The Suppression and Misuses of Academic Freedom During the Nazi Regime

By Mitchell G. Ash

The freedom of science (Wissenschaftsfreiheit), or academic freedom, as it is called in English, has been addressed historically from multiple perspectives. In these remarks, I will focus on science and scholarship in one particularly infamous dictatorial regime. Examples of ideologically corrupted or deviant science in dictatorships have often been cited to legitimize the superior value and quality of science in democracies. But can we truly say that science performed in democracies is somehow automatically “better” – from either an epistemic or a moral perspective – than science performed in dictatorships? Challenges to simple causal connections of this kind in the case of the sciences during the Nazi regime began already in the 1970s and 1980s; since then hundreds of studies of the sciences and scientific institutions under Nazism have appeared;[1] work on the humanities has been part of this trend throughout.[2] In this short text, I can only broadly summarize the results of this vast body of work in four parts: (1) political purges that made science/scholarship impossible for many scientists and scholars; (2) attacks on the ideal of scientific objectivity and efforts to establish what has been called “ideologically correct science”; (3) the “self-mobilization” of scientists (and scholars) and their research skills in support of Nazism’s central political/policy projects, before and during World War II; and finally (4) the phenomenon that is often equated with Nazi science per se, “murderous” science – experiments on nonconsenting human beings or their organs in the context of the murder of the Jews and the physically and mentally challenged. I will close with remarks on the term “misuse” in my title.

Bücherverbrennung auf dem Opernplatz [Book burning at Operplatz], 10 May 1933; Source: Bundesarchiv, Bild_102-14598; CC BY-SA 3.0

(1) Political purges of scientists and scholars from German universities and extra-university research institutes began in reaction to the harassment of Social Democratic and allegedly “Jewish” faculty by Nazi students, even before the Law for the Restoration of the German Civil Service was promulgated in April 1933. Paragraph 3 of this law stated that persons whose previous affiliations showed that their loyalty to the new regime was not assured (largely Social Democrats) were either to be dismissed outright or forced into retirement. Paragraph 4 mandated the same treatment for persons of “non-Aryan” descent, meaning Jewish background, whether these persons were Jews by religious confession or not. In doing so, the law “racialized” politics and thereby changed the very meaning of what was meant by “political” dismissals. Among those affected were Nobel Prize winners such as the physicists Albert Einstein and James Franck, and the physical chemist Fritz Haber; all three resigned before they could be dismissed. Franck published his letter of resignation in an important daily newspaper, thus showing that protest was still possible at this stage.

Contrary to many standard accounts, it must be emphasized that the dismissals of thousands of scholars and scientists of “non-Aryan” descent or left-wing political views that began in 1933 (and resumed in Austria after the annexation of that country in 1938) was not a direct attack on science and scholarship as such, but part of the Nazi effort to purge the German civil service as a whole. Nonetheless, the Nazis were plainly ready to accept the massive damage to science and scholarship in Germany as an incidental result of the civil service law. Some Nazis (notably Bernhard Rust, then Minister of Science and Education in Prussia) thought that this alone would suffice to “cleanse” German universities of liberal ideology.[3] The dismissals show that the freedom of science that had been constitutionally guaranteed since 1871 could be revoked by the German state under certain political conditions without formally abrogating the Weimar constitution.

However, the actual impact of the dismissals varied widely across universities and disciplines. The most severely affected universities were Berlin, Frankfurt, and Breslau (places with large Jewish populations); in contrast, universities in Tübingen and Erlangen lost few professors. The disciplines most affected were chemistry, physics, and mathematics, but in other fields, such as geology and population studies, the impact was minimal. In all cases, there was a simple reason for the small number of dismissed scientists in certain fields of universities: people of Jewish descent had not been present in any of them.[4] The statistics can thus be taken as an indicator of the presence or absence of structural antisemitism. Taken together, these purges clearly amounted to a massive suppression of academic freedom. The vast majority of those dismissed left Germany in order to be able to continue working as scientists or scholars.

I would now like to turn to the question of what scientists in Germany did with whatever “autonomy” they had after the purges. As I will show, there were multiple answers to this question.

Nationalsozialistische “Rassenkarte” [National Socialist “Race Map”]; Source: DFG

(2) A different kind of attack on academic freedom came from widely known efforts to establish “ideologically correct” science,[5] which began almost immediately after the purges. The most famous of these was the book burning, offically called the “Action Against the Un-German Spirit,” initiated by members of the National Socialist German Students’ Association on May 10, 1933. The announced aim was to purge German science and culture of “Jewish” writings, including the works of scientists like Sigmund Freud. Also well known was the field called “racial studies” (Rassenkunde), an effort to classify Germans and other peoples into categories determined by their physical appearance using photographic evidence.

