Capitalism Kills: An Analysis of the Military Industrial Complex in The Physicists

January 19, 2021 by Essay Writer

In the satirical play The Physicists, screenwriter Friedrich Dürrenmatt explores the morality of nuclear science and the true intentions behind the creation of nuclear weapons against the backdrop of three physicists in a sanatorium run by head psychiatrist Doctor Mathilde von Zahnd. After the physicist responsible for discovering the solution to the “problem of gravity,” Johann Wilhelm Möbius, resolves to remain imprisoned in the sanatorium to prevent humanity from abusing his work, Doctor von Zahnd reveals that she has copied all of Mobius’ documents in a scheme to use his scientific research to construct an international cartel seeking world domination (Dürrenmatt, p. 59). Doctor von Zahnd’s extreme capitalist motivations for exploiting Mobius’s scientific work parallel the increasing global skepticism of the military-industrial complex post-Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Dürrenmatt uses the structure of the sanatorium and the character of Doctor von Zahnd in order to warn against strengthening of the military-industrial complex and argue that nuclear politics are not a practical means, but a means of strengthening the military-industrial complex to consolidate wealth and power in the hands of the elite.

The term “military-industrial complex” (henceforth, “MIC”) was coined by President Eisenhower in his 1961 Farewell Address to refer to the network of corporations and other private institutions involved in the production of weapons and military supplies. This “complex” has grown significantly in the US since General Charles E. Wilson declared the “Permanent War Economy,” or “continuous military spending as a solution to the economic problems unsolved before the [end of WWII],” in 1944 (Post Huron, p. 1). In his address, Eisenhower cautioned the US against MIC influence on government, particularly on military actions (Encyclopædia Britannica). This fear of “unwarranted influence” was echoed in the Port Huron Statement, the 1962 manifesto of the Students for a Democratic Society movement. The manifesto warned that because of the MIC in the US, “[military] strategies are advocated on the basis of power and profit, usually more than on the basis of military needs” (Port Huron, p. 3). The problematic expansion of the MIC is ultimately tied to capitalism: if means of military production were not privatized, there would be less of a financial incentive for corporations to pursue military influence and the military would more likely act in the best interest of its people instead of in the best interest of markets.

