What exactly was Winston Churchill referring to when he said "perverted science" in his Finest Hour speech?


...But if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science. Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties,...

What was the context for this? What was scientific development like in those days (especially compared to today)? Typically we're taught that science has been a liberating thing right from Renaissance days. How could science then threaten to bring a more sinister Dark Age in Churchill's perspective?

If it was a real threat, is it around even today?

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    He means misusing science to do evil, like this or this or this. He doesn't mean that science itself was a threat. This is more of an English language question than history. pervert: Distort or corrupt the original course, meaning, or state of (something).
    – Semaphore
    Commented Sep 18, 2015 at 14:57
  • 3
    You clearly think that there was some "patterns" or "integrated whole" going on in the big picture and which Wiston Churchill mentions. I'm saying you should discuss/elaborate on it directly; focusing on a piece of wartime rhetoric feels roundabout to me. On a pedantic note, Winston Churchill was never head of state.
    – Semaphore
    Commented Sep 18, 2015 at 16:10
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    I am astonished at the ignorance of some of the replies here. Clearly Churchill had in mind the fact that the Nazis had a great interest in things like eugenics, and were obsessed with the idea of the creation of a master race. Whether Churchill would have known about the work of such as Dr Josef Mengele at that stage of the war I know not. But British intelligence was pretty good. And Mengele's work and much else in Nazi Germany certainly qualifies as perverted in anyone's language.
    – WS2
    Commented Sep 18, 2015 at 22:20
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    @WS2: Until sometime in summer 1942 Mengele was just a combat medic in the SS. After being wounded, and in consequence declared unfit for field duty, he was assigned to Auschwitz were his perverted science experiments were performed. Although SS medical personnel were performing some unethical experiments prior to that date, all such seem to have begun after Jun 20, 1941; well before Churchill's speech referred to here. Commented Sep 9, 2018 at 18:43
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    @Pieter Geerkens The nazi government had had a eugenics programme going since the mid 1930s. I recently had the opportunity to visit Colditz castle, and discovered a memorial tablet to victims of this. Prior to it having been made into a POW camp, Colditz had been a centre for eugenics experiments.
    – WS2
    Commented Sep 16, 2018 at 21:09

7 Answers 7


I'd like to add some second-hand context to Paul Rowe's first-hand context.

England of the early 20th Century had a very different perspective about technology than we do today. Our most recent innovations have brought the public things like the Internet and ubiquitous cheap connectivity. Theirs had most recently brought mustard gas and automatic weaponry, resulting in the bloodiest war in human history. Before that was industrialization, which brought about great social disruption, along with pollution and unremitting toil and poverty to the masses, and was thus not viewed as an unalloyed good.

An exemplar of this attitude is the German movie Metropolis, which was a big deal in Europe in the late 20's. It depicted a dystopian future where an authoritarian society used machines reminiscent of high-tech mills to isolate and control people. Among the movie's fans was Joseph Goebbels (to the despair of the movie's creators).

Also, since this is Churchill and wartime England, we should mention the unofficial English national anthem, Jerusalem, with its reference to "dark satanic mills" and the duty of Englishmen to take up their weapons and fight for a better world. It was originally written by William Blake, and is thought to have been meant in part to show his disapproval of the effects of the relatively new Industrial Revolution. These words could not possibly have been far from Churchill's mind, as he'd been periodically singing them.

