'Mathematicians Fleeing From Nazi Germany'

July 27, 2009

Much has been written about the immigration of Jewish scholars and others who opposed or feared the Nazis to the United States and other countries. A new book focuses on one discipline -- mathematics -- and how this migration affected not only those who moved, but scholarship. The book is Mathematicians Fleeing from Nazi Germany: Individual Fates and Global Impact, by Reinhard Siegmund-Schultze, professor of the history of mathematics at the University of Agder, in Norway. The work, just out from Princeton University Press, is a larger treatment of the subject than a 1998 book Siegmund-Schultze wrote that was released only in German. Siegmund-Schultze recently answered questions about the book via e-mail.

Q: What was the role of German mathematics, in the pre-Nazi period, to the worldwide study of the discipline?

A: Germany was around 1933, when the Nazis came to power, still the internationally leading country in mathematics, both theoretical and applied. The German language was still dominating mathematics and its publication system. The strength relied both on traditions (with the Göttingen school around David Hilbert leading) and on the multi-centered and therefore competitive German university system and the relatively thorough high school mathematics. Nevertheless there were signs of decay, particularly due to lacking funds. One may argue that mathematics in the United States was on the way to a world-dominating position even without immigration of Germans and other foreigners. (See details in chapters 1-3 of the book.)

Q: Mathematicians were not the only academic group in Germany with significant numbers of Jews, or of people politically opposed to the Nazis. Were there ways mathematicians were treated differently, or responded differently, than other academic groups?

A: Mathematics as a fundamental and very international science had traditionally a very high percentage of Jews in its ranks, primarily for general sociological reasons, because many professions in Germany were closed to Jews. As to the Jews in mathematics they were -- on the whole -- not treated differently compared to other academic groups. But the ideological atmosphere under the Nazis was particularly negative towards very rational and intellectual disciplines like mathematics (unlike for instance engineering). The Nazis came even forward with racist theories according to which there was a difference between “Aryan” and “Jewish” mathematics. Because Jews were allegedly not fit to teach “Aryan” students or pupils this was used to give a reason for the expulsions. This affected in particular school mathematics but also the situation for non-Jews who remained at the universities. Therefore the overall future development of German mathematics was -- in addition to the expulsion of Jews -- impaired by the Nazis. (See chapters 4 and 5 of the book.)

Q: How difficult was it for mathematics scholars to leave Germany?

A: Emigration was made difficult to anybody due to the loss of rights and property following from it: people were usually allowed to take just 10 Reichsmark with them in cash. The waiting period until emigration led to a devaluation of qualifications, connected for instance to a loss of library privileges in Germany. (See chapters 4 and 5 of the book).

Of course there were huge problems especially for older mathematicians to leave the country. Not coincidentally, among the 17 German mathematicians who were murdered by the Nazis there were particularly many older ones.

Relatively speaking, compared to emigrants from other academic fields, it was apparently easier for mathematicians to find new jobs in the host countries, because of the degree of internationality in the field, due to worldwide mathematical symbolism etc. This was of course not valid for mathematics teachers, who had the language problem and no research results to build on. Particularly in later years and during the war it was more and more difficult to obtain visas for host countries, which again affected mathematicians slightly less than other scientists and considerably less so than non-academics. But all this was more a matter of immigration to the host countries than emigration from Germany.

Q: Besides the United States, which countries were welcoming, with significant impacts on the state of mathematics?

A: For obvious historical reasons, in particular the war in Europe since 1939, the overwhelming majority of émigré-mathematicians -- at least 60 percent -- ended up in the United States sooner or later. Equally obvious is the position of the United Kingdom as the second most beneficiary of emigration; they received a great boost particularly in group theory. Less obvious is that the Soviet Union did not, by and large, profit from immigration and, on the contrary, expelled immigrants without Soviet citizenship from 1937 at the latest. Minor recipients of immigrants were Sweden, Switzerland and some South American states; almost none went to Australia or India. (See chapter 6 of the book for details.)

Q: You describe efforts in the United States to help these scholars, and also indifference or hostility -- how would you evaluate the response overall?

A: The overall effort in the United States was very positive and helpful to the immigrants, but most help was exerted on the basis of private relationships and private organizations, including universities. Tendencies of academic anti-Semitism (notably in the leading American mathematician G.D. Birkhoff), which made it difficult for some immigrants, had affected the university system (recruiting of students and staff) way before 1933. These tendencies were not restricted to the U.S. either and, if anything, they were later reduced both due to the war and immigration.

There was professional jealousy too, fear of unemployment among Americans. Several older immigrants, for instance the discoverer of the mathematics of blood group inheritance, Felix Bernstein, fared particularly badly in the U.S. Women mathematicians did not do very well either. The noted applied mathematician Hilda Geiringer (born 1893) changed her vita by making herself two years younger; still she never received an academic position in the U.S. commensurate with her abilities.

A different matter is the government reaction, in particular restrictive visa policies. But this and the lack of government funding for immigrants has to be seen in the context of a much lesser societal role of science and mathematics at the time, at least until the war began. (See chapters 7-9 of the book.)

Q: How did the arrival of this cohort of mathematicians change the field in the United States?

A: The most visible change was the creation or enlargement of new centers of mathematical research in the U.S., in particular the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton (with immigrants Albert Einstein, Hermann Weyl, John von Neumann, to name the most prominent), New York University (Courant Institute), Brown University (applied mathematics), and Stanford University. Established universities -- with respect to mathematics -- such as Harvard, MIT and Princeton profited as well.

War research in the U.S. profited somewhat indirectly from immigrants due to secrecy regulations. However, mathematics being a very theoretical subject, fields like sequential analysis (in statistical control of war production) forwarded by the immigrant Abraham Wald would gain importance for the war anyway. Mathematicians who had come early and had obtained American citizenship were fully involved, notably John von Neumann (originally Hungarian) in the Manhattan project for the atomic bomb.

Changes in fields were most visible in applied mathematics, differential equations, abstract algebra, probability theory and logic where strong American traditions (topology, celestial mechanics) were reinforced by immigration. Not all of the changes were affected by immigrants from Germany or Austria. Influence from Poland, Hungary, Italy and Britain was important too. Above all it was the World War which created new conditions, also increasingly state funds, for both applied and theoretical mathematics in the United States.

The United States relies in mathematical research until today on a continuous influx of young talented mathematicians from Asia and Europe, this tradition goes partly back to the positive experience of immigration during the Nazi years. (See chapter 10 of the book.)

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