Klein attempts to fill a professorship at Göttingen

We quote below from letters which were part of the exhibition Transcending tradition: Jewish Mathematics in German-Speaking Academic Culture. English translations appeared in Transcending tradition: Jewish Mathematics in German-Speaking Academic Culture (Springer, New York, 2012).

In 1892 Hermann Amandus Schwarz left his chair at Göttingen to succeed Karl Weierstrass who had retired from his chair in Berlin. Felix Klein was building a research centre at Göttingen and he wrote to Adolf Hurwitz on 28 February 1892:

Dear Friend

Here comes quite a substantial letter, addressing not only your personal interests but also your good heart, and I ask you to maintain strict confidentiality, and to refrain from discussing its subjective content with anybody.

Althoff [Friedrich Althoff was an undersecretary at the Ministry of Culture] was here for three days, and brought the matter of the new appointment for Berlin to a close. In addition to Frobenius, Schwarz will go there as early as 1 April. As for myself, if I can be frank, I am quite satisfied with the development, as I was treated with a certain distinction, and I will gain much freedom of movement.

But, to keep to the matter at hand: Schwarz's position here in Göttingen will need to be filled now, and this should happen in the near future. I know exactly which suggestions I intend to present to the department (keep in mind, however, that I am not the department; I even intend to claim explicitly the freedom to modify my present ideas in the course of the upcoming negotiations): you will probably have guessed that I want to recommend you and Hilbert as the only two who, together with me, are in a position to assure Göttingen a place of scientific distinction. ... And now the great difficulty, which has cost me a lot of deliberation, until I decided to write to you myself about this issue. Naturally I will name you first and Hilbert behind you. There are, however, a series of reservations in connection with you being called, and the question remains, to what extent I should submit to these reservations, and whether I should perhaps even say right away that Hilbert's coming here would be more suited to our needs in the end. First of all, there is the problem of your health, the relevance of which I do not want to exaggerate, but cannot ignore altogether. secondly, there is the much subtler difficulty that you are, not only personally but also in your mathematical way of thinking, much closer to me than is Hilbert. You coming here could therefore perhaps give our Göttingen mathematics a too one-sided character. There is thirdly - I must touch on it, as repugnant as the matter is to me, and knowing full well your justified sensitivity to this - the Jewish question. Not that you call as such would present difficulties; these i would be able to overcome. The problem is that we already have Arthur Schönflies for whom I would like to create a firm position as salaried Extraordinarius here. And having you and Schönflies appointed together is something I will not get past either the faculty of the Minister. ...

The Jewish problem that Klein is referring to is that Arthur Schönflies and Adolf Hurwitz were both Jewish and, although he fancied his chances of persuading both the department and the ministry to appoint one Jew, he thought that he wouldn't be able to persuade that to appoint two Jews. However, despite Klein ranking Adolf Hurwitz first and David Hilbert second, he didn't manage to persuade his department that this was the best ranking for the department chose to place Heinrich Weber at the top of their list. Friedrich Althoff, the undersecretary at the Ministry of Culture, accepted the department's recommendation of Heinrich Weber. Klein wrote to Hurwitz on 7 April 1892, choosing to blame the Ministry of Culture rather than the Göttingen department:

It must have been, then, that in the end an anti-Semitic vote in the ministry led to the rejection.

A few days later, on 16 April 1892, Paul Gordan wrote to Klein telling him he was lucky that Hurwitz had not been appointed to Göttingen. One must remember when reading what Gordan wrote, that he himself was Jewish:

Dear Friend

I am sorry to hear that you were not appointed to Berlin, as your all-encompassing mind would have brought order to the mathematical life in Germany. But it was luck for you. It was right that you recommended Hurwitz for Göttingen; Hurwitz deserves this distinction. But that your recommendation did not go through is your luck, for which you cannot thank God enough. What good would Hurwitz have done you in Göttingen? You would have taken on the complete responsibility for this Jew; every real or apparent mistake by Hurwitz would have fallen on your head, and all his utterances in the faculty and senate would have been regarded as influenced by you. Hurwitz would have been considered nothing more than an appendage of Klein.

Klein did succeed in having Arthur Schönflies appointed as an Extraordinary Professor of Applied Mathematics in 1892. Heinrich Weber didn't stay at Göttingen for long and moved to Strasbourg in 1895. Klein was successful in getting David Hilbert appointed to Göttingen in 1895 to fill the chair left vacant by Heinrich Weber.

Finally let us quote Max Born's description of Adolf Hurwitz from M Born, My Life: Recollections of a Nobel Laureate (New York, 1978):

Hurwitz was a tiny man with the emaciated face of an ascetic in which burned two unnaturally large eyes. He was ailing and very frail. But his lectures were brilliant, perhaps the most perfect I have ever heard. The course was the continuation of another, on analytic functions, which I had not attended; I therefore had some difficulty in following and had to work hard, reading many books. Once when I had missed a point in a lecture I went to Hurwitz afterwards and asked for a private explanation. He invited me and another student from Breslau ... to his house and gave us a series of private lectures on some chapters of the theory of functions of complex variables, in particular on Mittag-Leffler's theorem, which I still consider as one of the most impressive experiences of my student life. I carefully worked out the whole course, including these private appendices, and my notebook was used by Courant when he, may years later and after Hurwitz's death, published his well-known book on analytic functions, the so-called Courant-Hurwitz.

Last Updated October 2013