Salvatore Pincherle writes to Émile Picard in 1928

Salvatore Pincherle, President of the Executive Commission of the International Congress of Mathematicians for its 1928 meeting, and also President of the International Mathematical Union, wrote to Émile Picard, President of the Mathematical Research Council, concerning the difficulties around the banning of various countries after World War I.

Let us say a little about he background. The Central Powers had been banned following World War I but the Treaty of Locarno in 1926 had allowed Germany to enter the League of Nations. The Central Powers were then invited to join the Mathematical Research Council but they had not done so by the time the International Congress of Mathematicians was beginning its organisation to hold the 1928 Congress in Bologna. Salvatore Pincherle was head of the Organising Committee for the Bologna Congress and arranged for all mathematicians to be invited to the Congress, the invitation coming from the University of Bologna.

Salvatore Pincherle writes to Émile Picard in June 1928.

Bologna, June 8, 1928 (VI).

Sir and illustrious Master,

It is my duty to inform you in some detail of how the organisation of the next International Congress of Mathematicians is proceeding, and of the serious difficulties which arose during the preparatory period which threatened to seriously jeopardise its success.

It was not possible to keep to the guiding ideas of Strasbourg and Toronto. In the whole world, the state of mind is no longer that of the aftermath of the war; reasons which could have been imposed then are no longer understood by many young scholars who have since asserted themselves. The overwhelming correspondence to which I have been obliged for two years has provided me with the most obvious proof. From Holland, Denmark, Sweden, from the most authoritative groups in England and the United States, I have been told, in the most absolute fashion, that a Congress which would not be international in the broadest sense of the word would lead to a general abstention on their part. This is also the point of view of the great majority of my Italian colleagues; our national government also hold this opinion, whose leader gives the Congress its moral and material support.

Besides, we insist on this point on all sides: if we want to restore between scholars who cultivate the purest of all sciences the understanding so necessary for its progress, if we want a meeting that allows them to advise the means of establishing this agreement, it is necessary to go over considerations of form: the moment is such that the promoters must be sufficiently persuaded of this truth and superior enough to ignore it, and give Congress a form that allows this meeting. Any other way of proceeding would not fail to provoke bitter criticism against the Union on the part of the majority of scholars of neutral or ex-allied nationality. Seek, we are told from all sides, to resolve the situation, and the higher goal will justify some derogation from articles of a necessarily precarious convention!

These ideas, which my Italian collaborators entirely share, forced us to seek a character which serves also to avoid the Union a result which would constitute a real failure. For these reasons, we have adopted a course of action which I would like to point out to you.

As soon as the Board of the Union designated Bologna as the seat of the Congress, its University, which is, along with that of Paris, the oldest in Christianity, and which has enjoyed undeniable fame since the 11th Century, believed it had a duty to assume the organisation of it and to invite the scientists of the whole world there. We have been very willing to accept a form which made it possible to overcome, in a manner acceptable to everyone, the serious difficulties which I have indicated above, and the number and the quality of the responses received from all sides now assures us that the Congress will be of first-rate importance. I do not know if in this way we miss some article of a statute of which I have never had official communication, moreover: but a possible failure of the Congress (failure that the consents that we receive from all sides make very improbable) cannot be attributed to the Union, whose delegates will hold their quadrennial meeting during the Congress, and where they will determine the course to follow for the future.

I know that I am speaking not only to an offline scholar, but also to an eminent personality with breadth of views and nobility of character; I have no doubt that, even by violating intimate feelings that we share, he will not disapprove of the course of action that circumstances have imposed. If so, we hope, with a faith which it would cost us too much to give up, that it will be Émile Picard who will open the cycle of lectures of the Congress. But if this consent were not given, I will submit to the judgment that, during the Congress, it will be carried out, by whom it may concern, on my decision.

Your respectfully devoted servant

S Pincherle

Last Updated January 2020