More directly focused on changing the content of science was the so-called Deutsche Physik, or “German Physics,”  advocated by Philipp Lenard (director of the largest university physics laboratory in Germany, in Heidelberg) and Johannes Starck (an independent physicist and former professor in Greifswald). These gentlemen were not cranks, but Nobel Prize winners. What they shared was fanatical antisemitism and an equally fanatical opposition to relativity theory and quantum mechanics, which they dismissed as “Jewish” science because these approaches were highly theoretical and mathematical (“Jewish number games”). By contrast, their work was classically experimental in nature (and therefore on the firm ground of physical fact, or bodenständig, to use Nazi jargon). Reich Minister Bernhard Rust appeared to support such positions when he claimed in his address at a jubilee celebration of the University of Heidelberg (at Lenard’s Institute) in 1936 that National Socialism had overcome the “liberal illusion” of “presuppositionless science.” In essence, however, Deutsche Physik was an effort by scientists to mobilize Nazi ideology as a resource to resolve inner-disciplinary battles by political means. Linked with this ideological struggle was a parallel effort to seize control of German scientific institutions. Starck became president of the German Bureau of Standards (Physikalisch-Technische Reichsanstalt) in 1933, and of the German Research Council (DFG), the leading research funding agency in Germany, in 1934. This brings me to my third topic.

(3) Alongside these efforts, the regime moved to centralize the administration of higher education and scientific affairs in a new Reich Ministry for Education and Science in 1934. Nearly all of the departments of this new ministry were headed by staunch National Socialists. The science department of the new ministry was initially led by Theodor Vahlen, a technical mathematician and a Nazi party member since the early 1920s, and later by Rudolf Menzel, a chemist and SS man who later, in 1936, succeeded Johannes Starck as president of the DFG, and still later also headed the Reich Research Office (Reichsforschungsamt). The new ministry moved to assure academic conformity by issuing a decree in 1935 mandating the so-called Führeruniversität. This was not the same as Martin Heidegger’s concept of the same name, but was intended to be a fundamental change in academic governance: The rector and faculty deans were no longer colleagues elected by their peers for one-year terms, but executives with command powers appointed by the ministry. In another ministry decree, the National Socialist University Teachers’ Association (Dozentenbund) was required to assess the political loyalty of anyone proposed for a professorship. Whether such moves actually assured complete political conformity among academics is doubtful. Numerous cases of well-qualified candidates for professorships winning out over party hacks are well documented. I must add here that academic publications were not ordinarily subject to prepublication review by the Nazi party, like other cultural productions. Academics were pressured to join the Dozentenbund, but this body was not given the task of censoring scholarly publications.

In any case, Nazi science administrators like Rudolf Menzel were not focused on “ideologically correct” science, but rather on supporting research that appeared to conform with the practical policy goals of the regime. Contrary to older accounts claiming that Nazism was opposed by nature to modern science, research funding actually increased in the Nazi era, particularly in fields perceived to be most relevant to Nazism’s policy goals: “cleansing” the Reich of “racial impurities,” or “racial hygiene”[6] and the conquest of Europe, particularly of Lebensraum in the East. Taking “race hygiene” first: Rudolf Hess, Hitler’s deputy, is reported to have said that “Nazism is nothing but applied biology.” Geneticists such as Ernst Rudin, head of the Department of Hereditary Family Research in the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Psychiatry in Munich, actually helped write the Nazi sterilization law of 1933. On the military side, weapons research was supported by the air force and the army, the most spectacular example being the army’s rocketry program (within which basic research in aeronautics and navigation mechanisms was carried out),[7] but such work also included research in metallurgy, materials science, and much else that today might be called technoscience.[8] Before and during the war, support also went to social sciences and humanities research that accompanied the forced resettlement of Slavic peoples to create Lebensraum for ethnically defined “Germans” in Eastern Europe.[9] The extension of German science to the occupied territories went hand in hand with the appropriation or outright robbery of research resources in those territories, for example, plant genetics laboratories in the Soviet Union.[10]

Vergeltungswaffe 2 beim Start [V-weapon 2 at take off], 1943; Source: Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-1978-Anh.026-01 / CC-BY-SA 3.0

It is very important to emphasize that the scientists and scholars who worked in or even proposed such research were not forced to engage in such work, but did so willingly, either out of a real commitment to German nationalism, or by opportunistically representing existing research as relevant to current political priorities. Some of them, such as the physical anthropologist Eugen Fischer or the Austrian geographer Hugo Hassinger, while surely German nationalists, were not members of the Nazi party.[11] This massive self-mobilization of German scientists led Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels to remark in his diary in 1942 that “we made a mistake” by trying to force ideological conformity in the early years of the regime, at the expense of useful science and technology. Perhaps, he added, “more freedom” should be granted to allow these scientists to “work toward the Führer.” Goebbels’ change of opinion came too late to alter the course of the war, a fact for which we might well be grateful.

