Hitler's Gift: The True Story of the Scientists Expelled by the Nazi Regimeby Jean Medawar, David Pyke
Between 1901 and 1932, Germany won a third of all the Nobel Prizes for science. With Hitler's rise to power and the introduction of racial laws, starting with the exclusion of all Jews from state institutions, Jewish professors were forced to leave their jobs, which closed the door on Germany’s fifty-year record of world supremacy in science. Of these more
Between 1901 and 1932, Germany won a third of all the Nobel Prizes for science. With Hitler's rise to power and the introduction of racial laws, starting with the exclusion of all Jews from state institutions, Jewish professors were forced to leave their jobs, which closed the door on Germany’s fifty-year record of world supremacy in science. Of these more than 1,500 refugees, fifteen went on to win Nobel Prizes, several co-discovered penicillin—and more of them became the driving force behind the atomic bomb project.
In this revelatory book, Jean Medawar and David Pyke tell countless gripping individual stories of emigration, rescue, and escape, including those of Albert Einstein, Fritz Haber, Leo Szilard, and many others. Much of this material was collected through interviews with more than twenty of the surviving refugee scholars, so as to document for history the steps taken after Hitler’s policy was enacted. As one refugee scholar wrote, “Far from destroying the spirit of German scholarship, the Nazis had spread it all over the world. Only Germany was to be the loser.”
Hitler’s Gift is the story of the men who were forced from their homeland and went on to revolutionize many of the scientific practices that we rely on today. Experience firsthand the stories of these geniuses, and learn not only how their deportation affected them, but how it bettered the world that we live in today.
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From the nineteenth century German science led the world; its reputation in chemistry, physics, biology and medicine was rivalled, if at all, only by Britain. If scientific success can be measured by the award of Nobel Prizes, Germany's record far outshone that of any other country. Of all 100 Nobel Prizes in science awarded between 1901, when the awards were founded, and 1932, the year before Hider came to power, no less than 33 were awarded to Germans or scientists working in Germany. Britain had 18 laureates; the USA produced six. German and British scientists together won more than half of all Nobel Prizes. Of the German laureates, about a quarter of the scientists were of Jewish descent, although the Jewish population made up no more than 1 per cent of the German people at the time.
There were special circumstances that fostered this pitch of achievement in German science, linked to German society and the development of the nation as a whole. The German empire came into being in 1871 with formidable military power inherited from Prussia, the founder state. It was Prussia, led by Otto von Bismarck, after three lightning wars in the 1860s and early 1870s against Denmark, Austria and France, who established its king as German Emperor and stamped its authoritarian, militarist character on the new German nation.
A surge of confidence and national pride accompanied the creation of the German Reich, based on the Prussian army's power and the combined potential of Germany's unified people and resources. With a population bigger than that of France or Britain, and territoriesexpanded by its war gains, Germany was in the ascendant the most powerful nation in Europe.
Bismarck's recognition that military strength must be matched by industrial and economic efficiency set the scene for the founder years and the decades before the Great War, which saw a tremendous growth. The government encouraged research-driven industrial development, and German businesses led the world in running research departments alongside their manufacturing plants a pattern which American industry later adopted with spectacular success. Industry courted the best academics for research and its practical application, and technical skill was supplied by Technische Hochschulen (technical universities). Conversely, the state-run universities favoured scientists who had worked in industry a cross-fertilization which had enormous benefits for Germany's industrial growth. Chemistry led the way, and became a byword for progress and wealth.
Soon after his accession in 1888, Wilhelm II dismissed Bismarck, the architect of Germany's greatness. The Kaiser, who regarded himself as leader of the nation's civil as well as its military life, was vain and unstable perhaps hardly surprising in a man who gloried in the title of `All Highest'. What he did have, however, was a respect for science and learning, whose achievements had done so much to advance Germany's industrial strength and enhance its prestige and military power.
This interest increased with Wilhelm's acquaintance with Walther Nernst, one of the founders of physical chemistry and director of experimental physics at Berlin University. Confident and decisive, Nernst was always open to new ideas, which he discussed with the Kaiser over meals and meetings at the Palace a relationship which symbolized science's high standing in Germany. The Kaiser expanded on Nernst's proposals to set up a national science establishment, and the result was the creation of the Kaiser Wilhelm Society, whose Founding Convention in January 1911 described chemistry and natural science, not colonial expansion, as `the true land of boundless opportunities'. By the 1920s a network of Kaiser Wilhelm Institutes (KWI) for chemistry, physical chemistry, physics and medical research, first in Berlin and then elsewhere in Germany, had become world leaders and are still, under the name of Max Planck Institutes.
