Mass Migration of Continental European Scientists to the U.S. and Elsewhere

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Mass Migration of Continental European Scientists to the U.S. and Elsewhere


Hans Bethe (1906- ), Felix Bloch (1905-1983), Albert Einstein (1879-1955), Niels and Aage Bohr (1885-1962 and 1922- ), Enrico Fermi (1901-1954), Emilio Segrè (1905-1989), Eugene Wigner (1902-1995). All won the Nobel Prize in physics, all were involved with the Manhattan Project in some manner, and all were born in Europe, driven out by the rise of Fascist governments in the 1930s and 1940s. These were the proverbial tip of the iceberg; many more distinguished scientists fled Europe to escape the Fascists and more were captured by Allied armies. Of these scientists, most came to the United States, where they became prominent in physics, mathematics, and engineering. These scientists not only helped the Allies win World War II, but also helped the U.S. achieve and maintain technological superiority over its foes for over 50 years. They accomplished this by bringing their intelligence, ambitions, and hatred of Hitler and Communism to the U.S. and by taking their talents from the countries they fled in what may well have been the greatest transfer of intellectual power the world has known.


Central Europe at the end of the nineteenth century was the home of great universities and a great intellectual tradition. Vienna, Berlin, Budapest, Rome, Paris, and the other great cities of Europe hosted prestigious universities and some of the greatest thinkers of the time. The people born into this time, attending university, had the advantage of a relatively stable government and economy and access to intellectual leaders. Many of the brightest and most inquisitive students were Jewish, drawing on the long Jewish tradition that values education. Some of the best and brightest of this generation of scientists were born in Hungary, near the Carpathian Mountains. These included Edward Teller (1908- ), John von Neuman (1903-1957), Theodor von Kármán (1881-1963), Eugene Wigner, George de Hevesy (1885-1966), Leo Szilard (1898-1964), and Michael Polanyi (1891-1976). So remarkable was this group, in fact, that other scientists joked they could not possibly be from Earth but were, instead, from Mars.

Outside of Hungary, other great thinkers were being trained and were coming of age at the time that classical physics was being stood on its head. Einstein, Bohr, and Bethe were all important players in a field that was suddenly seemingly wide open, where little could be taken for granted. In such an atmosphere, the brightest and most creative scientists flourished, partially because their creativity was rewarded during the revolution that physics was undergoing.

In the wake of World War I, the Austro-Hungarian Empire dissolved, replaced by a number of smaller nations, each with their own government. While this was occurring, Germany was humiliated and impoverished by the terms of surrender, as were many of the new nations that now existed. In this unsettled environment, anti-Semitism flourished and strong, fascist governments came to power, including those of Hitler and Mussolini. This combination of events, the rise of Fascism and rampant anti-Jewish actions, drove many of Europe's best and brightest to the only havens they could see, England and the United States. As Germany invaded Austria, Czechoslovakia, and most of the rest of Europe, those scientists who were able fled Europe, partly for self-preservation and partly to be able to use their intellects to help restore peace and sanity to Europe. During the closing days of World War II, even more scientists came to the U.S. and England. These were German scientists who were "collected" during special operations aimed at capturing German scientists or, in some cases, scientists who arranged to be captured by the U.S. to avoid capture by the Soviet Army.

As mentioned above, a large number of these scientists had or went on to win the Nobel Prize in Physics. But the others were brilliant, too. Edward Teller helped invent the hydrogen bomb, John von Neuman helped design the earliest computers, and Leo Szilard developed the concept upon which nuclear reactors operate. Of the German scientists, perhaps the best known was Wernher von Braun (1912-1977), whose team of engineers and scientists were crucial to America's space program in the 1950s and 1960s.


The effect of these scientists moving to England and America can hardly be overstated. Whether they left voluntarily, were forced to leave, or were captured by the American Army, their chief impact was in the transfer of their intellect from Europe to the United States, which is where the majority of them ended up. As a result, Germany never developed an atomic weapon, the United States became a military, economic, and intellectual powerhouse, and European science (particularly German science) suffered a profound loss of leadership for several decades.

