Genius in Exile: The Rise and Fall of Göttingen’s Mathematical Institute

Paul Halpern
8 min readAug 28, 2020


Göttingen Mathematical Institute, photo by Paul Halpern

Inspired by the designs of mathematician Felix Klein and funded by the Rockefeller Foundation, the Göttingen Mathematical Institute in Germany was a modern marvel. Completed in 1929, its innovations included a centrally-located, spacious new math library, dormitory facilities for visitors, shared office space for Privatdozents (unpaid instructors), as well as individual offices for professors, lecture halls near offices, and ample room for displays of the department’s prized mathematical model collection in the central foyer. Moreover, these lavish facilities were completed during the time of the Great Depression. Its highly-accomplished faculty, some of the best in the world, included Richard Courant, Hermann Weyl, Emmy Noether, Edmund Landau, Felix Bernstein, and David Hilbert as an emeritus professor. Next door, the excellent Physical Institute faculty included James Franck, Max Born and Werner Heisenberg, each pioneers in Quantum Physics. The pleasant space between the buildings is sometimes called “The Garden where Quantum Physics began.”

Mathematician Richard Courant

Yet by the end of 1933, because of the rise of Hitler and his fascist anti-semitic policies, Courant, Landau, Bernstein, Weyl and Noether were gone. In their place were respectable, but relatively unknown mathematicians. By the fifth year of the building’s opening, its luster had already faded.

Mathematician David Hilbert

To give an idea of the change: In the late 1910s, Hilbert remarked, “Every boy in the streets of our mathematical Göttingen understands more about four-dimensional geometry than Einstein…” In the late 1930s, when Hilbert met with Minister of Culture Bernard Rust at a banquet, Rust inquired about the state of math in Göttingen. Hilbert replied “There is no mathematics in Göttingen.”

Göttingen street scene (Photo by Paul Halpern)

Göttingen is located in the foothills of the Harz mountains — the most mysterious part of Germany (near Brocken — scene of “Night on Bald Mountain). It was originally part of the Kingdom of Hanover, and briefly part of the “United Kingdom” when the throne of England also included Hanover. It was never a center of industry, but rather a center of scholarship from early on. The medieval town, with its cobblestone streets and half-timbered house, surrounded by walls and gates, is very well preserved, thanks in part to a World War II agreement not to bomb centers of learning.

Although notable mathematicians such as Abraham Kaestner and Martin Bartels taught there before him, the appointment of Carl Gauss in 1807 as director of the Göttingen Observatory ushered in its Golden Age. As widely known, Gauss had incredibly broad interests and accomplishments, including training brilliant students such as Riemann. Consequently, Göttingen became not just Germany’s (and arguably the world’s) leading mathematical center, it ushered in an entirely new approach to geometry.

Not all was bright at the university. In 1837, the Brothers Grimm and five others, known as the Göttingen Seven, were dismissed from the university because of their opposition to a reactionary constitution established by the Kingdom of Hanover. Gauss was not involved.

In mid-19th century, a new lecture hall was built called the Auditorium. A collection of mathematical models and books started as far back as Kaestner, but was greatly expanded under gifted mathematician Felix Klein. Klein was very much interested in math pedagogy. Using government funds, he purchased numerous geometric models and mathematical instruments. He found a small room in the Auditorium to house this collection. Klein soon realized it wasn’t enough. He pushed for a new Mathematical Institute. He died in 1925, before his dream was realized.

Felix Klein’s collection

The following year, The Rockefeller Foundation, under John D. Rockefeller Jr. sent $275,000 toward the building of the Mathematical Institute. This was part of a general program of support for scientific centers around the world including the Henri Poincare Institute in Paris, Rockefeller University in New York and the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton.

The building site was chosen just outside the old town walls in the “suburbs.” Its dedication took place in December 1929. The model and instrument collection now contains 540 exhibits, housed in 63 showcases. On the same floor as the model collection and library are the faculty offices, including that of the director (then Courant).

In 1933, Hitler took power. One of his first acts, on April 7 of that year, was to issue a decree dismissing Jewish professors (and other civil servants). As a concession to Hindenberg, military veterans were exempt (in that act).

The director of the Mathematical Institute, Richard Courant, was not exempt from this decree. Born in an area of East Prussia that is now part of Poland, Courant was well known for his collaboration with Hilbert in Mathematical Physics and other work. After the decree, Courant fled to England, then New York University where he established an institute based on the Göttingen model.

Mathematician Emmy Noether

Emmy Noether was a pioneering woman mathematician, the first appointed to a German professorship, under pressure by Hilbert. (Previously, she taught her classes with Hilbert listed as the official professor). Her work, like Hilbert’s and Weyl’s, is essential to modern physics. She fled to the US, where she assumed a position at Bryn Mawr College. Sadly she died two years later.

