What Nazi Germany Physicists Taught Me About Human Nature

Spoiler: We’re not as moral as we’d like to think.

7 min readMar 13, 2022


3 German physicists from the 1920s standing in suits for a black and white photo
Physicists Werner Heisenberg, Max von Laue and Otto Hahn in Göttingen, Germany, in 1946. Credit: INTERFOTO/AKG-IMAGES

InIn elementary school, we were taught that there is an evil man named Hitler. In middle school, we read Anne Frank’s memoir about Nazi Germany. In high school, we were introduced to Adolf Hitler, Joseph Goebbels, and Heinrich Himmler. We viewed interviews of Jews who survived the Holocaust and saw the horrific plains littered with corpses of individuals.

Many of us grieve the loss of the past but eventually move on with our lives. But this simplified explanation of such a visceral moment in our past wasn’t enough for me. How do you dehumanize people to that degree? How do you become okay with knowing you are sending people to their death beds? That you are building the very gas chambers that will kill millions of innocent lives? These scientists who believed they were doing it for the greater good — how far could you go in the name of science?

“After World War II, most scientists in Germany maintained that they had been apolitical or actively resisted the Nazi regime, but the true story is much more complicated.”

So begins the synopsis of Serving the Reich: The Struggle for the Soul of Physics Under Hitler, a nonfiction book by Philip Ball that attempts to answer these questions through research, quotations, and an immersion into the 1920s Germany where it all began. The psyche of these physicists, including but not limited to Albert Einstein, Peter Debye, Max Planck, and Werner Heisenberg, and their justification made me realize that we’re not so different from them in being influenced by what’s around us. Here are my takeaways.

1. We care about convenience over correctness

In the same year (1925–1926), Erwin Schrodinger and Werner Heisenberg formulated different theories about how particles can perform quantum jumps (move from one discrete energy state to another). Their proofs both supported the duality of a photon but in different ways: Schrodinger modeled this relationship with a differential equation (wave mechanics), while Heisenberg developed a matrix (matrix mechanics) that could represents all the quantum states of a photon before and after an interaction.

Both theories are acceptable in quantum physics because the particles are far too small to observe and thus verify one theory as more accurate than the other. However, the theory that is more well known and conventionally accepted/taught in higher education is Schrodinger’s theory. Ball postulates that this is because Schrodinger’s singular equation was easier for us to wrap our minds around, so we gravitated towards it. Simply put, it was more convenient and useful — though not necessarily more correct.

This makes sense given our tendency to trust and like information that is easier to understand, a byproduct of our short term gratification system. We feel as though an answer or theory is more correct when we recognize and subsequently can support it. But we don’t always take the time to verify whether it is correct. We stubbornly cling to our belief once we accept it because we don’t want to be wrong.

I wonder how much of our knowledge is shaped by our reluctance to pry deeper for fear of being wrong. We believe something is right because we haven’t been proven wrong yet. Ultimately, our knowledge is built on a precarious foundation of assumptions, and there could be another set of beliefs equally as viable that we have simply forgotten about.

Accept you are wrong before you think you are right — an easy answer to this dilemma but not an easy mindset to adopt. At the end of the day, knowledge is human created and human distributed. If there’s anything we know to be true about humanity, it’s that we’re flawed. But if we know we’re flawed and can take our understanding of truth with a grain of salt, then we can open ourselves up to new avenues of thought.

2. Our environment shapes how we perceive facts

Quantum physicists during this time period catered their descriptions and communications about their work based on the milieu. Nazi Germany was driven by the high-strung German public who were desperate for economic recovery, victims of global retribution after World War I, and eager to believe in someone — anyone — who would provide them with security. This romantic, emotion-led German society shaped how quantum physics was portrayed, with German physicists calling science an “essentially spiritual experience” and accentuating the “irrationality” of quantum mechanics.

These descriptions were perplexing because it felt as though the rigor and validity of the academic research and decades of experimentation was degraded to the craft of impulsive rhetoric. However, Ball notes that many of these scientists were not aware of their linguistic choices and connotations.

We are driven by mimicry, so the paradigms that we are surrounded by influence how we receive new knowledge. Our emotions are seen in our reactions in interpersonal relationships, and our writing affects the words that we see around us. It should come as no surprise then that the rhetoric we select is based on the sentiments and word choices that we are exposed to.

Does this detract from the objectivity of the facts themselves? It’s hard to say. The words we choose to communicate ideas shape how the ideas themselves are perceived. They can limit our understanding and confine it to a particular viewpoint (ie quantum physics can not be understood or properly denoted because it is irrational), but they can also convey information in a way that more people can understand. If we don’t understand quantum physics, we can at least understand that it is uncertain, and not a lot is currently known about it. Rhetoric is at the root of human connection because it is our word choice that reveals how we view the world around us.

3. We are driven by self-preservation instincts

Ball explores multiple instances in which quantum physicists (usually professors at elite universities) believed that the Nazi regime was short-sighted in wanting to restrict the privileges of their Jewish colleagues that they had taught alongside for decades.

However, when the time came to deport Jews, many German physicists aligned with the Nazi Republic to maintain power and their current position. To publicly denounce the Nazi Party’s actions or stand by their Jewish friends would likely result in a position termination and relocation to a university that lacked adequate resources for their research.

It seems like hypocrisy. It feels absolutely unjust and treacherous. But if our research was key to providing for our family, could we say that we wouldn’t do the same? It’s not like we’re actively encouraging it. We’re just standing by and watching it happen…

It is hard to find individuals who are motivated to fight social injustice if they haven’t been personally affected by it. Milennials are quickly becoming known as the apathetic generation because we are inundated with technology and desensitized to chaos. Apathy is characterized by indifference; we’re so emotionally drained by the constantly news scroll and hyperconnection that we struggle to find energy to care anymore.

The answer isn’t to always put our lives at risk for other people. But what we need to remember is that it sometimes requires extra effort to consciously connect with acquaintances, friends, and family. We’re not bad people if we want to be better. We need to acknowledge that we’ve struggled with being caught up in our own worries to truly prioritize other people. Ultimately, the strongest words in our current crisis of humanity are “me too.”

Self preservation isn’t bad. After all, it’s kept us alive for centuries. However, it can come at the expense of the relationships we hold dear to us if we let our people suffer on our watch. We can build trust and reliance if we prioritize our values — the people, the compassion, the honesty — over greed and power.

I was drawn to Serving the Reich in a frustrated haze, seeking a new perspective about real people and their motivations — not the caricatures of evil villains that I had only ever learned about. This is history, not fiction. And it is in history that we find fully fleshed out characters who are driven by their own emotions and desires.

Reading through the stories and events that led up to the Holocaust, I found myself reflecting on our apathy and self-centered rationale that we use to justify ourselves at our worst. The decisions that these scientists made, to be a bystander as their Jewish colleagues were deported, to actively seek Hitler’s approval — this could have been any of us. How can we be so sure that we wouldn’t make the same decisions if we were in their position?

We are subject to influence and bias, but these are tendencies we can break out of if we consciously observe how we are affected by them. Perception is key to finding truth over convenience, communicating with both fact and emotion, and putting ourselves first in a manner that is empathetic to others as well. Humans aren’t perfect; our beauty is in our imperfections. It’s in the way we fit our parts so perfectly into one another to create a whole identity. A whole understanding of real people, motivations, and the journey that has shaped us to who we are today.