Letter from O. Teichmüller to E. Landau.


This is a letter from Oswald Teichmüller to Edmund Landau, when the former was a student who had the latter as a teacher. Though Teichmüller respected him, he was a convinced Nazi and worked to forbid Landau, who was Jewish, from teaching classes to German students. I have limited myself to presenting a faithful translation, as I feel that I the letter speaks for itself:

The letter itself.

Esteemed teacher,

As you asked, I summarize here, in writing, the position I took in yesterday’s discussion on the difficult questions behind the origin, intention and objectives of what happened yesterday, though I must emphasize that I don’t claim to report much more than my personal views.

Two causes can lead to a student action which harms or threatens to harm the relationship between teacher and student, and it’s not easy to decide which one has been here more important. First, great victories in the realm of the direction of the soul, achieved by a great or pivotal part of the student body, can change the status of situations which, unhappily, were previously accepted as unchangeable and inevitable, so that they now become inappropriate. Second, the students can be led to think that they are being challenged to launch a resistance, either because the teacher is indeed provoking them (which, of course, is not the case for you), or merely because of a lack of interest in, or in depth knowledge of the mentality of the majority of the students, which can lead to the same impressions as an outright provocation.

Drama broke at the start of last semester. The situation in the other departments in Göttingen begged the question of whether it was possible for your lectures and practice sessions to unhappily keep on going unchallenged. I don’t have answer either way, but in any case, the Dean ruled out that possibility, and you followed his advice. Thus, we were astonished when the status quo before our revolution was restored; we had seen the new rule that forbid your classes as a natural consequence of the new political order. After speaking with you, we learnt that you were under the impression that you could treat us differently once the old revolutionary fighters were not here anymore; only that could clearly explain yesterday’s incident. In the public debate I learnt, though, that there were also other factors which influenced your resolution.

However, a completely new order has developed from yesterday’s action. To restore calm, it will not be enough to restrospectively describe yesterday’s incident as an error or a mistake. Instead, it is necessary to look for the reasons which allowed yesterday’s incident to be, and to ask whether their continued existence is justified. Above all, their core foundation must be clearly assessed. Yesterday you assumed, and told us so, that an antisemitic protest was going on. I have defended, and will continue to defend, that when we want to make trouble for the Jews, we should really not focus on you. For me, it’s really not about making your life difficult because you’re a Jew, but rather just about protecting the German students which are taking the Second Semester from the education of a racially alien teacher. I wouldn’t dare to question your ability to teach about purely international mathematical matters to any selected group of students, whatever their origins.

But I also know that many lectures, in particular Differential and Integral Calculus, have broader educational value, in that they introduce students not only to a new set of terms and concepts, but also lead to particular spiritual directions. But because the spiritual direction depends on one’s spirit, which is after all what will be changed, and because this spirit has long been known to be very related to one’s racial composition, it wouldn’t be a good idea to let, f.ex., Arian students be taught by a Jewish professor. My personal experience confirms this.

The students would then have two options. They could extract the international mathematical skeleton from the teacher’s lectures, and dress it up with their own flesh and blood, which would be a productive mathematical and philosophical exercise which only a few students would be capable of. The rest would allow the lecture to penetrate only their memory and the outer layers of their intellect, and then make sure to forget everything as fast as possible. The third way, to adopt and take for oneself the content in it’s alien form, leads to spiritual degeneration, which in today’s world you would neither expect nor want.

And just like a skeleton without flesh cannot run, but only slump and fall, so is the possibility that you transmit to your students only the mathematical core without a national colouring absurd.

From this position of mine follows that it would be less questionable if you wanted to keep teaching the more advanced lectures, which build applications or awareness of important mathematical facts on the basis of the student’s previous natural spiritual direction. This would be as before, with the approval and consent of the students of this university. This is a perspective which only a few of my comrades share. The overwhelming majority defends that any teaching activity on your part would be absolutely intolerable, a position which I can only explain as stemming from antisemitism. Anyways, the difference between the two positions is for the moment absolutely irrelevant, and there is absolutely no reason to talk about tension between a “radical” and a “moderate” camp. We all have a program, we are good comrades. We just have a difference in opinion with respect to the purely theoretical question of whether yesterday’s action had an antisemitic, or merely progermanic character, until we find an authoritative answer.

We were all united on the reason of yesterday’s action. It was about restoring the situation of the previous semester. Now, Dr. Weber is willing to replace you in your lectures and practice sessions. Because the uncertainty of the last semester has been dispelled, it would not be necessary for you to again talk through every single lesson plan with him; he would instead take over the whole course. We would really prefer it that way. Considering that the only victim here would be Dr. Weber, who doubles his teaching load for the benefit of the younger students, so that you would just stay away from the lectures without any kind of pecuniary drawbacks, or downsides of any other kind, I think that we have made you an offer which is really very easy to accept.

O. Teichmüller.

On the translation:

This is a freestyle translation of a letter from Teichmüller to Landau. From where my German is, Teichmüller’s subordinate clauses are very difficult to translate textually faithfully, idiomatically, and engagingly. I have chosen to prioritize the last two, answering the question: what would I say if I was Teichmüller; how would I express roughly the same concepts in current English?

Textually, the most outrageous thing I have done is to translate “Die Sachlage der ersten lag zu Anfang des vorigen Semesters vor” as “Drama broke at the start of last semester”. Teichmüller is very formal in a way which I am not. He also treats Landau with respect.

Anyways, when in doubt consult the original, which I got from DMV Bericht 1992, s. 32 in the pdf.

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Sé cordinal, sé respetuoso.