Left: Students at the University of Göttingen burning books considered “Jewish”, “left-leaning” or “liberal” on May 10th, 1933. Right: The promulgation of the Berufsbeamtengesetz law allowing the dismissal of “non-Aryan” civil servants from their positions

The University of Göttingen

The Great Purge of 1933

How Nazism Destroyed Science in Germany

Jørgen Veisdal
Jan 21 · 19 min read

“If the dismissal of Jewish scientists means the annihilation of contemporary German science, then we shall do without science for a few years!” — Adolf Hilter

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


Nazi leader Adolf Hitler bows to President of Germany Paul von Hindenburg on March 21st, 1933
Excerpt, letter from von Neumann to Veblen (April 3rd 1933)
It seems, that this Summer will be a endless series of sensations - and not always of the agreeable kind. [...] Please excuse in me that I am asking such a lot of questions. But you know, how these things interest me, and how little newspapers a[re] worth, if you want to find out anything [...]
The news from Germany are bad: heaven knows what the summer term 1933 will look like. The next programm-number of Hitler will probably be annihilation of the conservative-monarchistic-party [...] I did not hear anything about changes or expulsions in Berlin, but it seems that the "purification" of universities has only reached till now Frankfurt, Göttingen, Marburg, Jena, Halle, Kiel, Köningsberg- and the other 20 will certainly follow. [...] It is really a shame, that something like that could happen in the 20th century.
The exclusion of "left", democratic, and Jewish literature took precedence over everything else. The black-lists [...] ranged from Bebel, Bernstein, Preuss, and Rathenau through Einstein, Freud, Brecht, Brod, Döblin, Kaiser, the Mann brothers, Zweig, Plievier, Ossietzky, Remarque, Schnitzler, and Tucholsky, to Barlach, Bergengruen, Broch, Hoffmannsthal, Kästner, Kasack, Kesten, Kraus, Lasker-Schüler, Unruh, Werfel, Zuckmayer, and Hesse. The catalogue went back far enough to include literature from Heine and Marx to Kafka.- Excerpt, The German Dictatorship (1970) by Karl Dietrich Bracher

Jewish Scholars

Albert Einstein (left in 1932)

You know, I think, that I have never had a particularly favorable opinion of the Germans (morally and politically speaking). But I must confess that the degree of their brutality and cowardice came as something of a surprise to me. — Albert Einstein, May 30th (1933)

“Turn around. You will never see it again”

Left: Photo of Einstein outside a log cabin in Cromer in 1933 (Bettman Archive/ Time Magazine). Right: Einstein’s landing card (26 May 1933), when he landed in Dover (United Kingdom) from Ostende (Belgium)
Letter from Einstein to Born (30th of May, 1933)
Dear Born. Ehrenfest sent me your letter. I am glad that you have resigned your positions (you and Franck). Thank God there is no risk involved for either of you. But my heart aches at the thought of the young ones. Lindemann has gone to Göttingen and Berlin (for one week). Maybe you could write to him here about Teller. I heard that the establishment of a good Institute of Physics in Palestine (Jerusalem) is at present being considered.
[...]Two years ago I tried to appeal to Rockefeller's conscience about the absurd method of allocating grants, unfortunately without success. Bohr has now gone to see him, in an attempt to persuade him to take some action on behalf of the exiled German scientists. It is to be hoped that he'll achieve something. Lindemann has considered London and Heitler for Oxford. He has set up an organization of his own for this purpose, taking in all the English universities. I am firmly convinced that all those who have made a name already will be taken care of. But the others, the young ones, will not have the chance to develop.[...]Yours, Einstein
Photo of Churchill and Einstein taken at Chartwell during the summer of 1933. From the article “Genius Loves Company” in Airmail

“Churchill wore a large Stetson hat and Einstein a white linen suit that looked like he had slept in it”

Max Born (left in 1933)

“I’ve been promoted to an ‘evil monster’ in Germany and all my money has been taken away from me.”

