View From the Top
A book review that is actually a reflection on science and society in post war Germany: In his memoirs, Reimar Lüst, tells how a submarine officer in the Nazi marine, initially disinterested in politics, could become of the powerful scientists in the country. Published in Nature on March 27,2008.
Reimar Lüst was born into a pious household in the west German town of Barmen on 25th March 1923. His rebirth, as he calls it, came 20 years later in the icy-cold waters of the Bay of Biscay. A British depth charge had destroyed the U-boat on which he was serving as an officer of the Kriegsmarine, the Nazi navy. Eleven men drowned. Lüst was fished out of the ocean by a British Corvette and landed in a prisoner-of-war camp where, ‘for relaxation’, he began solving calculus problems on toilet paper. It was the beginning of a career in which he became a leading astrophysicist and space scientist in Europe and then, for decades, the most influential science manager in Germany. In Der Wissenschaftsmacher (The science maker), Lüst’s personal reminiscences with the Berlin historian Paul Nolte, recorded as a series of discussions, cast a unique light on contemporary German history - and the integration of Europe.
Lüst had signed up to the navy voluntarily because he desperately wanted to be free of the over-organised life that the Hitler Youth imposed. But at the time he was also convinced that Germany needed an authoritarian regime. The Weimar republic, the post-World War I attempt to install a democracy in Germany, had, after all, proved a dismal failure. His objections to the Nazis were more of an aesthetic nature – he couldn’t bear the egomania of party functionaries. With a naivety incomprehensible to those born after World War II, Lüst’s believed that the Führer would not have accepted the excesses of his followers (if only he had known about them.) Lüst couldn’t – and didn’t want to – see what was going on around him. When he was stationed in Amsterdam he enjoyed a performance of the St Matthew Passion in the Concertgebouw, while the occupation troops were preparing the Jews for deportation. Lüst remembers that spring of 1942 as ‘my nicest time in the navy’. Seldom has the attitude of mind of a highly intelligent young man of good family during the Third Reich been described so candidly.
His awakening eventually came in one of the US prisoner-of-war camps where he was interned. Inmates were required to watch a film made during the liberation of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp by the British army, who found tens of thousands of starving, sick or dead prisoners. But his camps also offered him a unique chance to study – behind the barbed wire, imprisoned Wehrmacht officers ran a nearly complete university. Lüst says he “never heard better lectures at [his real] university than there”. As a result after his return to a destroyed Germany, he was able to race through graduate and postgraduate degrees by 1951. He did his PhD at the physics institute of University of Göttingen which was headed by Werner Heisenberg. His supervisor was physicist-philosopher Carl Friedrich von Weizäcker, brother to the future German president. Lüst worked in theoretical plasma physics and astrophysics for the next ten years - four of them in the United States, where “life seemed to be a lot easier”. Caltech, where he did his last stint, still seems to him today to be the “ideal university”. The Leitmotiv for his life, as for that of the young Federal Republic of Germany, became: learn from America.
Like the majority of the post-war society, Lüst at first had little inclination to get involved in politics. He even avoided membership of a student advisory council, saying that the Hitler Youth and the war had satisfied such appetites. His position changed after 1960 when space became the ‘focus of euphoria about the future’ (Nolte) – Lüst grasped that space research and politics needed each other. He became a member of the planning committee in the Adenauer government and already in 1962 became the science director of the newly-founded European Space Research Organisation.
In the following four decades he occupied so many high offices that he had to constantly divide his time between several concurrent activities. “For the family there were the summer holidays”. In Germany, he was, among other things, head of the Wissenschaftsrat (The German Science Council), president of the Max Planck Society and finally founding director of the private International University Bremen.
Each of the major era in science policy which he had to confront over the years reflected the problems of German post-war society - of a nation wrestling firstly with the concept of its own democracy, then recognising the finiteness of its resources, and then having to belatedly find a place for itself in the sharpened international competition. At the beginning of the 1970s, Lüst strengthened the right of scientists to take part in Max Planck Society decisions; after 1980 he provocatively demanded the education of an elite.
At the European level he rose to be general director of the European Space Agency, just as Big Science was establishing itself. Science was no longer able to live without strong political support, and it became increasingly difficult to defend basic research against demands for immediate economic, military or societal returns. It was necessary to find a consensus among the various European nations because space research and other Big Science exceeded the resources of even the large countries. Lüst is convinced that Europe has to develop its own technologies. “You should give up the idea of ever being able to cooperate with the Americans in technological projects.”
Nolte is a perceptive and excellently prepared interview partner. He succeeds in placing Lüst’s reminiscences in their historical context. But the concept of the book is at times also its weakness. Nolte’s title “The Science Maker” confines him to questioning Lüst only about his active roles, not about his role as witness to his times. So the book only touches on the failed launch of the Europa II rocket which exploded 150 seconds after its takeoff in autumn 1971. England had built the first stage on its own, France the second and Germany the third – and the stages didn’t work together. Could that be a metaphor for the fundamental problems of European integration? Outsiders would like to know more about the background, but instead have to plough through the at-times exhausting details about the politics behind establishing national and supranational committees discussed by Lüst and Nolte.
The final discussion in the book concerns ethics in science. Here Lüst appears to be curiously ambivalent when the core theme of his career is addressed, namely the tension between science and politics. On the one hand he refers to the politicians’ moral responsibility to listen to the opinion of scientists before making a decision. On the other, he criticises the same politicians for hiding their indecisiveness behind scientific expertise.
In the five decades from the 1950s, as Lüst was participating in the shaping of German and European science, the ideal of the ivory tower for researchers was becoming ever more of a myth. Innumerable memoirs have been written by novelists, even social scientists, reflecting upon the history of the twentieth century, but there has scarcely been a scientist among them. So the book of Lüst and Nolte fills a long-standing hole. It’s an appeal from an exceptional scientist to his colleagues to accept responsibility in society.