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C H A P T E R T H R E E The German Academic Crisis GERMANY in the Weimar period was notable for a remarkable efflorescence of arts, of letters, of the sciences. Peter Gay’s small book on Weimar culture provides a survey of art and literature, while consciously and regrettably neglecting science.1 Paul Forman has provided an insightful and suggestive essay concerning the possible relationship between the philosophical ideas current in Weimar and the physical and mathematical ones.2 Kurt Mendelssohn’s biography of Walther Nernst3 describes the work of its hero and related science with passing mention of the social context. Mendelssohn does suggest4 that times of great political and social turmoil are times of great scientific turmoil; but however well this superficially seems to fit the Weimar period in Germany, as a formula it is rather too glib to have much meaning without a deeper study of the social contextual relationships of science. A main concern of this work is to study such relationships in the hothouse atmosphere of Nazi Germany with particular respect to mathematics. Believing that the Third Reich, while hardly an inevitable consequence of Weimar, was prepared there, the attitudes of academics toward society, toward politics, toward their subject matter during this period, become of interest. The Nazi Weltanschauung itself had little to say about science or mathematics, and most of that was negative, but mathematicians who believed in Hitler’s nationalist or cultural message made distinctions. For example, Erhard Tornier condemned axiomatics, Ludwig Bieberbach considered measure theory a subject fit only for non-Aryans, and Max Steck had no use for formalism. There certainly was no “party line” about such matters, and mathematicians who espoused similar cultural politics might disagree on how that politics affected mathematics. The very fact, though, that there were interactions of this sort suggests looking at the extra-mathematical social and cultural crises, and the professional reaction to them, at least briefly, even if this is a subject that has been often examined. Thus, this chapter looks at some of the features of Weimar academic society. When Weimar replaced Wilhelminian Germany, professors felt declassed; they resented the “unbelievable” German defeat in the war, and even more the conditions imposed at Versailles. They were “apolitical,” but nevertheless carried on politics in an ideal atmosphere. In addition, antiSemitism ran through many faculties. The German professor was generally a 1 Gay 1968: 3. 2 Forman 1971. 3 Kurt Mendelssohn, The World of Walther Nernst: The Rise and Fall of German Science, 1864–1941 (1973). 4 Ibid.: 110, and chapter 7 below, passim. T H E G E R M A N A C A D E M I C C R I S I S 43 conservative establishment figure who, under Weimar, had largely lost his establishment status. Undeniably, the German academic community from 1918 to 1933 contained members of every political persuasion. Nevertheless, there was an academic culture of which the large majority of professors and students partook. An important part of this academic culture was of the notion of the professor as a prestigious state servant who had been declassed by the collapse of the empire and the establishment of the republic. “Academic freedom” was freedom in academic and personal matters, not the freedom of academics to speak out politically, and the life of the intellect remained confined to the academic realm without penetrating or affecting the community in any critical way. Chapter 8 will look biographically at some particular mathematicians, but their attitudes need to be set in the matrix of attitudes held by that class so aptly termed “mandarin” by Fritz Ringer.5 For although Ringer explicitly excludes natural scientists from the details of his study, by tradition, upbringing, and collegiality they were, as he says, “as much mandarin intellectuals as their colleagues.”6 These “mandarin intellectuals” were also legally civil servants who had freedom in classroom instruction. In exchange for this freedom, though, they served the state. Leo Arons was a physics instructor who was, by chance, an active socialist. When the right to teach was withdrawn from him in 1898 by Prussian governmental fiat, overruling his own faculty, there was no great protest from physicists (or other academics for that matter).7 Less than forty years later, the attitude of professors of mathematics and natural science toward the national state had not changed much. Helmut Hasse, a distinguished mathematician, told Constance Reid in an interview around 1975:8...

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Additional Information

ISBN
9781400865383
Related ISBN
9780691004518
MARC Record
OCLC
895257893
Pages
568
Launched on MUSE
2016-01-01
Language
English
Open Access
No
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