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The scientific exodus from Nazi Germany

26 September 2018

Beginning in 1933, hundreds of physicists and other academics fled the country, transforming their lives and the global scientific landscape.

Physicists at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in Berlin
Left to right: Hertha Sponer, Albert Einstein, Hugo Grotrian, Ingrid Franck, Wilhelm Westphal, James Franck, Otto von Bayer, Lise Meitner, Peter Pringsheim, Fritz Haber, Gustav Hertz, and Otto Hahn gather at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in Berlin in 1921. Half of the people in the photo were listed as displaced in the 1930s. Credit: AIP Emilio Segrè Visual Archives, Aristid V. Grosse Collection

Two months after Adolf Hitler was appointed chancellor, the German government issued the Gesetz zur Wiederherstellung des Berufsbeamtentums—the Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service. With some exceptions, none of which lasted for long, the 7 April 1933 law ordered that those in government positions who had at least one Jewish grandparent or were political opponents of the Nazi Party be immediately dismissed. Thousands of people lost their jobs as teachers, judges, police officers—and academics at the country’s top universities.

Over the next several years, hundreds of German scientists and other intellectuals would flee to the UK, the US, and dozens of other countries to protect their livelihoods and their lives. The Nazi regime pushed out leading researchers such as Albert Einstein, Hans Krebs, and even national hero Fritz Haber, who had helped develop chemical weapons during World War I. The extraordinary intellectual exodus would have tremendous implications for not only Germany but also the countries that took in the refugees.

Read the rest of our series on displaced German scientists.

  1. The scientific exodus from Nazi Germany
  2. The unlikely haven for 1930s German scientists
  3. The tragic story of Hans Hellmann

See also a map of the career paths of every physics Nobel laureate.

To capture a snapshot of the scientific exodus from 1930s Germany, we’ve tracked the movements of 129 physicists included in the 1936 List of Displaced German Scholars. The Notgemeinschaft Deutscher Wissenschaftler im Ausland (Emergency Association of German Scholars in Exile), founded by German neuropathologist and refugee Philipp Schwartz in 1933, compiled the document to help dismissed academics find positions in other countries. The association disseminated the list discreetly to minimize the risk of harm to the scholars who were still in Germany. The list contains nearly 1800 names in various fields. Many of the people on the list were Jewish, but not all—some had Jewish spouses or other family members, some supported communism, and others had spoken out against the government.

Displaced German Scholars classifies academics by their fields of study and details their work history in Germany. Each entry ends with the position the person held as of 1936. Some fortunate scholars were already safe with permanent employment abroad; others had the short-term security of a position lasting a few months or a year. But a sizable portion of entries, particularly for scientists early in their careers, end with the abbreviation Unpl—unplaced.

The names in the physics section read like a who’s who of early 20th-century physics: Hans Bethe, Felix Bloch, Max Born, Albert Einstein, James Franck, Otto Frisch, Fritz London, Lise Meitner, Erwin Schrödinger, Otto Stern, Leo Szilard, Edward Teller, Victor Weisskopf, Eugene Wigner. Three of the displaced scientists—Einstein, Franck, and Schrödinger—were already physics Nobel laureates; five more would eventually receive the prize. A 2016 study found that the 15% of physicists who were dismissed from German universities accounted for 64% of all German physics citations.

Fortunately for those physicists and other displaced scholars, colleagues from outside Germany acted quickly to provide assistance. In April 1933, British economist William Beveridge founded the Academic Assistance Council, later renamed the Society for the Protection of Science and Learning. The group’s first president was physicist Ernest Rutherford. Ultimately SPSL would help more than 2500 scholars from Germany and occupied countries flee to the UK. A similar organization in the US, the Emergency Committee in Aid of Displaced German (later Foreign) Scholars, rescued more than 300 academics. The Notgemeinschaft kept detailed records of the scholars at risk and, working with organizations like SPSL, helped find jobs abroad for many of them.

Thanks to such efforts, the vast majority of physicists on the list survived past World War II. One notable exception is Hans Hellmann, a pioneering quantum chemist who fled Nazi Germany only to be executed four years later in the Soviet Union’s Great Purge (see the accompanying article). In general, displaced German academics fared far better than other displaced citizens in Germany and occupied countries. “Would that shiploads of scholars, of artists, or ordinary men, women, and children might have sought and found the sanctuary that these men and women were helped to find,” Nathan Kravetz wrote in a foreword to a 1993 reprinting of the displaced scholar list.

ESCAPING GERMANY. Hover over the arrows to see the physicists who fled from Germany to a given country. The more refugees to a country, the thicker the arrow. Credit: Greg Stasiewicz

The map above shows where displaced German physicists found new employment in their first move to escape their home country for good. Much of the data comes from Displaced German Scholars; for physicists who were unplaced in 1936, we performed our own research to chart their destinations. We obtained information for 126 of the 129 physicists. (Please contact the author if you have information about any of the remaining three: Heinrich Goldschmidt, Hans Kohn, or Emanuel Wasser.)

Unsurprisingly, the UK and the US were the most popular destinations. Einstein and Franck headlined the 30 German physicists who relocated to American institutions such as the Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard, and Stanford. Teller, Schrödinger, and 34 others headed to Cambridge, Oxford, and other UK destinations. (Schrödinger eventually made an ill-fated decision to accept a position in Austria, where he wrote a fawning letter to Hitler before changing his mind and again retreating to England.) Many of those physicists eventually became key contributors to the Manhattan Project.

Other countries gained from Germany’s brain drain too. Ernst Alexander and Günther Wolfsohn helped jump-start the fledgling experimental physics department at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Gerhard Herzberg landed a job at the University of Saskatchewan in Canada, where he would perform work on the spectra of free radicals that would garner the 1971 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. The young republic of Turkey eagerly courted German astronomers, experimental physicists, and other academics to bolster its educational institutions (see the accompanying article).

After the war, some academics returned to Germany (East and West). But many stayed in their adopted country or found new opportunities abroad—with long-term consequences for scholarly output in Germany. For physics, one way to trace the effects is through German-born recipients of the Nobel Prize in Physics. Following Hitler’s rise to power, two of the next three Germans to win the physics prize had fled the country. Even decades later, the impact of the intellectual exodus is clear: Physics laureates Arno Penzias (1978), Jack Steinberger (1988), and Rainer Weiss (2017) were born in prewar Germany but emigrated to the US as children, and Michael Kosterlitz (2016) is the son of German refugees.

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