Jewish Mathematicians in Germany

A year or so ago I stumbled across Reuben Hersh’s “Under-represented Then Over-represented: A Memoir of Jews in American Mathematics” in the pages of a recent Best Writing on Mathematics volume.

That article describes the arc of Jewish mathematical history in the time of WW II and afterwards, featuring some personal recollections acquired during Hersh’s tenure as a student at the Courant Institute.  This was my first encounter with the story of the effect that the Nazi regime had on mathematical culture in Germany, perhaps best summarized by Hilbert’s famous response to Bernhard Rust’s query about the state of mathematics at Göttingen under fascism:  “There is really none anymore.”

A fascinating prequel to Hersh’s observations and memories can now be found at an exhibit on display at the Center for Jewish History on 16th Street.  Transcending Tradition: Jewish Mathematics in German-Speaking Academic Culture will be available from the time of this writing until January 2014.  Admission is free.

The exhibit tells its story in three epochs, beginning in years previous to 1871, following through the days of the Wilhelmine Empire, and focusing at last on the days of the Weimar Republic (1919-1933) and the immediate aftermath.

There are many names mentioned, but to give a sampling from each time period:

pre 1871:  Leopold Kronecker (Berlin), Rudolph Lipschitz (Breslau), Carl Gustav Jacob Jacobi (Königsberg).

1871-1919: Max Noether (Heidelberg), Felix Hausdorff (Greifswald), Hermann Minkowski (Göttingen)

1919-1931:  Richard Courant (Göttingen), Max Dehn (Frankfurt), Gábor Szegő (Königsberg)

Much of the biographical content can of course be read from home on Wikipedia, but certain facts from the display are unlikely to be encountered elsewhere.   The exhibits, with large photographs and reproductions of handwritten correspondence, offer a sense of communion that it’s difficult to feel over the internet.  I certainly learned some things I didn’t know before.

For instance, even as late as the mid 19th century, baptism was a prerequisite for holding an academic position in Germany.  The eventual admittance of Jews into academic institutions (as students) was as much motivated by questions of social control (eg the regulation of Jewish medical practitioners) as by liberal political motives.

At the end of the Weimar Republic there were 94 full professorships in mathematics in the German states, and of these 28 were occupied by Jews or scholars of Jewish descent.  After 1933, 127 mathematicians, including five women, were driven out of Germany, as a result of the Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service, a Nazi ordinance with an obvious subtext.

Much of the exhibit focuses on the German Mathematical Society (DMV).  This institution was formed largely because of the efforts of Jewish mathematician Georg Cantor in Halle, around 1890.  In the Nazi era, under the leadership of Wilhelm Süss (and others), the organization was used as a political tool for the persecution of mathematicians with Jewish associations. There are issues related to the continuity of the DMV during the war which I do not fully understand.  However, the exhibition says that the society was reestablished in the French occupation zone in 1948 by Erich Kamke, who lost his professorship in 1937 because of a Jewish spouse.  Certain scholars, in particular Max Dehn, refused to rejoin.  After 1948 Süss had a change of heart and began to deliberately approach Jewish emigre mathematicians.

It is said that the first individual to appreciate the scale of the mass dismissals of German mathematicians during the Nazi period was Max Pinl, who published his findings in Jahresbericht der DMV despite considerable opposition during the mid to late 1960’s.

The exhibition features some interesting personal profiles.  There is a board dedicated to the Jewish graduate students of Hilbert and the oral culture of mathematics they helped to initiate at Göttingen. Orality was a distinguishing feature of the department in the first 3rd of the 20th century.

I had been unaware of the particularly tragic circumstances in which Hausdorff was placed by the war.  In 1938, aged 74, facing age related prejudice in addition to religious persecution, Hausdorff was not able to secure a position abroad, despite letters of appeal (several of them displayed) written on his behalf by figures such as Courant, Weyl, and Von Neumann. He spent the duration of the war under Nazi rule.

Emmy Noether, who has a board almost to herself, was displaced.  Additionally she had a brother Fritz (also a mathematician, at Breslau) who emigrated to the Soviet Union during the war, where he was arrested in 1937 in Stalinist persecutions and shot in 1941.

There is a storyboard describing the history of Moses Mendelssohn and his descendants. Two of his granddaughters married mathematicians, and the offspring of one of these unions was Kurt Hensel, discoverer of the Henselian ring.

Hans Hahn, the thesis supervisor of Gödel, describes an abiding interest in philosophy, and says that he was “almost unfaithful to mathematics, so enticed was I by the charms of philosophy.” This is an interesting remark from the advisor of one of the most philosophical of modern mathematicians. Incidentally Gödel was not Jewish, though he did flee the atmosphere of Vienna in 1936 after his friend and colleague Moritz Schlick was shot dead by a pro-Nazi student.

The exhibition, which is traveling around the world (most recently it was in Chicago) is both touching and disturbing.  With free admission in a beautiful neighborhood, a visit makes a profitable use of a summer afternoon.

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5 Responses to Jewish Mathematicians in Germany

  1. I am regular reader, how are you everybody? This article posted on this web page is genuinely good.

  2. Malgosia Askanas says:

    However pleasing it would be if Cantor was indeed a “Jewish mathematician”, to call him that seems a bit of a stretch. His mother (according to what I’ve read) came from a Catholic family not known to have been Jewish. His father, on the other hand, was apparently of Jewish descent (the father’s parents belonged to the Portuguese Jewish community in Kopenhagen) but was baptized into Lutheranism after having moved, as a child, with his mother (i.e. Georg’s grandmother) to St. Petersburg.

  3. Thank you for the correction. I was glossing the language of the exhibition — see the link for part 11 here:

  4. Jr says:

    Actually Hausdorff did not survive the Nazi persecution, committing suicide when he was to be deported.

    And I think you mean racial prejudice, not religious. Hausdorff had no interest in Judaism.

  5. Will definitely go see the exhibit. Thanks for the info, Hunter!

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