Today, we join a technical society under Hitler.
The University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
The Bavarian Polytechnical
Society was born in 1815, and it lived a long,
noble life. It began as a technical Chamber of
Commerce for Munich and grew into a scientific
society. It created a leading technical journal. It
received state support, and it ran a strong
The Society began by trying to avoid a technocratic
image. Its first president quoted Karl Maria von
Weber's son Max, who'd said that technical
education must come after liberal education. But
this was the new age of technical professionals.
The Society was destined to mirror the new German
The Society rose and fell during the 19th century,
but mostly it rose. By the 1920s it claimed over
2000 members. Rudolph
Diesel had been part of it. So had the great
process engineer Carl von Linde. Then the
Depression came. The Society's membership and its
industrial base suffered. Depression sapped its
strength along with the rest of Germany. Then, in
1933, Hitler came to power.
One member, a Nazi, asked the Nazi party what sort
of support they meant to give the Society. He was
told it'd have its place in the new Germany, but
there was a catch. The majority of the Society
board had to be Party members. The Society didn't
like it, but would-be voices of prudence won out.
They put Nazis on the board. After all, the
old-timers could surely contain the Nazi majority.
Meanwhile, the president tried to buy favor by
making members swear loyalty oaths to Hitler. That
seemed painless enough. The members agreed, and the
Society limped on. It did the routine testing the
Nazis wanted. It gave them the patent advice they
asked for. The Society's goals became those of the
3rd Reich. Meanwhile, the Nazis created an Office
of Technical Sciences. In 1937, that Office
formally absorbed the Bavarian Polytechnical
Society. At its last meeting in 1938, it
unanimously agreed to dissolve itself. After all,
members conceded, its work now had a larger stage.
It had taken the Nazis only five years to wreck a
fine old Society. It seems a small loss compared
with the rest of WW-II. Yet it tells, with terrible
clarity, the worst nightmare of any good engineer.
It tells what lurks out there every time we sell
freedom of the mind to buy security.
The old Society records were taken from bomb-torn
Munich and hidden in the countryside. And that's
the only reason we're able to tell this sad story
about making peace with evil.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds