Friedrich Herneck

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Interviewed by
Steve J. Heims
Herneck's apartment, East Berlin, Germany
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Interview of Friedrich Herneck by Steve J. Heims on 1988 July 2, Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics, College Park, MD USA,

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Topics discussed include: correspondence with other physicists, such as Max Born, Max von Laue, Werner Heisenberg, and Carl Friedrich Weizsacker; Herneck's studying of relativity with Philip Frank; and geophysics and the history of science existing in the German Democratic Republic (GDR).


Interview conducted by Steve Heims at 77 Karl-Marx Allee. East Berlin (Prof. Herneck's apartment), July 2, 1988. Herneck, now retired and an Emeritus from Berlin's Humboldt Universität, is the author of numerous books and articles about physicists including Einstein and Ernst Mach. As a historian and philosopher of science he engaged physicists of his generation in extensive correspondence.

(The record of the interview — in German — consists of one 90-minute cassette plus side A of a second cassette. A rough translation, slightly condensed, of the content follows. The occasional numbers in parentheses correspond to the digital counter of the tape recorder.)

He describes his correspondence with other physicists, which he keeps in neat order. He had intended to publish his correspondence with Max Born, but the plan ran aground because of the wishes of Max Born's daughter. Born had great integrity. Issuing the correspondence would require writing a commentary to go along with it, prevent misunderstandings. Have extensive correspondence also with Max von Laue, some with Heisenberg, some with Karl Friedrich Weizsacker. These should be important for future historians.

Especially for Max von Laue — he visited me often and I visited him especially 1958-60, when he had his auto-accident. He was emeritus, but at first he still directed the Fritz Haber Institute (in West Germany). He came — after the incarceration by the British — to Göttingen and then to (West) Berlin, and became director of the Haber Institute. Von Laue and I especially talked about Einstein — and the relation of Laue to Einstein. Einstein knew that von Laue would have no truce with the Nazis. We had at least twenty conversations. Von Laue had a strong sensitivity to right and wrong, and had an enormous willingness to be helpful to people. I had some difficulties here, including some ideological ones: I occupied myself with Ernst Mach — and that was unwelcome here (in the GDR) — and he was very supportive. Laue was not a positivist, more a realist — but in 1956 I discovered an unpublished autobiography of Mach in the Ostwald papers, and I published it and as a result had great difficulties. He respected that, and was a great source of support for me at that time. I was in the hospital there for a while, and he — a Nobel prize-winner — came to visit me. That was important for me. Also his views regarding Planck and Einstein were valuable to me — some of it found its way into my book "Bahnbrecher" — von Laue was committed to truthfulness.

(The interviewer mentions the Laue-Fritz London correspondence). Von Laue was strongly impressed by Helmholtz. He died within a couple of weeks after his auto accident — awoke periodically. At the time I was preparing three volumes of a "Festschrift" — 150 years of the Berlin University — and von Laue had agreed to write an essay about Helmholtz for that, but he never got beyond an outline. I included the outline in the Festschrift as well as two earlier essays Laue had written about Helmholtz. Von Laue had been at the Berlin Humboldt University for decades. I had others from the GDR who were included in the three volumes. But von Laue was the only one from outside of the country.

(Von Laue and the Nazi years?) If he had not been a Nobel Prize winner, he would not have been able to survive it. Of course he was forced to retire (made emeritus) — he was 64 although the retirement age was 68. He retired under protest. In the thirties, when he had defended Einstein, two Nazis in the audience dramatically left. One did not dare do anything to him, because he was a great famous man, but he was hated by the Nazis. Von Laue has described his own revulsion toward the Nazis in his autobiography. To defend Einstein was a crime. With Leonard and Stark! Leonard, who had been an assistant of Heinrich Hertz, later said that Hertz's mechanics ‘Judischer Geist’ (Jewish mentality) was reflected. Laue was sharply at odds. Laue had an office after the war, but a laboratory only when he came to head the Fritz Haber institute. Laue set a standard for me. We visited each other. We loaned books to each other, etc., that relationship was very stimulating and I am grateful that fate gave me that opportunity. It attracted attention when the famous Nobel Prize winner came to visit me in the hospital. He was one of the Gottingen 18 in 1957 — those opposed to nuclear armament; in fact he had instigated that movement.

