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  • Taking Nazi Technology: Allied Exploitation of German Science after the Second World War by Douglas O'Reagan
  • Bruce Seely (bio)
Taking Nazi Technology: Allied Exploitation of German Science after the Second World War
By Douglas O'Reagan. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2019. Pp. 296.

Taking Nazi Technology is an important addition to the lengthy literature that historians of technology have generated about a classic area of inquiry—technology transfer. Recently scholars have characterized the movement of technology as diffusion, circulation, or flows; others have labeled it knowledge management. But the traditional designation still seems appropriate in this instance.

The focus of Douglas O'Reagan's study—the desire of the victorious Allies to benefit from Nazi science and technology after 1945—has long been recognized as an important example of attempts to transfer technology across national boundaries. But as the author notes, most earlier studies [End Page 1236] rather narrowly explored the acquisition of German science and technology—such as missile and rocket systems. O'Reagan's account, however, offers a unique comparative perspective and covers a much broader swath of terrain, both in terms of the activities examined and the time frame.

O'Reagan's first four chapters compare the efforts of the four Allied powers to exploit German science, technology, and industrial knowledge after 1945. His analysis is at the national level and explores the organization and structure of these efforts. In some respects, these chapters discuss national bureaucracies and policy. O'Reagan identifies significant differences in national styles and places these efforts within the context of well-known tensions between the Allies after the war. Those tensions included not only the Cold War rivalries between the United States and the Soviet Union, but also competitive differences between France, the United Kingdom, and the United States. The United States sought to disseminate information to its stakeholders through a massive document collection effort, while the Soviet Union seized factories and people outright for both reparations and technological knowledge. The United Kingdom sought industrial knowledge to offset its apparent decline as an industrial power. The French exhibited a more cooperative approach, prefiguring the trans-European collaboration that ultimately resulted in the European Union. Within these comparative discussions, the author identifies what worked and assesses the overall impact of these large-scale attempts to collect German science and technology. Significantly O'Reagan concludes that despite a few high-profile success stories in rocketry, the direct benefits to the Allies were not enormous.

A fifth chapter examines the realignment of German academic science in the postwar period, under the direction of the same agencies responsible for appropriating German technology. O'Reagan continues his comparative approach, showing that each Allied country developed different plans for de-Nazification and the restriction of German redevelopment, while also preventing German scientists and technicians from working for other Allies. But the emergence of the Cold War shifted the focus to rebuilding Germany, and especially its scientific establishments. O'Reagan uses this chapter to reinforce the overall importance of science and science policy in the development of nations after 1945.

A final substantive chapter explores the development of document and information systems to disseminate German records in the Allied nations. This section constitutes an important topic no other scholar has examined. O'Reagan connects postwar data dissemination with earlier attempts to create scientific libraries and knowledge diffusion programs from the nineteenth century forward. The chapter touches on information technology, the internationalization of science, and the role of government in science.

The book's conclusion is a fine summation of both the immediate and broader consequences of the frenzy to acquire German science and technology [End Page 1237] after World War II. In terms of immediate issues, the author confirms the findings of other historians that people and know-how are more vital to successful technology transfer programs than documents and drawings. His discussion of know-how is an especially important contribution. As for the broader questions, O'Reagan links the Allies' postwar technology acquisition activities to later steps such as the Marshall Plan, Eisenhower's Point Four Program on nuclear energy, the rise of the European economic and political community, and Cold War efforts to...


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