Physics in Exile

Nazism, Anti-Semitism, and the 1933 Scientific Exodus

By: Dimitry Zakharov

Dimitry Zakharov.

Dimitry Zakharov is a PhD Candidate (ABD) in History at the University of Saskatchewan supervised by Dr. Erika Dyck. His research interests include the history of health and medicine, the history of biology, and the history and philosophy of science. 

In September, 1935, physicists Gerhard and Luise Herzberg arrived in Saskatoon, Canada. This move was a leap of faith, as they had only learned of the small prairie city’s existence shortly before their journey, and secured a university position due to a chance friendship with the University of Saskatchewan chemistry professor John Spinks, and a generous grant from the Carnegie Organization which aimed at helping German scholars. While Saskatchewan was not previously known to the Herzbergs, available faculty positions in universities outside of Germany were already scarce. Many postings in England and North America were already filled by academics and scientists who left as soon as the Nazi party passed a law forbidding Jews and other non-Aryans from working in public sector jobs like universities.

Several months prior to his arrival, Herzberg had received news from the Carnegie Organization that he qualified for funding of a two-year tenure appointment in a British Dominion or Commonwealth university. His first choice in Canada was the University of Toronto, which already had a spectroscopy laboratory led by British/ Canadian physicist Sir John Cunningham McLennan. However, the University of Toronto already made an offer for its available faculty position to a German mathematician, Bernard Haurwitz from Leipzig. After more communication with chemist John Spinks and University of Saskatchewan President Walter Murray, Herzberg accepted their offer on April 2nd, 1935. On September 1st, the Herzbergs arrived by ship in New York, and left by train for their new home, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.

What caused the exodus of German scholars, the Herzbergs among them? What made staying in Germany too dangerous for Luise and Gerhard and for a number of other notable scientists, doctors, and others?

The Rise of Fascism in Europe

In October, 1922, Benito Mussolini and his National Fascist Party successfully seized power in the Kingdom of Italy and Mussolini was named Prime Minister by King Victor Emmanuel III. This was the first successful fascist insurrection in Europe as ultra-nationalist movements and political parties began to appear across the continent. On November 8th, 1923, Adolf Hitler and about 600 of his Sturmabteilung (SA) soldiers stormed the Bürgerbräukeller Beer Hall in the Bavarian city of Munich. While their attempt to start a revolution against the local Bavarian government failed, it was a sign of things to come. Hitler himself was incarcerated for the attempted coup and sentenced to serve five years. While in prison, he wrote many of his most extreme and anti-Semitic works, eventually published as Mein Kampf.

Meanwhile, the Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei (NASDAP), or Nazi Party, continued to gain support across Germany and Austria. In 1924, Hitler was pardoned and released. That year, the NASDAP gained 6.5% of the popular vote and 32 seats in the Weimar Reichstag parliament during a general election. The Nazis and Hitler continued to build political power throughout the 1920s, and by 1932, the NASDAP held the majority of seats in the Reichstag. That year, Herman Goering, one of Hitler’s closest allies, was elected President of the Reichstag, and in 1933, German president Paul von Hindenberg appointed Hitler to be chancellor. With the passage of the Enabling Act in 1933, the NASDAP gained control of parliament, consolidated Nazi control over Germany and gave Hitler near-absolute powers to impose laws and policy.[1] The Nazis continued to use violence and coercion to gain power, but their rise to political control happened through democratic elections and popular support – it was a democratically elected dictatorship.

NSDAP poster from 1925.
An NSDAP poster dated February 27, 1925 advertising a meeting in Munich where Adolf Hitler will address the party. The poster reads “Germany’s future and our movement” and announces the re-establishment of the party. Image courtesy of the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek.

A Brief History of Anti-Semitism in Europe

While extremist and nationalist movements appeared in Germany quickly after the First World War, discrimination against Jews existed across Europe for centuries. As far back as the Middle Ages, Jewish communities through Europe were targets of religious and ethnic violence. These discriminatory attitudes and ideas became embedded in 19th-century pseudo-scientific ideas about race and evolution, which intersected with ideas of nationhood and racial purity. Disciplines like phrenology, which emerged in the late 1700s and purported to link cranial and facial features to personality characteristics like empathy and intelligence, became instrumental in establishing racial hierarchies that characterized the Caucasian ‘races’ (namely Western European peoples of Germany, France, and England) as the most ‘evolved’ and ‘civilized.’

In the 19th century, political and national histories of the Germanic peoples began to appear with the work of historians like Leopold von Ranke. There were also striking and popular national epics like the mid-19th century opera Der Ring des Nibelungen by composer Richard Wagner (himself a noted anti-Semite). During the early 20th century, Nazi historians Gerhard Ritter and Friedrich Meinecke expanded the mythology of the Aryan race, which they argued was the most evolved and purest of all the Caucasian ‘races.’ Hitler sought to link Aryan history to great ancient conquerors like Alexander the Great. 

In the context of late-19th and early 20th-century science and politics, eugenics – a term coined in 1833 by the English mathematician and geneticist Francis Galton (1822-1911) — became intertwined with bigoted and racist understandings of what constituted a ‘good breeding stock’ of humans. Eugenics provided a justification for discrimination against ethnic minorities and lower economic classes by positioning them as ‘mentally deficient’ or ‘feeble-minded.’ This belief was by no means limited to Europe. The United States, in fact, was the first country to implement eugenic laws, when Indiana adopted eugenic sterilization. In 1910, the U.S. also established the Eugenic Records Office, which amassed over a million records of individuals by 1935.  Hitler seized on eugenics and transformed these ideas into ideologies, which described Jews as a parasite invading and destroying Aryan cultures. These pseudo-scientific ideas about race and racial purity blended with older anti-Jewish religious beliefs to produce the extreme anti-semitism that gripped Germany in the 1930s. While eugenics, anti-Semitism, and racial nationalism coalesced within the Nazi ideology of Aryan purity, these undercurrents pre-dated Hitler’s climb to power.

Gerhard Herzberg’s University Years

The Technische Hochschule Darmstadt.
The Technische Hochschule Darmstadt, c. 1900.

At the beginning of the Nazis’ drive to power, Gerhard Herzberg in 1924 enrolled in the Theoretical Physics program at the Technische Hochschule Darmstadt. Boris Stoicheff, one of Herzberg’s National Research Council of Canada Post-Doctoral Fellows and his primary biographer,[2] notes that this was a difficult time for Herzberg, he had few friends on campus and found far more comfort in his studies and in the weekly hikes in the nearby Odenwald and Neckar valleys. Even though the name “Herzberg” was of German-Aryan origin, and the Herzberg family name could be traced back centuries through Lutheran church records in the central-German town of Lagensalza,[3] it was phonetically close to the German-Jewish last-name “Hertzberg.” Herzberg believed this linguistic similarity was enough to exclude him from much of campus student life, which was comprised of campus fraternities or Korps that had become breeding grounds for extremist and ultra-nationalist political activity.[4]

This was Herzberg’s first notable encounter with anti-Semitism, and it was an early incident that helped to shape his lifelong disdain for far-right nationalism and anti-Jewish sentiments. While studying at Darmstadt, Herzberg maintained contact with his high-school friend Alfred Schulz. The two would exchange letters and often argued about politics. At about the time of the Munich Putsch, Schulz expressed his support for Hitler. In his response letter, Herzberg clearly expressed his disillusionment with Hitler’s attempted coup, and with nationalism in general, even going so far as to quote famous German philosophers like Goethe and Schopenhauer writing,

“…to claim that real culture is only possible with a strong feeling of national identity is disproved by Schiller, Goethe, Lessing, Herder, Kant… Lessing wrote: “Patriotism, a heroic weakness.” Goethe[5] once said to Eckermann something like: “Nationalism is strongest at the lowest level of culture. The higher a culture stands, the more patriotism loses its meaning.” And quoting Schopenhauer:[6] “Every poor soul who has nothing in the world to be proud of seizes as a last resort on being proud of the nation to which he belongs. In doing so he recovers and is now gratefully ready to defend all the shortcomings and blunders that are hers [the nation’s].”[7]

Luise Oettinger.
Luise Oettinger, c. 1920s. Image courtesy of the Luise Herzberg Fond, the University of Saskatchewan Archives.

On December 30th, 1929, Gerhard Herzberg married Luise Oettinger, a PhD student in physics at Gottingen University. Herzberg met her there during his one-year post-doctoral fellowship in 1928. Luise was Jewish, which would be a major factor for their emigration in 1935. It didn’t matter that Herzberg came from a long-standing German family, as someone who married a Jewish woman, Herzberg would have been an enemy of the Nazi state as well. Both would have been imprisoned if they stayed in Nazi Germany.

Nationalism, Science, and the University

German universities proved to be central to the Nazis’ program of nationalism and cultural control. Today, post-secondary institutions are often seen as bastions of progressive and egalitarian ideals, but the universities of the German provinces at the beginning of the 20th century were an extension of state power, conservatism, and economic elitism. The sort of campus anti-Semitism that Herzberg experienced in the 1920s was not a new phenomenon. Several decades earlier, in 1893, Rudolf Virchow, often called the father of modern pathology, cell theory, and then chair of Pathological Anatomy at the Friedrich Wilhelm University in Berlin stated during a lecture that,

“Our age, which is so sure and victoriously happy in its scientific sentiments… still stands at a loss before the riddle of anti-Semitism, which would seem to have nothing to aim at in this age of equality before the law, and which, in spite of this– perhaps even because of it – has a fascination even for the educated youth. Until now no one has asked for a professorship of anti-Semitism, but it is said that there are already anti-Semitic professors.”[8]

Both Hitler and Mussolini realized that capturing the hearts and minds of youth was crucial for their fascist and Nazi ambitions. Youth clubs and organizations like the Hitlerjugend in Germany and the Gioventù Italiana del Littorio in Italy indoctrinated new generations of youth in fascist ideology for the purpose of preparing them to be leaders in the future fascist states.[9] Groups like the Nazi Student Association promoted Nazi ideology on universities campuses by organizing parades, book burnings, and boycotts of lectures delivered by Jewish faculty. The idea of creating lists or registries for identifying university employees of Jewish ancestry came from Achim Gercke, a chemistry student, and Hugo Willrich, a professor of history, both at Gottingen University. In 1924, Gercke and Willrich worked on the “Archive for Racial Statistics by Profession” and Gercke himself published numerous booklets with lists of professors of Jewish ancestry, those married to Jews, or those otherwise sympathetic or connected to Jews at the universities of Göttingen, Berlin, Königsberg, and Breslau.[10]

In 1933, as the Nazis consolidated control over Germany, the government enacted a new statute, named “Law for the Restoration of the Career Civil Service,” which removed all non-Aryan employees from civil service.[11] As the universities in Germany were publicly funded, this law included all non-Aryan faculty. The new law led to the immediate expulsion of some of the greatest minds in science and philosophy: this included Albert Einstein, Erwin Schrodinger, James Franck, Max Born, and Niels Bohr. Along with Max Planck (who was German and decided to stay during the Nazi years due to his advanced age; famous for the Planck constant) and Werner Heisenberg (who went on to lead the Nazi atomic bomb project called the Heisenberg device; also famous for the uncertainty principle), this group of scientists effectively founded modern physics. While many German Jews were automatically excluded, James Franck served Germany in the Great War and therefore had an exemption from this work legislation. He was also the first scholar to resign from his university faculty position in protest of the new law.[12]

Boris Stoicheff, wrote how the mathematician Edmund Landau was “physically prevented from entering his classroom by about seventy of his students, some wearing SS uniforms.” They demanded “German mathematics” instead of “Jewish mathematics.” [13] One estimate is that the 15% of scientists in Germany who had been fired accounted for about 60% of the country’s physics-based publications.[14] The new law also prohibited women and Jews from practicing medicine, resulting in the expulsion of about 5,000 female doctors and several thousand Jewish doctors. Recent studies have shown that this move alone promptly affected the health of the German people, with heightened infant mortality rates and spikes in previously controlled illnesses like diphtheria.[15]