Science entered a great age, with scientists as the new heroes in an environment uniquely shaped to draw out greatness. Public respect for science was close to reverence, hard to conceive from today's perspective of popular scepticism about the benefits of modern technology. Some described their work as if it was akin to a religious calling, and their faith seemed justified. In medicine and biochemistry they were defeating the scourges of disease and infant mortality. In applied chemistry they were revolutionizing industry. And in physics they were on the verge of discoveries which would open the way to a new universe.
The research that led to Germany's pioneering industrial production of synthetic dyes, reaping enormous commercial returns, also brought biological and medical breakthroughs. In medical science the great figures were Robert Koch, Rudolf Virchow and Paul Ehrlich respectively the discoverer of the bacterium causing tuberculosis in 1876, the founding father of pathology and the originator of the chemical treatment of disease. It was the beginning of what Otto Warburg called `that great age in which medicine and chemistry forged their alliance for the benefit of all mankind'. He and another outstanding biochemist, Otto Meyerhof, were awarded Nobel Prizes for work on the chemistry of muscle and on respiratory enzymes respectively. Their learning was passed on to others, such as Hans Krebs, who went on to become Nobel laureates.
Berlin, centre of imperial power and scholarship, dominated the scientific scene, with its world-famous university and the new Kaiser Wilhelm Institutes; it was also the seat of the Prussian Academy and the National Physical Laboratory. In the capital city brash new wealth jostled with imperial pomp and the old governing class of the Prussian military and landowning aristocracy. It was also the artistic and cultural capital, with a flourishing salon society which cultivated creativity and honoured the great scientific intellects along with philosophers, writers and musicians.
At the new Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physical Chemistry and Electrochemistry in Berlin, Fritz Haber, its director, showed how original research applied to technology could transform the nation's fortunes. But for him, Germany would almost certainly have lost the First World War within a year. His discovery of how to make ammonia, a crucial step in the manufacture of nitrates, which are a vital component of explosives, saved Germany, starved of the nitrates it had previously imported from Chile. A further consequence of Haber's work was the manufacture of artificial nitrate fertilizers, which are used today by farmers all over the world. Finally, Haber's research on the gases released from the industrial process produced poison gas in the form of chlorine, an unprecedented example of what science mobilized for war could do. Haber became a national hero for his war work, and he was awarded the 1918 Nobel Prize for his work on nitrates.
In theoretical physics, Germany shone brightest of all, contributing more revolutionary discoveries than any other country in any science, at least until the United States took over as science's world leader half a century later. The `golden age' of physics began at the turn of the century; Berlin was central to its development, as Max Planck was to its success. Universally respected for his absolute integrity and devotion to German science, Planck was famous for his formulation of the quantum theory, recognizing that energy exists in quanta or finite amounts and was not, as had been thought, a continuum. This theory, published in 1900, was a foundation stone of atomic physics, leading Niels Bohr to postulate that quantal changes of energy were involved when electrons were lost or moved from one orbit round the atomic nucleus to another. Personally and scientifically Planck was thoroughly conservative and recoiled from his own findings, which clashed with the tenets of classical physics, and he preferred to look for ways to reconcile them.
The young Albert Einstein, working alone in Zurich, was inspired by the revolutionary implications of Planck's discovery; his famous paper on the photoelectric effect, published in 1905, confirmed Planck's quantum theory. His special theory of relativity challenged Newton's laws of physics, which had been unquestioned for two centuries. The theory of relativity seemed so outlandish that at first hardly anyone understood its importance; Planck was among the few who did, and in 1913 he and Walther Nernst, Berlin's two senior scientists, persuaded Einstein to join them in Berlin as head of the KWI for Physics. Original in every utterance and totally unconventional, Einstein added the shock of genius to Berlin's scientific establishment.
Another champion of Einstein's new theories was Max yon Laue, a former student of Planck's, who won the Nobel Prize in 1914 for his discovery that crystals diffract X-rays, which proved that X-rays are electromagnetic waves. Von Laue was from an old landowning family of East Prussian nobility, the traditional backbone of the Prussian army, and not at all the sort of person to go in for science. He always had the bearing and bark of a Prussian officer, though he tried to soften this impression by taking elocution lessons.
