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Mathematicians Fleeing Nazi Germany: Individual Fates and Global Impact

Reinhard Siegmund-Schultze
Princeton University Press
Publication Date: 
Number of Pages: 
[Reviewed by
Michael Berg
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Reinhard Siegmund-Schultze’s Mathematicians Fleeing from Nazi Germany: Individual Fates and Global Impact very successfully addresses the themes given in the subtitle, themes which concern not just the nature of the international mathematical community in the wake of the Nazi horrors of the 1930s and '40s, but, indeed, the entire modern mathematical world itself. Siegmund-Schultze, a professor of the history of mathematics in Norway, has carried out this important and informative research with meticulous care and attention to detail. He has produced a work of true historical scholarship covering four hundred pages and then some, filled with fascinating prose and supplemented by copious footnotes testifying to the weighing and sifting necessary in constructing such a cogent and grand-scale analysis. Additionally the book reads very smoothly and the inclusion of fifty-eight photographs and innumerable case-studies, covered compactly but hitting very hard, adds particular poignancy to the narrative: notwithstanding the tragic tones of Mathematicians Fleeing from Nazi Germany the book is difficult to put down.

For mathematicians of my age (now in my middle fifties) there is an additional reason to gravitate toward the book under review: there is a huge likelihood of personal acquaintance with refugees from Hitler’s Germany. In my case, I was taught number theory, history of mathematics, and complex analysis by Ernst G. Straus, whose family left Germany already in the early 1930s, and I was in graduate school at UCSD in La Jolla when Stephan Warschawski (one of Hilbert’s last students) still attended the weekly seminar on Julia sets run by, among others, Christian Pommerenke, visiting from Germany. Indeed, qua degrees of separation from victims of the diaspora precipitated by the Nazis, for almost all of us this index reads very low.

To be sure, the collection of mathematicians (and physicists, occasionally) dealt with in Mathematicians Fleeing from Nazi Germany includes a huge proportion of very familiar names, many in turn associated with American universities as mainstays of their evolution into major research centers in the middle part of the twentieth century. But this story is much more complex than it might at first appear. For one thing, as European mathematicians, the vast majority Jews, began to flock to the United States, carrying with them avant garde mathematics and established scholarship methods from the frontier, at a time when America still largely lagged behind, suspicion, jealousy, and fear — and even anti-Semitism — arose in certain American academic circles, focused on the proposition that these émigré scholars would displace home-grown talent and come to dominate the American mathematical scene. Says Siegmund-Schultze on p. 29 of his book: “It is striking … that until the end of the war, with the exception of a few applied mathematicians (R. von Mises, W. Prager) and the historian of mathematics, O. Neugebauer, none of the forced emigrants were called to the existing leading departments of mathematics …”

Still, as time went on and the United States’ academic scene adapted to the changes and began to make use of the incomparable opportunities extended by the presence of these refugees, the synergetic effect of this transfusion, or rather relocation, of European mathematical scholarship to the New World, coupled with the flowering of a new generation (or two or three) of young American university students, made for the ascendancy of the United States to its present position of pre-eminence in the mathematical world. Just consider in this regard the roles played by e.g. Richard Courant at NYU, Emil Artin at Princeton, Oscar Zariski at Harvard, Antoni Zygmund at Chicago, and Alfred Tarski at Berkeley. Of course, among these only Courant and Artin came from Germany itself, but all were refugees from Europe gone mad.

And it was not just the United States that came to benefit from the scholars’ exodus. Some fled to the USSR, some to Australia, a few went to South America, and so on. In the latter connection, the story of Peter Thullen is of particular interest: he settled in Ecuador, leaving in 1952 for Switzerland. Mathematicians Fleeing from Nazi Germany contains an exceedingly interesting appendix presenting diary entries by Thullen titled “Memoirs for My Children (1933/1988).” These writings are particularly evocative and fascinating as a first hand account, of course, but additionally Thullen was a Catholic, not a Jew, and was not directly subject to Hitler’s horrific racial laws; he was politically undesirable, however, and a former member of the Catholic Youth Movement.

Other expatriate scholars were not at risk of being targeted by Hitler’s racial laws directly; nonetheless they were targets. Some had Jewish spouses (Hermann Weyl, Emil Artin), some, like Thullen, had political pasts that were intolerable to National Socialism, and so on. A particularly interesting case is that of the superb analytic number theorist Carl Ludwig Siegel who as a pacifist simply found the horrors of Nazi Germany too much to bear from the outset, only to find himself straitjacketed by what he perceived as unbearable prudishness on the part of Mrs. Eisenhart, the wife of Dean Luther P. Eisenhart of Princeton, who evidently was bothered by the bachelor Siegel sharing digs with two female friends (one of whom was Hel Braun, later linked to Emil Artin when he had settled in Hamburg toward the end of his life). Siegel returned to Germany briefly in the 1930s, complaining about the sexual prudishness of American society, as Siegmund-Schultze puts it on p. 247. But Siegel returned (escaping via Norway) after hostilities started, and, as is well known, continued to do seminal mathematics at the IAS. In due course he returned to Europe however, as did a number of others. À propos, as already suggested, the Siegel case is in some ways very humorous, given his rather unbridled way of addressing himself, even to figures of power and authority. See p. 247 in this connection.

