The gutting of Germany’s intellectual heritage is far from the worst crime committed by the Nazis, but it was a crime nonetheless. The irony is it was a crime that contributed to their loss of the war. But it also robbed the country of its intellectual riches decades after the war was over.
On April 11, 1933, the National Socialists in Germany passed the Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service. This wholesome-sounding law marked not only the beginning of one of the great horrors of the 20th century, it marked the beginning of German scientific self-impoverishment. The law expelled Jewish people from official academic positions. It did so at all universities, great and small, but the university that suffered most was the University of Gottingen. It was one of the three great seats of atomic research—the others being in Cambridge in England and Copenhagen in Denmark—and although not all of the university’s great scientists were Jewish, it didn’t get its fantastic reputation by allowing bigotry to limit its talent pool.
This concept was lost on Nazi officials. When Albert Einstein, on a lecture tour of the United States, requested expatriation, newspapers published a sneering cartoon which shows Einstein being kicked out of a door with a caption that announces that Einstein was never Prussian to begin with. Einstein settled comfortably at Princeton, but other scientists were not as lucky. They had to find their way out of a hostile country.
As antisemitism grew more open and the requirements for “purity” higher, more and more German scientists had to leave Germany. The first wave included famous names like Edward Teller, Leo Szilard, and of course Albert Einstein. Later waves included Lise Meitner, who might have gotten a Nobel Prize for co-discovering fission if she hadn’t been forced to flee with little more than a few possessions and some emergency cash her friends had rounded up for her. When the Nazis threatened Denmark, Danish scientists, including Niels Bohr, joined their German colleagues in England and America.
Of all the heroes of World War II, Leo Szilard may be the one given the least amount of credit. Szilard had lost his home, his job, and the resources he needed to pursue his calling. This seemed only to increase his drive.
He wrote letters urging his friends, family, and colleagues to get out of harm’s way while they still could. He wrote letters to academic institutions, hoping to find positions, and sometimes means of escape, for displaced scientists. When the discovery of fission rocked the scientific world, he wrote letters letting governments and military organizations know that this was a discovery that could not be neglected.
In August of 1939, President Franklin D. Roosevelt received a letter explaining about fission, chain reactions, and potential bombs. It was signed by Albert Einstein, which is why the President received it, but it was drafted by Leo Szilard. Not long after, a facility sprang up in the New Mexico desert. This facility was full of foreign scientists, all eager to figure out a way to turn atoms into weapons. Leo Szilard, with the help of England, America, and the Nazi government, had successfully transplanted the heart of atomic research from Germany to America.
Physicists and chemists weren’t the only ones displaced by the war. The flood of brainpower out of Germany was so overwhelming that an international committee sprang up to find some way to integrate its people into the rest of the world. The Emergency Committee in Aid of Displaced Foreign Scholars started in New York in 1933.
It did not have a promising start. The United States was in the grips of a Depression that felt, to many Americans, like the collapse of the entire nation. Einstein was welcome, but Einstein was the most famous scientist in the world so he was an exception. Many of the older people were still reeling from the last world war, and no one wanted their government to be getting involved in foreign affairs or giving out university spots to foreigners. At first, the Committee relied on private donors and unofficial workarounds. They’d get money from wealthy industrialists and create “grants” which allowed foreign scholars to lecture at a certain university. When the grant ran out, the university would quietly hire the person.
Not everyone waited for the Committee to get out. Plenty of intellectuals fled to safer nations without any support. Others stayed behind and tried to get by. Many were killed. Apart from any humanitarian feeling, the Nazi government’s deliberate, moronic waste of Germany’s hard-won intellectual talent is staggering. The expulsion of intellectuals who were either Jewish, had Jewish ties, or were insufficiently patriotic, drained the system of 39% of its own teaching staff.
There are many feel-good stories of persecuted scientists finding new homes in friendly nations, but it wasn’t that simple. While the United States was receiving prominent German scholars with open arms, it was interning over 100,000 of its own citizens. The internment wasn’t uniformly implemented across the nation, or applied to every scientist. While scientists like Charles Pedersen, a chemist and eventual Nobel Prize winner continued working at Du Pont on the east coast, students and scholars on the west coast were forced out of their studies and professions and into camps.
And then there’s the Joint Intelligence Objective Agency. The Emergency Committee’s evil twin, JIOA was put together to identify, grab, whitewash, and import talented scientists who had worked with, or at least under, the Nazi regime. The simultaneously fascinating and horrible book, Operation Paperclip, details its history is filled with sordid stories of nerve agents and chemical weapons. America’s most famous “get” was Wernher von Braun. Von Braun is mainly known for three things: 1) being instrumental in America’s space program, 2) developing the V-2 rocket, which was used to bomb England, and 3) the mournful observation that it “landed on the wrong planet.”
The fact that he’s famous for saying this is significant. It indicates that his heart was in the stars, not with the Nazi government. But that quote’s fame is at least in part due to a deliberate effort to clean up the histories of some of the scientists that weren’t persecuted by the regime. Details like the fact that he was a member of the SS, and that he personally visited concentration camps to pick out slave labor, aren’t nearly as well-known.
Some argue that scientists who seemed to cooperate with the regime without protest were not freely making a choice. The Nazis were not people anyone felt safe crossing. Even Werner Heisenberg, as great a scientist and “pure” a German as any Nazi official could wish for, underwent a year of interrogation and bullying by the regime when he demanded to teach the principles of relativity—and it’s rumored that he just barely made it out because his mother knew Himmler’s mother.
What no one debates about Von Braun is that he wanted to get out of Germany. Towards the end of the war, he actively made plans to get himself, his data, and his rockets into American hands. This was, in part, because he didn’t want to fall into the hands of the Soviet Union—though other scientists did, and deliberately went to the USSR after the war. Mostly, though, it shows that even the scientists who were favored by the Nazis left Germany as soon as they could. The terror, intimidation, and chaos brought on by the regime caused even the people on its side to flee from the nation that had educated and trained them.
There’s no arguing that the Nazi government perpetrated greater evils, but aside from their evil, their stupidity emptied their country of a generation of intellectual talent. They exported their best minds to the rest of the world.