The late German-American physicist Hans Bethe once described himself as the H-bomb's midwife. He left Nazi Germany in 1933, after which he helped develop the first atomic bomb, won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1967 for his contribution to the theory of nuclear reactions, advocated tighter controls over nuclear weapons and campaigned vigorously for the peaceful use of nuclear energy.
On 30th January, 1933, Hitler took over and formed the government and very soon he issued a law which said that any Jew and half Jew and any quarter Jew was forbidden from taking any government position, either federal or state in Germany. Well, I was half Jewish on my mother's side and so it was clear I could not hold any university position because all universities were state universities. I believe that is still the case in Germany. So in April one of my two graduate students wrote me a letter. 'I see in the newspaper, that you have been dismissed from your position. What shall I do?' So I answered him ,'I didn't know about that. Now please send me the newspaper, and I don't know what you will do. You'll have to find yourself a different professor. I anyway have to leave.' And about a week later I got a letter from Geiger who now was quite cold and acted as if he had never known me, that it had been decided to terminate my professorship forthwith. And still a week later I got a letter from the Department of Education of the State saying that I was dismissed. So I went back to Sommerfeld, who again had a fellowship for me and who gave me hospitality for the summer semester of '33. It was a tense situation of course. Sommerfeld was very friendly and always remained so. There was one Nazi graduate student there, and there was the... and there was also an American there and the American and I often talked about the awful things the Nazis did. And fortunately the machinist in Sommerfeld's institute was very alert and came to us and said 'Kids, don't do that. There is the Nazi student. He'll turn you in if... if you continue to have such discussions here in the institute.'
Silvan Sam Schweber is the Koret Professor of the History of Ideas and Professor of Physics at Brandeis University, and a Faculty Associate in the Department of the History of Science at Harvard University. He is the author of a history of the development of quantum electro mechanics, "QED and the men who made it", and has recently completed a biography of Hans Bethe and the history of nuclear weapons development, "In the Shadow of the Bomb: Oppenheimer, Bethe, and the Moral Responsibility of the Scientist" (Princeton University Press, 2000).
1933, Germany, Nazi, Adolf Hitler, Hans Geiger, Arnold Sommerfeld