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«German mathematicians in exile in Turkey: Richard von Mises, William Prager, Hilda Geiringer, and their impact on Turkish mathematics Alp Eden a,1, ...»

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Historia Mathematica 39 (2012) 432–459


German mathematicians in exile in Turkey: Richard von

Mises, William Prager, Hilda Geiringer, and their impact

on Turkish mathematics

Alp Eden a,1, Gürol Irzik b,*



Bogazici University, Department of Mathematics, 80815 Bebek-Istanbul, Turkey


Sabancı University, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, Orta Mahalle, Üniversite Caddesi No.: 27 34956

Tuzla-Istanbul, Turkey


There is a sizable and growing literature on scholars who fled from the Nazi regime, a literature which often focuses on the periods before leaving Germany and after settling permanently in the USA, but relatively less work on the interim period in which many of them found temporary homes in countries such as Turkey. In this article we would like to discuss the scholarly work, activities and the impact of mathematicians Richard von Mises, William Prager and Hilda Geiringer during their stay in Turkey. We argue that the establishment and the development of applied mathematics and mechanics in Turkey owe much to them.

Ó 2012 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

Zusammenfassung Es gibt eine betrachtliche und wachsende Forschungsliteratur zu den Gelehrten, die aus dem NS-Regime flüchteten; diese Literatur befaßt sich oft mit den Zeiträumen vor dem Verlassen Deutschlands oder nach dem dauerhaften Niederlassen in den Vereinigten Staaten. Es gibt aber verhältnismäßig wenig Arbeit über die Übergangszeit, in der viele von ihnen vorübergehendes Heimat in Ländern wie der Türkei gefunden haben. In diesem Aufsatz möchten wir die wissenschaftliche Arbeit, Aktivitäten und Auswirkungen der Mathematiker Richard von Mises, Wilhelm Prager und Hilda Geiringer während ihres Aufenthalts in der Türkei diskutieren. Wir argumentieren, daß die Errichtung und die Entwicklung der angewandten Mathematik und Mechanik in der Türkei ihnen viel verdanken.

Ó 2012 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

MSC: 01A60; 01A70; 01A73 Keywords: Richard von Mises; William Prager; Hilda Geiringer; Istanbul Technical University; Applied mathematics;

Mechanics * Corresponding author. Fax: +90 216 4839250.

E-mail addresses: eden@boun.edu.tr (A. Eden), irzik@sabanciuniv.edu (G. Irzik).

Fax: +90 212 2877173.

0315-0860/$ - see front matter Ó 2012 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.hm.2012.07.002 German mathematicians in exile in Turkey 433

1. Introduction The year 1933 was a turning point in the history of higher education system and a fortiori of science in Turkey. Merely 10 years after the formation of the Turkish Republic, the system of higher education went through a radical transformation, as part of a series of revolutionary reforms carried out under the leadership of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk in the political, social, legal and cultural domains. The aim of these reforms that ranged from abolishing the caliphate to the adoption of Western legal codes and the Latin alphabet, was to modernize the Turkish society, and education was seen as a key element for the success of modernization. As a result, Darülfünun—the only existing university in the country at the time—was closed down on the 31st of July in 1933, and Istanbul University was founded literally the next day. The academic reasons behind this were detailed in the Malche report written upon the invitation of the Turkish government by Albert Malche, a professor of pedagogy at the University of Geneva. According to the report, Darülfünun was an outdated teaching institution that produced no original research and publication and that its enormous autonomy turned it into a closed institution that had lost touch with the rest of the society [Widmann, 1999, 75–76]. Thus, in the eyes of the reformers it was necessary to turn it into a modern higher institution of learning and research. However, these were not the only reasons for abolishing Darülfünun; there was also a political motivation behind it. Res it Galip, who was the mastermind of the reform and the minister of education ß at the time, publicly accused Darülfünun professors of not embracing the massive reforms of the young Republic enthusiastically [Bilsel, 1943, 34–35]. It is therefore small wonder that the founding of Istanbul University meant at the same time a liquidation of the existing faculty at Darülfünun: 157 out of 240 faculty members were dismissed from their positions, and 71 of those were full professors [Bilsel, 1943, 37].

