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Johannes Stark (1874-1947): Leader of the German Physics Movement 

Ethnic Conflict in German Physics

Dan Michaels

March 31, 2010

After the Napoleonic Wars the Jews began for the first time to enjoy the benefits of full citizenship in the countries of Europe. By virtue of their innate talents, pent-up energy, drive, and ambition, they quickly climbed the social ladder, becoming especially prominent in the first instance in commercial pursuits and later in financial, professional, cultural, and scientific circles. Generally, the leaders in the countries in which they lived, recognizing the talents of the new comers, quickly embraced and employed them as tax collectors, bankers, and investment advisors in order to protect and increase their own wealth and position.

 

With the Jewish rise to prominence, even dominance in some areas, Jewish thought and teachings have transformed Western society — even the sciences. The ascendancy of the Jews in society in general may be seen in microcosm in the competition for the laurels awarded to the most distinguished researchers in the physical sciences by the Nobel Prize selection board.

 

Although an imperfect measure, the number of Nobel Prize winners is a handy gauge of outstanding achievement in the sciences. Some consider the measure unreliable because they question the impartiality of the selection board. Others would prefer emphasizing the ethnicity of the laureate rather than the country he happens to reside in, believing that ethnicity is a more significant criterion than citizen­ship in a particular nation state. Without a homeland of their own, ethnic Jewish scientists have always carried out their research in diverse countries and have won their Nobel Prizes as citizens of those “host” countries. Some Jewish groups, motivated by pride, have taken to identifying and publicizing the Nobel Prize laureates who are Jewish. Ethnic identification is made according to strict Halachic definition based on the interpretation of Hebrew Scriptures, stipulating that to be a Jew requires being born to a Jewish mother (adherence to the Jewish Volk is inherited down the female line in the same manner as mitochondrial DNA) or undergoing formal conversion to Judaism. In other words, a Jew by that definition can be either one who adheres to the religion of Judaism or a non-believer whose mother happened to be Jewish even if she was not practicing her religion.

 

To avoid ethnic chauvinism, the Nobel Prize committee itself does not take the ethnicity or the heredity of a laureate into account. The Nobel Committee does not choose the winning Laureate as exemplars of a specific racial group but as citizens of the county in which they reside.

 

On the basis of the Nobel committee’s official criteria, in the overall compilation of winners (in all fields: physics, chemistry, bio­medicine, economics, literature, peace) Ger­many, without reference to race or religion of its citizens, has had a total of about a hundred laureates. On the other hand, the Jewish world community, using its own Halachic identification criteria, proudly claims today that the number of Jewish laureates to date in all fields has already far surpassed that number, which is to say that approximately 25% of all Nobel laureates to date have been Jews. Using the Halachic method of counting, many American Nobel laureates are of course scored as Jewish.

 

Based on the citizenship of the country in which they reside, the United States is the grand master with over 160 winners in all fields, repre­senting one-third of all Nobel laureates. Before World War II the Ger­mans held the overall lead, but have fallen behind owing to the human and territorial losses in World War II as well as the postwar emigration (voluntarily or forcible) of scientists to the United States, Great Britain, Soviet Russia, and elsewhere. In addition, the reorganization and democratization of the German school system by the Allies after the war also lowered standards.

 

Both peoples, German and Jews, have unquestionably contributed more than their share to the advances made in the various fields of scientific endeavor and especi­ally in the natural sciences, as exemplified by physics since about 1900. In the specific field of physics, Germany has produced 26 winners 5 of which were Jews, or roughly 20%. By Halachic definition, Jews worldwide have earned some 44 laureates in physics alone. An educated guess, if not by actual count, suggests that an even greater per­centage of U.S. laureates, perhaps 25–30 %, were also Jewish. Four of 6 Russian winners in physics, i.e., two-thirds, were Jewish. Roughly the same numbers and percentages would pertain to chemistry and medicine as well.

 

The high number of winners for the United States and ethnic Jews since about 1950 can partially be attributed to the fact that increasingly multiple (2–3 or more) scientists may be awarded the laureate for the same accomplishment, i.e., a team of researchers may share the award. Another factor at work affecting the high number of U.S. and Jewish laureates is the high costs involved in modern research that favor the rich countries and put the smaller countries at a disadvantage. Also, the personal wealth of a significant number of U.S. Jewish laureates permitted them to study at the best universities in the world, which, in turn, helps to explain their remarkable success. Moreover, the gifted and affluent ethnic Jewish laureates were able to use and build upon the scientific infrastructure (labs, universities, scholarship, traditions, preexisting and accumulated achievements of earlier, indigenous scholars, etc.) of the advanced Western countries in which they resided.

 

Intelligence tests have consistently shown that Ashkenazi Jews score higher on average than Whites and Asians.  And among the Jews themselves, the Ashkenazi group rates somewhat higher than the Sephardim. However, IQ is a poor explanation of Jewish success in being Nobel laureates because non-Jews greatly outnumber Jews. For example, if we take an IQ of 145 as a cutoff for genius and assume that Jews were around 3.4% of the White US population in 1950, there were nearly 4 times more non-Jewish White geniuses in the US than Jewish geniuses. And there would have been a much greater disparity in pre-World War II Germany where Jews were around 1% of the population.

