German physics

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The so-called German physics , also Aryan physics , was a teaching influenced by the National Socialists , which some German physicists represented in the first half of the 20th century and which mixed physics with racist views. They rejected emerging modern physics as being too mathematical and theoretical, and advocated a greater emphasis on the role of experimental physics . In particular, they spoke out against the theory of relativity and quantum mechanics developed by Albert Einstein and rejected their statements as not being clear enough and not being intuitive enough (e.g. uncertainty relation and wave-particle dualism in quantum mechanics or the space-time continuum and non-Euclidean spatial geometry of the theory of relativity). German physics was shaped by the anti-Semitic ideas that were widespread in the heated political mood of the 1920s after the lost World War in the politically unstable Weimar Republic . In addition, many leading theoretical physicists and advocates of the new theories were of Jewish descent.

German Physics is also the title of a four-volume textbook (1936) by Philipp Lenard , which tries to explain the developments in modern physics on the basis of classical physics, for example with the aid of the ether theory .


The German Physics is a largely limited to Germany antisemitic doctrine; more precisely, it was a movement that was not very widespread among authoritative experts, the beginning of which can be dated to the publication of Philipp Lenard's work Great Natural Scientists in 1929 and which ends with the collapse of the Third Reich in 1945. She rejected modern physics - namely the theory of relativity and quantum mechanics  - as Jewish and hardly developed any counter-concepts apart from a basic attitude that can be described as mechanistic . The most prominent - but largely isolated among experts from the start - are the two Nobel Prize winners in physics, Philipp Lenard (1862–1947) and Johannes Stark (1874–1957). Lenard had also been awarded the NSDAP Prize for Art and Science by Adolf Hitler .

There was no formal program for German Physics , it developed in publications and lectures as a result of the discussion about abstract modern physics. The most well-known and frequently cited definition comes from the foreword to Lenard's four-volume textbook Deutsche Physik from 1936, which - without this foreword - was used for teaching well into the 1950s:

“'German Physics'? one will ask. I could also have said Aryan physics or the physics of people of Nordic nature, the physics of the explorers of reality, the seekers of truth, the physics of those who founded natural research. - 'Science is and will remain international!' you will want to object to me. But this is always based on an error. In reality, science, like everything humans create, is racial, blood-based. [...] Nature research [...] no people has ever started without being based on the already existing characteristics of Aryans . "

Lenard goes on to say that the scientific work takes place “in close dialogue with natural processes”: “The uneducated German folk spirit searches for depth, for consistent foundations of thinking with nature, for a perfect knowledge of the world as a whole”. In Lenard's view, direct questions to nature can only be answered by experiment; theoretical considerations are based on this. The results of the experimental investigations should be clearly described and explained “on the solid ground of classical physics”.

With this, the German Physics established goals, content and methods on the basis of the National Socialist racial ideology and differed in this from the discussion of the physical worldview in other countries. As their foundations were considered

  • the “postulate of mechanical comprehensibility” (Lenard): its clarity and structure based on classical physics ;
  • the immediate experience of nature;
  • the experiment as a methodological basis on which theoretical considerations are built.

The central terms in German physics were

  • the basic physical terms force and energy ,
  • the concept of mechanism, defined by “the application of mathematically formulable, i. H. quantitatively evaluable ideas that allow a clear correspondence in the form of thought of space and time that enables us to understand clearly ",
  • the concept of the ether , with which the structure of the atom and the relativity principle - recognized by Lenard - are explained.

The classic areas of Lenard's textbook were identical to internationally accepted physics. Only the theory of relativity and quantum theory were rejected. In their place, Lenard had been developing an ether theory since 1910 , which should also explain the Michelson-Morley experiment and other relativistically interpreted experiments. Johannes Stark was responsible for atomic physics : a classical model was used to explain phenomena that were otherwise treated with quantum theory. In addition, there were no further innovations in theoretical physics within German physics , as their representatives hardly dealt with current theoretical questions in atomic physics.

