A Math Lesson From Hitler’s Germany

Prejudice and anti-science ideology destroyed the world's leading math department. It couldn't happen here, could it?

In 1934, David Hilbert, by then a grand old man of German mathematics, was dining with Bernhard Rust, the Nazi minister of education. Rust asked, “How is mathematics at Göttingen, now that it is free from the Jewish influence?” Hilbert replied, “There is no mathematics in Göttingen anymore.”

As a new administration with a pronounced anti-science bent takes power in the United States, some scholars are recalling what happened at Göttingen as a cautionary tale.

“In some sense every scholar is at risk,” says Robbert Dijkgraaf, Leon Levy Professor and Director of the Institute for Advanced Study, which attracted many of the scientists and mathematicians who fled Göttingen and other German universities in the 1930s. “It’s not so much that people are persecuted because of their beliefs, but there is a certain trend where careful reasoning, the search for truth, all the delicacies of having a balanced point of view, acting on facts, being honest about what you do and don’t know, your uncertainty, all these values we have in science and scholarship are at risk.”

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