 

Ethnic Competition in Physics

 

Nationalism in the first half of the 20th century, especially in Europe, was so strong that many thought the sciences themselves were pervaded with the spirit of the people who developed them. It was in this age and atmosphere that Zionism too (secular Jewish nationalism) was aborning. To a considerable extent it is true that each nation has its own specific approach or style of research, but can the results of research be colored by the ethnicity of the researcher? The following is based mainly on Johannes Stark's Jüdische und deutsche Physik (Jewish and German Physics, originally published in 1941). Stark was a leader of the German Physics movement during the National Socialist period.

 

No one has ever accused the Jews or the Germans of being underachievers in matters intellectual. If anything, it is precisely because both peoples are notorious overachievers that they have incurred the suspicion and dislike of the less ambitious who often claim to find the manners of Jews and Germans offensive. Compounding the situation, Jews and Germans often find each other’s behavior objectionable, most probably because they are in competition with each other. Like two magnets of the same strength, they can attract each other in one configuration or they can repel each other in another. We have seen both configurations, though admittedly more of the latter.  

Both Germans and Jews are proud peoples and have earned the right to be so.

Unfortunately, competition, driven by national pride, has in the past provoked discord and even scandalous contention among Nobel laureates. In Germany, decades before the rise of the National Socialists, a bitter dispute arose between German and Jewish physicists, clearly reflecting group cultural differences. At the center of the storm was Albert Einstein.

 

A small but important group of German physicists (Wilhelm Wien, Philipp Lenard, Johannes Stark), all early Nobel laureates and suffused with the spirit of German nationalism, resented the fact that natural phenomena discovered by German scientists were quickly appropriated by the British and assigned English names (e.g., Röntgen rays were called X-rays). Even more irritating to the German nationalists was the fact that a number of Jews, domestic and foreign, who studied in Germany, were soon getting an exorbitant amount of publicity and credit for research that had been pioneered earlier by Germans and others.

Philipp Lenard (1862-1947)

 

This animosity toward the British, like so much of the anger that propelled the rise of the National Socialists, stemmed from World War I propaganda that painted the Germans in the worst possible light, culminating in declaring Germany solely guilty for the war. To counter this propaganda, the Germans, with Wien and other physicists in the lead, joined in the so-called Krieg der Geister (War of Minds) in which leading figures in German society fought a paper war with the French and British to set the record right.

Wilhelm Wien (1864-1928)

 

The prominence and celebrity accorded to Einstein and “his” Theory of Relativity was, in German eyes of that day, the main provocation and the straw that broke the back of the German nationalists. Several important German physicists believed, for example, that Friedrich Hasenöhrl, a German almost unknown today because his work was not publicized, deserved much of the credit and certainly at least some credit for developing the theory. Hasenöhrl, for example, was the first to postulate the fundamental idea of the equivalence of energy and mass. Underlying the surface dispute of assigning proper credit for the development of the relativity theory was an even more sinister concern. Einstein’s relativity was, in the minds of many, equated with moral relativity, a trait that Germans and others associated with Jews. Even the famous E = mc2 formula had been introduced earlier (1903), albeit for a different purpose, by the Italian Olinto De Pretto and published by the Veneto Royal Science Institute in the scientific journal Atte.

Friedrich Hasenöhrl (1874-1915)

In actual fact, Einstein did not win his Nobel Prize for the Theory of Relativity, but for his work in theoretical physics in general and his discovery of the law of the photoelectric effect. Nonetheless, Einstein was faulted by German and other physicists for failing to give proper credit to the many scientists upon whose studies he based his own. Stark, among others, asserted that Einstein gave no credit, not even in footnotes, to researchers like Hendrik Lorentz, Jules Henri Poincaré, Ernst Mach, and Stark himself, all of whom had contributed much in the field. Not even the German astronomer and geodesist J. G. Soldner, who lived decades before Einstein and who was the first to describe the bending of light in the gravita­tional field of the Sun, was mentioned by Einstein.

 

Methodically, these disgruntled German physicists proceeded to define how German physics differed from Jewish physics. The essential difference, accord­ing to the Germans, resides in each group’s fundamental approach to the study of physics. The traditional approach to the study of physics in Germany has been classical, pragmatic, empirical, and experimental. Jewish physics, on the other hand, was considered dogmatic, intuitive, overly abstract and theoretical. Generally speaking, Jewish scientists tended to rely on mathematical rather than observed physical laws, on inductive leaps rather than on the laborious accumulation of empirical evidence. The two divergent schools of research, many thought, reflected the innate ethnic attributes of the physicists.

