Maxwell Planck was born in the midst of what would later be seen as a golden age of Germany. By the time he died, the once great country would be laid to ruins, ravaged by two world wars and the economic depression, political extremism, and international disdain that followed them.
But in the mid-nineteenth century, when Planck came of age, Germany was flourishing. It was a cultural mecca for sophisticated Europeans, a center of literature, philosophy, culture, and, most importantly for Planck, science. The German man was held up as the epitome of the civilized human being. No group benefited more from these heady times than the scientific community.
German science led the nineteenth century charge to discover the fundamental workings of the universe. German physicists were second to none, and scientists from all over the world came to study at Germany's prestigious universities. The country's days of glory continued into the early twentieth century. German science, and the reputation of the country as a whole, received a huge boon when Albert Einstein came on the world scene with his theory of relativity. Soon Einstein was the toast of Europe, and Germany came along for the ride. This success was–thanks in part to Planck–closely followed by another, as German physicists led a revolution in physics, developing the new field of quantum mechanics.
But the golden era could not last for long. In 1914, Germany entered into the World War I. As the aggressor, Germany stormed the battlefield, fighting what it believed to be a devoutly righteous cause. Planck joined thousands of his fellow countrymen in loudly singing the praises of the fatherland, certain of triumph, and he joined them four years later in surprised defeat.
Suddenly the Germany of Planck's youth was gone. In its place was a war-ravaged, poverty-filled country, plagued by inflation, overproduction, anti-Semitism, and a populace wary of science, technology, and foreigners. The new Weimar government was ineffective, weakened from the start by their acceptance of the humiliating Treaty of Versailles. The treaty put Germany on unequal footing with the rest of Europe. The country, once supreme, was now isolated and looked down upon by its neighbors, and it would be forced to claw its way back to its former greatness.
Planck believed that the best way for Germany to win back its former supporters would be for it to excel to such a degree that no one would be able to deny German excellence, and thus no one would be able to deny a place on the world stage. But he was never able to carry out his plan, as another German visionary had a far more powerful one. In 1933 Adolf Hitler, the head of the Nazi party, capitalized on the discontent of the German people and swept into power. The Germany Planck knew and loved, damaged by the World War I, was heading toward a far worse fate.
Germany had been riddled by anti-Semitism in the years following World War I, but with Hitler in power, the ugly discrimination spun out of control. Jews in all industries were fired for the crime of being Jewish, and, as a result, fields dominated by Jews, such as theoretical physics, were decimated. Once the other countries of the world realized what Germany was doing, they recoiled in disgust. Isolated by its neighbors, insulated by its distrustful, ultra- nationalist, foreigner-hating attitude, Germany soon became alienated from the European civilization it had once led.
The country was on a collision course toward war. In 1939 the war arrived. The next several years would see the well-known horrors of World War II, on the battlefield and in the concentration camps. By the time the war ended, Germany had become a bitter enemy of much of the world, and, for many, it became the personification of evil. Even now, over fifty years later, it struggles with the heavy legacy of those dark days.