Mathematicians Fleeing from Nazi Germany comes equipped with a number of appendices, generally dealing with correspondence from the major players in the drama. The book’s last chapter, “Epiloque: The Postwar Relationship of German and American Mathematicians,” is clearly the most significant element of the work as a piece of historical scholarship: the QED at the end of Siegmund-Schultze’s discussion. Like the rest of the book, there are heroes and villains in this end-game, and many who are neither: it cannot be otherwise in a work of historical analysis. This prevalence of human ambiguity certainly describes what may well be the most touching part of the book: the case of Emmy Nöther, already so well documented in biographies and articles over the last so many years. Siegmund-Schultze’s coverage of the details of her case, replete with correspondence cited, Einstein’s benevolent role poignantly highlighted, and her touching goodness and humanity coming through, is exemplary scholarship and excellent writing.

Clearly Mathematicians Fleeing from Germany is first rate, both as historical scholarship and as spell-binding reading for any contemporary mathematician.

Michael Berg is Professor of Mathematics at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, CA.

List of Figures and Tables xiii
Preface xvii

Chapter 1: The Terms "German-Speaking Mathematician," "Forced," and "Voluntary Emigration" 1

Chapter 2: The Notion of "Mathematician" Plus Quantitative Figures on Persecution 13

Chapter 3: Early Emigration 30
3.1. The Push-Factor 32
3.2. The Pull-Factor 36
3.D. Documents 40
3.D.1. The Economic Troubles in German Science as a Stimulus to Emigration 40
3.D.2. National Isolation, Xenophobia, and Anti-Semitism as European Phenomena 42
3.D.3. Personal Risks with Early Emigration 45
3.D.4. The Ambiguous Interconnection between Social Hierarchies, Traditions at Home, and Internationalization in Mathematics 46
3.D.5. The American Interest in Immigration (Pull-Factor) 47
3.D.6. The Start of Economic Problems in America around 1930 Foreshadowing Later Problems Incurred during Forced Emigration 51
3.S. Case Studies 52
3.S.1. The Failed Appointments of C. Carathéodory and S. Bochner at Harvard 52
3.S.2. Early Emigration from Austria as Exemplified by Karl Menger 53
3.S.3. The Problems of Early Emigration as Exemplified by Hermann Weyl 56

Chapter 4: Pretexts, Forms, and the Extent of Emigration and Persecution 59
4.1. The Nazi Policy of Expulsion 60
4.2. The Political Position of Mathematicians, Affected and Unaffected by Persecution 66
4.D. Documents 72
4.D.1. The Pseudo-Legalism of the Methods of Expulsion 72
4.D.2. Student Boycotts as a Means of Expelling Unwanted Docents 72
4.D.3. The Racist "German Mathematics" (Deutsche Mathematik) of Ludwig Bieberbach as an Ideology Supportive of the Expulsions 73
4.D.4. Personal Denunciations as Instruments of Expulsion 73
4.D.5. Political Reasons for Emigration beyond Anti-Semitism 77
4.D.6. Cheating Emigrants out of Their Pensions 79
4.D.7. Increasing Restrictions Imposed upon "Non-Aryan" Students 80
4.D.8. Political Position of Emigrants before 1933: German Nationalism, Illusions, and General Lack of Prescience 80
4.D.9. First Reactions by the Victims: Readiness to Compromise and to Justify, Adoption of the Martyr's Role 83
4.D.10. The Partial Identity of Interests between the Regime and the "Unaffected" German Mathematicians 86
4.D.11. Reactions to the Expulsions from Abroad 88

Chapter 5: Obstacles to Emigration out of Germany after 1933, Failed Escape, and Death 90
5.D. Documents 92
5.D.1. Obstacles to Emigration from Germany 92
5.D.2. Unsuccessful Attempts at Emigration, Mathematicians Murdered 94

Chapter 6: Alternative (Non-American) Host Countries 102
6.D. Documents and Problems Pertaining to the Various--Often Temporary--Host Countries outside of the United States 104

