The Nazi who Almost Destroyed Science

Paul Feyerabend was born in Vienna in January 1924.  He was fourteen when his country became part of Hitler’s Reich through the Anschluss; by the age of twenty-one he was in charge of an infantry battalion, three tanks, auxiliary troops, a mass of refugees and a bicycle company which had lost its bikes, all fleeing from the Russian advance.  His years in between provide a fascinating insight into the life of a low-to-mid-level soldier in the Wehrmacht; his life after almost destroyed the way we think about science.

Feyerabend - Hitler Youth
Feyerabend – Hitler Youth

Feyerabend admits to having no particular views on the Nazi takeover in 1938.  Many in Vienna saw the Anschluss as ‘liberation from Catholic totalitarianism’.  Like the other schoolchildren, he accepted the segregation to a special bench of the three Jews in his class.  He felt no moral outrage when anti-Semitic laws forced his family doctor, Dr Kronfeld, to cease practicing; what mattered to him was that the new doctor was just as good.  Although he refused to watch Nazi propaganda movies for fear of being taken in, he admits he never really critiqued the Nazi ideology until 1945.  He even considered joining the SS – not out of conviction, but because their uniform was more impressive.

Feyerabend’s War

Aged 18, Feyerabend was conscripted into the Arbeitdeinst – the state sponsored employment service, which sent him to German-occupied Brittany to ‘dig ditches and fill them up again’.  Weekends centred on alcohol and ‘forthcoming’ French women.

He began training with a reserve engineer battalion, near Vienna, in December 1942, and volunteered to become an officer – purely because it seemed a safer bet.  Taught about pontoon bridge-building and all manner of explosives, he was hospitalised twice from minor training injuries.  He then spent several months in Yugoslavia – one of the most troublesome occupied territories for the Nazis, although Feyerabend never came across the resistance.  Only towards the end of his time there did he meet a local farmwoman who confronted him as ‘the enemy’.  Feyerabend, who had been sheltered from anti-Nazi views and had not even heard of Pearl Harbour, was shocked by the woman’s animosity.

Feyerabend's ID card
Feyerabend’s ID card

Feyerabend was eventually sent to the Russian front, newly promoted to lance corporal.  On the defensive, his platoon slid around in mud and squalor; one soldier shot himself trying to dismantle a pistol.  After a few weeks of boring statis, they were suddenly ordered to retreat.  Feyerabend’s men blew up every house they could find, and took a professional joy in placing explosives as strategically as they could.

He also witnessed civilians being slaughtered – in one case, several of them being shepherded into a cellar, into which a grenade was tossed.  But most civilians fled; Feyerabend would sleep on their still-warm ovens after they had gone.

A Chaotic Retreat

It was a bitter time.  Sometimes under simultaneous attack from the air and groundfire, they also had to watch out for their own tanks: one man in his unit was flattened by a retreating panzer.

In March 1944, Feyerabend earned the Iron Cross (second class), for leading a counter-attack on a village with a rocket launcher.  Soon after, he was put in charge of a company of seasoned soldiers, as the front temporarily stabilised.  During the nights, Feyerabend would move between the observation posts and explain the constellations above to his sentries.

After respite at an officer training school near Leipzig, Feyerabend’s last foray against the Russians was in January 1945.  Ludicrously, he was put in charge of a bicycle company, even though he had never ridden one, and fell off when he tried; but the bikes were soon abandoned as the Soviets came near.  Feyerabend just escaped from a barn as the enemy entered through the back door.  He and his men built bridges, crossed them, then destroyed them as they enacted Hitler’s ‘Scorched Earth’ policy.

A lieutenant, then a captain, then a major all cited bogus injuries as an excuse to depart, leaving Lieutenant Feyerabend in charge of a battalion of weary and confused Germans plus Ukrainian, Polish and Finish auxiliaries.

It was while directing traffic at a crossroads that Feyerabend was hit by three sniper rounds – one to his spine which would leave him impotent for the rest of his life.  The Germans who escorted him to hospital, he said, did not really want to help him; they were just looking for an excuse to escape the fighting themselves.  In Weimar, where he was eventually treated, an air-raid blasted a window-frame onto his head, and he was taken into a sewer, where he sheltered for almost a week.  He was convalescing when the war ended.

Venerated Anti-Scientist of the 1960s

Feyerabend - 1960s Icon
Feyerabend – 1960s Icon

Forever crippled by his injuries, Feyerabend was soon back at university.  There, he concentrated on quantum physics before moving into philosophy.  In the half-century of his life after the war, he won academic accolades, fellowships and appointments around the world – including a distinguished post at Berkeley, California.  His views were seen as radical and anarchic, and chimed with the anti-establishment mood of the late 1960s.

Although he is usually classed as a ‘philosopher of science’, Paul Feyerabend was essentially a philosopher against science.  Feyerabend himself pointedly refused to be classified at all – classifications, he believed, relied on traditions he felt a duty to confront.

The traditional scientific method had been defined by Karl Popper, who put forward his theory of ‘falsification’: that scientific hypotheses were only valid if they could be proved wrong.  Scientific truth, Popper believed, could never be proven; instead, it was established gradually, by the sustained absence of proof against a theory.

Ultimate Icon of the Counter-Culture

Despite having agreed with Popper in the 1950s, Feyerabend had become a sharp critic by the 1960s.  He believed Popper’s approach hampered invention, since it meant testing new ideas against old ones – an approach which was biased towards the status quo.  According to Feyerabend, truly revolutionary scientific ideas need to be tested in their own terms.  Also, he said, rival scientific theories could co-exist, even if they contradicted each other.

Not a Traditional Scientist
Not a Traditional Scientist

Drawing an analogy with the separation of powers and anti-monopoly laws, he believed society benefitted from sharp divides within the scientific community, and between establishment science and the state.  “The separation of state and church must be complemented by the separation of state and science, that most recent, most aggressive, and most dogmatic religious institution,” he famously once said.

Feyerabend’s views have been derided as illogical.  Nevertheless, his ideas helped inspire the post-modernist culture of the 1960s and 70s.

Feyerabend’s views on science make most sense as a delayed reaction to his military experiences.  He had been the amoral servant of an evil ideology; that service was only possible because alternative viewpoints had been demonised by Nazism.  Feyerabend’s critique was not of science itself, but of its intolerance.  He wanted to separate science from the state, just as religion is kept apart in the USA.  His mantra, ‘anything goes’ was not an assault on science, but a belated safeguard against totalitarian brutality.


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