The Decimation of Mathematics in Hitler's Germany

views updated

The Decimation of Mathematics in Hitler's Germany


When the Nazi regime came to power in Germany in the 1930s, Jews and those who tried to protect them were systematically persecuted, exiled, or killed. As the Nazis attempted to root out "Jewish influence" on German life, university science and mathematics departments, where Jews were particularly numerous, became favorite targets. In mathematics, Germany had been the center of the international research community in the first decades of the twentieth century. With the rise of Adolf Hitler, some mathematicians were murdered, and many others fled. The focus of the mathematical world shifted to the United States and Canada.


The Enlightenment of eighteenth-century Europe brought new ways of thinking to Western Europe. Political freedom as well as the freedom to ask questions about the way the world worked became at least ideals to strive for, even if they could not be immediately attained. New opportunities became available to ethnic and religious minorities, although restrictions were still common.

The blossoming of science and mathematics opened many new doors. At the universities, traditional fields such as the classics were seen as the most prestigious and were the most reluctant to admit those outside the cultural mainstream. The scientific fields, on the other hand, provided a new domain with fewer established hierarchies.

This came at a good time for the Jews in Germany. Influenced by the Enlightenment, many had begun to break away from strict religious observance and social isolation. They became more involved in German civilization, widely viewed at that time as among the most advanced in the world. At the same time, they retained a tendency toward scholarship, an important value in Jewish culture. Judaism encourages inquiry and disputation, and so contemplating shifts in scientific thinking about the universe did not particularly threaten the Jewish worldview. Bringing the long Talmudic tradition of abstract thought to the new methodology of scientific reasoning and research, many Jews were attracted to fields such as mathematics and theoretical physics.

For most of the nineteenth century, the anti-Semitism still found in many sectors of German life was primarily religious rather than racial. Among those Jews who had become completely secular and assimilated into German society, there were some who chose baptism in an attempt to solve this problem, reasoning perhaps that they could ignore one religion as easily as another. However, the economic depression that hit Germany in the 1870s led to resentment of successful people of Jewish extraction, regardless of their religious observance or lack thereof. The new racial anti-Semitism waxed and waned with the times. When economic hardships again arose in the 1920s following Germany's defeat in World War I, Jews provided a convenient scapegoat against which Adolf Hitler could marshal his armies of hate.

Many intellectuals in Germany did not believe it possible that Nazism was a serious threat. From the vantage point of the university, the Germany they saw was a center of culture and learning. Who would take a barbarian like Hitler seriously? They had an illusion of security provided by the company of others like themselves, but they were tragically mistaken, and some did not realize it until it was too late.

In 1933, a few months after Hitler became Reichskanzler (prime minister), the Nazi influence began to appear in the Berlin classrooms of what was then called the Friedrich Wilhelm University (now Humboldt University). Among the scholars there was a mathematics professor named Ludwig Bieberbach (1886-1982), who would go on to denounce "alien mathematics" in a series of racist speeches. Students also began showing up for class in the brown shirts of the storm troopers, and anti-Semitic signs were posted on campus.

Issai Schur (1875-1941) was a famous algebraist at the university. He was among those Jewish academicians who idealized the cultural and intellectual life of Germany. He was sure that his compatriots would soon come to their senses. He declined many invitations from colleagues in the United States and Britain who would have helped him leave the country, enduring years of Nazi persecution and daily humiliations. Finally, he escaped to Palestine in 1939. Broken in body and spirit, he died there two years later.

On April 7, 1933, the "Law for the Restoration of the Civil Service" was passed in Germany, mandating that anyone with one or more Jewish grandparents and/or leftist political leanings be "purged" from state employment. Since German universities are state institutions, professors and lecturers were covered by this decree. At first, Jews who had fought for Germany in World War I were exempted, although many resigned when ordered to fire others. In any case the veterans' exemption was eliminated after the Nuremberg Laws were implemented in September 1935. After the takeover of Austria on March 13, 1938, the law was extended to that country as well.

"Aryans" were made to swear oaths of loyalty to Hitler in order to retain their positions. Non-Jewish faculty seldom protested the treatment of their expelled colleagues. There were a number of reasons for this. Some were themselves anti-Semitic, and some were simply frightened. Many appreciated the opportunity to fill the professorial seats that had been suddenly vacated.


The mass migration of mathematicians to the United States and Canada resulted in a dramatic shift of high-level mathematics research from Europe to North America. Almost 200 mathematicians were expelled from Germany and Austria alone, including eleven students of Issai Schur. Hundreds more fled the Nazis' march through Europe, beginning with Czechoslovakia, where dismissals took place after the German occupation in March 1939. Most found it difficult to gain admittance to other countries because of the worldwide economic depression. Nations were reluctant to admit refugees when there was widespread unemployment and poverty among their own people. Prominent professors were forced to live as illegal aliens, accept support from charities, or take menial jobs. Many lost what should have been the most productive years of their professional lives. Yet those were the lucky ones, as they were able to escape.

About 75 German mathematicians, many of them internationally famous, emigrated to the United States. Many other European mathematicians joined them. Once established in universities, they trained a new generation of American mathematicians. They played the major part in making North America the new center of the world's mathematical community.

For example, before the rise of Hitler, the mathematical journal of record was the Jahrbuch über die Fortschritte der Mathematik. In 1931 it was joined by the Zentralblatt für Mathematik und ihre Grenzgebiete, intended to address complaints that the Jahrbuch publication process was too slow. Germans dominated mathematical peer-reviewing, and the primary language of mathematical discourse was German. Attempts in the 1920s to establish comparable American, British, or international journals, research-oriented and covering the whole of abstract mathematics, were unsuccessful without German contributions.

This all changed after 1933. The Jahrbuch was a semi-governmental institution, published by the Berlin Academy of Sciences. The Nazi Bieberbach was among its editors, and he dismissed all the Jewish reviewers. Mathematical physics, considered a Jewish discipline, was expunged from the journal's pages in 1936. At the Zentralblatt, the managing editor, Otto Neugebauer (1899-1990), fled to Copenhagen and later accepted a position at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. Tullio Levi-Civita (1873-1941), the co-editor and an Italian Jew, was dismissed in 1938. At last the publisher, Springer, adopted a policy prohibiting Jews from reviewing papers written by Germans. With the majority of the German journals' reviewers by then living in North America, the American Mathematical Society established the Mathematical Reviews in 1940, with Neugebauer at the helm. American mathematics began to dominate the field, and remains its center today.

In August 1998 the International Congress of Mathematicians met in Germany for the first time since 1904. The organizer of the meeting, the Deutsche Mathematiker Vereinigung (DMV), marked the significance of the event by presenting an exhibition entitled "Terror and Exile." The meeting took place in Berlin, where more than 50 mathematicians were expelled and three, the schoolteacher Margarete Kahn (b. 1880), the algebraist Robert Remak (1888-1940), and the logician Kurt Grelling (1886-1942), were murdered. After a solemn opening ceremony, the few surviving mathematicians who had been victims of the Nazi era were invited to speak as honored guests. The DMV representatives spoke of their hope that someday the world of German mathematics centered at Göttingen, Munich, and Berlin could be restored to the glory it enjoyed before it, like so much else of value, was swept away by Nazism.


Further Reading

Periodical Articles

Fosdick, R.B. "Hitler and Mathematics." Scripta Mathematica 9 (1943): 120-22.

Reingold, N. "Refugee Mathematicians in the United States of America, 1933-1941." Annals of Science 38 (1981): 313-338.

Richards, P.S. "The Movement of Scientific Knowledge to and from Germany under National Socialism." Minerva 28 (1990): 401-425.

Siegmund-Schultze, Reinhard. "Scientific Control in Mathematical Reviewing and German-U.S.-American Relations between the Two World Wars." Historia Mathematica 21 (1994): 306-329.

Siegmund-Schultze, Reinhard. "The Emancipation of Mathematical Research Publishing in the United States from German Dominance (1878-1945)." Historia Mathematica 24 (1997): 135-166.


Fleming, D. and Bailyn, B. The Intellectual Migration: Europe and America, 1930-1960. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1969. (Book.)

Siegmund-Schultze, Reinhard et al. Terror and Exile: ThePersecution and Expulsion of Mathematicians from Berlin between 1933 and 1945. Berlin: Deutsche Mathematiker-Vereinigung, 1998. (Pamphlet written for an exhibit at the 1998 meeting of the International Congress of Mathematicians in Berlin.)

About this article

The Decimation of Mathematics in Hitler's Germany

Updated About content Print Article