Book Review : A Decent Man in an Indecent World


The Dilemmas of an Upright Man: Max Planck as Spokesman for German Science by J. L. Heilbron (University of California: $17.95)

Max Planck, a founder of quantum theory and a giant of early 20th-Century physics, was 75 years old when Adolf Hitler became chancellor of Germany in 1933. He was the pillar of German science, a Nobel laureate, president of the Kaiser-Wilhelm Institute, the voice of German scientific research.

But Planck’s actions--or lack of them--after the Nazis came to power have disappointed many, and he has been widely criticized. Albert Einstein was in the United States when Hitler assumed power. A few weeks later he announced that he would not return to Germany. Planck sent Einstein a letter calling his decision a mistake. “By your efforts your racial and religious brethren will not get relief from their situation, which is already difficult enough, but rather they will be pressed the more,” Planck wrote.


When Jewish professors were driven from their posts, Planck said nothing. Einstein tried without success “to persuade Planck of the inescapable obligation to speak out against the destruction of the Jewish professoriat,” writes J. L. Heilbron, a Berkeley historian. “Einstein never forgave Planck for his public silence.”

But the criticism of Planck as a dupe at best and a collaborator at worst may be an example of the dictum that history is written by the winners. Planck’s acquiescence to the Nazis has tainted his name and tended to overshadow his physics.

But the situation was much more complicated, Heilbron argues, and Planck used his stature to do what he could in an increasingly difficult situation whose outcome neither he nor any sane person could have predicted.

Planck was a compromiser by temperament. His distinguished career in science and in the politics of science had reinforced his view that more can be accomplished from within than from without. Was it reasonable to expect him to change at the age of 75?

Moreover, Planck believed that he could do more as the head of the Kaiser-Wilhelm Institute than he could as the ex-head. And he feared what the person who replaced him might do in that position. He finally resigned late in 1938 but until then had managed to protect some people and to win small victories against the regime.

A Talk With the Fuehrer

Heilbron has assembled a record of actions by Planck that show him trying to preserve a measure of light in the encroaching darkness of Nazism. Planck spoke to Hitler on behalf of Jewish scientists in May, 1933. “Planck hoped to convince the Fuehrer that the forced emigration of Jews would kill German science and that Jews could be good Germans,” Heilbron writes. According to one account, Hitler told him: “But we don’t have anything against the Jews, on the contrary, we protect them.”


When Einstein was denounced in Germany and the relativity theory dismissed as “Jewish science,” Planck defended both. In May, 1933, Einstein resigned from the German Academy. Planck wrote into the minutes that the overwhelming majority of German physicists realized that Einstein’s work could be compared in importance only with that of Kepler or Newton, Heilbron says.

Planck’s policy “became one of salvage, an effort to protect science,” Heilbron says. Planck and several other elder scientists “complied openly in small things and did not protest publicly against great injustices, they accommodated to insure that lesser men did not take their places, and they strove to persuade younger colleagues to steer a similar course.”

Planck said that signing protest statements in newspapers was useless because if 30 professors signed a statement supporting their Jewish colleagues “tomorrow 150 will come to denounce them because they want to take their places.”

In the end, of course, Planck’s hope proved futile, and he died a broken man. One of his sons was executed for his role in the failed plot to kill Hitler. After retiring from science at the age of 80, Planck spent the war traveling in Germany as an itinerant Lutheran preacher.

Hindsight More Accurate

But in 1933 Planck could not know that his efforts would ultimately fail and that the Nazis would pervert science to mass slaughter. It is always easier to decide what to do once one knows how things will turn out. Einstein and the others who fled turned out to be right. Those who stayed turned out to be wrong.

But Planck had to act in 1933, not in 1947, the year he died. Based on what he knew and believed, who can say that he acted wrongly or that someone else would have acted differently in his place? It is an excruciating dilemma. Planck was certainly not a Nazi. Heilbron says he was a wise, decent and patriotic man nearing the end of his life who acted admirably in extraordinary circumstances that eventually overwhelmed him.


The first half of the book surveys Planck’s life and his scientific, political and philosophical careers through the Weimar Republic, during which he reached retirement age. This is not a good introduction to Max Planck’s contributions to physics. The author’s prose is turgid, and he assumes a general familiarity with the subject matter at hand. This is a big assumption.

But Planck’s professional activities in the first part of his life illuminate his personality, values and temperament. It comes as no surprise that he acted as he did with the Nazis. A patient reader can glean that while skimming the physics.

Planck helped start and lived through a revolution in physics, and he lived through political upheaval and two world wars as well. He tried to do the right thing as he saw it, but he guessed wrong. He was not a Nazi thug. Things didn’t turn out as he expected.

Heilbron’s book is about the problem of the decent person in an indecent world. Max Planck’s case affords no answers.