Noether’s grave marker at Bryn Mawr College. Photo by Aden Halpern

With Courant’s departure, Hermann Weyl assumed the directorship. Weyl was noted for his work in group theory, leading to the modern concept of gauge. His sojourn as director, however, was extremely brief. Weyl’s wife was Jewish, and Weyl was terrified by the gangs of Nazi-supporting youth (including many students) roaming Göttingen. He decided to step down, then migrate with his wife to Princeton. He remained there until his last years, when he moved to Zürich.

Edmund Landau was born into a wealthy, secular Jewish family. Used to a life of privilege, he couldn’t imagine his status being taken away. In 1908, he succeeded Minkowski to a position at Göttingen. His topic was analytic number theory. He moved into a large house in town, of which he used to brag was the most lavish.

In March 1933, the ministry of culture, under the infamous Bernard Rust, asked Landau not to attend his lectures, but to let an assistant Werner Weber, a SA member, to teach it instead. For months, Landau would wait in his office during classtime, waiting for the opportunity to return.

In November 1933, he tried to give a lecture. A gang of Nazi-thug students stopped him from entering the lecture hall. They were accompanied by Hitler’s SA secret police. Landau fled in horror to Berlin, where he retired. He died of a heart attack five years later.

Clearly, the Mathematical Institute, by late 1933, was experiencing a faculty shortage. There were some protests (petitions and letter writing) of these actions, but many German academics preferred to keep quiet and do their work.

Given Goettingen’s fame, Rust wanted to restock its offices with noted faculty from elsewhere, enabling Germans to maintain pride in the university. For the new director, mathematician Helmut Hasse of the University of Halle was selected. Hasse was not a party member, so he was acceptable to much of the academic community.

Hasse took Weyl’s position, with his support and approval. Though Hasse was also officially approved by the ministry, many of the zealous party members didn’t like his moderate stance. When it was time to for him to move into his office, Weber refused to give him the key. Finally a crisis was averted when Weber was given new tasks in another city.

Hasse’s views were complex — on many issues he supported Hitler, yet he continued contacts with Jewish friends. Later the party would bring in one of its trusted members, Paul Ziegenbein, to watch over Hasse. A Göttingen grad who studied quadratic forms over the rational numbers, Hasse had great admiration for Hilbert.

Reportedly, their first meeting was rather amusing. Hasse contacted Mrs. Hilbert to arrange a meeting. She invited him for tea in Hilbert’s garden. There, Hasse spoke about his new innovations in class field theory, a subject devised by Hilbert. Hilbert stopped Hasse and said, “before explaining your innovations tell me about the theory itself.” After Hasse described the theory, Hilbert remarked: “All this is extremely beautiful; who created it.?” Hilbert was astonished to be told that he himself was the creator.

Theodor Kaluza

Courant’s teaching position still needed to be filled, so a search was done and Theodor Kaluza of the University of Kiel was selected. Before agreeing to the position, Kaluza insisted “I’m no Courant.” Indeed his fame derived mainly from one paper, a five-dimensional extension of general relativity.

Kaluza remained defiant of the Nazis — he never joined the party or saluted Hitler. He would have preferred emigration, but saw little hope for a position abroad. So he settled into Göttingen.

According to his daughter, who worked next-door in the Physical Institute, Kaluza spent much of his time reading in the library — reading about not just math but biology, psychology and the paranormal. He also enjoyed experimenting with polytope projections (such as projections of hypercubes) to see if these could be visualized. He wanted to prove his 5-dimensional hypothesis through visual analogy. His only publication was an influential applied math text (with Georg Joos): “Higher Mathematics for the Practical Reader.”

Hasse tried to gain influence with the Party by joining it. Because of some distant Jewish ancestry, he was refused. From 1939–1945 he left for Berlin to do ballistics calculations.

This left the Institute completely in the hands of Kaluza, who was its acting director. Despite his administrative role, Kaluza still didn’t join the Nazis, preferring to remain in his quiet enclave. According to at least one of his students, Kaluza was a kind man, but not a particularly energetic teacher.

Fortunately Göttingen was never bombed — though after the war life was hard because of economic conditions. At the War’s close, Hasse was forbidden to teach for 3 years, but Kaluza could continue his position because he was never a party member. Kaluza died on a bus in Göttingen in 1954.

In conclusion, the Göttingen Mathematical Institute represented an innovative facility with a favorable layout, accessible library and prized collection. Its original faculty were among the finest in the world, continuing a sacred Göttingen tradition. Due to the horrific dismissal of the bulk of its faculty in 1933, Göttingen never truly reclaimed its exalted place in the world of mathematics and science

Paul Halpern is a University of the Sciences physics professor and the author of sixteen popular science books, including Synchronicity: The Epic Quest to Understand the Quantum Nature of Cause and Effect.



Paul Halpern

Physicist and science writer. Author of Synchronicity: The Epic Quest to Understand the Quantum Nature of Cause and Effect