Department of History
University of California, Irvine
Instructor:    Dr. Barbara J. Becker


Week 10.  New Worldview

excerpt from
The Effect of World War I on Cooperation among European Scientists:
Progress in the Development of Atomic Theory during the War (1987)
by Barbara J. Becker


At the outbreak of World War I, Ernest Rutherford and Henry Moseley were attending the British Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Brisbane.  After the meeting, Rutherford and his wife proceeded with their plans to return to England via Montreal and New York to give them a chance to visit with American friends and colleagues.[1]  Young Moseley, on the other hand, left immediately to join the army.  Niels Bohr was vacationing in Germany with his brother, Harald.  They managed to leave for Denmark on one of the last trains to cross the border.[2]  There was something heady--almost exhilarating--about those first tumultuous weeks of the war.  Otherwise rational men set aside their sense of propriety and objectivity in favor of flag-waving diatribe and unrepentant polemic.  In this often bitter and vindictive pen-and-paper battle, it was the Germans who made the first moves.

Immediately after the British declared war on Germany, German scientists like August Weismann and Ernst Haeckel publicly renounced their British academic awards and honorary degrees.  Reaction to this, in both camps, was mixed.  Paul Ehrenfest, a German teaching in Holland at the outbreak of the War, wrote to H. A. Lorentz in early September, 1914:

The typical newspaper item reporting that Haeckel, as a public gesture, has rejected his English academic honorary degrees has left me very depressed.  Whatever one may think of Haeckel as a scientist and philosopher, he is at all events a man who is really true to his own conscience, or so it seems to me.  Then how could he do such a thing?  Now he should also throw away Darwin's books and portraits as another gesture.  Will Ostwald and Klein now do something similar?... I don't doubt for an instant that a large fraction of the scientists in all these countries know that the distinctive element of Haeckel's action (treating an honorary degree from Cambridge as if it were a military decoration) is completely irrational and perverse....[3]
But, Britain's ultrapatriots made their appearance in print rather quickly after the outset of hostilities.  Nature published the polemics of well-known scientists as though they were the results of carefully considered experiments.  The distinguished Nobel laureate William Ramsay was one of the most outspoken of these British scientists.  In the issue of 8 October, Ramsay contributed a lengthy polemic in which he discussed the clear differences between the generosity and humanity of the Anglo-Saxons and the automaton-like inhumanity of the Teutons.  Where the Anglo-Saxons have as their motto--"live and let live," the Germans follow the command to "live as the State would have you live."[4]  Ramsay was quick to point out that while German science has been widely touted (by Germans, anyway) as being the best in Western civilization, it has never been particularly original.[5]  The only thing German scientists excel in, said Ramsay, is exploitation of the inventions and discoveries of others.  This is one reason why, in Ramsay's opinion, progress in science will not be retarded by the loss of German participation:  "[R]estriction of the Teutons will relieve the world from a deluge of mediocrity."  Ramsay continued:
The motto of the Allies must be 'Never again.'  Not merely must the dangerous and insufferable despotism which has eaten like a cancer into the morals of the German nation be annihilated, but all possibility of its resuscitation must be made hopeless.  The nation, in the elegant words of one of its distinguished representatives, must be 'bled white.'[6]
The belligerence conveyed by these public remarks of Ramsay obscures the confusion and dismay he experienced as war broke out between his native England and the country in which he had received his early training in chemistry and to which he had even sent his own children to study.[7]  His correspondence with Ira Remsen, whom he had met as a student in Tübingen and with whom he maintained a lifelong friendship, reveals the complexity of this inner struggle.

In November, 1914, he wrote Remsen, "I am very sad in thinking of the degeneration of the Germans since our happy days in Germany.  The nation has become brutalised.  There is no other word for it."[8]  It was this sentiment which accounts for the fact that his polemic in Nature concludes with the recommendation that British scientists not give up the distinctions which were conferred upon them by German learned societies:  "These awards have come from an older race of German men of science" who probably deplore their country's military acts of barbarism, too.[9]

In December, 1915, he wrote to Remsen to describe what he believed to be the cause of the Germans' aberrant behavior:

Our friends the Germans are very different from what we knew then.  I have found out why.  Before the war, our Govt. appointed a commission of which the president is one of my old medical colleagues at University College, to investigate syphilis, & to devise measures for combatting it.  He told me that in Britain less than 1/2 pc. of the population is syphilitic, in France, about 1-1/2 pc.; in Germany 8.5 pc.!  This led me to ask medical & surgical friends about the effects; while syphilitics often keep going, & retain energy, they appear almost always to have a mental twist; they become abnormal in one way or another.  So it comes to this:  this is a war against syphilis.  Extermination appears to be the only remedy; but impossible to apply.[10]
The sense of betrayal which individuals like Ramsay felt was enhanced by the publication in ten languages on 4 October 1914, in all the principal German newspapers of a vehement statement declaring as utterly false all reports of various German-provoked atrocities, particularly those relating to excessive brutality and destruction in Belgium.  This "Manifesto to the Civilized World" as it was called, was signed by ninety-three prominent Germans including poets, lawyers, physicians and scientists.  Among the scientists who signed this document were Fritz Haber, Wilhelm Wien, Emil Fischer, Walther Nernst, Wilhelm Roentgen and Max Planck.

