Physics in Perspective

, Volume 7, Issue 3, pp 293–329 | Cite as

Between Autonomy and Accommodation:The German Physical Society during the Third Reich

  • Dieter HoffmannEmail author
Original Paper


I first sketch the history of the German Physical Society (Deutsche Physikalische Gesellschaft,DPG) from its founding by six young Berlin scientists as the Physical Society of Berlin (Physikalische Gesellschaft zu Berlin) in 1845, through its renaming as the DPG in 1899 and its rise to prominence by the beginning of the 1930s. I then turn to the history of the DPG during the Third Reich, which can be divided into two periods, from the transfer of power in Germany to the Nazis in 1933 to 1940, and from 1941 to 1945. During the first period, Johannes Stark (1874–1957), one of the leaders of the “German Physics” (Deutsche Physik) movement, attempted to gain election as the Chairman of the DPG in September 1933 but was repulsed. A period of relative autonomy of the DPG from Nazi ideology and policies ensued, which gradually was transformed into one of accommodation, until at the end of the 1938, Peter Debye (1884–1966), then Chairman of the DPG, bowed to governmental demands and Nazi activists in the DPG, introduced Nazi principles, and strongly advised the Jewish members of the DPG to withdraw from it. Debye left Germany in early 1940, and after a transitional period in which Jonathan Zenneck (1871–1959) served as Acting Chairman, Carl Ramsauer (1879–1955) was elected Chairman of the DPG in December 1940, thus opening the second period, the Ramsauer era, which lasted from 1941 until the end of the war in 1945. Ramsauer oversaw the self-coordination (Selbstgleichschaltung) of the DPG to the Nazi regime, and as an industrial physicist he led the DPG to establish ever more alliances with powerful figures in the military-industrial complex of Nazi Germany, which worked to the advantage both of Ramsauer and the DPG and to that of the Nazi regime during the course of the war. Finally, as the military defeat of Germany loomed, Ramsauer took steps aimed at insuring the survival of German physics in the postwar period. After the war, he masked the wartime activities of himself and the DPG, thereby contributing to the postwar conspiracy of silence or minimization of the Nazi past in Germany.

Key words.

Physical Society of Berlin German Physical Society Nazi Germany Nazi bureaucracy Third Reich German Physics Jewish émigrés Physikalische Blätter military-industrial complex Ernst Brüche Peter Debye Albert Einstein Abraham Esau Wolfgang Finkelnburg Max von Laue Lise Meitner Karl Mey Ludwig Prandtl Carl Ramsauer Johannes Stark Jonathan Zenneck 


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Copyright information

© Birkhäuser Verlag, Basel 2005

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Max Planck Institute for the History of ScienceBerlinGermany

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