The Great Purge of 1933

How Antisemitism Destroyed Mathematics in Germany

Prior to World War II, Germany had led the world in science for more than one hundred and fifty years. Its reputation for excellence in chemistry, physics, biology, medicine and mathematics was rivaled, if at all, only by Britain (Medawar & Pyke, 2000). Of the 100 Nobel Prizes awarded between 1901 and 1932 (the year before Hitler came to power) 33 were awarded to Germans or scientists working in Germany. Britain had won 18, and the United States a mere six.

Then, as the result of a series of events following Hitler’s takeover of Germany in 1933 and the passing of the Berufsbeamtengesetz (“Law for the Restoration of the Professsional Civil Service”), in order to “re-establish a national and professional civil service”, members of certain groups of public employees began being dismissed from German universities. That is, civil servants who were not considered to be of “sufficiently Aryan” descent had to leave their jobs.

Shortly after the passing of the law, scientists and academics began being let go from their positions at the University of Göttingen, Humboldt University of Berlin and other prominent, world-class German universities (Heims, 1980 p. 165). Bücherverbrennung (book-burnings), märsche (marches) and propaganda against ideas, individuals and works considered Jewish, liberal or left-leaning began being commonplace. In a series of letters to his colleague in America Oswald Veblen, John von Neumann in the spring of 1933 wrote (Rédei, 2005):

“The news from Germany are bad: heaven knows what the summer term 1933 will look like.”

The term, and the coming years, looked like what has later been called a “great purge”, the mass emigration of world class scientists, academics and other intellectuals unlike any the world has ever seen before or since.

The outcome would be the downfall of what has been called the “the mathematical center of the universe” in Göttingen and the rise of the United States as the world’s foremost center of scientific research. [ … ]

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