A colleague of mine and me are organizing a 3-day preparation course for undergrad students to prepare them for their upcoming lecture about computational physics (the course in about 1.5 months). This course takes place at a German university.

The third day of this course will involve a "do-it-yourself-day" where the students can choose between different projects to do. We are in the process of creating these projects. Usually, we are creating them independently of each other and uploading them to our course-site and inform each other we added a new project. Sometimes we'll also talk about them to discuss specific tasks etc.

So I made a project to calculate the trajectory of an artillery from the WWII. It's perfect for an academic task because it has a high velocity and goes high into the atmosphere so the students must do the calculation with air friction and height effects like decreasing temperature and pressure. I almost completed this project to be ready to be uploaded but my colleague has moral concerns since its a weapon and was used by the Nazis.

I don't have that many concerns since its a purely academic approach to this and it's not like we are calculating how much damage it can do. Also, the approaches used to solve this task are not so unlike the approach to get a space shuttle again safe to Earth (which is much more complicated though since I didn't choose it) for example.

Q: Are his concerns justified and should I abandon this project?

(I'd also be glad to new proposals, it should be fast and go high to use friction and height effect.)

  • 18
    Can you not alter the project to describe some generic rocket, rather than a specific weapon?
    – astronat
    Mar 15 '17 at 19:29
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    I'm of mind that it's ridiculous to have "moral" concerns over a historical projectile just because it was used by the bad guys. What is the actual morality that he is concerned with? Are you planning on using your results to build yourself a bigger and badder weapon? Morality doesn't lie with the math/physics itself but with what you do with it. Mar 15 '17 at 19:37
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    Where would this stop? So anything used by nazis (including airplanes, trucks, bullets etc) should not be even mentioned anywhere?
    – PsySp
    Mar 15 '17 at 19:39
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    Is there any reason why you want to use that one particular projectile and not, say, a modern one?
    – PsySp
    Mar 15 '17 at 19:54
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    @Hobbes: True, but irrelevant, since this is not academic research. This is an assignment in computational physics -- i.e., the students are not going to learn anything practical about designing weapons: it's just a setting for a physics problem. Mar 16 '17 at 0:44

No, his concerns are not valid and you should not abandon the project, which has scientific value as well as a small amount of historical added value that I think is of independent interest. There is nothing about the representations of Nazis or Nazi history in this project that would make it any different from mentioning the Nazis anywhere else, e.g., in a movie or work of literature, or in the Wikipedia article you linked to about Nazi weaponry for that matter. So your colleague's logic would imply that one must never discuss anything related to the Nazis, which is clearly absurd and false. Of course, an important piece of context is that you are in Germany, which leads me to speculate that your colleague has indeed been conditioned by his upbringing to shy away from discussions of Nazism. Perhaps he had family members who were involved in the war and his parents discouraged him from discussing Nazi history, or he absorbed this sentiment at school or through the media; who knows? But it is pretty clear that his sensitivity about these things has reached rather exaggerated and irrational levels.

Incidentally, warfare in general and World War II in particular have driven a large amount of development of new scientific and technological ideas. Personally I find it fascinating to read about this interaction between science and world affairs, including reading about scientific work the "bad guys" did, and fail to see how merely studying historical events can carry any moral or ethical meaning or can be anything other than a good thing.

  • 8
    On the historical note: one of my favourites is the German tank problem: estimating the number of tanks based on the serial numbers of the destroyed or captured tanks.
    – Davidmh
    Mar 15 '17 at 21:13
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    Yes, the context matters, but in a different way than you suggest. Rather than being "conditioned by his upbringing to shy away from discussions of Nazism" the colleague might also have learned to be suspicious about -- or learned to take into account that others could be suspicious about -- a certain fascination with nazi memorabilia and the military, which in Germany can signal a revisionist attitude.
    – henning
    Mar 16 '17 at 11:14
  • @henning good point.
    – Dan Romik
    Mar 18 '17 at 23:03
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    Now that I’m reading this a long time later, I must admit that I find the arguments raised by people objecting to my analysis, especially @PeteL.Clark, pretty compelling. I still think that what I wrote is logically correct, but I can also see that there is a cultural component to this that I didn’t sufficiently take into account at the time. So my revised opinion is that it is best to avoid using Nazi weaponry as the basis for a physics project in a German university, unless there are really compelling reasons that make that particular piece of weaponry uniquely relevant to the discussion.
    – Dan Romik
    Feb 11 '19 at 8:04

German citizen here. My feeling is that your example is not at all outrageous or morally problematic per se; but it might lead to some raised eyebrows in the given setting (a German university) and for quite understandable reasons.

You use a German WW II weapon simply to illustrate some computational problem. That is, you don't make any evaluative statement about nazism, German WW II aggression or even warfare and weapons in general. Neither is your problem about making weapons more effective, which could then be seen as an implicit value judgement.

It is also, fortunately, no longer "taboo" to discuss the nazi past. German political culture has overcome the lead-heavy immediate post-war period, in which the memory of the atrocities that Germans had committed was actively repressed together with everything that reminded of them. To be sure, there is a (perhaps large) minority that prefers to rationalize, relativize or even idealize the nazi regime and its crimes. Some of these guys have a strange fascination for WW II memorabilia and nazi paraphernalia. Here it can be hard to draw the line between hobby historians and hobby revisionists.

