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Dec 2000 Journal

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Scientist refugees

Jean Medawar & David Pyke, HITLER’S GIFT: SCIENTISTS WHO FLED NAZI GERMANY, Richard Cohen Books, London, 2000.

Before Hitler, Germany was the foremost scientific nation in the world. Of the 100 Nobel Prizes awarded up to 1932, 33 were given to Germans or scientists working in Germany (18 to Britain, 6 to USA). About a quarter of the German laureates were of Jewish descent, although Jews made up only 1% of the German population. In the following 27 years (1933-1960), Germany won only eight. Britain, however, won 21 of which seven were to scientists driven out by the Nazis. America then became the leading scientific country, bolstered by 15 European Nobel Prize-winning refugees who made it their final destination. Just as important were the many younger refugee scientists who subsequently occupied senior posts throughout the world.

Jean Medawar, the widow of Nobel laureate Sir Peter Medawar, and David Pyke, a Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians, list these facts and then present a fascinating and extremely readable account of what happened to Jewish academic scientists in Germany after Hitler became Chancellor on 30 January 1933. Only ten weeks later, by a law of 7 April, most Jews were dismissed from state institutions which included all the German universities. The speed and intensity of the Nazi anti-Jewish measures took everyone by surprise; within the first year, some 2,600 scientists and scholars left the country. At Göttingen University, for example, out of 33 staff in the four physics and mathematics institutes, only eleven remained. Inferior Nazi-supporting academics were only too eager to fill the gaps. This scenario was repeated even more rapidly in Austria after the Anschluss in March 1938.

The book describes in graphic detail the plight, the hurried agonising decisions, the survival and subsequent fortunes of some forty scientists who were affected, including many eminent figures (such as Einstein) and others known and interviewed by the authors. It was Britain which led the rescue efforts. Sir William Beveridge, then Director of the London School of Economics, appalled by what was happening in Germany, joined with other leading British figures to set up an Academic Assistance Council (AAC) as early as May 1933, to fund displaced scientists and find them work in scientific institutions. To ensure that their appeal would not look like a Jewish crusade they sensibly decided that none of the officers should be of Jewish origin. In its first three years the AAC helped 1,300 displaced university teachers. Another British rescuer was Professor Frederick Lindemann of Oxford who, with money from ICI, recruited several bright young German Jewish physicists who then transformed the Oxford Clarendon Laboratory into a leading research centre. In America, the Rockefeller Foundation set up a special fund for their universities to support academic refugees. As the Director of the New York Institute of Fine Arts said: “Hitler…shakes the tree and I collect the apples”. The book concentrates on those who fled to Britain and USA but there are no accounts of scientists who found refuge in the southern hemisphere.

Later chapters vividly describe the internment (often only temporary) of many refugees in 1940 when France was being overrun, with a personal account by Dr Max Perutz (August Science Notebook). Another chapter deals with the dilemmas of notable non-Jewish scientists like Max Planck about staying in Nazi Germany, and the curious case of the Jewish physiologist Otto Warburg whom the Nazis left alone to continue his researches in Berlin. Finally, the authors relate the crucial contributions made by refugee scientists from Germany, Hungary and elsewhere to atomic energy research and their concern that the Allies should produce (but not use) an atomic bomb before Nazi Germany did (see the play Copenhagen still running in London).

Hitler’s fanatical persecution of Jewish scientists and scholars unintentionally bestowed enormous talents on the rest of the world while depriving Germany itself of great expertise which contributed to its losing the war. This thoughtful, timely and well-documented book brings to life many of the human dramas involved and adds considerably to our knowledge of those momentous times. There is a lovely bilingual irony in the book’s title: to the English, “gift” means a present but to Germans “gift” means poison.
Prof Michael Spiro

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