The scientists who escaped the Nazis By Sean... - Wissenschaft und Deutsch

The scientists who escaped the Nazis

When Gustav Born’s family were advised in early 1933 that it was time to leave Nazi-controlled Germany, it was from a good authority.

The advice was from Albert Einstein, who told his friend and fellow scientist Max Born to “leave immediately” with his family while they were still able to travel.

They packed their bags and headed across the border, first to Italy and then to England, where they arrived as part of what must have been the best-qualified refugee trail in history.

Gustav Born was 11 at the time, living in Gottingen, Lower Saxony, where his father, Max, was director of one of the world’s leading centres for physics research.

The Borns were Jewish, and when Hitler took power, Max Born and his Jewish colleagues were prevented from working at the university. This pioneering, elite group of theoretical scientists were turned into asylum seekers.

Gustav now lives in London, a few days short of his 92nd birthday, and he looks back with great clarity on the remarkable flight of these German academics. The conversation is like opening a 1930s Mitteleuropa time capsule.

He is now one of the last living links to these academic refugees, who between them went on to win 16 Nobel prizes - his father received the award for his work in quantum mechanics.

Did these scientists realise the extent of the threat from the Nazis?

"Yes, I think my father probably did. Among his Jewish colleagues, some did, but some didn’t believe for some time. But the scale of what the Nazis were doing became apparent in the first three to six months."

Gustav remembers that the ugly mood of anti-Semitism had even reached the playground, with some children not allowed to play with him.

There were also positive examples of human nature, such as the academics who stood by their Jewish colleagues. The Nobel prize winner Max von Laue showed great support, says Gustav.

The physicist Max Planck went to see Hitler in person to challenge the exclusion of Jewish scientists, but Hitler “foamed at the mouth and wouldn’t let him talk any more”.

It was still tough to leave. Max Born had to give up running an institute, his wife was heartbroken at the prospect of emigrating.

"They hated to be uprooted in this crude and dangerous way."

'Individual liberty'

When the Borns left, they were not under any illusions that this would be a temporary departure. “Nazification” was happening rapidly and there were political murders.

"My parents were pretty sure this was a one-way journey."

While the Borns were watching the swastikas appearing in Gottingen, a much more tweedily humanitarian response was being marshalled by university staff in Britain.

The economist William Beveridge had set up the Academic Assistance Council, with the aim of rescuing Jewish and politically vulnerable academics.

It was an organisation that would help 1,500 academics escape Germany and continue their research work in safety in Britain.

It was quickly backed by academics whose names now read like a row of text books - J B S Haldane, John Maynard Keynes, Ernest Rutherford, G M Trevelyan and the poet A E Housman.

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