National Socialism and the Universities: Research Off to a Good Start

Austrian Press Agency (06/05/03)

Historian Mitchell Ash: Currently Some Thirty Projects Throughout Austria

It has taken almost sixty years, but now research regarding the relationship between National Socialism and the universities, in particular in the field of science, is off to a good start. “Currently there are some thirty projects focusing on this topic throughout Austria,” said the historian, Mitchell Ash, from the Institute of History at the University of Vienna. Mr. Ash directs the project, “Universities and Science During and After the Era of National Socialism,” which is to be presented at the symposium, “Austria and National Socialism – The Consequences for Education in the Areas of Science and the Humanities” on June 5, 2003.

With his project, Ash hopes to establish a research network and to point out the results of the various disciplines and scientists. A CD-ROM with a short summary of the projects will be made available. The universities have long held the notion that the Sciences had been abused by the Nazis and were, themselves, quasi an instrumentalized victim. Mitchell is convinced that essentially what prevailed was that of an intertwining give and take with another.

Thus, there were clearly ‘takers’ on the part of the universities after 1945 which remained in charge but nothing has happened in terms of overhauling the system. Only then were very few examples brought out into the open, and somewhat hesitantly. The media ran stories on anatomist Eduard Pernkopf with his atlas, in which the physician Heinrich Gross and Nobel Prize winner Konrad Lorenz were embroiled in the socalled Euthanasia Program. Why only a few prominent examples have reached the public is for Ash not entirely clear. “One has to ask also the media,” said the historian.

The some thirty research projects on the subject of Universities and National Socialism are widely diversified. They span from research on the expulsion of Jewish scientists and its consequences on scientific research to the censorship conducted at university libraries to scholarly contributions by Austrian scientists regarding socalled racial hygiene advocated by the National Socialists.

In a mutual project conducted by the Institute of Sociology at the University of Graz (under the direction of Christian Fleck) and the Institute of Experimental Physics at the University of Vienna (under the direction of Anton Zeilinger), the researchers studied the fate of physicists and engineers who emigrated from Austria. Interviews with those emigrants from the second generation revealed that the effects of the Nazi ideology were noticeable long before 1938. Thus, scientists during the 1920s were not promoted to professor out of “reasons of race”. Also emigration began already much earlier.
Altogether the number of physicists expelled from the universities were smaller than assumed. This appears to contradict the reports of the successful accomplishments such as Nobel Prizes of physicists who emigrated from Austria. Fleck assumes that many of those who emigrated began to study physics after having been expelled. It is, nevertheless, striking that only very few emigrants returned to Austria after the war. Moreover, there were officially no efforts made in that direction.