The Natural Sciences and Democratic Practices: Albert Einstein, Fritz Haber, Max Planck

Nov 13, 2008

22nd Annual Lecture of the GHI | Speaker: Margit Szöllösi-Janze (University of Cologne), Commentator: Cathryn Carson (University of California, Berkeley)

This year, the Annual Lecture of the GHI was given by Margit Szöllösi-Janze, Professor of Modern History in Cologne. She has published on a wide range of topics from the Hungarian fascist "Pfeilkreuzer Bewegung" to the history of science. Her habilitation project was a biography of Fritz Haber, the Nobel Prize-winning chemist, for which she received the prestigious award of the German Historical Association as well as the ABB-Prize. In this and other publications, Szöllösi-Janze focuses on the ethical problems modern science poses.

Her lecture addressed the relationship between scientists and the societies in which they live. Specifically, she examined the democratic practices—the perception of democracy, commitment to political parties, and contributions towards the stabilization of the Weimar Republic—of Albert Einstein, Fritz Haber, and Max Planck. Further, she looked for evidence that they applied democratic values such as pluralism, representation, and participation in their everyday lives.

She began by defining the relationship between science and politics in the same way as Mitchell Ash, namely, as interacting sets of resources capable of mobilizing one another. This relationship implies that scientists can form alliances with very different types of government, and that political breaks entail the restructuring of resource networks. As the three scientists in question lived through World War I and continued their careers in the Weimar Republic, they endured a shift in the structure of resources, and their reaction to the new system was shaped by their pre-Republic experiences and convictions.

The three men belonged to different generations and had very distinct political views. As the eldest born in 1858, Planck belonged to the Wilhelmine generation. He was politically very national-conservative, the prototype of a Vernunftrepublikaner, "a republican by reason who, as Freidrich Meinecke had defined him, basically remained a monarchist from the heart." He was an elitist who, even in 1943, still believed that universal suffrage had been a very bad idea. Planck advocated a pure science free of politics and portrayed himself as "a non-political upholder of culture above and beyond the abyss of daily politics." Still, in his daily life, he used the traditional authoritarian structures of science and politics to his own advantage, using them to reestablish conservative positions.

Haber, born in 1868, grew up during the flourishing Gründerzeit of the German Reich. As he had played a leading role in German gas warfare during World War I, he was long considered "to be a fervent nationalist fixated on the Kaiser." However, Szöllösi-Janze characterized him as a left-wing liberal whose active commitment to foreign cultural policy and democratic practice within the committees of various research organizations showed him to be, ultimately, the most democratic of the three. He was far more active in politics than either Planck or Einstein, and was even offered the second Berlin mandate in 1928, which he declined on account of his poor health. In his professional life, he battled against authoritarian structures in the Kaiser Wilhelm Society and the German Research Foundation.

Einstein, born in 1879, also grew up during the Gründerzeit. He was exceptional as an avowed pacifist. Like Planck, he did not care to get involved in politics, and he "just hated any administrative work," which also meant that he did not engage much in the politics of science, either. There was, however, an ambivalence in Einstein's political thinking: despite his pacifism, he was an elitist like Planck, who despised the influence of the "raw masses." He refused to become a party member and criticized parties for serving particular interests, yet in 1932, he did sign a proposal for a joint list of social-democratic and communist candidates in order to counteract the fascist danger.

Szöllösi-Janze concluded by dealing with the limitations of democratic practice specifically manifested by Haber. Whereas the limitations for Planck and Einstein are clear in their elitism and non-political stance, Haber's case is more complicated. In his daily life, his efforts to implement practices of participation into research institutions and science management were not appreciated by fellow scientists. And on the national political level, he eventually rejected democracy. Politics could not continue with the parties of particular interests, and he believed that what was needed was a dictatorship, that this is what the "raw masses" constituting a "new race" were searching for, "a German edition" of what Italy and Russia already had. His fixation on the experiences of the First World War led him to this conclusion and blinded him to the maneuvering of the army and the political intrigues of big industry or the Conservatives. In this, Szöllösi-Janze concluded, Haber personified "the dilemma of German liberalism."

Cathryn Carson, Associate Professor of History at the University of California, Berkeley, a specialist in the history of physics, commented on the lecture. In her response, she pointed to three questions that Szöllösi-Janze's examples of elite actors' political practices raise or suggest. First, it is important to clarify the understanding of democracy being used as a reference point. Is it an abstract political recipe, a structural concept, a sensibility? And how did the historical actors conceive of it? Second, Szöllösi-Janze dissected her cases using the language of stabilization, which directs one's gaze toward the overall course of the system rather than towards its internal processes. Looking at the latter helps us to understand the actors' varying commitment to democratic norms. Finally, it is interesting to ask whether, outside the community of academics, the actions of these elite scientists actually made a difference in the political sphere. This question is instructive because it highlights something that remains relevant today—the relation of self-perceived elites to the course of democracy.

The full texts of Szöllösi-Janze's lecture and Cathryn Carson's comments will be published in the Spring 2009 Bulletin.

Patricia Casey Sutcliffe