Copyright © 1996, H-Net, all rights reserved. This work may be copied for non-profit educational use if proper credit is given to the author and the list.

H-Net Review.jpg (37078 bytes)

Ute Deichmann. Biologists under Hitler. Translated by Thomas Dunlap. Cambridge, Mass. and London: Harvard University Press, 1996. Pp. 468. Cloth $39.95. ISBN 0-674-07404-1. Published by H-German 1 November 1996

Over the past decade, research on National Socialist policies has expanded to reexamine and uncover Nazi attitudes towards science and technology. Recent high-quality English-language contributions include Kristie Macrakis's study of the Kaiser Wilhelm Gesellschaft (Kaiser Wilhelm Society/KWG) and Michael Neufeld's The Rocket and the Reich. Ute Deichmann's Biologists under Hitler, first published in German in 1992, successfully joins these works. The author reexamines in seven chapters the generally-accepted claim that the biological sciences suffered serious setbacks under Nazi rule.

The claim that German biology did not advance from 1933 to 1945 falls in line with generally hostile Nazi attitudes towards science, and conveniently echoes the case of physics, in which certain scientists like Johannes Stark and Philipp Lenard successfully made the case for an Aryanized field of study that excluded Jewish scientific contributions. As Deichmann notes, the claim was apparently confirmed in 1945 by American physicist Samuel Goudsmit, who commented that SS mismanagement hindered effective biological research (1). In investigating this claim, Deichmann has two goals. First, she aims to find the actual dimensions of Nazi political and ideological influence in biological research. Should the accepted claim be confirmed, then it obviously provides an explanation for the decline of German biology after 1945, which is the author's second aim. In her systematic investigation, Deichmann makes extensive use of quantitative methodology, focusing on some 445 biologists -- a small number nonetheless justified by the fact that these particular scientists could have made substantial contributions to their field.

Deichmann's first concern is with scientists who left Germany between 1933 and 1939. On the general level of Gleichschaltung, she echoes Kristie Macrakis's argument -- namely that the KWG was not immediately gleichgeschaltet by the state, but underwent a "voluntary" process (13), which varied from institute to institute depending on the willingness of involved scientists to expel colleagues. Although the official Gleichschaltung did not occur until 1937 (when KWG Director Max Planck retired), many biologists had been forced to emigrate by that time. As Deichmann points out, expulsions were often veiled in statements that the dismissed scientists had accepted posts elsewhere (14). Yet not all dismissal cases were clear- cut. Some biologists were expelled on political grounds; others, because they would only go so far in advocating racial policies. Of the 337 biologists active in 1933 (the remainder of the sample entered the profession later), Germany lost forty-five to expulsion (13 percent), and thirty thanks to the Nuremberg Laws. Deichmann provides additional perspective by investigating the expelled biologists' research against the contemporary state of the field, and shows that the qualitative loss was great despite the low number of dismissals. Obviously, the issue of working environments are important here, and although Deichmann handles it in the case of two embryologists who came to the United States (30-38), there is no conclusive evidence that would point one way or another to this issue's role in successful research.

Among the biologists who remained in Germany, 53.2 percent of the sample joined the Nazi Party, a number lower than in the medical field, but comparable to that of psychology. The reasons for joining appear similar to those in other learned professions -- professional advancement. Yet if membership in a Nazi professional organization was the norm, and often required to remain in a given profession, party membership itself was not, and as Deichmann makes clear, it seems to have mattered less after 1937 (67-68). Still, it is interesting to see which NSDAP members among the biologists participated in anti-Jewish rhetoric. Attempts by Ernst Lehmann to introduce a field of "Aryan" biology, which paralleled similar efforts in physics, actually failed, possibly because new biological discoveries that would have upset related fields had yet to occur, or as Deichmann puts it: "Would there have been an 'anti-molecular German biology' on a scale comparable to 'Aryan physics' if Jewish scientists had played a substantial role in the development of molecular biology in the twenties?" (83). Interesting, however, is that several Nazi biologists, including Lehmann, were reinstituted in the 1950s despite strong protests from their colleagues. A most glaring case is that of 1973 Nobel Prize-winner Konrad Lorenz, whose ethological research on animal behavior interested the Nazis for its potential application to humans. Although Lorenz's work established a bona fide biological field, his comments during the period 1941-1945 (analyzed in detail, 171-200) suggest that he should have been excluded from further activity. Still, he eventually won back the approval of his colleagues. The German scientific authorities' inability to clean up their own ranks may have contributed to the decline of German biology after the war.

Regarding research during the war, Deichmann points out that scientists often camouflaged basic research under the guise of work "essential to the war effort." This ensured that they would obtain an SS classification for funds and materiel appropriation. Yet many such projects had little, if anything, to do with the war effort. The habitual contradictions between National Socialist ideology and the war machine are also visible in the projects that received support. The Deutsche Forschungs-Gemeinschaft (German Research Association/DFG), for example, refused to fund studies of prehistory until it found out that the Führer himself had charged the leader of the Prehistoric League with the task of working on these issues (150). By surveying the results of governmental support, Deichmann disproves the claim that biological research slowed under the Nazis. Although Kristie Macrakis came to somewhat similar conclusions, Deichmann disagrees with her on the causes; she suggests that scientists were not passive resisters but rather collaborators with the state (324-326). While Deichmann's quantitative approach and expertise in biology makes her claim quite convincing, one must remain aware that her sample is limited to biologists and that Macrakis's claim centered around the entire KWG. Nevertheless, by recasting the issue, Deichmann affirms the need to look beyond the accepted explanation for the causes of German biology's decline after World War II. The fact that former Nazi sympathizers regained their research chairs soon after the war, combined with international distrust of Germany, may be part of the answer.

Guillaume de Syon, Albright College

Document compiled by Dr S D Stein
Last update 28/01/99
©S D Stein

Reviews Index Page
Holocaust Index Page
Genocide Index Page
ESS Home Page