The very year Istanbul University was founded, Hitler came to power in Germany, and a forced exodus of thousands of German academics began. While most of them went to the USA, a good many of them came to Turkey. In May of 1933, Malche informed Philipp Schwartz, who was the informal leader of a group of German scholars in exile in Zurich, of the plans of the Turkish government. Schwartz went to Turkey and carried out the negotiations with Turkish officials, which resulted in the hiring of 30 full professors in July of the same year.2 According to the most reliable sources, 52 full professors, 50 of whom were German and 2 of them were Austrian, taught at Istanbul University as emigrants between 1933 and 1945. Of these 52 professors, 16 taught at the Faculty of Medicine, 15 at the Faculty of Sciences, 14 at the Faculty of Letters, and 7 at the Faculty of Law; in addition, there were about 80 assistants, technicians, lab technicians and nurses (extracted from [Dölen 2010, vol. 3, 500–506; Widmann, 1999]. Several other German and a number of British, French, Hungarian and Swiss professors came to teach at Istanbul University but not as emigrants. Thus, Istanbul University was truly a cosmopolitan institution during the 30s and the early 40s.

The most famous of the German scholars were mathematicians Richard von Mises and William Prager, astronomer Erwin Finley Freundlich, physicist Arthur von Hippel, economist Fritz Neumark, philosopher of science Hans Reichenbach, romanists Leo Spitzer and The breathtaking story of this episode of history is well-known. See [Schwartz, 2003; Widmann, 1999].

434 A. Eden, G. Irzik Eric Auerbach, and arabist Helmut Ritter.3 A vast majority of the German professors were appointed as institute heads with full authority. They changed the curricula, the practice of teaching and research, influenced their Turkish colleagues greatly and played an important role in hiring, promotions and awarding doctoral degrees. Thus, it is not an exaggeration to say that they shaped the future of science and humanities and social sciences for years to come at Istanbul University and indeed in Turkey either directly or indirectly through their colleagues and students.

There is a sizable and growing literature on scholars who fled from the Nazi regime, a literature which often focuses on the periods before leaving Germany and after settling permanently in the USA, but relatively less work on the interim period in which many of them found temporary homes in countries such as Turkey. In this article, we would like to discuss the scholarly work, activities and the impact of mathematicians Richard von Mises, William Prager and Hilda Geiringer during their stay in Turkey. Our research is based on archival material and Turkish as well as non-Turkish sources. Among the Turkish sources we would like to mention especially Emre Dölen’s magisterial five-volume history _ ˘ of the Turkish university system from 1863 to 1981 [Dölen, 2009, 2010], Sevtap Ishakoglu˘ Kadıoglu’s history of the Faculty of Sciences of Istanbul University 1900 through 1946 _ _ß ˘ ˘ [Ishakoglu-Kadıoglu, 1998], Orhan Icen’s review of the publications and other contribuß _ tions of the mathematics faculty members of Istanbul University [Icen, 1982], Erdal Inönü’s _ bibliography of mathematical research covering the period 1923–66 [Inönü, 1973], and an edited volume on the historical development of the conception of university in Turkey [Aras et al., 2007].

We argue that the trio of von Mises, Prager, and Geiringer considerably influenced the development of mathematics in Turkey, particularly in the direction of applications.

Indeed, just as the birth and the establishment of the discipline of applied mathematics in the USA from the late 1930s onward owed a great deal to German scientists such as Richard Courant, John von Neumann, Theodor von Karman, Richard von Mises and William Prager, we will argue that the establishment and the development of applied mathematics and mechanics in Turkey also owed much to the trio of German mathematicians Richard von Mises, Willy Prager and Hilda Geiringer.

