The banality of evil: Scientists in Nazi Germany

Editorial in Nature entitled “Uncomfortable Truths”:

For decades after the Second World War, the prevailing view of how scientists interacted with the Nazi regime was fixated on such cases of dramatic criminality. According to this view, science during the Nazi era was contaminated by a few, very rotten apples. This version of history also held that these rotten apples were engaged in ‘pseudoscience’ — low-quality research whose results were meaningless; that the Nazis held ‘real’ science in low esteem, so that the main body of scientists simply trod water for the duration; and that most of those who did work to further the aims of the regime did so under duress. This conventional wisdom was broadly framed at the Nuremberg trials, which condemned the heinous crimes of high-ranking Nazis, but did not enquire into the behaviour of less notorious individuals, including rank-and-file scientists. This account suited both the winners and losers of the war.

But it is the Max Planck Society (MPS), which administers 80 research institutes in Germany, that has taken the lead in exposing its own past to unflinching scrutiny. The MPS has found that a large part of the most criminal research conducted was not ‘pseudoscience’ — in fact, it followed conventional scientific methods and was at the cutting edge of research at the time. It has also demonstrated that the Nazis held basic research in high esteem, increasing funding for it during the war years without requiring scientists to join the Nazi Party. And it found that, far from being subjected to force, many scientists voluntarily oriented their work to fit the regime’s policies — as a way of getting money and of exploiting the new resources that Nazi policies made available through, for example, the invasion of other countries. Most researchers, it turns out, seem to have regarded the regime not as a threat, but as an opportunity for their research ambitions.

Read more here.