Today, German physics is regarded as a specifically National Socialist counter-development to modern physics. With regard to this science, too, there were increasing anti-Semitic arguments in Germany after the First World War , which could be institutionalized in the Third Reich. For the development of science itself, German physics - not only from today's perspective - was of no importance.


Philipp Lenard (1862–1947), one of the early representatives of German physics
Johannes Stark (1874–1957), the organizer of German Physics

At the beginning of the 20th century, an overthrow of the classical worldview was noticeable in almost all scientific disciplines. In physics, two developments in particular overturned the classical ways of thinking: Planck's introduction of the energy quantum, which contradicted the classical wave and ether conception of the origin of light and was no longer in line with classical concepts of causality and determinacy, and Einstein's special theory of relativity , which the laws of nature apparently made dependent on the state of motion of the observer, which was taken up by the opponents as “general relativism” and “materialistic game without values”. Both developments led to a fundamental rethink in academic physics in the 1920s. This drew a real culture war between proponents and opponents of modern physics .

The increasing mathematization of their science contributed to this general unease among physicists, for example the appearance of abstract topological spaces such as the so-called Hilbert space , concrete terms such as that of a group theory , or, last but not least, the many indices i, j, k, ... (etc.) in the formulation of Einstein's field equations , which also made them incomprehensible.

Physics had simply become "too difficult" for physicists, even for experts, which German physics condemned as Jewish.

The opponents of modern physics were mainly to be found in the older generation of naturalists who saw themselves as a threatened elite of cultural bearers in the fallen empire . They also included the protagonists of German physics , Nobel Prize winners Philipp Lenard and Johannes Stark . This elite stigmatized the inadequacies of materialism in modern society as Jewish at an early stage, and the majority of this “German mandarine ”, in its conservative political tradition, converted to the anti-Semitic camp. In contrast, there was widespread rejection of classical physics , especially among the younger generation . Today, the development of quantum physics in the 1920s, with its non-illustrative and apparently paradoxical basic statements, is viewed as a child of this mindset.

In fact , when Werner Heisenberg correctly and completely formulated quantum mechanics for the first time in 1925 with his matrix mechanics, he was more of a “young revolutionary” at the time, whereas until then one only listened to the “old men” like Niels Bohr , who was with his semi-classical mechanistic atomic model dominated the physics debates since 1910.

However, it was again these "old men" (such as Max Born ) who recognized the revolutionary aspect of Heisenberg's theory and gave Heisenberg's formula expressions the corresponding mathematical formulation. Erwin Schrödinger , who quasi “stood in between”, gave the new theory its final shape independently in 1926 with his “Schrödinger equation”, but it was only interpreted correctly - non-classically - by Niels Bohr and Max Born.

The connections are therefore complicated even for professional representatives, especially since Einstein also interfered in the debate in 1935 (with complicated arguments that immediately found Bohr's contradiction, see EPR paradox ).

However, nationalist or anti-Semitic tendencies in the natural sciences had not only existed for much longer in the German Empire. The first scientific treatise to establish a connection between national culture and scientific thinking in relation to modern science came from the Parisian physicist and philosopher Pierre Duhem (1861–1916), who in turn rejected the relativity and quantum theory . He distinguished between an abstract thinking ability to find the right axioms, the esprit de finesse , and the ability to derive the right conclusions from it, the esprit de géométrie . One is intuitive, erratic and more emotional, the other follows fixed, externally imposed rules. The pair of terms can already be found in Pascal , but Duhem expanded it by ascribing different expressions of these abilities to different peoples.

In the 1920s , the writings now called anti-relativism and attacks against modern physics by scientists who had recognized them before the First World War increased. This included Philipp Lenard, who in 1886 had continued his experiments on cathode rays as an assistant at Heinrich Hertz . By fundamentally clarifying the photoelectric effect and phosphorescence , Lenard also contributed to the development of the quantum concept, for which he received the Nobel Prize in 1905. After the First World War he turned away from modern physics and polemicized against "Jewish influences" in physics with a view to Albert Einstein. In Große Naturforscher (1929), Lenard attempted to present the history of physics solely on the basis of the biographies of “Aryan” physicists.