Walther Nernst was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1920 for discovering the third law of thermodynamics: the merging of total and free energy which occurs as absolute zero temperature is approached. The realization of this principle came while he was lecturing to his students during his first term in Berlin in 1905, and he was never slow to proclaim `his' law. He also enjoyed being an entrepreneur, and a patent he took out on an improvement to a type of electric lamp made him a wealthy man.
Women who worked in science at the time were exceptional. Despite his conservatism, Planck appointed Lise Meitner, from Austria, as his assistant in 1912, and she enjoyed a long and fruitful working relationship with Otto Hahn. She was a physicist and Hahn was a chemist, but they are generally known as the discoverers of nuclear fission, the basis for the atomic bomb, in 1938 mercifully not before, or Hitler's Germany might have been armed with atomic weapons.
When Planck retired as professor of theoretical physics in 1927 he was succeeded by the Austrian Erwin Schrödinger, whose papers on wave equations had caused a sensation the previous year. Schrödinger's wave theory, though different in its approach, led to similar conclusions as the quantum mechanics of Max Born, Werner Heisenberg and Pascual Jordan in Göttingen which interpreted the atom in completely different, mathematical terms. Kurt Mendelssohn, who was metaphorically cutting his teeth on the new physics as a young research graduate in the 1920s, describes the excitement and bafflement at the time of the Schrödinger/Born controversy: `Most of the time at Heyl's [a coffee house close to the physics laboratory in Berlin] was, of course, devoted to the progress of physics, or rather to our frantic efforts to understand it ... the subject had now reached such a state of confusion that one could ask the silliest question without being branded a fool.' After a year of calculation, correspondence and argument Schrödinger found a way out of the dilemma: both treatments were equivalent and correct, although expressed differently.
Groups of talented students and younger scientists gathered round the leading figures, who remained very much at the centre of events. At one stage during the 1920s Planck, Nernst, von Laue and Einstein regularly sat in the front row at the weekly physics seminars at Berlin University, a terrifying prospect for a young scientist presenting a paper.
Among the scientific centres of excellence outside Berlin, Munich, which was strongly Catholic, was highly influential. In particular Arnold Sommerfeld, professor of theoretical physics, was in close touch with Berlin's scientists and left his mark on a generation of physicists; he trained nearly a third of Germany's professors of physics and four of his students were awarded Nobel Prizes.
The other great cluster of scientific excellence in pre-Hitler Germany, rivalling even Berlin in physics and mathematics, was Göttingen. The ancient university city had no truck with Berlin's grandeur and showy style, cultivating instead a `donnish provincialism'; but its academic community was world-famous. The town-and-gown atmosphere was perhaps akin to that of Cambridge; life revolved around the university in the city centre, which was small enough for people to walk everywhere, and even well-to-do houses took in scientific scholars as paying guests.
In the university close collaboration between physics and mathematics departments was encouraged by its leading mathematician, David Hilbert, and his younger colleague Richard Courant. Hilbert was also chairman of the prize committee for a curious award a citizen of Göttingen had left a large bequest to whomever could solve the mathematical problem known as Fermat's Last Theorem. The committee was in no hurry to find the correct answer, as the interest on the fund was used to pay for lectures by visiting scientists, including Planck, Nernst, Sommerfeld and the Dane Niels Bohr. Göttingen's scholars flocked to hear guest lecturers Bohr in particular was held in great esteem and affection, and his visit in summer 1922 became known as the Bohr Fest.
Göttingen's greatest theoretical physicist was Max Born, a man whom Bertrand Russell described, much later, as `brilliant, humble and completely without fear in his public utterances'. At one time or another Werner Heisenberg, Wolfgang Pauli and Eugene Wigner worked with him, all of whom, including Born himself, later won Nobel Prizes.
Max Born's father was professor of anatomy at Breslau and Max grew up in comfort, surrounded by his extended Jewish family and his father's scholarly and musical friends. One of them encouraged Max towards mathematics and astronomy rather than engineering, as he had first intended, and he became an exceptional student at Breslau University. After studying in Heidelberg and Cambridge he moved to Göttingen in 1908 and rapidly proved his brilliance in mathematical physics. He was enticed away to Berlin, then to Frankfurt, before accepting the Chair of Theoretical Physics at Göttingen. There was another vacant position and he lost no time in recommending his colleague and friend, James Franck, to head a second department of experimental physics.
