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The unlikely haven for 1930s German scientists

27 September 2018

Eager to bolster its developing universities, Turkey took in dozens of German scientists who had lost their jobs and feared for their lives.

Atatürk visits Istanbul University
Turkish President Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (dark suit on the right) visits Istanbul University in July 1933. Around the same time, Turkey’s minister of education arranged for 30 German academics to join the university. Credit: Millî Kütüphane

Philipp Schwartz arrived in Ankara in the summer of 1933 with modest expectations. Several months earlier, the Jewish neuropathologist had fled his hometown of Frankfurt, Germany, weeks before the passage of a law removing Jews, those with Jewish family members, and political dissidents from the civil service. He had emigrated to Zurich and founded the Advisory Office for German Scientists to help fellow displaced scholars find work. Now he was in Turkey, a country not even a decade old, to advocate for the hiring of German scientists at the newly inaugurated Istanbul University.

Schwartz entered his meeting with Turkish minister of education Reşit Galip with a goal of securing three job offers. Seven hours later, Schwartz left with 30.

Hundreds of German scientists were dismissed from their academic posts in the mid 1930s. Many of them emigrated to powerhouse scientific countries such as the US and the UK (see the related article). About 300, however, including a significant number of physicists, found refuge in a more unexpected new home: Turkey, a young country eager to modernize and ready to take them in. Out of 129 displaced physicists listed on a 1936 census, six emigrated to Turkey, making it the fourth most popular destination behind the US, the UK, and Switzerland.

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.

Following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and a four-year war for independence, Turkey had emerged as a nation in 1923. The new republic’s first president, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, had immediately launched a series of initiatives to modernize and secularize the former caliphate. Reforms included giving women the right to vote and introducing free and mandatory primary education.

A major part of Atatürk’s education agenda was to make Istanbul University, formerly the Dar-ül Fünun (House of Science), a world-class research institution. The Turkish government commissioned Swiss education policy scholar Albert Malche to evaluate Istanbul and the rest of the country’s university system. Malche’s recommendations for modernization didn’t gain much traction at first, says Smith College chemist Lâle Burk, partly because of the challenge of recruiting top professors. “Why would anybody who is way up there in their field come to Turkey, where resources were so limited?” she says.

The answer came in April 1933, when Germany passed the Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service and thousands of academics found themselves out of a job. Like Schwartz, many of the displaced scholars hoped to leave Germany as quickly as possible to protect themselves and their families. According to historian Gerald Kreft, shortly after Schwartz arrived in Zürich, a local rabbi forwarded him a postcard about Malche’s work. Schwartz contacted Malche by telegraph, and soon Schwartz was in Turkey for his fruitful meeting with Galip.

By the end of 1933, 42 German academics had started work at Istanbul University, most of them on five-year contracts with salaries comparable to those they had left behind. Not everyone was on board with the new hires, particularly the dozens of Turkish professors who were fired virtually overnight to make room. But many Turks embraced the infusion of knowledge into the country, says Burk, who wrote a chapter on the topic for the 2004 book The Dispossessed: An Anatomy of Exile. Front-page headlines in Turkish newspapers welcomed the new professors.

Along with those who joined the faculty, German scholars were also brought in as consultants, among them physicists James Franck and Max Born. Some refugee professors were fond of saying that Istanbul had become “the best German university,” reflecting both Turkey’s influx of talent and the fact that many schools in Germany no longer had enough staff to teach all their classes. Even Albert Einstein considered an offer to work in Turkey before opting for the Institute for Advanced Study in the US. In subsequent years, dozens more German scholars would secure jobs at Istanbul and other Turkish institutions.

Arthur von Hippel
Physicist Arthur von Hippel spent about a year running a lab at Istanbul University. Credit: AIP Emilio Segrè Visual Archives

Although Turkey couldn’t offer world-class laboratory facilities, it provided the German scientists with a rare opportunity to shape the course of a nation’s scientific pursuits. Astronomer Erwin Finlay Freundlich, formerly of the Astrophysical Observatory Potsdam, took the reins of the newly founded Astronomy Institute at Istanbul University. Freundlich was soon joined by his fellow émigré Wolfgang Gleissberg, who is best known for identifying the roughly 80-year cycle of solar activity that now bears his name. Together Freundlich and Gleissberg established the country’s first observatory and created a Turkish-language astronomy textbook.

Another émigré to Turkey was experimental physicist Harry Dember, who had led the physics department at the Technical University of Dresden and accepted the same position at Istanbul University in 1933. There he taught aspiring Turkish physicists and continued detailed investigations of the photoelectric effect in metals and semiconductors. Dember’s son Alexis, who had received a doctorate in physics from the German University of Prague, served as an assistant.

Beyond physics, Turkey brought in German scholars with an impressive breadth of skills to spearhead new initiatives and jump-start creative endeavors. Among them were Fritz Arndt, the chemist whose work in synthetic methodology sparked Burk’s interest in the émigrés; the married biologists Curt and Leonore Kosswig; sociologist Gerhard Kessler, who founded Turkey’s first labor union; and composer and conductor Paul Hindemith, who helped launch the Ankara State Conservatory. Schwartz, in addition to negotiating the jobs of his German compatriots, became the chair in pathology at Istanbul in October 1933, a post he held for nearly two decades.

Turkey wasn’t for everyone. Arthur von Hippel, the materials scientist who would go on to help develop radar during World War II, had a particularly difficult time after moving to Istanbul from Göttingen in 1933. His 18 boxes of lab equipment were confiscated at the Turkish border, he said in a 1981 interview, and he resorted to finding materials at bazaars and trying to craft them into useful instruments. Von Hippel jumped at the chance to take a job in Copenhagen in 1934. Dember and others emigrated to the US as soon as they could secure visas. Freundlich left in 1937 for Prague and then, after the fall of Czechoslovakia, Scotland. But even those with brief tenures passed on knowledge to Turkish colleagues and students, who then grabbed the torch when their mentors moved on.

The story of scholars finding refuge in Turkey takes on added significance when we consider current events. Today Turkey hardly resembles the haven for refugee scientists that it was eight decades ago. Since a failed coup in July 2016, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has exploited his emergency powers to eliminate dissension from the civil service. Rather than recruiting talented academics, the country is firing and imprisoning them. Burk sums it up in stark terms: “To see things undone is heartbreaking.”

Among the organizations aiding displaced Turkish scientists is the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation in Bonn, Germany, which offers two-year fellowships at German universities for threatened foreign researchers. When the program began in mid 2016, most applications came from Syria. Now the vast majority come from Turkey, and 92 Turkish academics have already been awarded fellowships.

The program is called the Philipp Schwartz Initiative.

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