Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Review of Segal's Mathematicians under the Nazis

Sanford Segal's Mathematicians Under the Nazis is a long, meticulous and painstakingly researched book about the history of German mathematics, mathematical institutions, and mathematicians during the Nazi era.

The book does a good job of dispelling a number of impressions that one might have of Mathematicians and Nazis. First, there is one reading of Segal's book that can be construed as the history of the petty bickering among the mathematicians in Nazi Germany. German mathematicians quarreled incessantly. Many of them spent a lot of time jockeying for power. Almost none were above political quarrels or denunciations. Many of them got truly swept up in Naziism. Many had little problem with the initial full-scale of removal of Jews from universities. This was especially true in Gottengen, which was a mathematical powerhouse and also a bastion of right-wing activity. Segal traces much of this attitude to the idea of the good German university professor as a civil servant who was in some way beholden to the state.

Secondly, lest one get the impression that the German state was efficient, Segal clears much up there too. First there were many overlapping bureaucracies, all of which competed for resources, and all of which were driven to backstabbing to get ahead.

In the "total state" as Nazi Germany was, there was a push to make all the country's institutions hierarchical. That is, there would be a leader of each institution with a clear command structure. The Nazi state was interested in this, and other types of existing hierarchies mattered little to them. In an attempt to get ahead then, there were various mathematicians who attempted to ingratiate themselves as "fuhrer" of German mathematics.

One of the main contenders for this position was perhaps the most colorful character in the story. Ludwig Bieberbach, who was a rather respected mathematician, attempted to Nazify mathematics itself. In a series of articles, Bieberbach identified a style of mathematics that he thought was Aryan and another that was Jewish. Racially typologizing mathematics was part of a tradition that went back at least as far as Felix Klein, and was used by many, especially Oswald Spengler in his famous Decline of the West. This generated something of a small research program in "Nazi Mathematics".

Segal's book is rife with detail, and tells the stories of many of the Jewish and German mathematicians who were impacted by Naziism, like Courant, Landau, Suss, Blaschke, . . . The Book also details the many mathematical institutions in Nazi Germany, such as Nazi mathematics camps, and mathematics in concentration camps.

The book is long and detailed and was an enlightening read.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Worth seeing

I finally got out to do something relaxing. I saw The Black Book. It is a really good, suspense-filled WWII movie. Strongly recommended.

Friday, May 04, 2007

Class last week

This week, I had a discussion with one of my ethics classes about democracy. It was connected to one of the chapters in the text, and I thought worthy of some good philosophical discussion.

Just so you get a feel for the class: it has about 20 students, almost none of whom are humanities students. Mine may have been one of the only humanities classes they ever took. The students are almost all reasonably bright, and I would say that about 15 of them were not born in the US, and about 17 of them were male.

The discussion was about values that we might want to promote in a society. I gave a rough definition of involving a government where citizens are the authority, and the government is accountable to them, a government where individuals are sovereign, and have a say in the government, and where individuals are reasonably free and vote.

I then threw out the question "Is democracy good?" and I heard one or two "yes"es and one or two "no"s from the class. I asked one of the "no" students to explain. He began by going through a complaint that was essentially Plato's : who wants the masses to make decisions about what to do in a government? Too much democracy couldn't be a good thing, especially where it allowed the people to make many of the routine decisions for a society.

A second student worried that democracies cannot work on too large a scale (contrary to federalist #10) as people with too different an opinion (then the reasonable one, I presume) may end up with a say, as they may form too large a faction.

A third student thought that democracies would be good, if they weren't all corrupt.

A fourth student thought that democracy was good in theory, but if we look at it's history (which for him seemed to be the Iraq war and Nazi Germany ) it led to disasters.

A fifth student claimed that he had no opinion, as he did not care about politics.

A sixth claimed that it really did seem reasonable to have people from other countries vote in US elections, as they are impacted by US foreign policy.

. . .

And so the class went. It was a difficult task in class just clarifying minor points here and there, adding historical caveats and discussions, making certain crucial distinctions, and offering the obvious counterarguments to some of the more ridiculous claims.

Students had little problem airing their antagonism towards western political systems. Mind you, we were not discussing economics, just democracy. I did not ask what good alternatives might be, though there was agreement that all those kinds that are generally accompanied by mass slaughter were also unacceptable.

Perhaps there would have been some concession that though they did not like democracy, there was not better alternative. At the end of the class I was able to ask if there was anyone who wanted to offer a defense of democracy.

The class was silent. At that point we adjurned for the weekend. I left wondering a whole lot of things. Every critique of democracy is on the tips of all my students' tongues. There is little appreciation for the idea that in a democracy you have some control over your fate. There is little appreciation for the fact that most of them came from countries that had no democracies and they are here now, presumably
because it was a better option than their own country. There is little appreciation for the fact that the government is supposed to be them, not something imposed on them. . .

I guess we will see how the discussion picks up next week. I wonder how well I am reading the attitudes of my students. I wonder how well I am reading their education.