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Hitler's Gift (cover)

Hitler's Gift; Scientists who fled Nazi Germany

by Jean Medawar & David Pyke

Published by Richard Cohen Books, 2000
Price £20
ISBN 1-86066-172-6

When Hitler was made Chancellor of Germany in January 1933, his Nazi regime immediately began mass dismissals of Jewish scientists, judges and other scholars and resulted in the loss to Germany of much of its best scientific talent. Of the 100 Nobel prizes in science awarded from the first one in 1901 until 1932, 33 went to Germans or scientists in Germany, Britain had 18 and the USA 6. In the next 27 years Germany won 8 of the science prizes and Britain 21. The first two chapters of this book summarise the advanced and productive state of German science before 1933 and then the disastrous effects of the coming to power of the Nazis. After the exodus of dismissed Jews from the old and respected Göttingen university, a German government minister asked the great mathematician David Hilbert about the state of mathematics in Göttingen "now that it is free of Jews." "Mathematics in Göttingen?", Hilbert retorted, "There is really none any more."

The AAC, the Academic Assistance Council, that later became the SPSL (Society for the protection of Science & Learning) and survived for a total of 25 years, was started by people like Sir William Beveridge (director of the London School of Economics) and G. M. Trevelyan (Master of Trinity College, Cambridge) in response to these dismissals. Its formation appeal was supported by the British Press and the Royal Society and during its existence it helped over 2000 exiled scholars.

Much of the book tells the stories of some of the best known physicists, mathematicians, biologists and chemists, who fled to Britain, or in some cases to America. Most of these were Jewish, though a few non-Jewish scientists fled because they opposed the Nazi regime or had Jewish wives. Among the stories are those of Albert Einstein, Erwin Schrödinger (not Jewish), Max Born, Fritz Haber, Otto Frisch, Rudolf Peierls, Hans Krebs, Max Perutz, Ernest Chain, Richard Courant, Edward Teller, Hans Bethe, and Enrico Fermi (Jewish wife).

Einstein's famous letter to President Roosevelt of August 1939 is quoted, in which he states the possibility of "extremely powerful bombs" (i.e. atomic bombs) and points out that Germany had stopped the sale of uranium from the mines in Czechoslovakia which it had annexed. Frisch and Peierls wrote a memorandum in March 1940, also reproduced, which was taken to the British government's chief scientific advisor. In it they report from their calculations that an atomic bomb could be made and how much energy it would release. British work on the project started within a few weeks. American work on the bomb had begun in October 1939 but until this memorandum it was thought that it would need to be so big to work that an aircraft would be unable to carry it.

The policies of the Nazi regime give rise to some enormous ironies in addition to the "gift" in the book's title. In the first World War, 100,000 German Jews volunteered to fight and 12,000 lost their lives. It was a Jewish officer who recommended Hitler for the Iron Cross for his conduct in the first World War. Refugee physicists in Britain were barred from research on radar because the project was so secret and were instead deflected into the atomic bomb project, which was initially less secret. Almost the whole of the early drive and research into the atomic bomb was powered by refugee scientists from Germany, Austria and Hungary, as well as scientists from Britain

Max Perutz, who shared the 1962 Nobel prize with John Kendrew for their work on haemoglobin, wrote the foreward to this book. In it he says "According to the authors, their [the scientists'] emigration was Hitler's loss and Britain's and America's gain. As one of the scientists included in the book, I must protest. ... the gain was mine. Had I stayed in my native Austria, even if there had been no Hitler, I could never have solved the problem of protein structure. ... We all [the exiled scientists] owe a tremendous debt to Britain."

Some of the refugees were also interned in the Isle of Man, Canada or Australia and Max Perutz's account of his internment, first published in the New Yorker in 1985, is reproduced here. He tells how they were treated relatively well, organised a "university" with courses in mathematics, astronomy, several languages, gave concerts and made furniture and clothes.

The authors have special interests in this subject and are well qualified to write such a book. Jean Medawar is the widow of Sir Peter Medawar a Nobel prize-winning scientist. She sensed the danger from the Nazis when she took a holiday in the Black Forest in 1932 and saw swastika flags flying illegally. She was also an undergraduate at Oxford at the time that some of the refugee scientists were there. David Pyke was born in 1921, the son of a non-practising Jewish father who was highly politically aware. He spoke on "The rise and possible fall of Adolf Hitler" in a speech competition at his school in 1934, but the text has been lost.

I found this book easy to read and very interesting. It deals more with what happened to the scientists than with their science and you don't need a scientific background to enjoy it.

Oliver Walter

Published by Richard Cohen Books, in association with the European Jewish Publication Society. EJPS is a registered charity which gives grants to assist in the publication and distribution of books relevant to Jewish literature, history, religion, philosophy, politics and culture.

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This edit 27nov2013
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