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Planck family paid a high price for opposing Hitler

Sir

Your News item “German science starts facing up to its historical amnesia”1 should rivet the attention of the living generation of scientific workers on the tragic descent of broad sections of German science and medicine into the embrace of Hitler and Goebbels.

Under the Third Reich, 45 per cent of German physicians became Nazi party members2, and physicists of the rank of Stark and Lenard, together with the world-class mathematician Bieberbach, robustly espoused Nazi doctrine and practice and railed against contamination of the German academy by ‘Jewish physics’, notably Einstein's special relativity theory3.

Unfortunately, the doctored and undoctored 1934 group photo of Max Planck which accompanies your news item may mislead readers into conceiving Max Plank himself to be a willing fraternizer with German fascism. In fact, Planck and his closest associate, Max von Laue, were among the first to assimilate and respond to Einstein's great 1905 paper. As Einstein's biographer Abraham Pais notes4: “The rapidity with which special relativity became a topic of discussion is largely due to Planck's early interest”.

These events in the first decade of the twentieth century were followed by at least three memorable events under the Third Reich. In 1933, during a face-to-face showdown, Planck pleaded in vain with a highly agitated Führer to stop the Nazi purge of the German academy5. In 1935 Planck officially defied Hitler by publicly commemorating Fritz Haber at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute6. And, in 1945, the Gestapo executed Planck's last surviving child, Erwin Planck, for complicity in the Stauffenberg conspiracy to assassinate Hitler.

References

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    The Value of the Human Being: Medicine in Germany, 1918–1945 (Ärztekammer, Berlin, 1991).

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    Nature 133, 290 (1934); 137, 93 & 141 (1936).

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    Pais, A. Subtle is the Lord: The Science and Life of Albert Einstein 149–150 (Oxford Univ. Press, Oxford, 1982).

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    Heilbron, J. L. The Dilemmas of an Upright Man: Max Planck as a Spokesman for German Science (Univ. of California Press, Berkeley, 1986).

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    Nature 135, 216 (1935); 158, 170 (1946).

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Steinsmith, W. Planck family paid a high price for opposing Hitler. Nature 405, 116 (2000). https://doi.org/10.1038/35012165

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