Born was by now mainly interested in applying the quantum theory to the structure of atoms. He met James Franck daily, whose group was working in a similar field, comparing their findings with those of Bohr in Copenhagen. The result was the theory of quantum mechanics, which fitted another piece into the confusing picture of the new physics. Born's pupil Werner Heisenberg, a boyish German genius, worked on the problem too, and before long their joint paper with Pascual Jordan appeared in Zeitschrift für Physik in 1926. Born later wrote: `It was a time of hard but successful and delightful work, and there was never a quarrel between us three, no dispute, no jealousy.' The new ideas were picked up with excitement and consternation by scientists elsewhere notably Paul Dirac, who heard Heisenberg lecture in Cambridge, and Schrödinger in Berlin. In 1933 Heisenberg, Dirac and Schrödinger were awarded Nobel Prizes for this work; Born, by then in exile in England, had to wait two decades for his. James Franck had won his Nobel Prize in 1925 for formulating the laws governing the impact of electrons on an atom, another step in understanding atomic structure.
Göttingen attracted scholars from all over the world, including the United States. In 1927 Born had to put in a special plea to the Board of Examiners and the Ministry, for an American student of his who had fallen foul of German bureaucracy when applying for a doctorate. Born's intervention enabled the student to pass with distinction. He was Robert Oppenheimer, later director of the atomic bomb project. Many years later, Oppenheimer wrote:
Our understanding of atomic physics, of what we call the quantum theory of atomic systems, had its origins at the turn of the century and its great synthesis and resolutions in the 1920s. It was not the doing of any one man. It involved the collaboration of scores of scientists from many different lands ... It was a period of patient work in the laboratory, of crucial experiments and daring action, of many false starts and many untenable conjectures. It was a time of earnest correspondence and hurried conferences, of debate, criticism and brilliant mathematical improvisation. For those who participated it was a time of creation. There was terror as well as innovation in their new insight.
At the start of this chapter we noted that a remarkably high proportion of Germany's Nobel Prize winners were Jewish. In 1933, within months of Hitler coming to power, the world-famous centres of learning that had flourished for 50 years, producing so many of the ideas on which modern science was founded, were attacked by racial vandalism. About 20 per cent of all physicists and mathematicians were dismissed because they were Jews, and most left the country.
Germany's Jewish scientists came in the main from a community rooted deeply in German society and confident of its stability. Unlike other central European countries and Russia, Germany had not expelled its Jewish population and the prospect of serious interruption to their way of life must have seemed almost inconceivable. After legal equality was granted in 1869 a growing minority of Jewish families believed that the only feasible solution to their acceptance in wider German society was total assimilation; they regarded their Jewish background as religious rather than racial, and converted to Christianity, considering themselves wholly German. They regarded with suspicion the Jews from the East, the Ostjuden, who had fled from pogroms across the Pale of Western Russia, in 1881 and later. The orthodox religion, Clothes and language of these refugees set them apart, and their presence in Germany and Poland was resented in their host countries.
All but a few members of Germany's Jewish upper class were excluded from the nobility; instead they formed a cultural élite. In Berlin, as in Vienna, affluent, sophisticated Jewish circles created an `aesthetic aristocracy', forming and closely identifying with German culture education in its widest, civilizing, sense. Literature, music and philosophy became a common heritage. In scientific circles the peculiar affinity of mathematics and physics with music was especially evident, and professional relationships were often cemented by musical friendships. Max Planck's musical evenings with Einstein and with Lise Meitner, for instance, were another aspect of the cultural fusion that underlay their scientific achievements.
In the lives of the German-Jewish scientists prejudice can be seen sometimes in the form of overt anti-Semitism, sometimes as a more shadowy presence. The physicist Rudolf Peierls described how, when making friends in childhood, he learned the delicate lesson of how and when to reveal his family background to his non-Jewish companions; this, he said in a typically positive aside, was a valuable social skill to be employed in later life. Professionally, some scientific fields were more accessible to Jewish graduates than others established disciplines were more resistant. Promotion, too, was harder to come by.
Advancement for Jewish scholars seems to have depended partly on the attitude of individual establishment figures in charge of appointments, and partly on the creation of jobs, which tended to cluster in new fields such as theoretical physics. Max Planck in Berlin and Arnold Sommerfeld in Munich were strictly unprejudiced in their appointments. Physics circles at Göttingen were also notably liberal, and an exceptionally high proportion of Jewish scientists found places in the new physics and mathematics departments.
Chemistry was apparently more difficult. Fritz Haber came from an assimilated German Jewish family yet for years after getting his doctorate he could not find a way into chemistry, despite formidable talent. He had to take work in his father's business and as assistant in the laboratory at Jena before finally landing a post from which he could rise at the technical university at Karlsruhe. As we have noted, Haber became one of Germany's most revered scientists, first director of the new Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physical Chemistry (which was funded by a Jewish banker).
