A Dark Past at the Academy of Sciences

A new exhibit sheds light on intellectuals lost and the role of Austria's venerable research institution under Nazi rule

Top Stories | Gregory Weeks | March 2013

Twenty-one Academy members were either voted out or resigned between 1938 and 1945 due to the National Socialist takeover, but some stayed on and thrived under the Nazis (Photo: ÖAW)

As the 75th anniversary of the Anschluss, the annexation of Austria by Germany on 12 March 1938, looms, the Austrian Academy of Sciences (ÖAW) will open its first-ever exhibition honouring those members of the Academy forced to flee Austria after the Nazis seized power.

Titled The Academy of Sciences in Vienna, 1938-1945 and organised by Academy Archivist Dr. Stefan Sienell and historians Dr. Heidmarie Uhl, Dr. Johannes Feichtinger, and Dr. Herbert Matis, the exhibition sheds new light on the role of the Academy during the Nazi years and chronicles the fates of eminent scientists who were forced out of the ÖAW for political or racial reasons.


Viennas lost scholars

Among the best known are physicists Erwin Schrödinger and Viktor Franz Hess. Schrödinger founded Quantum Mechanics as a discipline and was awarded the 1933 Nobel Prize for Physics after he developed wave mechanics together with the Englishman Paul Dirac. Schrödinger became Max Planck’s successor in Berlin, but left his professorship there in 1933 to briefly teach at Oxford because of his opposition to Nazism. Schrödinger returned to Austria to teach at the University of Graz, but left there only a few years later due to the rising Nazi tide in Austria, first as a guest professor in Ghent and then to the University of Dublin, where he headed the School for Theoretical Physics. Hess was the discoverer of cosmic rays in 1912 and received the 1936 Nobel Prize in Physics for his work. He was forced out of the Academy in 1939 and Schrödinger in 1940.

Schrödinger’s powerful personality, his prominence, and his open opposition to the Nazis made him an easy target for those who supported the new regime. His strong bespectacled features speak to his unbendable will towards the new power elite. For Schrödinger, it was better to give up his position and leave a system that allowed such travesties than to stay and suffer them. He was reinstated as a corresponding member of the ÖAW again in 1945 and became a regular member in 1956. Rehabilitated, he died in 1961.

Viktor Hess also found that his prominence offered no protection. Despite his fatherly appearance, Hess suffered demeaning treatment and injustices at the hands of the Nazis. In 1938, he was removed from his professorship in Graz, arrested, and finally fired. With his Jewish wife, he left Austria for the United States and took up a professorship in Physics at Fordham University, where he taught until his death in 1964.


Aryanising the Academy

Between March 1938 and February 1941, six regular members and fifteen corresponding members of the Academy – twenty-one scientists in all – either resigned their memberships under pressure or were voted out. In addition to Hess and Schrödinger were noted physician Wolfgang Pauli and anthropologist Franz Boas, all corresponding members, and the regular members Germanist Walter Brecht, zoologist Bertold Hatschek, chemist Hermann Franz Mark, pharmacologist Stefan Meyer, economist Hans Horst Meyer, and geologist Franz Eduard Suess.

Those who stayed thrived under the Nazi regime, among the most renowned, Academy President and historian Heinrich Ritter von Srbik and archaeologist Oswald Menghin. Perhaps most troubling was the career of the Dean of the Philosophical Faculty of the University of Vienna, Viktor Christian, who was also the head of the Forschungsgemeinschaft Deutsches Ahnenerbe e.V. of the SS, a teaching and research institute for the Middle East based in Vienna that was tasked with finding and documenting German "ancestral heritage" and systematically creating a "Germanic" tradition that would be used by the SS to unite Western Civilisation under German control.

By 1943, over half of the members of the Academy were also members of the Nazi Party, and the programmes of the Academy included anthropological research on stateless Jews in conjunction with the Museum of Natural History and the University of Vienna. Academy President Srbik and the Director of the Scientific State Museums, Dr. Hans Kummerlöwe, were both instrumental in securing funding for this project.

The inability or unwillingness of Austrians to speak about their Nazi past is a difficulty that has plagued Austrian politics since 1945. According to ÖAW Vice President Professor Arnold Suppan, "There was little time to address these questions following the war due to other concerns such as reconstruction," but as time wore on, the consistent policy of sweeping unwelcome facts under the carpet became a burden for the society as a whole and for Austrian historians in particular.

Born in St. Veit an der Glan in Carinthia in 1945, Professor Suppan is a major presence in modern Austrian historical research. Suppan’s father was a veteran of the German  Wehrmacht and lost an arm in combat, spurring him to fight for the rights of disabled veterans and leaving a lasting impression on his son of the need to stand up to injustice. Behind Suppan’s jovial exterior lies a shrewd historical mind, willing to press for answers to difficult questions on Europe’s Communist and National Socialist pasts in the 20th century.

For Austrians, the 1986 Kurt Waldheim Affair brought conflicts about the Nazi past into the open, but it has taken the intervening 27 years to make a significant dent in the "wall of silence".


Honouring researchers forced to leave

The current exhibit at the Austrian Academy of Sciences is a welcome further step in this direction. Although there have been four earlier, shorter studies about the role of the Academy under National Socialism, the accompanying catalogue, edited by Uhl, Feichtinger, Sienell and Matis, is the first in-depth study that focuses specifically on the researchers who were forced to leave the Academy after it was "aryanised" in 1938.

In 1997, Matis published a short book in German titled Between Conformity and Resistance: The Academy of Sciences in the Years 1938-1945 that dealt with Academy President Heinrich Srbik’s role in Nazi crimes. Before that, a book chapter by Gerhard Oberkofler, published in 1983, and two articles by Franz Graf-Stuhlhofer in 1995 and 1996 were the only studies to address the role of the Academy of Sciences during the Nazi period.

What is most striking about the catalogue is the personal detail about the researchers who were forced out, with photos and vivid descriptions giving a feel for how the regime change must have affected them as people, an immediate and detrimental impact on the lives of individuals who were leaders in their disciplines. Previous research was much more superficial.

Still, despite this progress, a major research project with substantial funding is sorely needed to close the large gaps that exist on many aspects of National Socialism in Austria, and a project of this scope involving the Academy of Sciences and history departments at Austrian universities would certainly be welcome.

Further, a push by the Academy to raise project funds – admittedly a challenge under the current climate of cutbacks – would be a sign of its continued commitment to research and making public what occurred at the Academy under the National Socialists as well as improving the historical record of this dark period.

Unfortunately, the exhibit panels are in German only, but an excellent English translation of the German exhibit catalogue by Cynthia Peck-Kubaczek and Nick Somers can be purchased for €19.90. It provides the English captions for the photographs that can be seen on the panels as well as in-depth texts on the Academy and the careers that were both ended and furthered by the National Socialist takeover.

An accompanying symposium in German will take place on 11 March. The exhibit opens to the public on 12 March and will remain on display in the main hall of the Academy of Sciences at Ignaz-Seipel-Platz 2 through 17 May.



Academy of Sciences in Vienna 1938-1945 

Johannes Feichtinger, Herbert Matis,

Stefan Sienell, Heidemarie Uhl (eds.) 

Trans.: Cynthia Peck-Kubaczek, Nick Somers

Verlag der ÖAW, May 2013 

pp. 274



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