Heisenberg, standing at left, with his brother and parents near the end of World War I.

The Early Years: 1901-1920
The Youth Movement

Following the outbreak of World War I in 1914, life in Bavaria  became very difficult. Because of an Allied blockade of Germany, food and fuel began to run out. The school was closed for long periods due to the shortage of coal. Food was so scarce that Heisenberg, weak from hunger, once fell off his bicycle into a ditch. Most of the men, including Heisenberg's father and teachers, were away at the front for months at a time. Because of all this, the students were expected to become even more independent in their schooling. In addition, they were indoctrinated more than ever with Germany's nationalism. Heisenberg, like most of his classmates, served in a school military training unit. When Germany's ambitions as a world power were dashed with the defeat in 1918, young people like Heisenberg felt betrayed by their elders. Many began to turn inward--to their studies and to a future Germany as they envisioned it.

It is probably not right of me, but I simply prefer to be among my young friends.

--Heisenberg in 1919

During the war, Heisenberg and his Gymnasium friends enrolled in a military training unit. This unit was called upon to help bring in the harvest during the late summer and fall of 1918 under difficult conditions. After the Armistice in November of that year, revolution swept through Germany, replacing the monarchy with a social democratic republic. In Bavaria, unrest led to the establishment of a soviet republic modeled after the new Bolshevik republic in Russia. In May 1919 troops dispatched from Berlin crushed the soviet republic in a battle through the Munich streets. During the restoration of moderate social democratic rule, Heisenberg and his schoolmates served in support of one of the units dispatched from Berlin.

Defeat. Parts of Germany were occupied for years by allied armies. Here a French soldier halts a civilian. Photo credit

The lost war, the collapse of the monarchy, and the bloody street fighting disgusted Heisenberg and many other young people of his time. Many felt so betrayed by their elders that they retreated into their own world by literally "heading for the hills." Drawing upon German romantic tradition, they thought that they could recapture the essence of German culture through a retreat to nature. Feeling betrayed and bewildered, they rejected their present world in search of what they thought would be more genuine, simpler values and traditions to be found in nature.
Heisenberg became the elected leader of a small band of younger boys from the military unit of his Gymnasium. The group was associated with the New Boy Scouts (Bund Deutscher Neupfadfinder), which was one of the more extreme examples of anti-modernist romanticism and right-wing politics. In fact, the boys longed so much for the return of the monarchy that they dreamed of a new "third Reich" to replace the one that had fallen to social democracy. Anti-Semitism was also evident in the New Boy Scouts, but apparently it did not infect Heisenberg's group, since Jewish boys from other groups were frequent participants in their activities. Heisenberg's ties to social democratic circles were indicated at that time by his involvement with the education of adult workers.

Until Hitler banned all independent youth groups in 1933, Heisenberg spent nearly all of his leisure time with his "boys," hiking and camping throughout Germany and in neighboring countries. He loved hiking, skiing, mountain climbing, and the beauties of nature to the end of his life.

Others, including myself, had been working two years earlier as farm hands on farms in the Bavarian Highlands. So the raw wind was no longer alien to us; and we were not afraid to form our own opinions on the most difficult problems.

--Heisenberg, recollection

Heisenberg, third from left, on a Bavarian farm, summer 1918.

Heisenberg met with his group of boys on a weekly basis and on weekends. They devoted the weekly meetings mainly to culture: German music, songs, and poetry. Heisenberg also acted as a type of trusted elder, providing fatherly advice on adolescent problems. While weekend meetings involved day trips to the countryside, the group spent school vacations on long camping trips. They always maintained rigid rules of ethical and moral behavior. Smoking and drinking were strictly forbidden, even after the "boys" grew up. Interactions with women rarely occurred. There is no evidence of a girlfriend in Heisenberg's life in this period.
Music, poetry, and nature occupied practically their entire thoughts. During his first university years Heisenberg divided his time almost evenly between his two main interests at the time: the youth movement and theoretical physics. During the warmer months of the year, he often camped with his boys in the mountains and hiked to the nearest train station in the morning in order to arrive in Munich in time for his early morning classes.

Heisenberg's participation in the German youth movement was one of the defining factors of his personality and outlook. He developed an inseparable attachment to his German homeland. At the same time, he gained the ability to make bold attempts to solve complicated problems, including those in science.


University Student


High School Student

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About this Exhibit

1998 - American Institute of Physics and David Cassidy ()