The most obvious impact of these events was, of course, on the military. Without these expatriate scientists it is very likely that America would not have developed the atomic bomb, and may never have launched the Manhattan Project. The scientists fleeing Europe not only brought with them their knowledge of atomic physics and the intelligence to turn that knowledge into a working atomic weapon, they also had first-hand knowledge of life under a dictator, a hatred of Fascism, and a fear of a nuclear-armed Hitler. They convinced Albert Einstein to write to President Roosevelt a letter urging the design of atomic weapons. Without Einstein's prestige, this letter would never have received the careful consideration it did, and it is quite likely the Manhattan Project would never have been launched. This, in turn, would have greatly delayed the development of nuclear weapons, although it is likely that they would still have been developed at some time in the post-war years. However, without the examples of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it is also possible that nuclear-armed nations would have been less unwilling to use their weapons, although this can never be known with certainty.

Perhaps the most significant post-war weapon development was the hydrogen bomb. Although fission weapons (such as the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki) have an upper size limit, based on the nuclear properties of uranium and plutonium, there is no theoretical limit to the size of a hydrogen bomb. America's H-bomb was designed almost entirely by expatriate Europeans; Edward Teller (Hungary), Stanislaw Ulam (Poland, 1909-1985), Enrico Fermi (Italy), John von Neumann (Hungary), and Hans Bethe (Germany) all made important contributions to this new weapon, and the major conceptual breakthroughs were developed by Ulam and Teller. In an interview in 1992, Teller said it was his fear of Russia that prompted him to develop this weapon.

Other technological developments that arose from the contributions of European scientists are literally too numerous to mention here. However, it is worth noting that our space program, too, was launched on rockets designed by German scientists, many of whom had earlier worked on the V1 and V2 rockets of Nazi Germany. Although much of the work was performed by Americans, the German scientists and engineers provided crucial leadership and expertise that the Americans lacked. Every rocket through the Saturn V, the moon rocket, owed its design to the Germans.

Nuclear weapons helped America retain its place as a victorious superpower in the post-war years. Space exploration, including the lunar landing, made America prominent and was evidence of American technological superiority over the rest of the world, and other technological advances ensured that this technological and military superiority did not wane with the passing years. In a very real way, these scientists contributed mightily towards American military and economic power during the last half of the twentieth century, and they, in turn, had enormous political implications. In fact, because of these contributions, America was able to "win" the Cold War, resulting in a world with far fewer repressive governments than might otherwise have been the case.

Finally, these scientists helped launch major social changes in the U.S. By their very presence and prestige, they helped to shape American science, giving the U.S. a very strong showing in Nobel Prize awards and other awards for decades. By so doing, they also raised the prestige and status of science in the U.S. Although scientists and engineers are not revered in the U.S., they are respected, in some cases inordinately so. A great deal of this prestige is due to the important role science and technology have played in American society over the years as well as the realization that scientific and technological advances have been enormously valuable to the U.S. for the past 50 years. This, in turn, has led to continuing funding for scientific research, including at national laboratories, that continues to churn out important scientific discoveries, inventions, and military weapons that help the U.S. to maintain its status as a world leader.

There is a great deal of irony in this. The governments of Central Europe raised one of the most gifted generations of scientists that ever lived. Just when they were reaching the peaks of their intellectual powers, Central European dictators threw or drove them away. In their new homes, these same scientists developed the weapons that helped ensure the defeat of their former oppressors. After the war, instead of returning home, these scientists remained in the U.S., because of the devastation in their former homelands and because many of those nations were now Communist. In so doing, they changed the course of history.


Further Reading


Powers, Thomas. Heisenberg's War. Little, Brown, and Company, 1993.

Rhodes, Richard. The Making of the Atomic Bomb. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1986.

Rhodes, Richard. Dark Sun. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995.

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Mass Migration of Continental European Scientists to the U.S. and Elsewhere

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