Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Science and technology in Nazi Germany

That should be admitted. Germany during the years 1932 to 1945 became une of the main World centres, maybe even the main one, in scientific and technologic research. During that period, the bright German engineers created more than 300,000 patents, which, after the war, were appropiated by the Allies, who took advantage from them in further developments, that lead to many products we use nowadays.

This post is not at all a support or identification with National-socialist ideology or Hitler's regime. It just tries to show the technological advances achieved during this time and political context.

Military advances

Considering Hitler's military objective, there was a strong financial support to war oriented research. However, many of the achievements in weaponry were unused because of confrontations between different factions of the army, as well as Hitler's unstable planning abilities. Many resources were wasted in politically impressive but unrealistic projects, while little effort was made to make the new inventions practical. Despite all that, the Germans had technological advantages in the war, as they used inventions such as the first automatic rifle and the first railgun type guns.

The Messerschmitt Me 262 -called "Schwalbe", the swallow- was the first oprational jet plane in History. After a series of changes and failures, technically due to the lack of alloy able to resist the overheating due to high velocities, but also to Hitler's conviction in a quick victory and the unnecessarity of the new model, in May 1943 the prototype was ready. During the test flights, it reached nearly 900 kmph, what made Adolf Galland, chief of the Fighter Aviation, exclaim: "It looks like pushed by the angels!". However, Hitler's obsession for turning it into a bomber delayed its production in one year, and suppressing the great advantages it provided, speed and fire power against bombers. In the end, less than 300 units ever engaged in combat. Despite some punctual successes, such as the legendary actuation of the JV44 squadron, involving J. Steinhoff and Galland himself, which shot down more than one thousand planes, the jet fighter had no repercusion due to the general lack of fuel and expert pilots -it became a deadly trap for novices-. Besides, the confrontations of Göring with Galland caused it not to be built at the necessary scale. After the war, the Allies took possession of the remaining intact models, from which directly they developed the American F-86 Sabre and the Soviet MiG-15.

The U-boot, German submarines, were the most operative naval weapon they had during the whole war. Specially, the U-boot VII model was the most advanced model of the time, armed with five torpedo launchers while reaching 18 knots at surface. The tactics proposed by the Kriegsmarine commander Dönitz, the "wolf pack", was based in night group attacks to English convoys, which led to huge losses to the Royal Navy. Anyway, it took too long to the admiral to convince Hitler of the convenience of submarine war considerably decreased its scale. From 1943, the Allies learnt to face the U-boot by means of radar detection and torpedo launcher planes.

However, the major German innovation in submarine warfare was the U-boot XXI. This new-generation submarine, directly related to the design of the first American nuclear ones, combined novel technologies that could have made it into one of the greatest challenges for the Allied navy and decisively influence the war outcome. It included a new hydraulic reloading system, which granted a fire power six times larger than the VII type U-boot. On the other side, its sonar system allowed non-periscope-aided shooting, thus increasing its stealth. But mainly, the combination of its stylish hull design with the wide electric battery capacity, granted a higher speed when inmersed than on surface -17 knots vs 15- and a larger inmersion time, what made it specially difficult to hunt. From 1943 to 1945, 118 units were built. However, only two of them -U2511 and U3008- took part in combat missions before the end of the war, due to the large period needed to crew training in such a novel technology.

The first ballistic missile, the Vergeltungswaffe 2 ("Weapon of Revenge"), or V-2, was developed by a group of engineers led by Wernher von Braun in 1942, after a decade working on alcohol and liquid oxygen propulsion. But, even if it had all the support from Hitler, its mass production did not begin until the end of 1943. The rocket had its huge speed as an advantage, which made it virtually impossible to locate and destroy by the Allies. However, its short autonomy (little more than 300 km) and no precision, made it only useful for the indiscriminate bombings Hitler carried out in the English south coast. Until the beginning of 1945, almost 1500 rockets fell into British territory. Once the war was finished, both the USSR and the USA rushed to take the rocket specialists back to their countries. Among them, the team of Von Braun himself created the Saturn V rocket for the NASA, which -supposedly- took the man to the Moon in 1969.

V-1 should also be mentioned, developed in parallel to the V-2, and considered the first guided missile. Same as V-2, traditional defense measures used by the Allies -interceptor fighters, anti-aircraft guns, balloons, ...- proved uneffective for these new threats. The only adequate defenses were the destruction of launching bases and counterinformation activities (in which souble agent actions of the XX system, and specially the Spanish spy Juan Pujol, "Garbo", were of vital importance-.

It is also suspected that the Germans carried out nuclear tests in Thuringia in March 1945, two months earlier than the Americans. However, the classification of the documents that supposedly prove it has made it impossible to find out the degree of development they had.

Other inventions

In 1935, the engineer Fritz Pfleumer developed the K1, first magnetophonic recorder. This provided, the first concerts and political speeches in History were the German ones. Its military use was extensive, as a recording medium of both friend and intercepted transmissions. The Allies knew that the Nazis had such a device, but did not find it out until they invaded Germany in 1944. There, the American engineer Jack Mullin analyzed the device, a great invention for its time, which was commercialized by the firm Ampex and revolutionized the American media industry of the '40s and the '50s.

The first machine working with binary arithmetics, the Z3, including programming capacity, was developed in 1941 by the German engineer Konrad Zuse, and became in essence the first digital computer. Although it was destroyed in a bombing in 1944, it meant a step forward to the development, in 1948, of the famous American computer ENIAC, that added decimal arithmetics.

Infra-red devices were included in German interceptors that proved very usefil in night missions, while the Americans were starting to wonder if such a technology was possible.

In medicine, we will not point out the infamous pseudo-scientific experiments Dr Mengele carried out with concentration camp prisoners. From a more constructive side, German scientists of the time achieved the first direct relation of tobacco with lung cancer -and smoking was even banned in the Luftwaffe for several years-. They also were the inventors of methadone and modern pesticides.


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It is sad that many of these discoveries are used for destruction instead of helping build our civilization. Technology should be utilized for the common good and not for war.

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