Dürrenmatt structures the sanatorium with many parallels to the network of the military-industrial complex, establishing it as a foundational structure for his argument against the complex. Von Zahnd sorts sanatorium patients into living blocs of similar backgrounds: “industrialists with industrialists, millionairesses with millionairesses, and physicists with physicists” (Dürrenmatt, p. 19). This element of the sanatorium’s structure reflects the discrete interest groups involved in the MIC, emphasizing the role of industry, finance, and science in this network. Furthermore, expansion of the sanatorium is funded by “rich patients and [von Zahnd’s] relatives” (p. 18). This mirrors the notion that the expansion of the MIC is fueled by those invested financially in the complex (von Zahnd’s family, in the case of the sanatorium, or members of the network, in the case of the MIC) as well as those invested emotionally (patients who are reliant on the sanatorium for comfort/sanity, or the public who is reliant on the military for physical safety from fear). Thus, the MIC is financially incentivized to create fear, and von Zahnd is financially incentivized to treat her patients well. Both the internal structure and funding sources for the sanatorium draw striking parallels to the MIC and elucidate Dürrenmatt’s commentary on the complex through the character of Doctor von Zahnd. Dürrenmatt uses von Zahnd’s dialogue to portray her as distinctly capitalistic throughout the play. Von Zahnd’s refers to her patients by their professions (“industrialists,” “millionaires,” “physicists”), demonstrating her preoccupation with occupation and wealth. Her frequent statements about her patients’ affluence, the cost of the sanatorium’s upkeep, and her industrialist ancestors clearly indicate a fixation on money and industrialism. For instance, she describes the sanatorium as “world famous and correspondingly expensive…” and says that she “can’t afford to make mistakes” (p. 17). Diction associated with money (“expensive,” “afford”) indicates that Doctor von Zahnd is not interested in helping patients, but in the financial gains of the sanatorium. In the extended metaphor of the sanatorium as the MIC, von Zahnd fits in perfectly as an arbitrator of this capitalist network, pursuing actions that are in her best financial interests just like the MIC. In the case of nuclear power, the stakes of this capitalism are raised. Doctor von Zahnd’s dialogue and behind-the-scenes actions also reveal her manipulative character, reflecting that of the MIC. She first demonstrates a desire for control when talking to the inspector after the second murder of a nurse, asking “has medical science made progress or not? Don’t we have… new drugs that can transform raving madmen into gentle lambs?” (p. 15). This line indicates that Doctor von Zahnd associates scientific progress with maintaining obedience or control over subjects. Because Doctor von Zahnd is a representative of capitalists engaged in the MIC, this dialogue helps Dürrenmatt argue that those engaged in this power network use scientific progress (for instance, nuclear power development) as a way to fortify their power and control. Von Zahnd’s behind-the-scenes actions also support this argument about power dynamic in the MIC. By murdering Nurse Monika, Mobius ruins his chances of being released from the sanitorium. After this final homicide assures the continued imprisonment of all three physicists, the physicists’ treatment begins to change, made evident by their change in diet. Newton remarks, “that’s strange. Usually we have a light dinner. And nothing fancy. Ever since the other patients were moved into the new building” (p. 51). He implies that the other patients– the industrialists and millionaires– were the reason the physicists previously received “fancy” meals. Thus, the food was used to make the wealthy patients feel positively towards the sanatorium and, as a result, keep paying and making donations. Since von Zahnd is involved in all aspects of sanatorium life, it can be assumed that she is responsible for the physicists’ dietary improvements. This reflects a shift in perspective; now that the physicists are trapped in the sanatorium, Doctor von Zahnd sees them, too, as people she can financially exploit, like the other affluent patients. With respect to the MIC metaphor, von Zahnd’s subtle manipulations support Dürrenmatt’s assertion that almost any action that could feasibly increase industries’ bottom lines will be taken by those engaged in the MIC, including the expansion of nuclear power through manipulating scientists. The end of the play reflects Dürrenmatt’s prediction for the growth of the MIC taken to the absurd, serving as a warning to his audience. Immediately before she reveals her plot against the world, Doctor von Zahnd remarks that “Director-General Froben” is waiting for her in the lobby (p. 68). The combination of “Director,” a corporate title, and “General,” a military title, in the title of von Zahnd’s associate suggests that if we allow the MIC to continue to expand unregulated, the lines between military/government and corporation/industry will blur. Upon revealing her plot, von Zahnd explains that “at first [she] exploited only two or three [of Mobius’] discoveries, to bring in the necessary capital. Then [she] founded huge industrial plants, bought one factory after another, and established a powerful cartel” (p. 72). Doctor von Zahnd gradually seized all means of production in order to establish her cartel, which, to an extent, the MIC has already done (according to the Post Huron Statement, the aircraft, petroleum, tools, hardware, and metals industries are all financially dependent on military production). Because nothing drastic was done at once, the public grew desensitized to the inflation of von Zahnd’s power, which parallels what has occurred with the MIC. This allowed for von Zahnd, and the MIC, to gain significant power without raising much concern, to the point where both parties have tremendous control over the economic and political spheres they exist in. Von Zahnd then reveals her ultimate intentions: “My cartel will rule, will conquer nations and continents, exploit the solar system, send spaceships to Andromeda. The experiment has been a success, not for the world, but for a hunchbacked old maid” (p. 74). Though it is unlikely that the expansion of the MIC will result in conquest of the solar system (unless you are Elon Musk), Dürrenmatt pushes his vision of the expansion of the MIC to the extreme to warn his audience to beware of this profit-fueled, self-serving machine (i.e., “not for the world,” but for the individual benefactors). The use of the words “conquer” and “rule” are particularly meaningful because of their autocratic and imperialistic implications. Dürrenmatt’s diction implies that the MIC acts in a similar way to a sovereign oligarchy, “ruling” and “conquering” nations for its own financial gain. Through the play’s ending, Dürrenmatt warns against the MIC by using absurd predictions of the potential extent of its power and the surreptitious ways the complex goes about getting it. By exposing the military-industrial complex through elements of setting, characters, and plot, Dürrenmatt brings awareness to the way the MIC clandestinely influences government agencies to act in a way that maximizes their profitability and power. The bomb epitomizes the most extreme and most dangerous way the MIC can exert its influence– the level of “Andromeda,” so to speak.

While the case of the creation of the bomb creates industrial wealth more indirectly, nuclear weaponry has a greater ripple effect on all industries in the MIC, instead of one individual industry. The existence of nuclear weapons results in higher risk of grand catastrophe, which results in increased public fear, which results in greater public acceptance and approval of greater military spending, which results in economic prosperity for the entirety of the military-industrial network. Through his extended metaphor for the military-industrial complex in The Physicists, Dürrenmatt attempts to explain how the bomb could be used as a way to strengthen the power of the MIC and warns us of the possibilities of this expansion in a capitalist, privatized society ripe for the takeover.


Dürrenmatt, Friedrich. The Physicists. Grove Press, 2006. Port Huron Statement. Port Huron Statement, Students for a Democratic Society, 1962. Weber, Rachel N. “Military-Industrial Complex.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 17 May 2012,

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