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    With respect, I'm not sure of the overall point you are making here. Britain had been the world's first industrial country, from the early 18th century. Germany did not really get going until the mid-19th. Germany made far more rapid progress, tis true, which economic historians ascribe to the fact that their initial industrialisation took place at a time when science was far more advanced than had been the case with Britain. And they learned a lot from Britain's mistakes. But to suggest that the British population had not benefitted much by the 1930s is patently absurd.
    – WS2
    Commented Sep 18, 2015 at 22:33
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    Life in 1930s Britain was broadly comparable to that of any developed country at the time. The perverted science, as I explain in a comment elsewhere is to do with eugenics, Dr Josef Mengele, and all those sorts of things. The Nazis were hell bent on creating a Master Race, and that was liable to involve many perversions.
    – WS2
    Commented Sep 18, 2015 at 22:37
  • Not commenting on the answer itself, but picking up on the fact about its more rapid progress : Could this have had something to do with it : spiegel.de/international/zeitgeist/… Did Germany experience rapid industrial expansion in the 19th century due to an absence of copyright law? Quoting: "A German historian argues that the massive proliferation of books, and thus knowledge, laid the foundation for the country's industrial might."
    – Nikhil VJ
    Commented Sep 19, 2015 at 19:13
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    Every other movie that comes out now is set in a dystopian future, so I don't think that Metropolis coming in the 1930s is very strong evidence. However, now you've inspired me to go watch Blade Runner again...
    – AlaskaRon
    Commented Apr 10, 2016 at 21:33
  • This answer gets it the wrong way round. The first half of the twentieth century saw a huge explosion in technology in the UK, from public radio, telephony, cheaper production of food and clothes etc. Vast numbers of the public were employed operating, maufacturing or maintaining machinery (every mill town and village had a mechanic's institute) and the benefits of science and engineering were obvious to all. Scientists were lauded as celebrities, look at the fame of Einstein and others. Disillusionment with science came after the war, after the concentration camps, V-weapons and atomic bombs. Commented Feb 15 at 15:22

In the original speech, Churchill said "by the lights of a perverted science". He may perhaps have been speaking about Hitler's pure-bred Aryan superbeings, and the now discredited but then accepted science or pseudo-science of eugenics - the creation of an improved human race through select breeding of the finest specimens. The "lights" of this perverted science were the best and most able superbeings the Nazis might have been able to create.


Semaphore pointed out historical examples. I believe the context (thank you for providing the link) also helps. The following are all quotes from that same speech.

The disastrous military events which have happened during the past fortnight have not come to me with any sense of surprise.

The Admiralty had confidence at that time in their ability to prevent a mass invasion even though at that time the Germans had a magnificent battle fleet in the proportion of 10 to 16....

Now, the Navy have never pretended to be able to prevent raids by bodies of 5,000 or 10,000 men flung suddenly across and thrown ashore at several points on the coast some dark night or foggy morning.

Some people will ask why, then, was it that the British Navy was not able to prevent the movement of a large army from Germany into Norway across the Skagerrak?

Can we break Hitler's air weapon?

There remains, of course, the danger of bombing attacks, which will certainly be made very soon upon us by the bomber forces of the enemy. It is true that the German bomber force is superior in numbers to ours; but we have a very large bomber force also, which we shall use to strike at military targets in Germany without intermission.

In what way has our position worsened since the beginning of the war? It has worsened by the fact that the Germans have conquered a large part of the coast line of Western Europe, and many small countries have been overrun by them.

If Hitler can bring under his despotic control the industries of the countries he has conquered, this will add greatly to his already vast armament output.

We must not forget that from the moment when we declared war on the 3rd September it was always possible for Germany to turn all her Air Force upon this country, together with any other devices of invasion she might conceive, and that France could have done little or nothing to prevent her doing so.

Over and over again, Churchill addresses the losses they have suffered and the dangers they face from Germany's military might. These losses would not be so severe if German technology were not on par with that of the Allied powers.

What General Weygand called the Battle of France is over. I expect that the Battle of Britain is about to begin. Upon this battle depends the survival of Christian civilization.

Being caught in a terrible war, the enemy is evil (even if he also claims to be Christian) and any technology or science he uses is considered a perversion of that technology and science.

  • The perverted science is all about things like eugenics, the work of such as Josef Mengele, and the creation of a Master Race.
    – WS2
    Commented Sep 18, 2015 at 22:40

Elements of "perverted science" that were in use, or being explored in the 1930s and 1940s included the following:

1) Poison gas, e.g. mustard gas, as used in World War I.
2) Poison gas, e.g. Cyklon B, as used in Nazi concentration camps.
3) "Medical experiments," on twins, and other types of people, conducted by "doctors" like Joseph Mengele, that were both horrifying in themselves, and also supported "skewed" Nazi theories of genetics.
4) Many people would consider nuclear weapons, researched by both the Allies and the Nazis, as "perverted science."
5) Then there was the "Sun gun", researched only by the Nazis, a space station to launch the sun's rays onto enemy cities, that fortunately never got off the drawing board.