There was perhaps a degree to which prejudice worked as an incentive to success for outstanding talent. Fritz Stern suggests that `the obstacles that prejudice put in their way often had a contrary effect: in general terms, anti-Semitism was the sting that spurred Jews on to over-achievement ...'. He cites a `pattern of success' in medicine and the natural sciences whereby the Jewish researcher, passed over for promotion, compensated by retreating into research and thus created another path to advancement.
The cross-currents of prejudice experienced by Jews in Germany were much less than the official anti-Semitism elsewhere in central Europe. Leo Szilard, whose contribution to atomic physics was so crucial in the 1930s, came to Berlin in 1920 not only because physics research was virtually non-existent in Hungary at the time, but because he had been set upon by anti-Semitic fellow students. Szilard and his fellow Hungarians Eugene Wigner and Edward Teller had all experienced open prejudice at first hand before they set foot in Germany.
The experience of some of the Jewish scientists during the Great War gives a revealing glimpse into German prejudice, and German-Jewish reactions. Anti-Semitism in the regiments barred Jews from holding regular commissions, but 100,000 Jews volunteered to fight and more than 12,000 lost their lives in action. It was a Jewish officer who recommended that Hitler should receive the Iron Cross for his wartime conduct.
The physicist Franz Simon, one of the first German victims of poison gas, was wounded twice, the second time severely, and was awarded the Iron Cross First Class. In 1933, disgusted by the Nazis, he resigned his professorship at Breslau, and sent back the medal, which carried the inscription `The Fatherland will always be grateful'. James Franck volunteered for front-line battle early in the war, was decorated with both classes of the Iron Cross and was commissioned as an officer despite his being Jewish despite also his inherently unmartial character: he was said to have once ordered his troops to `Come to attention please!'
The biochemist Otto Warburg, whose outstanding abilities had just led to his appointment at the KWI in Berlin in 1913, when he was 30, joined a smart cavalry regiment as a volunteer in 1914. A super-patriot, he was commissioned, wounded and, like the others, decorated with the Iron Cross. In March 1918, when the German High Command staged its last offensive, Einstein (an ardent pacifist and internationalist) wrote to Warburg offering to try to get him released from the army, where his `life continually hangs on a thread'. It was madness, Einstein wrote, for Warburg as an outstanding young scientist to risk his life in this way; would he allow himself to be `claimed' for other work? Einstein expected his suggestion to be rejected but, rather surprisingly, Warburg agreed. Einstein's initiative, taken together with other scientists, shows how high Warburg's reputation stood.
Warburg did not regard his time in the army as wasted; on the contrary he looked back on it with pride. His affinity for military life suggests features of his character that surely affected the unique direction his life took subsequently: Warburg had the doubtful distinction of being the only Jewish scientist in Germany left to continue his work unscathed throughout the Second World War.
THE salt OF BROKEN TEARS
By Michael Meehan
Copyright © 1999 Michael Meehan. All rights reserved.
Meet the Author
JEAN MEDAWAR is the widow of Sir Peter Medawar, the Nobel Prize–winning scientist. She has written several books, including two with her husband and the story of her life with him, A Very Decided Preference.
DAVID PYKE is a fellow of the Royal College of Physicians. He has written several medical books and one on family planning with Jean Medawar. He also edited a posthumous volume of Sir Peter Medawar’s essays, The Threat and the Glory.
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This was a really interesting subject and a very important book in terms of the history it captures. It wasn't the most enthralling read though. I have an engineering degree, so I was familiar with a lot of the names in the book (N.Bohr, E.Fermi, M.Born etc.), but it was still tough for me to follow all the names and interrelationships between scientists sometimes. I learned a lot from this book, including the fact that prior to Hitler coming to power, Germans had won over 50% of all Nobel prizes awarded. Germany was by far the world leader in science. That all ended with the Nazis' anti-Semitism and anti-intellectualism though. "Hitler's Gift" (to the world) was that he fired all the Jewish scientists and alienated a lot of others, which transferred all of this intellectual power to Britain and the U.S. and other countries. In more ways than one, it gave "new life" to these scientists who were very thankful for the compassion showed to them and were more than eager to help defeat Hitler. It's hard, and scary, to imagine how things would have turned out if the Nazis would have been able to harness all that brain power and put it toward evil purposes rather than good.