Johannes Stark, who represented German physics more as an organizer than as an ideologist, took a similar path . Since 1909 he has been a full professor at the TH Aachen and has distinguished himself there with his technical and experimental skills and his visual talent. He had discovered the Doppler effect on canal rays and tried as early as 1906 to explain it using the special theory of relativity and, a year later, also using the quantum theory. He pointed u. a. the so-called Stark effect , the change in atomic and molecular energy levels through electrical fields. He was one of the earliest proponents of the quantum concept. Towards the beginning of the war, however, he turned against these concepts.

A high point of the early controversy over German physics was Lenard's appearance at the gathering of German naturalists and doctors in Bad Nauheim on September 23, 1920, when there was a public confrontation with Einstein.

Lenard's main objection was the lack of illustration of Einstein's general theory of relativity , which went against common sense . Stark was also present as a speaker at the meeting.


Since the facilities for basic research throughout Europe offered Jewish scientists a special opportunity to integrate at the beginning of the 20th century, a disproportionately large number of intellectual fathers of the modern physical worldview were of Jewish descent (e.g. Albert Einstein, Max Born and Wolfgang Pauli ). Other prominent German physicists such as Werner Heisenberg , who had worked with Born, were denigrated as "white Jews" (see below). For this reason, in the course of the controversy over Albert Einstein's theory of relativity , the anti-Semites constructed the term (abstract) Jewish physics as early as the 1920s , as opposed to (comprehensible) German physics .

The year 1933 brought about a turning point in the scientific organization through the co-ordination and dismissal of Jewish scientists, in which representatives of German physics gained positions of power. On May 1, 1933, Johannes Stark was appointed President of the Physikalisch-Technische Reichsanstalt by the Reich Minister of the Interior , followed in 1934 by the presidency of the important research funding institution Notgemeinschaft der Deutschen Wissenschaft . In the same year, however, Stark's claim to chair the German Physical Society was prevented by a large majority. The award of the Nobel Prize to Werner Heisenberg in 1933 further weakened the position of German Physics . Some German physicists also took an explicit position for Einstein early on (e.g. Max von Laue ).

The group around Lenard and Stark initially turned out to be small, but politically influential. Philipp Lenard took over the role of ideologist with an advisory function to the Reich Minister of Culture Bernhard Rust ; Johannes Stark was the influential organizer. He coined u. a. the term “white Jew” for non-Jewish, Aryan in the ideological structure of the National Socialists , representatives of the relativity and quantum theory. In the SS newspaper Das Schwarze Korps of July 15, 1937, he primarily attacked Werner Heisenberg with this term.

A political success of German physics was the occupation of the Munich Sommerfeld chair by the German physicist Wilhelm Müller in 1939. The department responsible at the university originally planned to be a summerfeld student Werner Heisenberg for this position.

But even before that, Lenard and Stark's supporters lost influence because modern physics was able to prove its usefulness everywhere, especially in numerous research projects of the Nazi state. The uranium project was one of them . Nevertheless, the situation was tense, so that the two physicists Wolfgang Finkelnburg and Otto Scherzer tried to finally and officially clarify the scientific positions. In November 1940 there was a debate, now known as the Munich Religious Discussion , between representatives of German physics ( Rudolf Tomaschek , Alfons Bühl, Ludwig Wesch and Wilhelm Müller) and, among others, Carl Ramsauer , Georg Joos , Hans Kopfermann and Carl Friedrich von Weizsäcker as representatives of the modern physics. In it, the representatives of German Physics should publicly recognize scientifically immovable facts of modern physics and stop the intolerable political attacks against them. The written agreement stated the following:

  1. The theoretical physics with all the mathematical tools is a necessary part of the overall physics.
  2. The facts of experience summarized in the special theory of relativity are an integral part of physics. However, the certainty of applying the special theory of relativity is not so great that further checking is unnecessary.
  3. The four-dimensional representation of natural processes is a useful mathematical aid; but it does not mean the introduction of a new view of space and time.
  4. Any connection between the theory of relativity and general relativism is rejected.
  5. Quantum and wave mechanics is the only currently known tool for the quantitative recording of atomic processes. It is desirable to advance beyond the formalism and its interpretative rules to a deeper understanding of the atoms.

