One of the greatest paradoxes of the modern era is the relationship between science and rationalism. Whether it was the Age of Rationalism that ushered in the great scientific revolution or vice versa, there is clearly a powerful link between the manner in which most of us view the world today and the enormous strides made by the natural scientists both in theoretical explanations of reality and in applications of these theories to everyday life.
But the great hope of the nineteenth century–that the Age of Improvement would catapult the world, led by clear-minded scientists and progressive, rational politicians, to a utopia of physical and spiritual well-being–met with cruel and brutal disillusionment in the first part of the twentieth century. Moreover, it was precisely those scientists who had been the banner-carriers of such hopes who ended up serving the cause of destruction, whether in the name of accelerating change to inhuman velocities or in the service of turning the wheel back to a mythical, idyllic past. Simultaneously, other scientists engaged in producing the instruments that ultimately destroyed the totalitarian regimes armed and legitimized by their erstwhile colleagues.
Yet rather than serving as an example of the ultimate good to which science can be put, the collective scientific mind that had thwarted the onslaught of Nazism and its collection of “wonder weapons” discovered to its horror that it had produced true weapons of mass destruction. And, as has always been the case, once made available, the tools that were capable of annihilating the entire universe were employed. Looking at this development from the vantage point of the early twenty-first century, after the end of the cold war and the emergence of international terrorism on a hitherto unimaginable scale, we can say that weapons of mass destruction can indeed end up in the hands of those who are the sworn enemies of everything that is modern, rational and scientific.
John Cornwell examines the conundrum of the relationship between scientific discovery and the progress of humanity by focusing on the history of German science, whose extraordinary accomplishments ended up serving the single most destructive regime the world has known. The main outlines of this tale are known, and Cornwell relies on previous monographs in a synthetic work whose goal is not to reveal new documents about this or that event, discovery or individual but to provide a general survey and pose a crucial question. His book is a useful, clearly written and intelligent survey, much as we would expect from the author of Hitler’s Pope, a devastating exposé of Pope Pius XII’s collaboration with the Nazis. Considering the complexity of the material, which ranges from gas warfare in World War I to nuclear research and rocket engineering in World War II and beyond, this is no mean achievement. There are some slips: The Soviet tank was the T-34, not T-4, which refers to the code of the Nazi “euthanasia” campaign; the German Army of World War I was the Kaiserheer, not the Wehrmacht; the German Field Marshal was Gerd von Rundstedt, not Karl von Rundstet, and so forth. But these are minor blemishes in a well-told story that charts the evolution of scientific involvement in war from the production of increasingly lethal conventional weapons to its culmination in the atom bomb and the ballistic missile, a combination of technologies that replaced the very notion of waging a world war by soldiers with the concept of mutually assured destruction perpetrated by allegedly apolitical technicians.