The “Führer of Physics”: the Nazi Scientists who sought to discredit Einstein with racist arguments

Albert Einstein faced tremendously complex calculations to solve great riddles of the universe. And at the same time, withstood the fierce attack by Nazi scientists that, driven by envy, the anxiety to feel lagging behind new theories and Inspired by racist ideas, they tried to stop the intellectual revolution that brewed one of the most brilliant physicists of all time. And they weren’t petty enemies.

During years, two Nobel laureates in physics, Philipp Lenard and Johannes Stark, led a discrediting campaign against Einstein, based on a science influenced by Nazi ideology.

Philipp LenardGETTY

His strategy was impose an alleged “Aryan physics”, in contrast to what they considered a physicist that had been kidnapped by a, also supposed, “Jewish spirit”.

Lenard and Stark refused to acknowledge the two theories boldest of the time, both promoted by scientists of Jewish origin: Einstein’s relativity and Niels Bohr’s quantum mechanics.

Such was the reluctance of Lenard and Star that historians claim that their efforts were comparable to those of wanting to become the “Führer of physics”.

How did Lenard and Stark hate Einstein, what was their persecution campaign like, and how far did they go in their endeavor to impose “Aryan physics”?

Einstein, of Jewish origin and increasingly recognized worldwide, it was very uncomfortable for the Nazis.

In addition, your success made Lenard jealousHe was also a brilliant physicist, but without many of the attributes that made Einstein special.

Johannes stark
Johannes starkGETTY

Lenard received the Nobel Prize in physics in 1905 for his study of cathode rays. However, he had “limited intellectual depth and I was emotionally and imaginatively stunted”, As described by the scientific writer and former editor of the magazine Nature Philip Ball in his book Serving the Reich: The Struggle for the Soul of Physics under Hitler (In the service of the Reich: the fight for the soul of physics under Hitler).

Lenard was a largely experimental scientist and, according to Ball, his math skills were not enough for him to understand such daring ideas as relativity.

His inability to understand relativity led him to disqualify it as a theory, and the fact that it was supported by the international academic community, made him think that it was a conspiracy.

Lenard clung to the idea that what we know today as spacetime was the so-called ether, and he called relativity a “Jewish fraud.”

Albert Einstein
Albert EinsteinGETTY

In case of Stark it was similar. In 1919 he had received the Nobel Prize in Physics to discover that an electric field causes alterations in the spectrum of light, a phenomenon that today is known as Stark effect.

Stark was also an experimentalist who was overwhelmed by the mathematical complexity that physics was taking on.

And like Lenard, too he was an extreme nationalist whose ideas had been radicalized after the First World War. Such was his nationalism, that he came to clash with Nazi officers because, from his point of view, they were not “Nazi enough.”

The new physics was taking on a complexity beyond the limits of Lenard and Stark.
The new physics was taking on a complexity beyond the limits of Lenard and Stark.GETTY

Both of them, Lenard and Stark, they had joined the Nazis since before the party took power.

Lenard was already criticizing relativity since 1910, but it was from 1920 that started adding racist elements to his attacks, according to Ball. His discourse was based on the fact that, while the Aryans clung to data and experimental work, “the Jews were immersed in abstract speculations “.

Lenard and Stark applied Nazi ideology to science
Lenard and Stark applied Nazi ideology to scienceGETTY

“Lenard’s argument was that any human endeavor, including science, was defined by race,” he tells BBC World Alex Wellerstein, historian of science specializing in the history of eugenics. “Lenard maintained that different races had different physics.”

Since relativity and quantum mechanics include factors such as uncertainty and relativism, Lenard saw in those theories a threat to a well-organized society and a path to chaos.

However, the “Aryan physics”, which included experiments that had been booming in the Germany 19th century, emphasized tangible truths, in science that was applied to real problems and in an approach to reality strictly based on the experimental.