Lenard himself did not see his ideas adequately represented and assessed the declaration as treason. The representatives of modern physics, on the other hand, could live with this list of things taken for granted.


The partially pseudoscientific phenomenon of German physics - as well as German mathematics propagated by Ludwig Bieberbach and Theodor Vahlen or Paul Waldens' German chemistry - has so far been mainly interpreted as a project to integrate the natural sciences into fascist society. The two tendencies of a folk science according to Lenard, Stark or Vahlen at the beginning of the 1930s alternate with a science as a national task in the sense of the people as a whole , which corresponded better to the necessities of the autarchy and armaments policy from 1936. The peculiarity of German Physics was the comparatively great political influence of the two Nobel Prize winners Lenard and Stark (and the hoped-for influence of other Nobel Prize winners) in the form of leading positions in the scientific organization and advisory functions towards the political elite from 1933.

The roots of German physics , however, can be traced back to the late 19th century, when national sciences were propagated in many European countries . At the beginning of the First World War, the differences escalated into a real war of the spirits through the manifestos of leading scholars . Certainly there are national styles of science that differ in methods and forms of theorization. However, German physics emerged at the end of the First World War as an antipole to the emerging modern physics and demanded a principled clarity of the models and the experiment as a methodological basis in contrast to the abstract thought experiments of theoretical physics. The main reasons are to be found in the special intellectual constitution of the scientific elite in the Weimar Republic: many university professors who had made their major careers in the German Empire rejected Weimar democracy as an “un-German” form of government and were able to deal with the changes that the modern times, both politically and scientifically, did not make friends. The criticism of German physics was directed in particular against the theses of Albert Einstein, which contradicted classical physical ideas, who embodied modern physics through his work on both relativity and quantum theory and for which he even received the Nobel Prize in 1921. Lenard's attempts, which appeared desperate in the end, to place the relativity principle and quantum theory on a classically descriptive basis through the auxiliary construction of the ether theory , lost all plausibility with the further development of physics and at the latest with the discovery of nuclear fission.

During National Socialism, German physics finally changed to racist Aryan physics , while modern physics continued to establish itself. Ironically, even in the National Socialist state, the so-called “modern physics” was the basis for military-relevant research projects such as the “uranium project”, which is why Lenard and Stark were isolated at the latest after the fundamental discussion between representatives of modern and German physics at the end of 1940.

In Bertolt Brecht's drama Fear and Misery of the Third Reich , a scene deals with German physics . In this scene, two physicists from Göttingen exchange scientific findings on gravitational waves . The scientists can only secretly read the results, which apparently come from Einstein , and if Einstein's name is accidentally mentioned, one of the scientists has to feign contempt for Einstein in front of possible informers: “Yes, a real Jewish subtlety! What does that have to do with physics? ”. In the poem that precedes the scene, Brecht comments that the Third Reich did not want a “correct / but an Aryan-faced / approved German physics”.

Influential representatives

In total, a group of around 30 physicists actively represented German physics through teaching, publications and lectures. The leading representatives were:

In the 1930s, younger physicists were added, mostly students of Lenard and Stark and whose political activity often exceeded that of their teachers.