 

In 1941 Stark, who was by then a member of the National Socialist Party, condemned the dogmatic approach as practiced by Einstein and other Jewish physicists:

 

The dogmatic approach seeks to extract scientific knowledge from the human mind. It builds thought systems based on human concepts of the outside world and sees in these only manifestations of their own thoughts and formulas. Our pragmatic approach draws its knowledge from careful observations and planned targeted experiments. Our own imagination is used only as a means of planning the experiment. If the plan does not confirm the experiment, then it is replaced by another concept that better corresponds to reality. The dogmatic approach believes that new knowledge can be obtained by means of desktop mathematical operations. The dogmatists then spin out their formulas into great theories and propagate them in books and on the lecture circuit. A prime example of this is the worldwide aggressive propagandizing of Einstein’s theories of relativity. The pragmatic approach seeks to understand reality in patient, often yearlong laboratory work and limits itself to the publication of the results so obtained.

 

Because the pragmatic German physicists rely chiefly on careful, instrument-based, direct observations of experimental data, their approach is occasionally referred to as “brass machine physics” because of the many tools and instruments employed in their investigations. The dogmatists, on the other hand, chose to derive their knowledge of the laws of physics through mathematical operations and formulas that then formed the basis of the grand theories spun by Einstein and other members of that school of physics. Further irritating the Germans was the disproportionately approbative publicity accorded such dogmatic theories by the print and electronic media, which the Germans believed was managed and promoted by fellow Jews.

 

By the 1930s extreme elements of the National Socialist Party were even labeling ethnic German researchers like Werner Heisenberg, Max Planck, and Arnold Sommerfeld “White Jews” for sometimes adhering to the Einsteinian theoretical mathematical approach. Even when Heisenberg postulated his Uncertainty Principle, which challenged Einstein’s belief in a causal, predictable universe, many German physicists opposed him. These scientists rejected quantum physics on the grounds that all unified field theories, including Heisenberg’s, viewed space-time in Einstein’s terms.

 

Some racially minded individuals further opined that perhaps Jewish dogmatism even harkened back genetically to their Semitic ancestors in the age when Jewish prophets and lawgivers abounded. In a more critical vein some critics accused Jews of using their inherent analytical talent for the destruction of their host society’s existing absolutes and replacing them with a value system of their own creation (i. e., the thesis of The Culture of Critique).  The talent of the Germans on the other hand, was attributed by some to their adeptness in synthesizing proven components into a viable whole (analysis vs. synthesis).

 

With regard to the employment of Jewish scientists in Nazi Germany, a certain flexibility prevailed. It is said, for example, that that Herman Göring, when once asked to dismiss a valued colleague (Field Marshal Erhard Milch) who was Jewish, told the investigators that “I [Göring] will decide who is a Jew.”  When it suited them, or expediency demanded it, the Nazi Party was even prepared to declare certain Jews “honorary Aryans.” In the field of nuclear physics, for example, Fritz Houtermans was a Communist and the son of a Jewish mother. He was therefore considered Jewish both by according to Jewish law and National Socialist law. Houtermans worked with his German colleagues throughout the war. The higher political echelons of the Party were obviously taking a very prudent approach, preferring not to foolishly alienate modern physicists who might be needed or who might even be correct. 

 

As James Wyllie has shown in his book The Warlord and the Renegade this political flexibility on the part of the Göring family and the Nazi Party was also evident in the field of psychotherapy, in the German Institute for Psychogenic Research and Psychotherapy in Berlin, directed by Matthias Heinrich Göring, a cousin of Herman. Although Matthias Göring himself and the Party favored Adlerian psychoanalysis, his staff included practitioners in the three major fields of psychotherapy as developed by Freud, Adler, and Jung. The Nazi Party, which saw religion and culture as the main determinants of mental processes and behavior, referred to psychotherapy as Seelenheilkunde, literally “soul therapy.” So successful was Herman Göring in reconciling the Institute’s practices with Hitler and the Party that after the war many of his staff were permitted by the Occupation to continue their work.

 

The renowned psychologist Carl J. Jung remarked of Hitler:

 

He belongs in the category of authentic wizards. … He has in his eyes the expression of a prophet. His power is not absolutely political; it is magical. Hitler listens and obeys. The true leader is well led. The idea is confirmed in the word Mahdi, the Islamic Messiah, which translates to ‘He who is well led.’

 

Adler and Freud described him quite differently.

 

Thus, German and Jewish scientists can and have worked successfully together, even under the worst possible conditions. Even if the extreme nationalists on both sides have to bite their lips, their scientists were able to cooperate in both the best and worst of times. Indeed, their different approaches to research may actually complement each other.

 

Postscript: After the war in 1947 Nobel laureate Johannes Stark, who had been actively concerned with ridding the German university system of all Jewish influence, was declared a “major offender” and sentenced to four years imprisonment by a denazification court. Philipp Lenard died in 1947 before the courts could convict him. 

Daniel W. Michaels, a native New Yorker, received his BS in geography from Columbia University in 1954. Following five years in the Army (three of which stationed in Germany) and a Fulbright grant for studies in Tuebingen University, Mr. Michaels worked in the Defense Department until his retirement in 1993. He continues to contribute articles to various journals on World War II and Cold War matters. (Email him.)

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