Deutsche Physik

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The front cover of volume 2 of Lenard's Deutsche Physik
A lunatic Chaplin imitator
and his greatest fans

Icon nazi.svg
First as tragedy
Then as farce
Clear away the Jews! Our own people has genius enough — we need no Hebrews.
—Adolf Hitler in Munich (April 27, 1923)[1]

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


The movement had begun in the German physics community as early as World War I. During fighting between the German army and Belgian resistance fighters after the German invasion in Belgium, the library of the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven caught fire. The incident of the burning of the library led to a protest note by British scientists, which was signed also by eight distinguished British scientists, which opined that the fire was a deliberate act by German forces.[note 1] This led to a counter-reaction in the form of an "appeal" formulated by Wilhelm Wien and addressed to German physicists and scientific publishers, which was signed by sixteen German physicists, including Arnold Sommerfeld and Johannes Stark. They claimed that German character had been misinterpreted and that attempts made over many years to reach an understanding between the two countries had obviously failed, so that conclusions had now to be drawn, in regard to the use of the English language by German scientific authors, editors of books and translators.[2] A number of German physicists, including Max Planck and the especially passionate Philipp Lenard, had then signed further declarations, so that gradually a "war of the minds"[3] broke out. On the German side there was a move to avoid an unnecessary use of English language in scientific texts (concerning, e.g., the renaming of German-discovered phenomena with perceived English-derived names, such as "X-ray" instead of "Röntgen ray"[note 2]). It was stressed, however, that this measure should not be misunderstood as a rejection of British scientific thought, ideas and stimulations.

After the war, the Treaty of Versailles kept some of these nationalistic feelings running high, especially in Lenard, who had already complained at the beginning of the war about England. When in 1920, an attempt had been made to assassinate the German Chancellor, Lenard had sent a telegram of congratulation to the attacker.[4] When on June 24, 1922, the politician Walther Rathenau had been assassinated and the government had ordered to fly the flags at half mast at the day of his funeral, Lenard ignored the order at his institute in Heidelberg. Socialist students organized a demonstration against Lenard, who was taken into protective custody by the Jewish prosecutor of state Hugo Marx.[5] 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 Nazi Party in the late 1920s.


During the early years of the twentieth century, Albert Einstein's theory of relativity encountered much bitter controversy within the physics communities of the world. Many physicists, especially the "old guard", were suspicious of the intuitive meanings of Einstein's theories. The leading theoretician of the Deutsche Physik movement, Rudolf Tomaschek, had re-edited the physics textbook Grimsehl's Lehrbuch der Physik. In that book, which consists of several volumes, the Lorentz transformation was accepted as well as quantum mechanics. However, Einstein's interpretation of the Lorentz transformation was not mentioned, and also Einstein's name was completely ignored. Many classical physicists resented Einstein's dismissal of the notion of a luminiferous aether, which had been a mainstay of their work for the majority of their careers. They were not convinced by the empirical evidence for relativity: the measurements of the orbit of Mercury and the null result of the Michelson-Morley experiment might be explained in other ways, they thought, and the results of the Eddington eclipse experimentWikipedia (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 laureate in physics.

Under the Third Reich[edit]

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 Physics laureate, Johannes Stark, Lenard began a core campaign to label Einstein's Relativity as Jewish Physics.

For a few years after the Nazi takeover in 1933, this found strong support from Nazi leadership, as it played upon a number of Nazi ideological themes, and gave yet another method to harass and delegitimize Jewish citizens and institutions. Lenard[6] 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 resist an ideologically unwelcome scientific "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 the late 1930s, there were no longer any Jewish physicist professorships in Germany, since under the Nuremberg Laws of 1935 Jews were not allowed to work in universities. Stark in particular was also trying to get himself installed as the Führer of physics, in line with the Nazi policy to create a strict linear hierarchy on ideological lines.

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"[7] 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, but Heisenberg had, as a young boy, attended school with SS chief Heinrich Himmler. In a historic moment, Heisenberg's mother rang 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 German atomic bomb programme - luckily he misunderstood a basic principle and was still trying to get it to work when Berlin fell. It has been speculated that Heisenberg had moral qualms and tried to slow down the project. Heisenberg himself attempted to paint this picture after the war, and Thomas Power's book Heisenberg's War and Michael Frayn's play Copenhagen adopted this interpretation. Part of this interpretation is based on the fact that Heisenberg did not champion the project to Albert Speer in a way which got it any attention or very much funding (which Samuel Goudsmit of the ALSOS project interpreted as being partially because Heisenberg himself was not fully aware of the feasibility of an atomic bomb). At best (for Heisenberg), he may have tried to hinder the German project; at worst, he may have just been ignorant of how to create an atomic bomb (it has been commented that one can know either Heisenberg's morality in this respect, or his competence, but not both)Wikipedia[8].

