A look at science under Third Reich

By PAUL GRONDAHL, Staff writer
First published: Sunday, October 12, 2003

John Cornwell, an esteemed British journalist and historian, will always remember his 1969 visit to Albany -- a brief layover in the Greyhound bus station en route from Canada to New York City.
"I was mugged there," he says in the dry, clipped tones of a BBC commentator.

"Actually it was more of a shakedown, I suppose, since there were no weapons involved. Two guys came up to me, sat on either side, and rifled through my pockets. They were delightful young men, although they got upset when they saw I didn't have any money."

Cornwell survived the bus station encounter and holds no grudges against the capital city.

Armed with humor and wit in stark contrast to his subject matter, Cornwell returns to Albany on Tuesday to discuss his new book, "Hitler's Scientists." It's a follow-up to his provocative and controversial 1999 work "Hitler's Pope," which drew protests in the United States for its portrayal of Pope Pius XII as an admirer of fascism and a sympathizer of Hitler whose actions hastened the Holocaust.

In "Hitler's Scientists," Cornwell offers an exhaustive examination of science under the Third Reich. He shows how physicians and physicists, engineers and biologists readily took up the cause of Nazi ideology after being promised better benefits and pay, while excusing themselves of any moral responsibility in the genocidal consequences.

"The two books are like twins, which is why I gave them twinning titles," Cornwell said by phone from the Algonquin Hotel in Manhattan at the start of an eight-city book tour.

"The connection is how a group of professionals, whether religious leaders or scientists, take the benefits from a regime like Hitler's and believe they can remain aloof from it politically and morally," he said.

Faustian bargains

Cornwell, director of the Science and Human Dimension Project at Jesus College of Cambridge University, cautions that citizens should be wary of such destructive Faustian bargains occurring within current scientific research.

"I work in a university that is largely science-oriented, and my colleagues spend up to half their time writing grant applications that read like movie scripts, with all kinds of promises and happy endings," Cornwell said.

"There is a large constituency of scientists today who feel that science is value-free, and they take no responsibility," Cornwell said.

"These scientists get extremely irritated when I suggest they should be responsible for their actions," he said. "Atomic power can produce energy or bombs. Should atomic scientists be free to give dangerous knowledge to people they don't trust, and should they be free to exist in a cocoon?"

Cornwell, 63, arrives at his philosophical arguments from an incongruous background. He grew up a devout Catholic in Anglican England, entered a seminary at 13 and trained for the priesthood until the age of 20, when he dropped out and abandoned the church.

"I actually lost my faith for the next 20 years," Cornwell said. "What brought me back was that I was battered around a bit by life. I realized it wasn't the Catholic Church that was wrong or out of kilter, but my vision of it. What I went through was a crisis of maturity. As I studied and learned more, I realized I had a very infantile and crude view of the church."

Religious life

Today, Cornwell -- who lives in the countryside outside Northampton in central England -- is an actively practicing Catholic, as are his wife and two grown children. He writes articles on religious issues for the Sunday Times of London and for Catholic and religious affairs publications around the world.

"I've had a long-term interest in the institution of the Catholic Church, and I began to see a connection between my interest in the history of the papacy in the 20th century and my interest in science," Cornwell said. "One idea leads to another, and the common link is history."

His previous books have ranged from a journalistic take on exorcisms, faith healings and apparitions of the Virgin Mary among the Catholic faithful ("Powers of Darkness, Powers of Light," 1991) to an analysis of the current rifts among Catholics over the role of women and the priest sexual-abuse scandal ("Breaking Faith," 2001).

While in New York, Cornwell was doing interviews for a Sunday Times magazine profile of Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Cornwell is casting about for an idea for his next book, even as he enjoys the balance between academia and journalism.

"There's a natural progression to it," he said. "I don't teach at Cambridge. It's a research position. That often leads me to an idea for a book.
"Other times, books have grown out of newspaper profiles or feature stories," he said. "I consider journalism a life of great privilege. It's allowed me to embark on a journey of continuing education as an adult."

John Cornwell