Max Born was an active participant in that movement. So were Heisenberg and Otto Hahn. I also knew Hahn personally. In 1958 Lise Meitner came for the 100th birthday of Max Planck celebration to Berlin — there was no wall yet — I met her through Laue at that time. She had been an enthusiastic student of Boltzmann (she was born in ‘78), and her father who was a lawyer had helped her appreciate Mach. Mach and Boltzmann were very different.

I had studied in Prague with Philip Frank, especially I studied relativity with him, and he was the successor of Einstein. (Do you know the Pais biography of Einstein? — No.) Frank's Einstein biography contains some factual errors and we corresponded about that. He read my Einstein biography and commented very favorably on it — he said he did not quite agree with my philosophical assessments, but that is to be expected — I am Marxist and materialist -– but otherwise he liked it very much, and that was important for me. We tried to clarify the relation between Mach and Einstein. I also discussed it with Pauli. My books make use of what I learned through conversations. (He offers me a copy of two of his books concerning Einstein — and gives them to me.)

Von Neumann was here at the Berlin University; I have some documents about him; Wigner too. Hungary was remarkably fruitful in producing scientists. Szilard was Max von Laue's assistant. Laue has told me much of this time — in the twenties. He experienced the whole Weimar period here in Berlin. Like Nernst, Laue defended Einstein against attacks. Planck was more reserved in that respect — although of course an enemy of the Nazis — but he did not extend himself as much as Laue, also in the Academy. In 1938 the Academy was restructured by the Nazis and they put in their own people — Planck gave in a bit too much, should have resisted more (at least according to Laue). Of course Planck was monarchist from his whole background. In 1922 he had said various things, such as how could it be that the German army was defeated in WWI. Planck was personally conservative. I heard him lecture already in Prague.

Aside from working with P. Frank in Prague, I studied geophysics primarily, Geophysics and relativity. I had to play soldier in the German (Nazi) army. After the War I was for three years in a hospital — lung-tuberculosis — that was a miserable time. Then in the fifties I could again devote myself to ‘Wissenschaft’. I was the first to work on the Einstein archives here, also examined the files the Gestapo had about Einstein, they were under high security, what the Gestapo said about Einstein. Philip Leonard and also Stark, personal and scientific enemies of Einstein were very influential and was echoed by the whole establishment. After all, Hitler understood nothing of science; merely that Einstein was a Jew.

General Relativity — 1916, the famous confirmation 1919, the popular interest in it. I have a good deal of evidence. Anneliese Richter, a historian of science, later in the archive of the Vatican, was a good source of information for me other than Laue; strong anti-Semitic attacks on Einstein in 1920-21. Nernst, who had instigated the Solvay Congresses, was jokingly called the “Commerzianrate” (a big entrepreneur). I have spoken with the youngest daughter of Nernst, and she had told me much about her father and Nernst's visit to Einstein in Bern before the latter was famous. It was Planck and Nernst who were instrumental in bringing Einstein to Berlin. Nernst had the best of relations to some capitalists, and one of them was prepared to give part of his wealth to make a good offer to Einstein without requiring duties. Einstein was not a good lecturer, he would always just bring a little card with a Jew words on it to a lecture. He was not systematic in contrast to Planck.

I have spoken with the Soviet physicist-chemist-mathematician Kolman, who has since died. (I know of him in connection with Kybernetik). I knew him well, and met him in Moscow and corresponded with him. He spoke with Einstein in 1911-1912, recalls walking with Einstein in the rain (with umbrella) before he was famous. He was another honest reporter about Einstein. All this contributed to my picture of Einstein. I only marginally interested myself in the cybernetics topics. At first it was most unpopular (as idealistic) in Soviet circles — there was no Gorbachev then and glasnost —, but the attitude changed, and Kolman acted as a pioneer in its acceptance. I had rapport with Kolman.

I saw little of Philip Frank after my studies, but after WWII contacted him in connection with my Einstein studies. A fairly extensive correspondence developed, but his handwriting was difficult, he was already 80. But I had valued him as teacher. Max Born I never knew personally — although he had variously invited me to visit him, but it was not possible for me to take him up on it in view of my job — so I knew him only through correspondence. I regret that. I did not know Haber. I was in Berlin 1930-31, but then took the job here in Berlin only in 1953. I was in Potsdam for a time. The war and the subsequent illness — I have only half a lung, tuberculosis had eaten up the other part, I lost ten years, perhaps the best ten years, from thirty to forty — then encountering Laue was terribly important for me, about '54. It was the Riemann festival. The Greek physicist in relativity, Papapetro(?), gave a lecture about special relativity and Laue was sitting in the front row, when Laue pointed out a mistake…

