Historian discusses new book on an academic exodus that saved lives and changed mathematics





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.)...



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