Should Lise Meitner Have Left Germany Sooner?

Albert Einstein was a visiting professor at Cal Tech in Pasadena in 1933 when Adolf Hitler became Chancellor of Germany. In fact, the famous photo of Einstein on a bicycle was taken during this sojourn, as were the photos taken with Charlie Chaplin, with whom he struck a friendship.

Einstein, seeing the devastating consequences of Hitler’s rise to power, decided to stay in the United States, refusing to return to Germany.

According to Einstein, “As long as I have any choice in the matter, I shall live only in a country where civil liberty, tolerance, and equality of all citizens before the law prevail.”

A German publication The Völkicsher Beobachter published a number of attacks on Einstein, as well as did more mainstream papers. One such article titled, “Good News of Einstein - He’s Not Coming Back!” referred to Einstein as “this puffed-up bit of vanity [who] dared to sit in judgment on Germany without knowing what is going on here—matters that forever must remain incomprehensible to a man who was never a German in our eyes and who declares himself to be a Jew and nothing but a Jew.”

Amid such vehement and vocal anti-Semitism directed at one of her own and dearest colleagues, why did the Jewish-born Austrian Lise Meitner decide to remain in Berlin?

I think there were a number of factors at play. First off, Einstein’s fame paved the way for him to command an entry visa and work anywhere he chose to live outside of Germany. Lise, though well-known within the worldwide physics community, was not famous outside of these circles, and did not have the opportunities that Einstein had.

Secondly, opportunities were far fewer for women in the field. Women serving in professional positions was new, but women in academic positions was even newer. The University of Vienna, where Lise studied, did not even accept female students until Lise was 19 years old. She was the second woman in the history of the university to receive a doctorate in physics. Being so new to the field, there were no jobs for women in physics at the time of her graduation. In fact, she had to move to Berlin to do any work as a physicist, and then without salary. Lise broke the “glass ceiling” in Germany, becoming the first female physicist to become a professor in that field. Her advancement was slow and hard-won. Giving up a position that was likely not to be matched elsewhere was a decision Lise was not ready to make.

Third, she and Otto Hahn shared an ideal working arrangement and passion for studying radioactivity. She and radiochemist Otto Hahn started the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in Dahlem-Berlin, Hahn studying the chemistry of radioactive substances, while Meitner determined the physics of the radioactive pathways. The duo worked well together and had created one of the premier laboratories in the world studying radioactivity. To Lise, it seemed out of the question to relinquish this 25-year partnership.

Fourth and most importantly, most intellectuals did not believe their own eyes regarding the growing storm in Germany. They firmly believed that the strong winds of Hitler and fascism would soon pass. All they had to do was wait out the storm. Lise believed this, as did most of her colleagues. The latter urged her to stay, and she was personally in no hurry to leave. Besides, she was a single woman with no other means of support, her income and pension being tied to Berlin.

As Ruth Lewin Sime wrote in her seminal biography Lise Meitner: A Life in Physics:

Emigration was hard: the world was gripped by depression and positions were scarce. Lise could not bring herself to leap into the unknown, to relive her early days in Berlin, to be a frightened outsider again, a stranger in a foreign land. She clung to her physics section: “I built it from its very first little stone; it was, so to speak, my life's work, and it seemed so terribly hard to separate myself from it.”

Max von Laue, Lise’s friend and German physicist who was interned at Farm Hall at the end of the war, wrote Lise the following letter on the occasion of her eightieth birthday (Sime p. 364):

We all knew that injustice was taking place, but we didn't want to see it, we deceived ourselves…. Come the year 1933 I followed a flag that we should have torn down immediately. I did not do so, and now must bear responsibility for it.” He was grateful to Lise during those years, he wrote, “for trying to make us understand, for guiding us with remarkable tact…. Your goodness, your consideration had their effect…. I have made many mistakes, I do know that, but I was prevented from certain things for which I would never have been able to forgive myself.

Should Lise have left sooner? Definitely. If she had, she most likely would have landed an equivalent research position somewhere else before the refugee crisis saturated immigration quotas. And if she had, her research would not have unwittingly contributed to the German war effort.

Lise would, in the end, regret not leaving Germany at the time Einstein had, writing to Hahn: “Now I know that it was not only stupid but very wrong that I did not leave at once.”

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