The Second World War and science


Photo: Wind tunnel testing at the Aerodynamic Research Institute of KWG, 1940, Archives of the Max Planck Society.

The German armed forces’ invasion of Poland started the Second World War in September 1939. But even before that, research conducted in accordance with the Nazi state’s military strategy and ideological interests had enjoyed financial support. Defence research and biomedical projects benefitted in particular from the dictatorship’s ideological agenda: In Göttingen, the aerodynamic testing facility (AVA) developed into an early institution for Big Science. Researchers here experimented with water and wind tunnels to investigate flying and flow behaviour for aircraft construction and torpedo design. The German Army Ordnance Office took command of large parts of the KWI of Physics in 1940. The field of agronomic research, tasked with providing practical assistance for Hitler’s plans for new ‘lebensraum’ in the East, profited the most from the German armed forces’ conquests in Eastern Europe. From 1943 onwards, Otmar von Verschuer was receiving specimens from the Auschwitz extermination camp from Josef Mengele for the KWI for Anthropology, Human Genetics and Eugenics. Between 1940 and 1945, the KWI for Brain Research in Berlin examined around 700 brains taken from mentally ill and mentally handicapped victims of the Nazi euthanasia that was happening at the same time.

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