(4) Finally, let me turn to science performed in the context of the murder of the Jews and the physically or mentally challenged.[12] Examples include the murderous human experiments conducted by Sigmund Rascher and others on prisoners of war in Nazi concentration camps, for example, to see whether humans could survive long-term submersion in freezing water. In these studies, the possible death of the research subjects was part of the experimental design. Somewhat different was the requisitioning of brains from the murdered victims of the so-called euthanasia program by Julius Hallervordern and other neurologists; at least in this case it is unclear that murders were actually “ordered up” in order to provide specimens needed for research. And then there are the infamous “studies” by Josef Mengele and associates on inmates at Auschwitz, ranging from efforts to develop a blood test to diagnose “racial” identity (which did not necessarily lead to the death of the victims) to the murder of twins with different eye color in Mengele’s laboratory so that his associate Karin Magnussen could obtain the eyes for anatomical study. In all these cases, again, the scientists involved were not forced to participate, but did so by choice. Surely, these are all examples of “misuses” of “scientific freedom”; and yet, the actors themselves showed no remorse, indeed no awareness that what they were doing was in any way problematic. Rather, they were pleased that “human material” (Menschenmaterial), as they called it, was becoming available and acted to appropriate it as a resource for their own research. I hasten to add, sadly, that the term “human material” was not a Nazi invention, but was in common use long before 1933.

In view of all this, perhaps the status of the term “misuse” in my title needs to be reconsidered. The term “misuse” is used conventionally as a marker to distance ourselves from the “murderous science” just mentioned; in such cases the term represents a moral or political judgment after the fact, which of course I share. The actors themselves, however, clearly did not think they were “misusing,” but rather using their science as a resource to achieve policy goals or political ends that they shared with the regime, while also advancing their own research and their careers. Perhaps we need to take this into account when reflecting on our topic. We can denounce the way science was performed in the Nazi era from a comfortable historical distance; but how does this help us engage in the present?

The lessons from this case might be summarized in three points. First, the comforting belief that dictatorships produce only poor-quality science or “pseudoscience,” though still widely shared, is incorrect. High-quality science was supported by all of the dictatorships of the twentieth century when it appeared to serve their interests.[13] Therefore, second, “scientific freedom” cannot be considered as a positive good for its own sake. Rather, we must always ask: freedom granted by whom, to whom, to what end, and at whose cost? Third, precisely because there are no guarantees that the “freedom of science” necessarily yields morally (or even epistemically) “good” science, we must focus relentlessly on the political work needed to assure that such outcomes actually occur.


[1] References cited in the footnotes will be provided by the author on request. For early overviews, see Walker and Renneberg 1994; Szöllösi-Janze 2001; for research at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institutes, see Heim et al. 2009; for analyses of Nazi-era science policy, see Flachowsky 2008 and Nagel 2012.

[2] Hausmann 2002; Elvert and Nielsen-Sikora 2008; Bialas and Rabinbach 2007.

[3] Grüttner 2005.

[4] Ash 2008.

[5]  For a comparative study of such efforts, see Gorden et al. 2003.

[6]  Deichmann 1995; Proctor 1999; Weiss 2010.

[7]  Neufeld 1995.

[8]  Maier 2011.

[9]  Heinemann and Wagner 2006; Fahlbusch and Haar 2010.

[10] Heim 2002.

[11] Comparable results have emerged from more recent work on Mussolini’s Italy and Franco’s Spain. See Gómez et al. 2015.

[12] Kunz 2004 and many others.

[13] Walker 2012, 375.

Mitchell G. Ash (PhD Harvard) is Professor Emeritus of Modern History at the University of Vienna, and a member of the Berlin-Brandenburgische Akademie der Wissenschaften and of the European Academy of Sciences and Arts. His field of study is modern and contemporary history of science in its political, social and cultural contexts. He was a Fellow of the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin in 1990/91.

Further articles in the Academic Freedom series on TRAFO:

Gisèle Sapiro, Amr Hamzawy, and Başak Tuğ, Threats to Academic Freedom – Historical and Contemporary Remarks, 17 February 2021.

Pascal Engel, Academic Freedom is the Freedom to Know, 24 February 2021.

Citation: Mitchell G. Ash, The Suppression and Misuses of Academic Freedom During the Nazi Regime, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 03.03.2021,

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