So as your student I would wonder: Of all the examples that you could have chosen, why this particular one? If the course was about military history or WW II, the choice of example would make immediate sense. But since it isn't, your example seems quite arbitrary. (Wouldn't other projectiles or objects have similar physical properties?) This would probably lead me to conclude that the example is "just and example", but I couldn't quite help to speculate a bit about your motivation and perhaps your historical-political attitude. Less so, however, if you are not a German.

  • 15
    "So as your student I would wonder: Of all the examples that you could have chosen, why this particular one?" This is in my view (which is also from a German perspective) the key sentence in this answer.
    – Schmuddi
    Mar 16 '17 at 10:50
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    @henning: Thanks for this answer. It amplifies on the perspective I presented in some comments, but as it comes from a German citizen, is much more trustworthy and valuable. Mar 16 '17 at 13:46
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    @Schmuddi, I was wondering the same thing, but then I read the description of the weapon. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Schwerer_Gustav "It was the largest-calibre rifled weapon ever used in combat, the heaviest mobile artillery piece ever built in terms of overall weight, and fired the heaviest shells of any artillery piece." Also, the bit of history about being designed to destroy the Maginot line, but that it wasn't deployed in time, is also interesting. For the record, I'm not gun nut, nor am I a history buff, but I still found this very interesting. Mar 16 '17 at 15:02
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    "So as your student I would wonder: Of all the examples that you could have chosen, why this particular one?" This reminds me of the joke (which I read recently in the excellent autobiography "Adventures of a Mathematician by Stanislaw Ulam) about the Jewish mother who gave her son two ties for his birthday. The next time she saw him he was wearing one of them, so she asked in frustration "what, you didn't like the other tie?"
    – Dan Romik
    Mar 16 '17 at 16:20
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    @DanRomik Ha, nice joke! I agree this suspicion is irrational or exaggerated to some extent, but I guess culture often works that way. Hence my conclusion that I "couldn't help to speculate", although per se the nazi weapon example is not immoral.
    – henning
    Mar 17 '17 at 8:30

I don't see anything immoral about it. What if the weapon was used by Americans? It's an aspect of history and if the weapon has an interesting application in your course, why not use it?

Personal feelings aside, if you're worried about stepping on your colleague's toes, you could just describe it as a generic projectile and not mention its historical significance so you can still use it in your course material. I don't know the logistics of your project, but why be specific about the weapon?


As a teacher I try and stay away from controversial topics unless it is related to a learning outcome. There is no way to teach about evolution and geology without running counter to creationism/intelligent design. In your case, one could argue that using a historically accurate weapon enhances learning about the trajectory of a projectile. The issue then becomes what is the least controversial weapon to use as an example without impacting your ability to deliver the learning objective.

In Germany, any WWII weapon is going to be controversial. If you choose a weapon used by the Allied powers, you are using something that was used to attack their country. Choosing an Axis powers weapon has the obvious issue of being perceived as "pro Nazi". Without knowing much about historical weaponry or physics, maybe a weapon that wasn't used in WWII would work (there are an awful lot of non WWII era Howitzers).

  • 2
    In Germany, any WWII weapon is going to be controversial. That statement is itself controversial. If it is "controversial" to mention a historical fact in a completely neutral context having to do with a math problem, then pretty much anything at all is "controversial".
    – Dan Romik
    Mar 15 '17 at 21:35
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    Wiping out a "shameful" part of the history is also a controversial decision (similar to censorship, cf. Ministry of Truth). Mar 15 '17 at 21:43
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    I think there is something quite defensible in this answer that is not being expressed in the best possible away. @Dan Romik is right that shying away from controversy is antithetical to academic sensibilities. However, it is also not in the spirit of academia to court controversy for its own sake. Could there really be any pedagogical loss in using an FH70 rather than a Nazi-era weapon? I don't see how.... Mar 16 '17 at 0:09
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    Finally, I want to point out that "This course takes place at a German university." I think that is of some significance, in a way that for a (say) American to understand requires some reflection and imagination. The equivalent for a US audience would be something like a problem optimizing the design of a human-pulled plow on an antebellum plantation: that's a lot of baggage to put on a physics problem. Mar 16 '17 at 0:20
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    @Dan: Let me just say that I didn't use the word "offensive," and I don't think that discussing science/engineering issues related to Nazi Germany is offensive or immoral in any way. But it is potentially distracting, which is a negative to be weighed against the positives. If there is any clear pedagogical positive to be gained from using these weapons specifically, it would be justifiable to do this (and good to explain why). By the way: a small percentage of students will not be thrilled to be studying weaponry of any kind as a physics project. Mar 16 '17 at 13:37

It's a good applied physics example, but I don't get driving the WW2 weapon IN GERMANY. The Germans have a hard time with the Nazi past. Not happy with having been the bad guys. But also not happy about having it rubbed in their faces all the time.

Obviously you picked the German weapon because you thought it was relevant. But you don't understand some of the issues in that country. So you're actually being sort of clueless when you think you are being relevant.

I assume that you main target is to teach the topic. Not to get snarled up in other kerfuffles. So give it a rest. Your colleague is being smart here to warn you.

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