moral high ground to critique the ethical and political choices of scientists in Hitler's Germany and to caution that science under the Western democracies in the Cold War and the war on terrorism also wielded and continues to wield the "Janus-faced power for good and evil." Today's best writers on the Hitler era have outgrown the kind of marginalizing polemic Cornwell employs here. His analysis of Nazi science, while built on sound research and often thoughtful critique, sinks to the sensationalism of "Faustian bargains," "scientific prostitutions" and Arendt's "banality of evil." Unsavory concepts are qualified as "pseudo-science," "half-baked," or simply "science" in quotation marks so that the undiscerning reader won't mistake them for the real thing. All the hot-button issues are on display here: racial hygiene; eugenics; the Nazi purge of academia and Germany's forfeiture of its greatest physicists to the Allies because they were Jewish; and human experimentation on concentration camp inmates. The author also details the science of war in Germany, from rockets and secret codes to radar and the atomic bomb, and how the Allies plundered the country's military technology and expertise after the fall of the Third Reich. Cornwell is a gifted writer with a fascinating story to tell, which he ably and engagingly accomplishes despite the hyperbole. But in his pursuit of comfort in right over wrong, the author forfeits objectivity and perhaps a greater understanding of the sources and the whys of the Nazi phenomenon. Despite this,, the author's articulate though subtly lurid repackaging of Nazi-era crimes and curiosities should guarantee much attention and brisk sales with general readers. Illus. not seen by PW.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 560 pages
  • Publisher: Viking Adult; 1st edition (October 13, 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0670030759
  • ISBN-13: 978-0670030750
  • Product Dimensions: 6.3 x 1.7 x 9.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.9 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (38 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #473,698 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Palle E T Jorgensen VINE VOICE on May 28, 2005
Format: Paperback
Don't get distracted by the title! When I noticed it while browsing in the book store in an airport, I was at first worried that this would another one of these overly opinionated books, more interested in imposing a view on me the poor reader than in good writing, and in letting me make up my own mind. I started reading in the plane, and was pleased to find that the author manages to paint a captivating portrait of a group of German scientists who were faced with a Faustian choice; Fritz Haber (poison gas), Werner von Braun (rockets), Werner Heisenberg (atomic bomb), Otto Hahn (fission), Max von Laue (nuclear physics) to mention only a few. For the most part, the book reads like a novel, and with his superb writing, the author Cornwell brings the characters to life. Many of the German scientists in the 1930ties were Jewish, or partly Jewish, and they were dismissed by Hitler in 1933, or the years up to the war. Many of them emigrated, and others ended up in concentration camps. Some ( Albert Einstein, John von Neumann, Hans Bethe, and more) went to the USA, and became the core of the team, the Manhattan Project who built the first atomic bomb, the one used by the US government against Japan in 1945.

The bigger picture in Cornwell's book is the role of ethics in science. By weaving together the individuals, their thoughts, their ambitions, and their flawed judgments, Cornwell is not excusing anyone, but rather, he is helping us understand that we all must take responsibility for our actions. We can perhaps understand how present day scientists, and in fact all of us are faced with Faustian choices of our own.

I liked this one of Cornwell's books a lot better than his perhaps better known one, `Hitler's Pope'. It had me hooked from the start, and I couldn't put it down.
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Format: Audio CD
When I first bought this, I can not say I had high expectations. Some of the reviewers comments on the book made it sound a bit preachy - and maybe a bit dry. Instead, I discovered a well written historical treatise on the moral and academic climate leading to Hitler's rise to power - and the scientific environment in the German regime during the war with some new insights into the debate between Heisenberg and Bohr regarding the possibility of a Nazi atomic bomb. It is a revealing account of the treatment of Jewish academics before the war. Despite the unquestionable contribution of Jewish scientists to Germany's technological success, those in power altered their own history trying bury any evidence of Jewish talent. Even Einstein's equation E=mc^2 was claimed to have been stolen from a pro-Nazi scientist. The burning of books by Freud, Einstein and others in 1933 provides important insights into how a state can manipulate the views of their people. When Freud asked to emigrate, he was forced to sign a document that he had not been mistreated - to which Freud added "I can most highly recommend the Gestapo to everyone." - a curious remark considering that his daughter Anna had just been interrogated for a full day by the Gestapo.
I am a scientist, so maybe I appreciated the scientific discussions in this book more than most. Still, I think this is a book worth the read. I may not be Jewish, but I think it is important to see how a state can twist history and redirect the views of both acadmics and its population. Cornwell does a good job providing insights into the rise of Nazi science in the decades before the war - and the attempts of German scientists to rationalize their implicit or explicit support for the Nazi regime.
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Format: Paperback
At its core, "Hitler's Scientists" is an interesting account of science and scientists under Germany's National Socialism. It covers the various sciences and technologies with amazing breadth and does much to illuminate the characters, controversies, and conflicts of this era.

Had Cornwell stuck to those themes I would have enjoyed the book more. I'm not saying the book wood have been better; only that I would have liked it more.

The book starts with a very long diatribe positioning Cornwell's views on the ethics of science and scientists. I nearly gave up on the book before I reached the end of this discussion, but he did finally complete it and move on to the material for which I had obtained the book.

Or so I thought. Once the author began discussing actual science, he had backed up to an era long before Nazi Germany. I agree with the author that this is important in setting the stage for science in the 30's and 40's in Germany, but it just felt like too much. There was a lengthy discussion, for example, about the use of chemical weapons in WWI. Interesting... important... but Cornwell covers this in much more detail than several topics of science under Hitler.

When Cornwell does finally reach the age of scientists under Hitler, he does a compelling job describing it. Fortunately, this section makes up the bulk of the work. For this, the book deserves 3 stars, in spite of its other shortcomings. Although the book covers a broad range of topics, the primary area of scientific focus here is on nuclear research.

I did find, however, that even in this core section, the writing style of the author was a bit of a distraction. Cornwell frequently repeats himself, revisiting the same concept, in some cases, many times. Phrases like, "...
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