The Manifesto's strong words of denial of any responsibility for what was viewed by Allied observers as the wanton destruction of the library and university at Louvain provoked outrage and bitterness, especially among academics, that would be felt long after the War's conclusion.[11]  For some Germans, however, the Manifesto was a moral outrage.  Georg Friedrich Nicolai, together with Albert Einstein, drafted a counter-document which they circulated privately hoping for a display of support among their like-minded acquaintances.  They persuaded only two other individuals to sign it, however.[12]


1.  Rutherford to Boltwood, 28 October 1914, in Lawrence Badash, ed. Rutherford and Boltwood:  Letters on Radioactivity (New Haven, 1969), p. 297:  "Notwithstanding the war, the B[ritish] A[ssociation] meeting in Australia was very interesting & successful.  Dr. [Peter] Pringsheim of Berlin who came out with us has not been allowed to leave Australia as he is a reservist.  He is occupying his time in research in Melbourne."

Boltwood wrote back to Rutherford on 8 Dec 1914: "I was on the Kronprinzessin Cecilie when the war broke out, having left New York for Germany on July 28th.  As you have probably heard, we faced about when the news reached in midocean, raced back to America through darkness and fog, and landed finally in Bar Harbor, Maine!!!"; ibid., p. 298.

The outbreak of the War created planning problems for most of those organizing and attending the BAAS conference.  See Nature 94: 2347 (October 22, 1914): 204-25.  However, Keller contends that if it had not been for the need to be in Brisbane for the meeting, many British scientists might have been caught, like the Bohr brothers, on walking tours in scenic parts of Germany or Austria; see Alex Keller, The Infancy of Atomic Physics:  Hercules in his Cradle (Oxford, 1983), p. 205.

2.  Bohr to Oseen, 28 September 1914, in L. Rosenfeld, ed., Niels Bohr:  Collected Works, Volume 2, p. 561:  "We were in Germany when the war broke out, but we just managed to return before things became difficult for foreigners."

3.  Martin J. Klein, Paul Ehrenfest (New York, 1970), p. 299.

Wilhelm Foerster, professor of astronomy at the University of Berlin also decried this movement on the basis that England's "wicked policy" did not signal its divorce form the "learned world." Nature 94: 2344 (September 24, 1914): 94.

By and large, the British were not moved to reciprocate.  Some, like J.A. Fleming, felt too indebted to the achievements of German scientific thought to allow it to be eclipsed by Prussian militarism; ibid.

4.  Sir William Ramsay, "Germany's Aims and Ambitions," Nature 94: 2346 (October 8, 1914): 137.

5.  Ramsay was not the only one to express this view.  Emile Picard, the French mathematician, became extremely outspoken against the myth of German superiority in science, particularly after the deaths of both of his sons during the War.  His polemic article "L'Histoire des Sciences et les Pretentions de la Science Allemande" which first appeared in the July, 1915, issue of Revue des Deux-Mondes, Picard blasts the Germans for perpetuating this myth when they owe so much to scientific advances made in other European countries and have had little to offer the world in terms of original discovery.  See Emile Picard, Discours et Melanges (Paris, 1922), pp. 151-175.

6.  Ramsay, "Germany's Aims and Ambitions," op. cit. (ref. 4), p. 138.

It is interesting to contrast Ramsay's remarks with those made by Wilhelm Wien who became despondent over the likelihood of German scientist's ever being able to communicate with those of other nations again.  He asked that German scientists have nothing to do with British scientific journals except, perhaps, to respond in them to any personal attacks or unwarranted criticism.  He was convinced that British scientists pirated German discoveries and were not to be trusted.  See John L. Heilbron, The Dilemmas of an Upright Man:  Max Planck as Spokesman for German Science (Berkeley, 1986), p. 72.

7.  His daughter Elska studied at Goettingen around the turn of the century and his son Willie studied in Berlin with Fritz Haber in 1913.  See Ramsay letters:  21 April 1901; 14 February 1913. Ira Remsen papers, The Johns Hopkins University.

8.  Ramsay to Remsen, 14 November 1914, in Ramsay letters, Remsen papers.

9.  Ramsay, "Germany's Aims and Ambitions," op. cit. (ref. 4), p. 138.

10. Ramsay to Remsen, 27 Dec 1915, in Ramsay letters, Remsen papers.

11. Heilbron, op. cit. (ref. 6), pp. 70-1.

12. Otto Nathan and Heinz Norden, eds. Einstein on Peace (New York, 1968), p. 6.  The individuals willing to sign Nicolai's document were Wilhelm Foerster, the octogenarian director of the Berlin Observatory who rued having signed the "Manifesto," and Otto Buek, a student at the Berlin University.

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