History of the Journal Nature

Nature and Hitler

Uwe Hossfeld1 & Lennart Olsson2

Nature under the editorship of Sir Richard Gregory (1919–39) was banned in Nazi Germany. Uwe Hossfeld and Lennart Olsson explore the clash between science and national socialism.

The Nazi régime was acutely aware of the importance of radio and print for distributing propaganda. This had a direct impact on science when Nature and other journals perceived as critical of the régime were banned from German libraries in 1937. This was a blow for Nature's Editor Sir Richard Gregory, which ran counter to the magazine's reputation as an international institution and pioneer on social issues. Although it had shown interest in the then-fashionable theory of eugenics, the journal had indeed deplored the expulsion from 1933 of Jewish academics from Germany. Gregory retired in 1939 while the ban was still in place, but he lived long enough to witness Nature's revival in Germany after the war. He died in 1952.

Political influence on science was nothing new in Germany in the Nazi era and, as far as Britain was concerned, could be traced directly back to the anti-British propaganda of the First World War. For example, the famous zoologist Ernst Haeckel wrote in his book Eternity in 1915 that Britain had developed into a deadly enemy who carried the "blood guilt" for the war. He found this particularly unfortunate as Britain was a fellow "Germanic brother state", and he fiercely criticized Britain's "brutal national egotism" and its "megalomania as an empire who wanted to rule the world," as well as venting hatred on its allies, who came from "the lower coloured human races from all parts of the Earth."

Nature and Hitler

Sir Richard Gregory's Nature criticized the expulsion of Jewish scientists from Nazi Germany.

Anti-British propaganda led to a ban on Nature in Germany by decree from 12 November 1937. The Propaganda Ministry was not responsible, but the Ministry of Science and Education, headed by Bernhard Rust. The reason given was that "articles are often published in the London weekly scientific journal Nature containing outrageous and vile attacks on German science and the national socialist state. The journal must therefore be excluded from general use in the scientific libraries. I request the universities, academies, institutes and seminar libraries to carry out the appropriate steps." See the 12 November 1937 decree (in German, PDF: 61KB) and a longer article (also in German, PDF: 1,010KB) for more.

This was one of many orders directed against German science at the time. For instance, Adolf Hitler had founded a national prize for art and science on 10 January 1937, as a substitute for the Nobel Prizes, which he forbade Germans to receive "for all future." The national prize was a reaction to the fact the Nobel Peace Prize had in 1936 been awarded to Carl von Ossietzky, an enemy of the Nazi régime. The new prize and 100,000 Reichsmark were to be awarded annually to "two Germans of great merit."

The Nature ban followed similar decrees, such as one on 3 April 1935 on the proper treatment of banned books. A total of 12,400 books were blacklisted, including both scientific literature (by Albert Einstein and Sigmund Freud, for example) and fiction (by Thomas Mann and members of his family, and Franz Kafka, for example). Several important newspapers were banned as well, including the Berliner Tageblatt (1939) and the Frankfurter Zeitung (1943). Banned material was to be locked away in a special part of the library and accessible only to those in charge; punishment followed if these strict rules were broken.

German politicians and scientists began to attack Nature at the inauguration of the Lenard Institute in Heidelberg in 1936, and in 1938 the Zeitschrift für die gesamte Naturwissenschaft published an article referring to Nature as an "abominable" journal, saying that: "Earlier its [Nature's] task was to report in an objective, easily understood way about all areas of natural science. But today one finds baiting articles against national socialist Germany in every issue." These articles were allegedly "mostly based on democratic-liberal and Jewish feelings of hatred." Nature's correspondents were further accused of having created an anti-fascist espionage organization in Germany and Italy, starting in 1933.

Several critical pieces published by Nature in 1937 were also attacked in the 1938 "abominable journal" article, such as "Freedom of the mind" (June 5) and "Science and peace" (June 12), which the article claimed were written by Jews. In his summary, H. Rügemer writes: "... [by] 'enslavement of the spirit,' it [Nature] just means our responsible ending of an activity in German cultural life by Jews and Jews-in-spirit that sought to destroy the foundations of Aryan science. By 'Freedom of the mind', Nature means the flowers of Jewish–Marxist impatience, which grow so well in the soil of liberalism...." He ends, "We hope, that the rowdy writings of a little Jewish scribe has no effect on the sound sense of the English for fairness and decency."

The article is only one example of the often strongly anti-semitic and anti-British tone common to papers published at this time in the Zeitschrift and in similar journals, such as the Nationalsozialistische Monatshefte and the Völkischer Beobachter. The Zeitschrift was started in 1935 and taken over by Nazi organizations in 1936: it was thence to have a scientific outlook "appropriate for the German spirit." From 1939, it was published by the Ahnenerbe-Stiftung press in Berlin-Dahlem, which was run by Heinrich Himmler to promote the racial politics and 'science' of the régime.

Nature and Hitler

Gregory used the Macmillan war pamphlet Science in Chains to argue against the Nazi political doctrine.

How and whether the ban on Nature was implemented in the different regions of Germany is not clear. Little is to be found in the large German archives, such as the Bundesarchiv in Berlin. It is our impression that there were regional differences. At our own university in Jena, Nature issues from 1937 are missing, having been locked up or destroyed, whereas the university libraries in Göttingen, Giessen and Berlin have almost complete volumes throughout the 1930s. During the 1940s, the Jena librarians started trying to protect books and journals from being destroyed in the war, and the Nature volumes from these years have survived.

Gregory responded only briefly (PDF: 171KB) to the ban in early 1938 when news reached the Nature office, noting that the prohibition was "hard to bear", but later used Science in Chains, his contribution to a series of Macmillan war pamphlets published in 1941, to defend his journal more robustly: "The assertion that German science was attacked in Nature or any other scientific journal is as false as it is disingenuous." Gregory went on to name Bernhard Rust, the minister of education responsible for the ban, as having "made the principle of freedom of teaching and learning subservient to the philosophy of Teutonic superiority," and made no apologies for his journal having criticized expulsions of Jewish scientists in Germany: "only a German political official could expect them [German scientists] to be silent while they see renowned and respected fellow-workers expelled with cruel indignities from their laboratories as the result of bitter racial prejudice or lack of support of a social system which would place science in chains."

Gregory also pointed out, "Since 1933, natural philosophy has been subordinated to Nazi philosophy in Germany, and knowledge is shaped and confined within a political mould."

As the twenty-first century gets underway, we need to keep in mind the painful lessons learned during the last century from placing political restrictions on academic freedom.

  1. Uwe Hossfeld is at AG Biologiedidaktik
  2. Lennart Olsson is at the Institut für Spezielle Zoologie, Friedrich-Schiller-Universität, Jena, Germany.

Main navigation