Chapter 7: Diminishing Ties with Germany and Self-Image of the Refugees 149
7.D. Documents 152
7.D.1. Concern for the Fate of Relatives Left Behind 152
7.D.2. The Emotional Ties to Germany and to German Mathematics on the Part of the Emigrants 153
7.D.3. Maintenance and Gradual Restriction of the Emigrants' Personal and Scientific Relations to Germany 156
7.D.4. Conflicting Opinions on Mathematicians Remaining in Germany and on Those Who Returned in Spite of Chances Abroad 157
7.D.5. Political Information, Caution, and Self-Censorship in the Contact between Emigrants and Mathematicians Remaining in Germany 160
7.D.6. Condemnation of Former Colleagues' Commitment to the Nazis by Emigrants 162
7.D.7. Self-Selection by Emigrants 165
7.S. Case Studies 167
7.S.1. Richard Courant's Gradual Estrangement from Germany 167
7.S.2. Concern for the Future of German Applied Mathematics and the Young Generation: Richard von Mises and Theodor von Kármán Supporting Walter Tollmien's Return to Germany 171
7.S.3. Controversial Judgments about the Return of an Established Mathematician to Germany: Eberhard Hopf 175
7.S.4. The Lack of Demarcation toward Mathematicians Remaining in Germany: The Example of Gumbel's Only Partially Successful Book Free Science (1938) 176
7.S.5. The Aftereffects of Previous Political Conflicts in Emigration: The Case Rudolf Lüneburg 180

Chapter 8: The American Reaction to Immigration: Help and Xenophobia 186
8.1. General Trends in American Immigration Policies 186
8.2. Consequences for the Immigration of Scholars 189
8.3. The Relief Organizations, Particularly in the United States 192
8.D. Documents 204
8.D.1. Competition on the American Job Market and Attempts to Keep the Immigrants away from America 204
8.D.2. "Selection" of Immigrants to Be Promoted and Bureaucratic Obstacles on the Part of the Americans 205
8.D.3. Special Problems for Female Immigrants 207
8.D.4. Political Mistrust on the American Side 207
8.D.5. The Priority of Private Foundations and Pure Research Institutions in Helping the Immigrants 208
8.D.6. The Restricted Scope and Possibilities Available to the German Mathematicians' Relief Fund 209
8.D.7. Further Motives for Xenophobia: Mental Borders, Anti-Semitism, Differences in the Science Systems, Professional Jealousy 210
8.D.8. Decline of Xenophobia in Connection with Political Events on the Eve of World War II 213
8.S. Case Studies 214
8.S.1. The Case of the Female Emigrant Emmy Noether 214
8.S.2. A Case of the Exploitation of Immigrants by an Engineer at Cornell (M. G. Malti) 217
8.S.3 Five Case Studies about Academic Anti-Semitism in the USA 218
8.S.3.1. Consideration of anti-Semitism in the policies of the relief organizations 218
8.S.3.2. Examples of American nationalist and racist propaganda aimed at immigrants 219
8.S.3.3. Problems in relationships between assimilated (in particular baptized) and Orthodox Jews in America 219
8.S.3.4. The anti-Semitism of George David Birkhoff 223
8.S.3.5. Declining academic anti-Semitism in the USA after 1945 228

Chapter 9: Acculturation, Political Adaptation, and the American Entrance into the War 230
9.1. General Problems of Acculturation 231
9.2. Political Adaptation 233
9.3. Problems of Adaptation in Teaching and Research 235
9.4. Age-Related Problems and Pensions 236
9.5. The Influence of War Conditions 236
9.D. Documents 237
9.D.1. The General Requirement of "Adaptability" 237
9.D.2. Problems Arising from the Loss of Status Due to Emigration and from the Widespread Principle of Seniority in Academic Promotions 240
9.D.3. Different Traditions in Teaching and Unfamiliar Teaching Loads 242
9.D.4. Extraordinary Solutions for Outstanding Immigrants 243
9.D.5. Individualistic European versus Cooperative American Working Style 245
9.D.6. Problems of Moral Prudishness in the United States: The Extreme Case of Carl Ludwig Siegel 247
9.D.7. Language Problems 248
9.D.8. The Need for Publications in the Language of the Host Country 248
9.D.9. Support by Immigrants for Economic and Social Reform, in Particular for New Deal Positions 249
9.D.10. Pressure to Adapt Politically and Political Mistrust against Immigrants on the Part of the Americans 250
9.D.11. Waning Political Restraint on Immigrants after Obtaining American Citizenship and the Impact of the American Entrance into the War 252
9.D.12. Personal Failure of Immigrants in the United States, Due to Age- and Pension-Related Problems 257
9.S. Case Studies 259
9.S.1. The Tragic Fate of a Political Emigrant: Emil Julius Gumbel 259
9.S.2. A Case of Failed Accommodation by an Older Immigrant: Felix Bernstein 262