The mathematicians hadn't caught the error, but Laue had. Laue was the most important personally in my work, but in correspondence the most important was Born, also Heisenberg (I have 50 letters from him and wrote 50 to him) from 1957 until shortly before his death. Heisenberg was much more cautious and held back in his writing, whereas Born was very open. Born readily disagreed, said something is wrong. I liked Born's directness. Once I was so sharp disagreeing with Born — about political issues — that he for a while didn't answer me; different personalities. Laue was no communist, he was a humanistically oriented scientist, and Born was more passionate in his style of expression. It was a beautiful correspondence with Born. (More on problem of publishing them.) I am 79, nearly 80. Born was strongly pacifist. I agreed with him. He felt that what is called “Copenhagen interpretation” should be called “Göttingen interpretation,” and was a bit hurt that he got the Nobel rather late.

Infeld — some correspondence too — he came to Warsaw; his school of theoretical physics in Poland — things were too orthodox, where Infeld did not quite fit. In '59 I gave a talk on Einstein in Leipzig, which was not published, because the philosophical views I represented the publisher did not like. In 1952 it was debated whether Einstein's relativity was idealistic or materialistic etc. Einstein was attacked on philosophical grounds — it was a philosophical controversy in Marxist theory. I met Fock on two occasions, and have an extensive correspondence with him, which will be published in Leningrad. Fock interpreted General Relativity rather differently than Einstein: not a generalization of the 1905 theory, but a brand new non-classical theory of gravity. We discussed the matter in person and via correspondence. Fock does not entirely agree with Landau. Fock was a significant scientist. He admired special relativity.

(I comment on letter — where Born says he disagrees with Herneck. regarding relation of Einstein to Marxism. He laughs). Relation of Einstein to socialists and socialism. (The Einstein project at Princeton, John Stachel, 30 volumes.) It is worth doing. The youthful Einstein’s mysterious daughter. Helene Dukas. Mencher(?) or similar, physicist in Erfurt, spent time in Princeton. Trager, a student of Pappapetru(?). There is an Einstein Laboratorium in Potsdam. Must see the Einstein Haus in Potsdam, Einstein's summer house, where he could sail, etc. I describe it in my book Einsteinprivat. Already the book is in its 4th edition. Gerald Holton wrote me he welcomed the book, I know him from meetings and have corresponded with him. I have also corresponded with Wigner and Wheeler. As to Born, we had no disagreement about quantum theory, but our disagreement was concerning philosophical notions, and how to view Einstein. I also corresponded with daughters of famous physicists: Heinrich Hertz's daughter, Ostwald's daughter. Born knew Fritz London well, once said “I can check this point with Fritz London.” Berlin was a center of physics in Weimar Germany.

(I'd like to write down a list of the letters you have): Max Born I have a great deal since 1958 until his death — 1970; Heisenberg since 1958 until his death. Pauli since 57 or 58 — he died soon thereafter. Leopold Infeld. Fock — 1958 until shortly before his death. Gustav Hertz – Göttingen, dann zuletzt in Leipzig, for ten years in the USSR from 1945, then prof. in Leipzig, I visited him frequently later in Berlin, corresponded while he was in Leipzig. Bertrand Russell some corresponded. Lise Meitner. Otto Hahn — 1958 until shortly before his death. Fritz Strassman (a short correspondence). Leon Rosenfeld (very detailed from 1958 until shortly before his death). Kolman. Lamla — editor of the Naturwissenschaften. Ernst Bruche — editor of the Physikalische Blatter. Correspondence with Grete Ostwald (his daughter), Anna Carma Mach (Mach's daughter-in-law), Caroline Mach Lederer — Mach's daughter who lived in Essex-Fels in U.S.; Mathilde Hertz, Heinrich H's daughter; Nellie Planck — Max's daughter-in-law whose husband was executed by the Nazis in 1945; Annemarie Schrodinger, Erwin's widow; Edith Nernst — Nernst's daughter; also with Margot Einstein and Helene Dukas and Otto Nathan (a watchdog over Einstein papers, he was not too popular); Wolfgang Yourgrau (formerly Federman) I knew, a physicist in the U.S. The insights from these people I could not have obtained from books. It took considerable effort to maintain these exchanges of letters — valuable sources for a historian concerned with truth — Discovering new sources.