Basically, the world wars featured a number of "horror weapons," (not to mention the horrors of conventional weapons) used mainly by the Germans.

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    Churchill in 1940 may have been privy to classified briefings about German technological advances (as mentioned by @tyler-durden), but it's dubious he had in mind gassing in concentration camps (1942, 1941 at the earliest), Mengele (1943), nukes (1942), or the sun gun (1945, from the article linked). Not to mention that eugenics in 1940 was not as controversial as we'd now prefer to think. Commented Sep 10, 2018 at 7:15
  • Churchill's comment may have been a counterpoint to the Nazi's infamous dislike of modern physics which they called 'Jewish science' Commented Feb 15 at 15:26

What Churchill is referring to were various German scientific inventions which confounded the British and at the time seemed miraculous and terrifying, at least to the military analysts that knew about them. Since Churchill was privy to secret briefings describing these technologies, so far as they were known, he had been exposed to these fears. His remark in his speech is a nod to the advanced developments of German scientists which were being put to military use.

Germany has been safely defeated now, so noone now gives these things a second thought anymore, but at the time there was a tremendous fear in the higher circles of government that the Germans might invent some critical new device that would turn the war in their favor. Every month new reports of some new German technology was coming from intelligence analysts and this "perverted science" Churchill found very threatening.

Two key examples of the technology are what we now know as "radar" and "proximity fuses". In history books you will read that the British invented radar, but this is completely false. The first radar system was Seektat, a German naval radar that used an amplification tube of a type completely unknown to the British. All they knew at the time was that the Germans could detect their ships at long ranges. This was a key factor in the Norway War. The British fleet could not stop the Germans from invading Norway in part because of long range radar detections. The basis for this technology was a special kind of vacuum tube developed by Manfred Von Ardenne, now known as a travelling wave tube. This type of radar amplifier was vastly more powerful than any amplifier the British ever had or would develop. In fact, even today, the most modern radars such as the SPY-1 still use this kind of tube which is exactly of Ardenne's design. We only gained access to this technology after the war was over.

Another technology was the proximity fuse. This is miniature radar which is fitted to the fuse of an artillery shell. It allows the shell to explode at exactly a certain height above the ground. It makes the shells much, much, much more deadly and effective. When the Germans started using these shells on the French it was terrifying. The German shells were simply vastly more lethal and destructive than the British and French could even imagine. Eventually they figured out the cause and made their own proximity fuses, but at the time it was occurring, it was mysterious and frightening. Even long after that in the 1950s, the American army considered proximity fuzes to be critical "top secret" technology.

  • 3
    This answer would benefit from being backed up by sources. In particular, from Wiki: "In Germany, more than 30 (perhaps as many as 50) different proximity fuze designs were developed, or researched, for anti-aircraft use, but none saw service." Also, various sources claim that proximity fuse was only adapted later for surface-to-surface shells.
    – Kostya_I
    Commented Feb 18, 2021 at 7:50
  • Andrew Haeff in 1933 at Caltech invented and Rudolf Kompfner reinvented it in 1943 the traveling wave tube, for details see en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Traveling-wave_tube; von Ardenne had nothing to do with that technology (he invented other things).
    – hyportnex
    Commented Feb 23 at 0:58

There is nothing mysterious about this.

Churchill is comparing the previous "Dark Age" which was made possible by the techniques and knowledge of the medieval world, with what might have been possible in a "new Dark Age" guided by the light and understanding of modern science. He is not obliquely or covertly referring to any specific horror beyond what the human mind was capable of conceiving. He is also, of course, implying that the Nazis had demonstrated that they possessed minds with such a level of evil intent.


I can't speak for sure, but I'm pretty confident he didn't mean using scientific advances for evil (as so many in this thread presume). He's referring to people performing evil actions and justifying them, or completely failing to recognize them as evil because it's "just science". For example; creating a genetically similar culture, experimenting on humans, performing abortions, eliminating persons who only drag a society down- all just part of the evolutionary process.

The strong survive, the weak fade away, the human race continues to advance. This is all "science" - that is "Nazi science". In reality, science has nothing to do with it. It's a perverted philosophy that claims science as its source - hence Churchill's term "perverted science". A philosophy still relevant in Western culture today.

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