The Expulsion of the Intellectuals

Robert Buchacher

Profil (03/10/2008)

Contemporary History. In May of 1938 the search for “Jewish” or “politically unreliable” researchers escalated. Many top scientists were forced to emigrate and after 1945 not invited to return.

The Viennese family of Weiser Varon had just gathered together for a Sabbath meal. It was on this very Friday, March 11, 1938 that Federal Chancellor Kurt Schuschnigg declared his historical “God protect Austria” over the radio, followed by the music of Haydn’s Kaiserquartett. Benno Weiser Varon, who in March 1938 was preparing to take his final medical school exams, looked at the faces of his relatives and asked himself what would become of his family.

Weiser Varon’s memories of March 1938 are part of a book entitled, “Anschluss und Ausschluss” (Annexation and Exclusion) which appeared during the year of Commemoration.” It sheds light on the National Socialist takeover of power in Austria, which to this day has scarcely been researched and targets the fate of those expelled studying at the University of Vienna. The book is the preliminary product of an entire series of research results on the topic, “the expulsion of science,” which is being compiled and published under the direction of the head of the Vienna Institute for Contemporary History, Friedrich Stadler.

Ilse Aschner, another such person quoted in the book, was a student of German Language and Literature Studies and Psychology at the University of Vienna in March of 1938. She, too, sat in front of the radio with her family on the night of March 12. The excitedly high-pitched voice of the  reporter competed with the rattle of rolling tanks and hysterical shrieks of the people on the curbs of the street. It was on this very night that the student, baptized as evangelical, found out for the first time that she had four Jewish grandparents and, therefore, according to the “Nuremberg Laws on Race,” was considered “fully Jewish.” A few days later she was stopped in front of the University by a young man in SA uniform and asked to prove her Aryan identity, which she didn’t have.

Jewish students were from then on no longer allowed to enter the University, no longer permitted to register for classes nor take exams, not even if they were just about ready to graduate. They were no longer allowed to enter the library, the holdings of which the Nazis declared thousands of works as “corruptive and undesirable” and threw thousands of works onto the street and burned them while people stood around in jubilation. Like their professors who were persecuted out of political reasons or for being Jewish, Jewish students were ostracized and rejected.

From March 16 – 25, 1938, there was a wave of house searches in Vienna of university professors who were on the list of the Gestapo, either out of “racist” or for “political” reasons. Felix Ehrenhaft, Director of the III. Physical Institute of the University of Vienna, was assaulted in his apartment by a group of armed Gestapo men, robbed and finally locked up in the bathroom of a Vienna regional court. When he requested to speak with officials, one locked him in a telephone booth with the telephone removed. On March 21, Ehrenhaft was suspended from his post.

Persecuted Researcher
Hans Thirring, Director of the Institute for Theoretical Physics, and witness to the assault, was one of the first victims of the purge carried out by the Gestapo on Austria’s universities. His writing desk was sealed because of suspicion of NS critical activity. He was forced to leave his post as director and to offer it to a colleague from the Vienna Technical University.  

By March 15, the swearing-in of public officials in Austria took place legally and solely by order of the “Führer of the German Reich and People, Adolf Hitler.” Because of the 1935 Nuremberg Laws on Race, Jewish public officials were not admitted to any swearing-in. And whoever was not sworn-in under the name of the Führer could no longer be a public official and, therefore, also no longer be a university professor.  

Five weeks after the takeover by the National Socialists in Austria, the office of the dean had to compile a list of all those who were suspended or dismissed. Dismissed from the University of Vienna were 132 professors or lecturers of medicine out of a total of 197; nine out of 28 professors in Physics, ten out of 20 in Chemistry, five out of 14 in Mathematics, five in Zoology and Biology as well as individual instructors in many other fields. In addition, some 500 engineers throughout all of Austria were let go.

A considerable number of those university professors who were dismissed immigrated to the U.S. or Great Britain. Among chemists, it was 40%; among physicists and mathematicians, it was more than 21%, respectively. Up until the end of 1938, thirty-two out of 153 staff members of the University of Innsbruck were discharged or forced to retire from their functions out of “racist” or for “political reasons.” Professor for Organic Chemistry, Hans Weiss, born in Vienna and active professor at the University of Prague, was abducted and put into the concentration camp in Theresienstadt and later died there.

Three Nobel Prize winners were expelled from the University of Graz. The pharmacologist, Otto Loewi, Nobel Prize winner in 1936, was arrested together with his two sons. With help from the Nobel Foundation’s prize money, he was able, however, to buy himself free. Loewi went to New York, where he died in 1961. Victor Franz Hess, who in 1936 won the Nobel Prize in Physics for his discovery of cosmic rays, was discharged for political reasons. He immigrated to the U.S. where he was able to continue his work at Fordham University in New York. And finally, Erwin Schrödinger, who after suffering from a strong conflict of loyalty with the Nazis in 1938, immigrated to England.

Nonetheless, the question which is asked again and again by researchers of contemporary history is this: Was the violence which occurred in March 1938 an unforeseeable, one-of-a-kind happening, set in motion on its own? Or was it much more the contrary - like Friedrich Stadler, researcher of contemporary history, believes - namely, a strong and certainly in terms of its dimension, a unique, pendular outbreak in Austria during a certain point in time, that reached from the Counter Reformation via an uncompleted Enlightenment and lack of bourgeois revolutions up to the present day?

The sociologist, Josef Langer, sees Austria as a country in which Capitalism took much longer to assert itself compared to most countries in Northwestern Europe. The country was situated on the periphery of the ring of European cities which stretched between northern Italy and the Netherlands. “At the end of the 19th Century, the Danube Monarchy lagged decades behind Northwestern Europe in its industrial development,” says Langer. The contradiction between urgent economic problems and a highly confident power structure led to a frustrated society.

One only needed the continual movement of migrants, primarily from the Eastern parts of the Donau Monarchy to upset the inner balance. The Jews became the ideal target upon which to project one’s own deficits. And those who became the objects of this projection were, again, those with new, innovative and modern ideas, who stood in strong contrast to the representatives of the more traditional schools of thought.   

Suspicious Thinkers
The “Vienna Circle,” a group of innovative thinkers of logical empiricism, discussed multidisciplinary approaches to philosophy and logic and propagated a scientifically-based philosophy.  Since this thinking worked outside the more traditional framework, and many of the protagonists were grounded by a more liberal or leftist view of the world, the new movement appeared to other academics belonging to Catholic, German-national and frequently anti-Semitic camps like a Jewish-Marxist conspiracy. Therefore, they did everything to distance themselves from the existential grounds of other competitors.

In June 1936 Moritz Schlick, the guiding spirit of the “Vienna Circle,” was shot on the steps of the University of Vienna by a former student. The same perpetrator, acting out of paranoid hallucination, tried after March 1938 to make the death appear as an act committed in the fight for National Socialist ideas and to use it to his advantage.

Similar to those of the “Vienna Circle,” there were many different currents of thought, such as those coming out of Sociology or Psychoanalysis, whose representatives were claimed as villains by the Nazis for “defraying the soul.” Typical of the method of defamation was the racist NS claim that the new schools of thought involved “Jewish corruption of the people.” Thus, the flood of anti-Semitism forced the protagonists of new scientific schools of thought to emigrate, among them the founder of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, the psychologist, Alfred Adler, and the sociologist, Paul Lazarsfeld. They immigrated to Great Britain or to the U.S., where their work was accepted with great interest and usually also highly valued because they enriched science and research considerably.