Chapter 10: The Impact of Immigration on American Mathematics 267
10.1. The "Impact of Immigration" Viewed from Various Global, Biographical, National, or Nonmathematical Perspectives 270
10.2. The Institutional and Organizational Impact 276
10.3. The Impact of German-Speaking Immigration in Applied Mathematics 278
10.4. The Inner-Mathematical Impact of German-Speaking Immigration on the United States 284
10.5. The Impact of the "Noether School" and of German Algebra in General 285
10.6. Differences in Mentality, the History and Foundations of Mathematics 294
10.D. Documents 296
10.D.1. The Heterogeneity of the "German-Speaking" Emigration, in Particular Differences between German and Austrian Traditions in Mathematics 296
10.D.2. Losses for Germany 297
10.D.3. The Profits of Emigration for International Communication 297
10.D.4. Impact of the Institutional Side of German Mathematics (Educational System, Libraries) 298
10.D.5. The Development of New Mathematical Centers in the United States 298
10.D.6. Inner-Mathematical Impact on Individual Disciplines 300
10.S. Case Studies 310
10.S.1. The Failure of Richard Brauer's Book on Algebra in 1935, or the Paradoxical Victory of "Talmudic Mathematics" Due to Nazi Rule 310
10.S.2. Late American Criticism of "German Algebra," a Controversy between Garrett Birkhoff and B. L. van der Waerden in the 1970s and Commentary by G.-C. Rota in 1989 315

Chapter 11: Epilogue: The Postwar Relationship of German and American Mathematicians 319
11.D. Documents 327
11.D.1. The New Wave of Emigration after the War 327
11.D.2. Remigration and Obstacles to It 327
11.D.3. Resumption of Scientific Communication 328
11.D.4. Compensation for the Emigrants 329
11.D.5. Political "Coping with the Past" ("Vergangenheitsbewältigung") 331
11.S. Case Study 337
11.S.1. A Case of Failed Compensation: Max Dehn 337

Appendix 1: Lists of Emigrated (after 1933), Murdered, and Otherwise Persecuted German-Speaking Mathematicians
(as of 2008) 341
1.1. List of German-Speaking Mathematicians Who
Emigrated during the Nazi Period (First Generation) 343
1.2. List of German-Speaking Mathematicians Who Were Murdered or Driven to Suicide by the Nazis 358
1.3. List of German-Speaking Mathematicians Persecuted in Other Manners (Includes Teachers of Mathematics and Is Probably Incomplete) 360

Appendix 2: Excerpt from a Letter by George David Birkhoff rom Paris (1928) to His Colleague-Mathematicians at Harvard Concerning the Possibility of or Desirability to Hire Foreigners 366

Appendix 3.1: Report Compiled by Harald Bohr "Together with Different German Friends" in May 1933 Concerning the Present Conditions in German Universities, in Particular with Regard to Mathematics and Theoretical Physics 368
Appendix 3.2: Translation of a Letter from Professor Karl Lowner of the University of Prague to Professor Louis L. Silverman (Dartmouth College) Dated August 2, 1933 372
Appendix 3.3: Richard von Mises's "Position toward the Events of Our Time" in November 1933 374
Appendix 3.4: Report by Artur Rosenthal (Heidelberg) from June 1935 on the Boycott of His and Heinrich Liebmann's Mathematical Courses 376
Appendix 3.5: Max Pinl--Later the Author of Pioneering Reports (1969-72) on Mathematical Refugees--in a Letter to Hermann Weyl on the Situation in Czechoslovakia Immediately after the Munich Dictate of September 29, 1938 378

Appendix 4.1: A Letter by Emmy Noether of January 1935 to the Emergency Committee in New York Regarding Her Scientific and Political Interests during Emigration 380
Appendix 4.2: Richard Courant's Resignation from the German Mathematicians'Association DMV in 1935 381
Appendix 4.3: Von Mises in His Diary about His Second Emigration, from Turkey to the USA, in 1939 383
Appendix 4.4: Hermann Weyl to Harlow Shapley on June 5, 1943, Concerning the Problems of the Immigrant from Gottingen, Felix Bernstein 388

Appendix 5.1: Richard Courant in October 1945 to the American Authorities Who Were Responsible for German Scientific Reparation 390
Appendix 5.2: Max Dehn's Refusal to Rejoin the German Mathematicians' Association DMV in 1948 393

Appendix 6: Memoirs for My Children (1933/1988) by Peter Thullen 394
Archives, Unprinted Sources, and Their Abbreviations 415

References 421
Photographs Index and Credits 445
Subject Index 449
Name Index 461