The Denial of Nazism
Like many people of Jewish ancestry in early 20th century Europe, the Wigners were non-practicing and thought of themselves as good Hungarians. They were keenly aware of the barriers facing Jews. For example, Wigner notes: “I almost never felt anti-Semitism personally in Hungary, though I saw how it was used to control the prospects of the Jews. … There was a Jewish membership quota of about one tenth in Hungarian universities. A Jew had no hope of receiving a high government post …” [P36] His family converted to Christianity and he attended the prestigious Lutheran Gymnasium (i.e. high school.)
“About 1915, the communists began gaining real strength in Hungary. My father deeply opposed them … Many of the top communist leaders were Jewish, and my father found this quite disturbing. He was only embarrassed about it at first, but as Jews became more strongly associated with communism, my father took a radical step: He arranged the conversion of his family to Christianity. … Since the First World War, Jewish conversion to Christianity had become far more respectable. Jancsi von Neumann’s family became Roman Catholic …” [P38]
Shortly after World War I, the communists, under Bela Kun, seized power and ruled Hungry from March to November 1919. “Like my father, I opposed communism in 1918 … I found Karl Marx’s work quite unconvincing. And Lenin was even worse. … Lenin’s work clearly brimmed with a lust for power and a grotesque urge to regulate human life … “ [P39] He was equally appalled at the autocratic government that succeeded the communists. Wigner continued his education in Berlin where he would do path-breaking work in quantum physics. Eventually, he took a position at Princeton University.
Wigner’s comments on the rise of Nazism are an interesting statement of the tenor of the times. As he traveled and talked with his friends and colleagues from Germany, Hungary and France he was perplexed and frustrated by their lack of alarm. (All emphasis mine:)
“Back in Princeton, I watched closely for news of Adolf Hitler. I wondered how the Hungarian people regarded Hitler now. I knew that his Jewish suppression would not cause much fuss; most Hungarians were not fond of Jews either. But as Hitler made clear how badly he wished to suppress Hungary itself, I wondered: When will my Hungarians finally awaken? From my vantage point in Princeton, it was very hard to know. But most Hungarians seemed to genuinely like Hitler. I found that remarkable.
“More remarkable still was that even the Jews themselves hardly seemed to hate Hitler. They knew he was unreasonable and they said so. But is that hatred? The objection was an intellectual one, and hatred is not a matter of intellect but of deepest emotion. Jews in Germany hardly listened to Hitler. When he had proposed their suppression in the 1930, many of them had said, 'Oh, this is just wild talk so that he comes to power more quickly.'” [P181]
“When Hitler took power and began practicing his cruelty, the Jews did get angry. Many of them wanted to depose Hitler. But did they really hate him, as he hated them? Again, I think not. Hatred is not easy to define, but to me hatred means that if you say the chance, you would murder whom you hate. Very few Jews would have seized the chance to murder Adolf Hitler. I suppose I might have done it. But my parents would not have, nor would anyone else I knew. They would only have deposed him.”
“But, you see, Hitler really did hate the Jews. He despised the Jews and he murdered them as soon as he saw the chance. To speak of the Nazi crimes rouses bitter memories. But I feel that the subject should be raised regularly to help prevent it from recurring.” [P182]
“Sadly, as late as 1938, most Americans hardly noticed Hitler’s plans of conquest. If you described Hitler to an average American, he would say, ‘What a hateful man! If what you say about him is true, he will someday be overthrown by his own people. And if he tries anything like that in this part of the world, he will be abolished.’” … “’Relax. We have plenty of time. Germany is very far from here, and we whipped her in the First World War.’ Most Americans cannot believe that their lives need ever be touched by developments in Europe.”
“That was the general reaction to my appeals: that I was pleasantly disagreeable to ask people to sacrifice their time and pleasure just so that America might build a wild new explosive with which to threaten the brash ruler of Germany.”
“And I could never blame the Americans for resisting the idea. Good people dislike waging war. … The urge to ignore Hitler in the 1930s was natural.”
He also found that “none of the Frenchmen I knew in 1938 thought Hitler would really overrun France … The French argued that German soldiers, even if pressed into battle, would not fight them wholeheartedly.” “The French were fooling themselves. They had no thought of France ruling the earth, so they had no idea how badly Hitler wanted to rule the earth and how much he was willing to sacrifice in the effort. France could not bring herself to imagine all this.”
People rationalized their views. “I already knew that belief is not rational at heart, but I was surprised to see how badly people wanted to cloak their beliefs in reason.” “It was refugees from other parts of Europe who saw most clearly that a war was coming. We reported the menace to our adopted countries.” “Compared with either Edward Teller’s or Leo Szilard’s, my political views were moderate. But as late as 1940, my politics made a great many Americans label me ‘a European extremist.’” [P190-191]
Wigner continued to sound the alarm about totalitarianism after Nazism was gone and communism remained. He understood that both were a grave evil. “Teller, Wigner, von Neumann, Szilard—all of us loved science as boys [in Hungary] and tried to influence politics as men. Teller, von Neumann, and I all became political conservatives. Szilard was nearly the opposite. Teller, von Neumann, and I tried mainly to boost the military strength of our adopted country, the United States.” [P226]
“Just a no Frenchman could admit in 1938 that Hitler might overrun France, no American could admit in 1950 that Stalin might overrun the United States. Yet Stalin’s dream of world conquest was just as public a dream as Adolf Hitler’s. At least in 1938, France had been supported by strong allies. What country could help the United States, I wondered, if it were bombed or invaded?” [P258]
“My fellow scientists generally ignored Russian brutality. They never saw how vast a threat is posed by every great dictator: a threat to the freedom of whole peoples and nations and human ideas; a threat even to the idea of science.” [P260]
It wasn’t easy for people to face the threat of fascism and communism. Those who understood the threat early had the frustrating job of sounding the alarm only to be called an alarmist. Hopefully, today, people will hear the alarm and face the threat of Islam before we see death and destruction on a massive scale. At least we must sound the alarm.