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Weird Science: reviews of Hitler's Scientists by John Cornwell  and War Against the Weak by Edwin Black

reviewed by Deane Rink,

Deane Rink, writer, producer, and project director, is a voracious reader with very eclectic tastes. He sends us short, provocative reviews, introducing us to fascinating books that otherwise might pass unnoticed. He has worked for PBS, National Geographic, the American Museum of Natural History, Hearst Entertainment, and Carl Sagan. From his involvement in numerous projects about science, he has remarkable insight into present-day scientific endeavors and their implications, and in-depth knowledge of specialized fields (like Antarctica from his two "Live from Antarctica" PBS productions. But he also savors provides illuminating commentary on literature, fantasy, biography, and popular fiction. Links to Deane's other reviews. You can reach him at

War, national chauvinism, and arrogance are the great engines of human technological progress, whether this upsets our optimistic, self-congratulatory mythologies or not.  Hitler's Scientists traces the development of German science from before World War I until the defeat of fascism at the end of World War II.  It consolidates in one volume many familiar threads - the development of atomic and quantum physics, the invention of rocketry and ballistic missiles, the first creation of weapons
of mass destruction, the beginnings of modern medicine and epidemiology, the perfection of aviation and undersea travel, the economic impact of organic chemistry and evolutionary biology, the race-based "science" of eugenics, and the increasingly necessary detection strategies of radar, sonar, code-making, and -breaking.  The ascension of Nazi science cannot be
understood without a thorough understanding of the German academic system, a system in which Jews played a disproportionately significant part until they were no longer allowed to do so.  Nor can Nazi science be appreciated in a
vacuum; British and American science closely paralleled German science, and a shared collaboration reigned among the Western powers until the bared fangs of competition shattered the collegial bonds.  Cornwell tells this complicated tale eloquently and efficiently, digesting the conclusions of hundreds of volumes into one manageable tome.

Certain stories stand out.  The mystery of theoretical physicist Werner Heisenberg, who led the Nazi atomic bomb program, is one of these.  Michael Frayn's play Copenhagen and Thomas Powers's book Heisenberg's War, argue that Heisenberg intentionally dragged his feet so that Hitler would not be given the ultimate weapon, but Cornwell challenges this hypothesis.  True, Heisenberg was not a Nazi and probably detested the gauche arriviste Hitler, but Heisenberg was a Junker, a German nationalist, and a willing accomplice to the purging of Jews from German physics.  This purge paradoxically made it possible for the Allies, through the American Manhattan Project, to taste the sins of atomic bomb development first.

Another cautionary tale is that of Wernher von Braun, the brilliant rocket scientist who perfected the V-1 and V-2 blitzkrieg  missiles at Peenemunde.  Von Braun became the target of all the Allies' affections after the war.  His recruitment by the Americans, and that of scores of his colleagues, gave the USA a great boost in the space race that constituted part of the Cold
War between the USA and the USSR. It did not matter to either superpower that German rocket science had used slave labor and thus contributed to the Nazi "Final Solution," or Holocaust.

German arrogance was also their undoing in code-breaking and radar technology.  The German Enigma machine codes were considered unbreakable, and the Nazis' confident but faulty judgment on this point probably caused the war to end a couple of years earlier than it would have otherwise.  If Hitler had had two more years, would Germany have developed the bomb?  Would the USA have dropped their bomb on fellow Caucasians?  We shall never know.

This last point may seem gratuitous and silly.  If the Allies could firebomb Dresden and peenemunde, surely they would have had no compunctions about nukes over Berlin.  This is where Black's book, War Against the Weak, comes in.  It is a history of America's campaign to create a master Nordic race through eugenics, selective breeding, and forced sterilizations.  Eugenics
was a hot topic in turn-of-the-century America.  The USA was awash in a sea of European immigrants, and also faced burgeoning numbers of Blacks, Mexicans, and Native Americans.  A small group of U.S. scientists did not want to lose the country to a growing mass of "social undesirables."  Funded by the Carnegie Institution, the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations, and other corporate philanthropies, and championed by progressive thinkers like Woodrow Wilson, Margaret Sanger (founder of Planned Parenthood), and Oliver Wendell Holmes, eugenicists backed marriage prohibitions between the races, passive euthanasia and forcible sterilization of epileptics, alcoholics, petty criminals, and the mentally challenged, and the social isolation of the poor from the growing middle class.  Twenty-seven states and the U.S. Supreme Court sanctioned these racist laws, and willing U.S. corporations like IBM created recording devices to manage this grand social experiment.  Legitimate progressive movements like birth control and the development of psychology were tainted by their willing associations with the eugenics

The eugenicists were crusaders.  They shared their scientific rationales with academics from Europe, including Germany.  Eugenics strategies concocted at Cold Spring Harbor on Long Island were exported.  The Rockefeller Foundation supported German eugenicists with massive financial grants, and eventually, this Nordic vision of Valhalla caught the attention of a German politician on the rise, Adolf Hitler.  The culmination of this movement was the Nazi Final Solution, the horrific experiments conducted by doctors like Josef Mengele at Auschwitz, the extirpation of Jews and Gypsies.

These are strong statements.  They deserve thorough documentation, and that is what Black and his team of fifty researchers in four countries provides.  These two books are difficult reading.  They challenge convenient shibboleths.  Both Cornwell and Black are to be commended for taking an unwieldy amount of disparate and scattered sources, and weaving coherent
narratives therefrom.

Reviews by Dean Rink

Dialogue on favorite books with Deane Rink before and during his latest trek to Antarctica, with a note from Bill Ransom and a digression about Frank Herbert (a.k.a Bookbabble 101) -- a very long and rapidly growing document:

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