2. The founding of the Institute of Mathematics in Istanbul University

Teaching of various branches of mathematics has a long tradition in the history of Darülfünun, going back to the last quarter of the 19th century. Mathematics courses taught included differential and integral calculus, mechanics, geometry, analysis and probability theory. During the 1932–33 academic year, which was the last year of Darülfünun, Sükrü Bey, Ali Yar Bey, Salim Bey, Hüsnü Hamid Bey and Kerim Erim were the main ß mathematicians. After the 1933 university reform, only Ali Yar and Kerim Erim were kept _ ˘ ˘ employed, the others were dismissed from Istanbul University [Ishakoglu-Kadıoglu, 1998, 53–64].

With the 1933 reform, the Institute of Mathematics was modeled upon the recommendations of the mathematician Richard Courant, the future founder of the Courant Institute in New York. Courant, together with the Nobel laureate physicist James Franck and Max Born (who was to receive the Nobel prize in 1954), visited Turkey shortly before the For a full list, see [Widmann, 1999].

German mathematicians in exile in Turkey 435 university reform and wrote a report to the Turkish Minister of Education.4 In that report Courant emphasized the important role mathematics plays in training qualified teachers and engineers and suggested that the Institute be organized like the one at “the University of Göttingen which is due to Felix Klein and now exemplary for the whole world. Of course the organization has to be adapted to the possibilities and necessities of the local conditions.

Important targets: High and stern scientific standards, maintaining relations with applied sciences, consideration of pedagogical principles during instruction, close contact between students and teachers”. The reference to Göttingen, Klein and applied sciences leaves no doubt that Courant envisioned essentially an institute of applied mathematics at Istanbul University.5 Courant recommended that there should be at least three full chairs in the Institute and thus a number of senior faculty and assistants. He specifically pointed out that the senior faculty to be hired should be adaptive and young, say, between the ages of 30 and 45, as it was often the case in Germany. In his context he praised the Turkish mathematician Kerim Erim and considered him to be “the nucleus” for restructuring. He wrote: “As far as staff is concerned, the university is lucky enough to have an excellent scholar—also by European standards—who combines devotedness to science, versatility and activity and who could just as well hold a high position at any German university.” In addition, he suggested four names of Jewish mathematicians, the first three Germans, the fourth the

son-in-law of the Göttingen mathematician Edmund Landau, in the following order:

W. Prager, S. Cohn-Vossen, W. Fenchel and I. Schoenberg. He also emphasized the importance of establishing close ties with European scholars and advised that a renowned scholar be invited for a month or two every year to give seminars and lectures. Finally, he strongly urged the Turkish government to pay attention to the infrastructure from classrooms to the building of a library: In his own words: “Everything should be built from scratch”.

Courant’s recommendations for establishing essentially an institute of applied mathematics with close ties with other applied sciences resonated well with the intentions of the Turkish reformers who saw education as a means not only for producing qualified human power, but also for the material development of the country. Turkish government’s top choice for the position of the director of the Institute of Mathematics was naturally Courant. Courant first discussed the whole matter with Schwartz face to face in Zurich and the next day sent him a long letter, expressing a reserved interest in the offer. The main point of the letter was that Courant still considered himself to be a Prussian civil servant and thus insisted that the Turkish government should carry out the negotiations about the hiring of scholars with the consent of the German authorities. He wrote: “Circumstances might force me to go abroad, but it is most essential to me to do this not as an embittered emigrant, but as a proud representative of German culture who will not, either inwardly or outwardly, give up his connectedness to his home country.”6 Courant reiterated the same concern a week later, this time in a letter to the Greek mathematician Constantin Carathéodory whose father was a high-ranked Ottoman diplomat who lived in Istanbul for Preliminary Report, 15 August 1933, Folder 740, box 93, RG2. Rockefeller Foundation Archives, RAC. Courtesy of RAC. The report not only convinced the Turkish government that the reform would succeed, but also played a positive role in the final decisions of the exiled German scientists to go to Turkey [Schwartz, 2003, 51].

For the emergence of the new field of applied mathematics at Göttingen under the leadership of Klein, see [Siegmund-Schultze, 2009a, 278–279] and the literature cited therein.

Letter from Courant to Schwartz, dated 12 July 1933, MC 150, Richard Courant Papers, courtesy of New York University Archives.

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