Deutsche Physik

From Academic Kids

Deutsche Physik (literally: "German Physics") or Aryan Physics was the name given to a reactionary movement in the German physics community in the early 1930s against the work of Albert Einstein, labeled Jewish Physics. The term was taken from the title of a 4-volume physics textbook by Philipp Lenard in the 1930s.



The movement itself began as an extension of a German nationalist movement in the physics community which went back as far as World War I. A number of German physicists, including Wilhelm Wien and the especially passionate Philipp Lenard had then signed a number of "declarations" that there was a need to remove a perceived unfair amount of British influence from physics (such as the renaming of German-discovered phenomena with English-derived names, such as "X-ray" instead of "Röntgen ray"), and a declaration of the national character of science as a method of emphasising local differences in theory and practice. After the war, the affronts of the Treaty of Versailles kept some of these nationalistic feelings running high, especially in Lenard (this was not a sentiment unique to physics or physicists—this blend of nationalism and perceived affront from foreign and internal forces formed a key part of the popularity of the newly forming National Socialist Party (Nazis) in the late 1920s).

's theories infuriated many German nationalist physicists during the 1930s.
Albert Einstein's theories infuriated many German nationalist physicists during the 1930s.

During the early years of the twentieth century, Albert Einstein's Theory of Relativity was met with much bitter controversy within the physics communities of the world. There were many physicists, especially the "old guard," who were suspicious of the intuitive meanings of Einstein's theories, and many were not capable of understanding the complicated mathematics that stood at their core. Many of these classical physicists resented Einstein's dismissal of Maxwell's luminiferous aether, which had been a mainstay of their work for the majority of their productive lives. They were not convinced by the empirical evidences for Relativity: the measurements of the perihelion of Mercury and the null result of the Michelson-Morley experiment might be explained in other ways, they thought (they were not alone in this assertion), and the results of the Eddington eclipse experiment (the first observed instance of gravitational lensing, a key prediction of Einstein's) were experimentally problematic enough to be dismissed as meaningless by the hardcore doubters. Many of these doubters were very distinguished experimental physicists—Lenard was himself a Nobel Prize in Physics laureate.

National Socialism

When the Nazis entered the political scene, Lenard quickly attempted to ally himself with them, joining the party long before it was fashionable to do so. With another Nobel Prize in Physics laureate, Johannes Stark, Lenard began a core campaign to label Einstein's Relativity as Jewish Physics, decrying it was overly abstract, out of touch with reality, associating it with moral relativism, and, the icing on the cake, practiced exclusively by Jews and Jewish sympathisers.

For a few years in the early 1930s, this found strong support from Nazi leadership, as it played upon a number of Nazi ideological themes, and gave yet another method to harass Jewish citizens and institutions. Lenard and Stark enjoyed the Nazi support because it allowed them to undertake a professional coup for their preferred scientific theory; an example of using heavy-handed politics to influence the results of a "paradigm shift." Under the rallying cry that physics should be more "German" and "Aryan," Lenard and Stark, with backing from the Nazi leadership, entered on a plan to pressure and replace physicist positions at German universities with people teaching their preferred theories (by this time, the early 1930s, there were no longer any Jewish physicist professorships in Germany, since under the Nuremberg Laws Jews were not allowed to work in universities). Stark in particular was also trying to get himself installed as the Führer of physics—not an entireably fanciful goal, given the Gleichschaltung (literally, "coordination") principle applied to other professional disciplines, such as medicine, under the Nazi regime, whereby a strict linear hierarchy was created along ideological lines.

Missing image
Werner Heisenberg was labeled a "White Jew" by the SS for teaching Einstein's work.

They met with moderate success, but the support from the Nazi party was not as great as Lenard and Stark would have preferred. After a long period of harassment of the quantum physicist Werner Heisenberg, including getting him labeled a "White Jew" in the SS's weekly, Das Schwarze Korps (The Black Corps), they began to fall from influence. Heisenberg was not only a pre-eminent physicist whom even the Nazis realised they were better off with than without, however "Jewish" his theory might be in the eyes of Stark and Lenard, but Heisenberg had, as a young boy, attended school with SS chief Heinrich Himmler. In a moment of historical strangeness, Heisenberg's mother actually contacted Himmler's mother and asked her if she would please tell the SS to give "Werner" a break. After beginning a full character evaluation (which Heisenberg both instigated and passed), Himmler forbade further attack on the physicist. Heisenberg would later employ his "Jewish physics," in the stillborn Nazi project to develop nuclear fission for the purposes of weapons or energy use.

Soon, Stark (Lenard, by this point, played less and less of a role) ran into even more difficulty, as other scientists and industrialists known for being exceptionally "Aryan" came to the defense of Relativity and quantum mechanics. As historian Mark Walker puts it, "despite his best efforts, in the end his science was not accepted, supported, or used by the Third Reich. Stark spent a great deal of his time during the Third Reich fighting with bureaucrats within the National Socialist state. Most of the National Socialist leadership either never supported Lenard and Stark, or abandoned them in the course of the Third Reich."


There was little scientific core to Deutsche Physik—it was primarily reactionary in its scope, lashing out at modern physics and its practitioners. Ideologically, its key claim was that there was "national character" in science, a denial of the claim of science's universality and internationalism (it, like Nazi ideology, also identified "internationalism" as being synonymous with "Jewishness").

This was not entirely false: there are national "styles" of science, differences in method, theory, and tacit knowledge from place to place, often generaliseable along national borders. There were key differences, on the whole, between German and British physics in the late 19th century—different concerns (the British physicists cared more for the establishment of intuitive models while the Germans were on the whole more content with using equations without cosmological interpretation), different methods (the Germans became known for "brass machine" physics due to their use of increasingly complicated apparatus), and different systemic models (the German university system and the British one differed among many lines, which introduced key differences in their institutions of science). Deutsche Physik though went much further than this, proposing that different countries could, and should, have entirely different theories of science based on their localised conditions. This extrapolation is generally not recognised as being sensible today.

It is occasionally put forth that there is a great irony in the Nazis' labeling modern physics as "Jewish science," since it was exactly modern physics—and the work of many European exiles—which was used to create the war-ending atomic bomb. However, the exodus of German Jewish intellectuals and scientists happened far earlier than the popularisations of the notions of Deutsche Physik and "Jewish physics," and even if the German government had not embraced Lenard and Stark's ideas, the anti-Semitic content of the Nazi regime was enough by itself to destroy the Jewish scientific community in Germany. Furthermore, the German nuclear energy project was never pursued with anywhere near the vigor of the Manhattan Project in the United States, and for that reason would likely not have succeeded in any case. But there is one connection: much of the push for the formation of an Allied bomb project came from European scientists—such as Leo Szilard, Edward Teller, Enrico Fermi, and Einstein—who had fled Europe because of Hitler's anti-Jewish policies.

Deutsche Physik stands in history as being an explicit intersection of science and politics, comparable in ways to Lysenkoism in the Soviet Union and the treatment of many scientists (especially Big Bang cosmologists) in China during the Cultural Revolution.


  • Beyerchen, Alan, Scientists under Hitler: Politics and the physics community in the Third Reich (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1977).
  • Hentschel, Klaus, ed. Physics and National Socialism: An anthology of primary sources (Basel: Birkhaeuser, 1996).
  • Walker, Mark, Nazi science: Myth, truth, and the German atomic bomb(New York: Harper Collins, 1995).de:Arische Physik

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