Niels Bohr in his laboratory in 1940
Niels Bohr in his laboratory in 1940GETTY

In general, Lenard and Stark’s arguments did not contain “substantial criticism” of Einstein’s ideas, Wellerstein explains. From a scientific point of view they were weak.

The most generous thing that could be said for anti Einstein arguments, says Wellerstein, is that at that time various aspects of his theories had not been completed, which opened the door for characters like Lenard or Stark to offer alternative explanations, ignoring the robust aspects of Einstein’s ideas.

In 1931, hundreds of philosophers and scientists participated in a publication against Einstein’s ideas. Wellerstein, however, points out that “Aryan physics” did not really enjoy much popularity.

Quantum theory was revolutionary for science
Quantum theory was revolutionary for scienceGETTY

“I do not know of any exact number (of followers), but the accounts I have read make it seem that it was relatively small,” says the expert.

“You have to take into account that the ideas that Lenard and Stark were pushing were not very interesting from the perspective of functional physics. It was physics from the past, not from the future. “

What did Hitler think of all this?

The top Nazi leader obviously I was aware of Einstein, world famous for his 1921 Nobel, and for being a dissident who refused to return to Germany after the rise of the Nazis.

Wellerstein, however, says he hasn’t seen much evidence that Hitler considered Lenard and Stark’s campaign worthy of his personal attention. “Hitler did not need sophisticated reasons to hate the Jews and their creations”says the historian.

Hitler was not particularly interested in the ideas of Lenard and Stark
Hitler was not particularly interested in the ideas of Lenard and StarkGETTY

In general, Einstein did not get involved much in the attacks of his detractors. In 1920, however, posted a letter in response to one of Lenard’s orchestrated attacks on relativity. “I admire Lenard as a master of experimental physics”wrote the physicist.

Many times Einstein let others discuss his ideas
Many times Einstein let others discuss his ideasGETTY

“However, he has yet to achieve something in theoretical physics, and his objections to the theory of general relativity are so superficial that he had not considered it necessary, until now, to answer them in detail.”

According to Wellerstein, Einstein moved away from public debates about his theories and left it to other physicists to discuss them. “Far as I know, did not try to influence debates within Nazi Germany, perhaps aware that the only thing it would achieve would be to shake them, ”says Wellerstein.

Over time, the ideas of Lenard and Stark were losing force before the pragmatism of the Nazi officers. In the heat of the war, these leaders were more interested in achieving results, developing weapons and technology, than in discussions about the interpretation of physics.

For the Germans, the priority was to develop weapons and technology
For the Germans, the priority was to develop weapons and technologyGETTY

The Nazis never adopted ‘Aryan physics’ as part of their official ideology, ”says Wellerstein. “The ‘Aryan Physics’ failed spectacularly, because even the Nazis had a hard time taking it seriously, especially during the war. “

Ball, for his part, explains that it was clear to the Nazis that the Jews who had proposed quantum theory and relativity were the ones who really they knew the secrets of the atoms, and that only they were able to turn their findings into practical applications.

After the end of the war, the Nuremberg trials arrived in 1945.

The leaders of Nazism were tried at the Nuremberg trials
The leaders of Nazism were tried at the Nuremberg trialsGETTY

Then, Lenard was 82 years old and even though was arrested briefly and stripped of his title as Professor Emeritus at the University of Heidelberg, he was never convicted and died in 1947, as Ball explains in his book.

Stark He was also spared a severe sentence. In 1947 he was sentenced to four years work in the field, but the sentence was suspended twice and died without fulfilling his codena in 1957, at the age of 83.

In 2020, the International Astronomical Union decided that two craters on the Moon that had been named Lenard and Stark in honor of these scientists, should cease to be named that way. There are voices that go further and they ask that they be withdrawn their respective Nobel Laureates.

However, Einstein’s general relativity stands as one of the most important theories in modern physics, hoping someone will top her with really solid arguments.

We want to say thanks to the writer of this write-up for this outstanding material

The “Führer of Physics”: the Nazi Scientists who sought to discredit Einstein with racist arguments