I located four letters of Einstein to Mach — there are only 4 — I published them in my Einstein book. Shows the young Einstein's following Mach and perennial appreciation of Mach's integrity. Even though he was a bit disturbed by the Foreword to his Physical Optics (1921). A Dozent, Wolt Kass(?), in Konstanz, wrote a dissertation to prove that the foreword where Mach criticizes Einstein, is a fake — perhaps by Mach's son who was in contact with an enemy of Mach, Dingler, also an enemy of Einstein on racist grounds, apparently rewrote Mach's forward. I consider that thesis highly probable.

(How can people see your valuable correspondence?) A young woman from the U.S., Patricia Reif, has worked on Lise Meitner and looked at some of the material. I know Irwin Hiebert. American researchers seem more interested, as our own researchers. The people in charge here (the GDR) are not scientists, but more philosophers, so do not have a great interest. E.g. I was a professor in the history of science, a position created for me, but as soon as I became emeritus, the position was abolished. My books have been translated into many languages and have had a large circulation. I became emeritus at 65 years (formerly it was 68) — then it took 12 years to get another prof. in history of science and they found someone with a very different interest, the organization of science — but he was not a scientist himself. I had done some actual geophysics, and studied theoretical physics, psychology. I also studied with Rudolf Carnap, was ausserordentlicher prof. in Prague, before he went to the U.S., Chicago — which ended my plans. He was not yet so famous. I am originally from Czechoslovakia — born in 1909, it was part of Austria-Hungary, a city in North Bohemia. Mach's family came from that same area. Carnap was prof. of ‘Naturphilosophie’ in Prague, in the twenties wrote about space, and later about logical syntax of language, and logical construction of language. I wanted to work with Carnap about a philosophical study of Ostwald and his theory of science, and Carnap had agreed. Of phenomenologists I knew Oskar Krauss who was a Brentanist. I talked with him quite a bit…

Cassette II, side A: (This cassette is not as clear as the other one; but is partly redundant. The summary below is less complete than that of cassette I.)

Carnap had good reason to go to US — the Wiener Kreis was not welcome by the Nazis, Schlick was murdered by a pathological Nazi. I valued Carnap especially as a critic of ‘Scheinprobleme’, not so much as a neo-positivist; these apparent problems which turn out to be merely linguistic, but had occupied philosophers for decades and centuries. That was an important insight for me, which I owe Carnap. I wrote the foreword to this edition of Mach's “Popular Wissenschaftlichen Vorlesungen” — I pointed out the importance of Mach in styles of scientific thought… More on Mach, Einstein, and Carnap… and the political problems of 1957-9. Laue did not understand Mach very well. (a little difficult to follow, but need to listen repeatedly)… my Einstein book sold 300,000 copies. That I defended these ideas such as those of Mach, which didn't fit into the orthodoxy — in those days (late 1950's), but now is largely accepted.

My correspondence is available to any researchers who work on that history. The researcher will have to contact me and can come and look at the letters. The problem of the Born correspondence. My wife died two years ago, although she was younger than I. Cancer. She was my co-worker, assistant on my books.

…There is not the liberalization proposed by Gorbacheve in the DDR at present… Gorbachev is enormously bold — in that land to propose what he has! I after all know Fock who had his own views, Landau too — spent some time in prison, Kapitza got his way — a robust personality. It may be in the process of change, but l think Gorbacheve has enormous difficulty to get his view across on the level of lower functionaries, that must be enormously difficult… Einstein was not appreciated and it has been one of my efforts to credit him — after all of all scientists he was further on the left than anyone. I point out that must be recognized.

Discussion of history of science presently existing in the GDR. In my work I have had assistants and students and colleagues… Plans for leaving his library and archival material together to assure they become available to researchers. I would like to see that the material is used… I try to write so that not only the specialist gets something from the work, but also a larger public can understand it. The large number of copies published of my books suggest that I did succeed in that respect.

(Interviewer notes from Max Born letter): Max Planck das schema idealismus-materialismus abegelehnt hat — so Planck nicht als Bundesgenosse der Marxistische materialistische bewiesen hatter — you argued and discussed about that. Born and I didn't agree about everything…

Heisenberg: Often closed off. One may find things not apparent…Born had a pessimistic view of the future of mankind. I argued with him then, but must say that now I am also pessimistic, largely in connection with destruction of the environment, like the North sea etc. Born was primarily concerned with nuclear war — but the present ‘disarmement’ is only reduction by 4%! In the 60's I was more optimistic… Now the militarization of space is terrible, a misuse of science. Born anticipated that. If one could apply science only to human benefit that would be wonderful.