See also


  • Philipp Lenard: Great Naturalists: A History of Natural Research in Descriptions of Life . Munich 1929.
  • Philipp Lenard: German Physics. 4 volumes. JF Lehmann-Verlag, Munich 1936, especially foreword. in Volume I, and pp. I, III and XII f. as well as publisher information in 3rd edition, ibid. 1943.
  • Rudolf Tomaschek: The development of the ether concept. In: August Becker (Ed.): Nature research on the move . Munich 1936, pp. 70-74.
  • Philipp Lenard: Scientific Treatises Volume IV . Edited and commented critically by Charlotte Schönbeck. GNT, Berlin / Diepholz 2003, ISBN 3-928186-35-3 .
  • Andreas Kleinert : From Science allemande to German physics: Nationalism and modern science in France and Germany between 1914 and 1940. In: Francia. 6, 1978, pp. 509-525.
  • Fritz K. Ringer : The Scholars. The decline of the German mandarin 1890–1933 . Stuttgart 1983. (First edition: The Decline of the German Mandarins . Cambridge MA 1969)
  • Jörg Behrmann: Integration chances of Jewish scientists in basic research institutions in the early 20th century. In: Walter Grab (Ed.): Jews in German Science . International Symposium, April 1985. (= Yearbook of the Institute for German History. Supplement 10). Munich 1985, pp. 281-327.
  • Paul Forman : Weimar Culture, Causality, and Quantum Theory, 1918–1927: Adaptation by German Physicists and Mathematicians to a Hostile Intellectual Environment. In: Historical Studies in the Physical Sciences. 3, 1971, pp. 1-115.
  • Alan D. Beyerchen: Scientist under Hitler. Physicist in the Third Reich . Frankfurt am Main 1982, ISBN 3-548-34098-9 .
  • Klaus Hentschel (Ed.): Physics and National Socialism. An Anthology of Primary Sources. Basel 1996, ISBN 3-0348-0202-1 .
  • Werner Heisenberg: German and Jewish Physics . Edited by Helmut Rechenberg. Munich 1992, ISBN 3-492-11676-0 .
  • Freddy Litten: Mechanics and Anti-Semitism: Wilhelm Müller (1880–1968) . Institute for the History of Natural Sciences, 2000, ISBN 3-89241-035-6 .
  • Dieter Hoffmann , Mark Walker (Ed.): Physicists between autonomy and adaptation. The German Physical Society in the Third Reich . Wiley-VCH, Weinheim 2007, ISBN 978-3-527-40585-5 .

Web links

References and comments

  1. Jörg Willer: Didactics in the Third Reich using the example of physics. In: Medical historical messages. Journal for the history of science and specialist prose research. Volume 34, 2015, ISBN 978-3-86888-118-9 , pp. 105–121, here: p. 105.
  2. Preface. In: Philipp Lenard: German Physics. Volume I, Munich 1936, p. IX.
  3. Rudolf Tomaschek: The development of the ether concept. In: August Becker (Ed.): Nature research on the move . Munich 1936, p. 73.
  4. The phrase physics is far too difficult for physicists comes from the prominent mathematician David Hilbert .
  5. ^ Fritz K. Ringer: The scholars. The decline of the German mandarin 1890–1933 . Stuttgart 1983. (First edition: The Decline of the German Mandarins. Cambridge, Mass. 1969)
  6. ^ Paul Forman: Weimar Culture, Causality, and Quantum Theory, 1918-1927: Adaption by German Physicists and Mathematicians to a Hostile Intellectual Environment. In: Historical Studies in the Physical Sciences. 3, 1971, pp. 1-115.
  7. Einstein, astonishingly, advocated the addition of hidden classical (!) Variables to quantum mechanics, with arguments that only turned out to be incorrect long after his death (see Bell's inequality .)
  8. Andreas Kleinert: From Science allemande to German physics: Nationalism and modern science in France and Germany between 1914 and 1940. In: Francia. 6, 1978, p. 515 ff.
  9. ^ Jörg Behrmann: Integration chances of Jewish scientists in basic research institutions in the early 20th century. In: Walter Grab (Ed.): Jews in German Science . International Symposium, April 1985. (= Yearbook of the Institute for German History. Supplement 10). Munich 1985, pp. 281-327.
This version was added to the list of articles worth reading on December 31, 2005 .