The impact of Nazi persecution on the movement of twentieth-century science


Under the fascist regime of Adolf Hitler, Jewish people were persecuted for both their religion and their ethnicity, as part of his eugenicist aspirations to create an ‘Aryan’ race. Jewish people from every walk of life were persecuted, and this included leading Jewish scholars and academics living in Nazi-occupied Europe.

Nazi persecution of Jewish scientists significantly shaped the movement of science throughout the twentieth century. Persecution and oppression under the fascist regime led many Jewish scientists to continue their work and research elsewhere, meaning they were no longer contributing to the development of science in Germany.

Despite resistance from academics, Jewish scientists were forced out of institutions due to the increased momentum behind nationalist movements such as the Deutsche Physik (also known as ‘Aryan Physics’) in the late 1920s and early 1930s. These nationalist movements sought to challenge the research of Jewish scientists such as Albert Einstein, as well as other theoretical physicists, labelling their work ‘Jewish physics’.

As the situation in Nazi-occupied territory became more volatile during the 1930s, the movement of scientists to countries free from occupation was aided by the Academic Assistance Council (AAC). The AAC was founded by William Beveridge but was sustained and supported by an abundance of other academics, including Leo Szilard and J.B.S Haldane.

The aim of the AAC was to help academics at risk of persecution to find work and safety in the United Kingdom or other safe countries. By 1934, around 650 scholars had left Germany, with many academics being supported by the AAC. Rising antisemitism in Britain during the 1930s meant that the AAC did not explicitly state that they wanted to help Jewish academics affected by Nazi oppression, and instead opted to define their intentions on broader terms, stating they wished to prevent the waste of exceptional abilities exceptionally trained.

Nazi persecution had a significant impact on the development of science

Growing hostility in Germany from the mid-1930s due to the Nuremberg Laws in 1935 as well as Anschluss and Kristallnacht in 1938 made the work of the AAC integral. Academics who left occupied territory often arrived in the United Kingdom and continued their work and research there. However, other places where academics found employment included the United States, Turkey and South America.

Nazi persecution had a significant impact on the development of science, especially in the United States and the United Kingdom in the mid-twentieth century. Scientists who were forced to stop contributing to the progression of science in Germany instead played momentous roles in furthering scientific discoveries in other parts of Europe and across the Atlantic.  

One of the most notable impacts that Nazi persecution had on the progression of science was during the Manhattan Project, which led to the development of some of the first nuclear weapons. The Manhattan Project was an initiative focused on developing atomic research. The United States led the project, but they were supported by the United Kingdom and Canada. Developments for the Manhattan Project started prior to the Second World War in 1938, with the discovery of nuclear fission by Lise Meitner, Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann. Albert Einstein and Leo Szilard wrote to U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt some months later to alert him to the possibility that Germany may attempt to build an atomic bomb.

Sixteen individuals saved by the AAC went on to win Nobel Prizes, including Ernst Chain and Max Born

Atomic research started prior to the formal establishment of the Manhattan Project, at sites such as the University of California at Berkeley as well as Columbia University. Two key individuals who contributed to the Manhattan Project were Sir Rudolf Peierls and Otto Frisch. Whilst Peierls and Frisch were not following or practising Judaism, they both had Jewish ancestry, which was enough for them to be identified as Jewish by the Nazi Party, and thus they moved to England following the rise of Nazism in 1933.

Together the pair collaborated on a memorandum in 1940 that greatly aided the development of the atomic bomb. They calculated the amount of Uranium-235 needed to cause a nuclear fission reaction, and this discovery contributed to the sustained interest in atomic research. In 1943, both Peierls and Frisch joined the Manhattan Project and moved out to the United States to work on developing the bomb in Los Alamos. Thousands of people contributed to the Manhattan Project and many of these individuals were scientists who had fled from Nazi persecution.

Leo Szilard, a Hungarian-American physicist, also moved to England in the early 1930s due to concerns about Nazi persecution and encouraged others in a similar position to do the same. Szilard’s parents were Jewish, meaning he was at particular risk if he continued to live in Germany.

Szilard had serious worries about the possibility that Germany would create an atomic bomb, and he worked to prevent nuclear research data from being publicised to stop Germany from gathering useful information. Similarly to Peierls and Frisch, Szilard moved to the United States and worked on the Manhattan Project, where he worked alongside other scientists at Columbia University. Like many scientists, he was apprehensive about the potential military uses of the bomb and went to great lengths to advocate for the peaceful application of nuclear research.

Although only some scientists have been highlighted in this article, it is clear to see the extent to which Nazi persecution shaped the movement of science, especially in the mid-twentieth century. Nazi persecution forced some of Europe’s most outstanding scientists to leave Germany and neighbouring countries, and instead contribute to some of the most profound scientific discoveries the United States and the United Kingdom observed during the twentieth century.

Sixteen individuals saved by the AAC went on to win Nobel Prizes, including Ernst Chain and Max Born, who won Nobel Prizes for Physiology and Physics respectively. Contributions to scientific research did not stop at the end of the Second World War, and many scientists who left Nazi-occupied territory continued to pursue their research and careers outside of Germany.

Image: IAEA Imagebank via Flickr

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