Lenard began to play less and less of a role, and soon Stark 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."[9]


The Deutsche Physik had its parallels in other fields of science, in particular in mathematics, where the Deutsche MathematikWikipedia of Ludwig Bieberach and others was set up to counter modern, more formalist mathematics of the day, which ironically had been developed to no small extent in Germany (e.g. in Göttingen). The work of Franz Boas, for example, was suppressed due to its harsh critique of the racialism promoted by the Nazis. There was also a certain Nazi archaeology,Wikipedia a pseudoarchaeological movement in Germany; among other activities, that movement attempted to locate Atlantis.

In addition, just as Germany tried to establish its own version of physics, so other countries, as part of broader nationalist movements, created or promoted their own rival theories (albeit usually in other fields of science). France, for example, held out for Lamarckism, and Sweden supported Nils Heribert Nilsson's bizarre emication theory. The Soviet Union likewise endorsed various ideologically-motivated theories in the fields of genetics, psychiatry, and linguistics, dismissing the accepted models as "bourgeois pseudoscience". It has also been argued[10] that this sort of petty nationalism played a role in the infamous Piltdown Man hoax, with British biologists attempting to prove that the British Isles played a key role in the development of modern man, rather than having been settled relatively late compared to the rest of Europe (as we now know to be the case).

Further reading[edit]

  • 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).
  • Philipp Lenard: Wissenschaftliche Abhandlungen Band IV. Herausgegeben und kritisch kommentiert von Charlotte Schönbeck. [Posthumously, German Language.] Berlin: GNT-Verlag, 2003. ISBN 978-3-928186-35-3. Introduction, Content.

See also[edit]


  1. Unrelated but a new university library was built after the war. German forces burnt that one down as well in World War II.
  2. Despite Wilhelm Röntgen having coined the term "X-ray" himself and rejecting his colleagues' suggestion that he should name the discovery after himself.


  1. "Adolf Hitler: Timeline of Major Events". Jewish Virtual Library.
  2. For the full German text of Wilhelm Wien's appeal see: The Oxford Companion to the History of Modern Science (J. L. Heilbron, ed.), Oxford University Press, New York 2003, p. 419. The appeal states:
    "Because of the war the relations of scientific circles to the hostile foreign countries will experience a novel regulation. It will in particular concern our relation to England, after the anti-German declaration formulated without any understanding of German character by English scientists has been signed by eight well-known physicists too (Bragg, Crookes, Fleming, Lamb, Lodge, Ramsey, Rayleigh, J.J. Thomson).
    It is herewith proven that the attempts made over many years to reach a better mutual understanding with the English have failed and cannot be taken up again within a foreseeable future. The regards which we have taken in the interest of a greater familiarity of the scientific circles of both peoples are no longer justified. Therefore, it is advisable to remove again the unjustified English influence which has penetrated German physics.
    Of course, the purpose cannot be to reject English scientific ideas and stimulations. But the currently criticized predilection for things foreign has influenced also our science so much that it seems required to point this out.
    After this hint we constrain ourselves above all to propose that all physicists should ensure
    1. that the mentioning of literature of the English should not, as has currently been the case, find stronger consideration than that of our fellow country men;
    2. that German physicists publish their treatises no longer in English journals, with the exception of cases where replies are required;
    3. that publishers accept solely scientific works and translations written in German language, and only then if according to the judgment of scientific experts the literature is really outstanding;
    4. that public money is not spent in order to sponsor translations.
    E.Dorn. F. Exner. W. Hallwachs. F. Himstedt. W. König. E. Lecher. O. Lummer. G. Mie. F. Richarz. E. Rieke. E. v. Schweidler. A. Sommerfeld. J. Stark. M. Wien. W. Wien. O. Wiener."
  3. Stephan L. Wolff: Physiker im Krieg der Geister, Zentrum für Wissenschafts- und Technikgeschichte, München 2001, [1].
  4. Heinz Eisgruber: Völkische und deutsch-nationale Führer, 1925.
  5. Der Fall Philipp Lenard - Mensch und "Politiker", Physikalische Blätter 23, No. 6, 262 - 267 (1967).
  6. Philipp Lenard: Ideelle Kontinentalsperre, München 1940.
  7. in the July 15, 1937, issue of SS's weekly, Das Schwarze Korps (The Black Corps)