The first two-thirds of “Ravenus” deal primarily with questions about Warburg’s life and work: of the more than 100 scientists of the Kaiser Wilhelm era who completed the Nazi definition of being Jewish in 1933, it is Warburg alone. Why was Joe living and working in Germany until the Nazis were defeated? And why was his groundbreaking research on cancer metabolism forgotten by the end of the 20th century?
Apple covers everything from Hitler’s obsessive preoccupation with cancer to how the German Empire’s transformation into an industrial powerhouse led to a Romanticism-fueled movement that emphasized both environmental and racial purity. The fact that Apple can make these stories, many of which have been told before, feel immediate, is a testament to their shrewd skill at choosing the appropriate details.
When he attempts to solve the puzzle at the center of Warburg’s life, however, he is struck by the lack of primary sources: Warburg’s only personal reflections that Apple has cited – and perhaps the only examples of Warburg ever in his personal life. Recording thoughts – Come the final weeks of the war were written from a few short diary entries on the back of one of his lab notebooks. Apple relies on the diary of Warburg’s sister, Lotte, which was published in German after her death, and a cascade of speculative conditionals to describe how Warburg “would be,” “should be” or “likely”. felt it.
Otto Warburg who emerges from this pastiche is what would today be described as a toxic personality: petty and self-centered, prone to real and imaginary fights, and always confident of his talent. Those qualities go a long way toward explaining why Warburg’s work on cancer had been neglected for so long: his insights about fermentation were often obscured by his insistence, with longstanding evidence leading him to be wrong. It was proved, cancer cells fermented glucose because they were unable to use oxygen.
But Warburg’s unpleasant personality does not explain why the Third Reich tolerated him. It’s not because he got in line: Warburg had banned the Nazi flag and Nazi salute from his institution and had no Nazis on his staff. Apple attempts to answer this question with a hint of some dark evil, returning time and again (and again) to the idea that Warburg was a “true Faust”, someone so “brutal for knowledge and power”. was that he would do anything, including selling his soul to Satan, in order to gain “absolute mastery over life.” But it is never clear what it should mean.
In the end, Warburg’s greatest sin appears to be that he not only stayed in Germany, but survived. Apple ended the first chapter detailing Warburg’s life after the war with an anecdote about a dinner party in America during a 1949 visit that he hoped would lead to employment. The biggest obstacle to achieving this goal, Apple writes, “must have finally come upon Warburg” when the wife of a Caltech professor asked him why he would stay in Germany “when the Nazis did such evil things. “
Then the scene unfolded: “‘I wanted to protect my coworkers,’ Warburg lied. ‘What could I do?’ The woman had a thought: ‘You could have committed suicide!’ Warburg and the other dinner guests were stunned. Someone had finally reported the missing clothes to the Emperor of Dahlem.”