James Franck and Max Born together in 1929 outside the Institute of Physics at Göttingen
One day (at the end of April 1933) I found my name in the paper amongst a list of those who were considered unsuitable to be civil servants, according to the new "laws". After I had been given 'leave of absence', we decided to leave Germany at once. We had rented an apartment for the summer vacation in Wolkenstein in the Grödner valley, from a farmer by the name of Peratoner. He was willing to take us in immediately. Thus, we left for the South Tyrol at the beginning of May (1993); we took our twelve-year old son, Gustav, with us, but left our adolescent daughters behind at their German schools."- Excerpt, The Born-Einstein Letters by Max Born (1971)

Heitler and London (both left in 1933)

From left to right: Max Reich (1874–1941) , Max Born, James Franck and the “Father of Solid State Physics” Robert Pohl (1884–1976) from a 1923 ceremony in honor of Franck. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

James Franck (left in 1933)

Hans Bethe (left in 1933)

“The Martians of Budapest”

Left to right: Edward Teller, Eugene Wigner and Leo Szilárd, all forced to escape Germany in the early 1930s

Enrico Fermi (left in 1938)

The Einstein-Szilárd Letter (August 2nd, 1939)
In the course of the last four months it has been made probable — through the work of Joliot in France as well as Fermi and Szilárd in America — that it may become possible to set up a nuclear chain reaction in a large mass of uranium, by which vast amounts of power and large quantities of new radium-like elements would be generated. Now it appears almost certain that this could be achieved in the immediate future.
This new phenomenon would also lead to the construction of bombs, and it is conceivable — though much less certain — that extremely powerful bombs of a new type may thus be constructed. A single bomb of this type, carried by boat and exploded in a port, might very well destroy the whole port together with some of the surrounding territory. However, such bombs might very well prove to be too heavy for transportation by air.[...]I understand that Germany has actually stopped the sale of uranium from the Czechoslovakian mines which she has taken over. That she should have taken such early action might perhaps be understood on the ground that the son of the German Under-Secretary of State, von Weizsäcker, is attached to the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Institut in Berlin where some of the American work on uranium is now being repeated.Yours truly,Albert Einstein

John von Neumann (left in 1933)

John von Neumann talking with Richard Feynman and Stanislaw Ulam in Los Alamos (Photo: Los Alamos National Laboratory)
"..not a single person but at least two, who already knew each other, who wouldn't suddenly feel put on an island where they had no intimate contact with anybody. Johnny's name was of course well known by that time the world over, so they decided to invite Johnny von Neumann. They looked: who wrote articles with John von Neumann? They found: Mr. Wigner. So they sent a telegram to me also."- Excerpt, John von Neumann by Norman Macrae (1992)
"You have probably read, that Courant, Born, Bernstein have lost their chairs, and J. Frank gave it up voluntarily. From a letter from Courant I learned 6 weeks ago (which is a very long time-interval now in Germany) that Weyl had a nervous break-down in January, went to Berlin to a sanatorium, but that he will lecture in Summer."
"The claim may be made with perfect justification that Gödel is unreplaceable for our education program. Indeed Gödel is absolutely irreplaceable; he is the only mathematician alive about whom I would dare to make this statement [...] I am convinced that salvaging him from the wreck of Europe is one of the great single contributions anyone could make to science at this moment."

Richard Courant (left in 1933)

Left: Richard Courant. Right: What is Mathematics by Courant and Robbins (1941)

Those Who Remained

“Hahn was one of the very few who stood upright and did the best he could in these years of evil” — Albert Einstein

“There is no mathematics in Göttingen anymore.”

Cantor’s Paradise

Medium’s #1 Math Publication!

Jørgen Veisdal

Written by

Editor-in-Chief at Cantor’s Paradise. Research fellow at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology.

Cantor’s Paradise

Medium’s #1 Math Publication!

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