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  • The Mental Aftermath: The Mentality of German Physicists, 1945–1949
  • Richard H. Beyler (bio)
The Mental Aftermath: The Mentality of German Physicists, 1945–1949. By Klaus Hentschel.New York: Oxford University Press, 2007. Pp. vi+205. £25; $49.50.

Postwar Germany has become a hot topic among historians of science and technology. This compact volume—a fine translation of the German original published in 2005—simultaneously offers the reader a synopsis of the recent historiography of postwar German science and a forceful statement of Klaus Hentschel's own perspectives. Its carefully delimited scope leaves open a number of important questions, and Hentschel's theoretical framework requires further exploration. But these provisos are no criticism of his mastery of the material. The book's very conciseness recommends it highly to anyone seeking a clear overview of this important and rapidly changing [End Page 484] historiographical field. It will be particularly useful to readers unfamiliar with the recent German-language literature.

Hentschel examines the collective mentality of German physicists during the late 1940s regarding the social and political relations of science, both in the contemporary context and, retrospectively, during the National Socialist regime. His methodological model is the work of the Annales school or, more immediately, the work of historians such as Georges Duby or Frank-Michael Kuhlemann who applied the concept in more socially and temporally specific contexts. Hentschel identifies multiple points of "convergence" within the "specific mentality of German physicists" in the postwar context (p. 14). Three related to tensions with the Allies, including resentment over the "export" of German scientists and a "phobia" of the Russians. Several points of convergence manifested a sense of isolation, self-pity, and listlessness regarding Germany's contemporary situation. Others reflected failures to come to terms with the past: forgetting, self-justification, scapegoating, and a frequent insensitivity toward émigrés and critics.

The physicists' vision of the future, as described by Hentschel, was marked by political apathy and workaholism, but also a growing sense of social responsibility. Hentschel covers these aspects of the physicists' mentality serially, some in more detail than others, in chapters 3 through 16.He also includes brief analyses of views of German science internationally (chapter 2) and among the émigré community specifically (chapter 17).His overall picture is of a readily comprehensible but still disheartening retreat by postwar German physicists into self-centered apologetics rather than an intellectually open and morally courageous confrontation with a disturbing past and an uncertain future.

Few of these analyses will come as any surprise to experts in the field, but Hentschel lays out the way in which they formed an interconnected system—that is, a mentality—while analyzing numerous telling examples drawn from primary sources. These sources mostly fall into two categories: articles in Physikalische Blätter, the leading news-of-the profession journal; and correspondence drawn from a wide-ranging sample of (often newly accessible) archival sources. Especially revealing for a broader audience will be Hentschel's discussions of the instrumentalization of the "Aryan physics" movement as a scapegoat for science as a whole under Nazism, the conflicted relationships between Germans and the Allies, and the tendency toward faux pas of even well-known anti-Nazis such as Max von Laue in their dealings with the international physics community and with exiled former colleagues.

Given his focus on collective mentality, Hentschel disavows an interest in individuals except as exemplars of the group, a fortiori for figures such as Werner Heisenberg who have been scrutinized intensively elsewhere. While this procedure establishes a convincing general picture, it implicitly raises a question of the degrees and causes of variations within this mentality. [End Page 485] In other words, Hentschel is a "lumper," but "splitters" might want to explore the social and intellectual circumstances that might have led to distinctive or idiosyncratic manifestations of the collective mentality.

Hentschel's focus on physicists is certainly reasonable, given the post Hiroshima context, and it gives the book a clear coherence, but it necessarily excludes other lines of inquiry. One such line (already begun by several researchers, as Hentschel acknowledges) is comparative studies of other scientific disciplines, with attention to similarities and differences among professional cultures. Likewise, the...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1097-3729
Print ISSN
0040-165X
Pages
pp. 484-486
Launched on MUSE
2008-05-02
Open Access
No
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