Many other scientists and academics were likewise displaced. In the field of philosophy, the three original founders of the “Frankfurt School” of Marxist philosophy, Ernst Block, Max Horkheimer, and Theodore Adorno, all had to flee Germany. Similarly, philosophers like Hannah Arendt, Alfred Schutz, and Peter Burger all eventually found themselves in the United States. Perhaps one of the most telling episodes of this displacement of Jewish academics involved the fate of Edmund Husserl, a mathematician and logician at Freiburg University. He was fired and replaced by his former student and Nazi party member Martin Heidegger, a famous 20th century philosopher. Herzberg, too, had to face the fact that some of his colleagues and friends sided with the Nazi Party. Stoicheff writes of one particular episode when Herzberg was dismayed to find his longtime friend and colleague, Gunter Scheibe, wearing Nazi insignia during a meeting in 1933.[16] Indeed, while some academics fled Germany in fear for their lives, many others seized on the opportunity and the bevy of newly available faculty positions at German universities. Seeing this transformation of his homeland and the dangers that this now posed for Luise as well as himself compelled the two to emigrate.


Einstein, Franck, and Bohr immigrated to the U.S. Along with the American physicist Robert Oppenheimer, Franck went on to participate in the Manhattan Project, the top-secret wartime effort to develop a nuclear bomb. Others, like Max Born and Erwin Schrodinger, went to England to take up academic positions at Cambridge and Oxford.

The Herzbergs also had to leave their lives behind. They travelled to Nurnberg to visit Luise’s parents, who had decided to stay in Germany, and then made their way to Hamburg, to visit Gerhard’s brother Walter and his friends Alfred Schulz and Hans-Werner Doring. Their lives had also been changed by the Nazi regime. To leave their homeland was heartbreaking, but the young couple were also leaving family and friends in an increasingly dangerous land. Gerhard and Luise gathered what belongings they could. Carrying the small amount of money they were legally allowed to take out of the country ($2.50), they set sail on the SS Hamburg to North America.

Luise Herzberg and Paul Herzberg.
Luise Herzberg and son Paul at the Memorial Gates of the University of Saskatchewan. Image courtesy of the University of Saskatchewan Archives.

[1] Lukacs, J., Knapp,. Wilfrid F., Bullock,. Alan and Bullock,. Baron. “Adolf Hitler.” Encyclopedia Britannica, April 26, 2021.

[2] Boris Stoicheff, Gerhard Herzberg: An Illustrious Life In Science, (Ottawa: National Research Council Press, 2002).

[3] Boris Stoicheff, Gerhard Herzberg: An Illustrious Life in Science, (Ottawa: National Research Council Press, 2002): 24.

[4] Boris Stoicheff, Gerhard Herzberg, 24-25.

[5] Famous German writer and philosopher, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Famous for his late 18th century tragedy Faust.

[6] Arthur Schopenhauer was a famous German philosopher, who denied both Kantian and Hegelian philosophical viewpoints and was one of the biggest influences for Friedrich Nietzsche, another famous German philosopher.

[7] Boris Stoicheff, Gerhard Herzberg: An Illustrious Life in Science, (Ottawa: National Research Council Press, 2002): 27.

[8] Rudolf Virchow, Disease, Life, and Man: Selected Essays by Rudolf Virchow, trans. Lelland J. Rather (Stanford: University Press, 1958): 23-24.

[9] Alessio Ponzio, Shaping the New Man: Youth Training Regimes in Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany, (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2017).

[10] Robert P. Ericksen, Complicity in the Holocaust: Churches and Universities in Nazi Germany, (Cambridge: University Press, 2012): 74-75.

[11] Boris Stoicheff, Gerhard Herzberg: An Illustrious Life in Science, (Ottawa: National Research Council Press, 2002): 79.

[12] Jost Lemmerch, Science and Consciousness: The Life of James Franck, trans. Ann M. Hentschel (Stanford: University Press, 2011): 194-196.

[13] Boris Stoicheff, Gerhard Herzberg, 82.

[14] Fabian Waldinger, “Bombs, Brains, And Science: The Role Of Human And Physical Capital For The Creation Of Scientific Knowledge,” The Review of Economics and Statistics 98 No. 5 (2016): 811-831.

[15] Alexa R. Shipman, “The German Experiment: Health care without female or Jewish doctors” International Journal of Women’s Dermatology 1 No. 1 (2015): 108-110.

[16] Boris Stoicheff, Gerhard Herzberg: An Illustrious Life in Science, (Ottawa: National Research Council Press, 2002): 87.