The U.S. gained — and Germany lost — due to Nazi purges in the 1930s
A Math Lesson From Hitler’s Germany
Prejudice and anti-science ideology destroyed the world’s leading math department. It couldn’t happen here, could it?02.01.2017 / BY Evelyn Lamb, Undark.org
IN 1934, DAVID HILBERT, by then a grand old man of German mathematics, was dining with Bernhard Rust, the Nazi minister of education. Rust asked, “How is mathematics at Göttingen, now that it is free from the Jewish influence?” Hilbert replied, “There is no mathematics in Göttingen anymore.”
Or so the story goes. It is folklore at this point, a story mathematicians tell one another over coffee while exchanging knowing looks. The details vary in different retellings, but every version has Hilbert speaking this truth to power: Nazis destroyed mathematics at the University of Göttingen. “It’s one of the most well-known stories in the history of science,” says Reinhard Siegmund-Schultze, a math historian at the University of Agder in Norway. “Göttingen was so dominant in mathematics internationally.”
In 1933, that dominance came crashing down. On April 7, two months after Hitler became chancellor, Germany passed a law making it illegal for Jews — or rather those considered Jewish by the Nazis — and Communists to hold civil service jobs, with a few exceptions including for people who had served Germany in World War I. That immediately forced several Göttingen mathematicians from their jobs. The crisis snowballed, and over the course of the year, a total of 18 left or were driven out.
By the time of Hilbert’s legendary dinner with Rust, Germany had lost its status as the world’s foremost country for mathematical research. America took its place — and today, though globalization has spread the wealth, the U.S. has retained its eminence. From Princeton and Columbia to Berkeley and Stanford, it’s hard to find a great math department in the United States that was not shaped in part by European mathematicians who came to or stayed in the U.S. because of the Nazis.