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Ludwig Georg Elias Moses Bieberbach

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4 Dec 1886

Goddelau, Hesse-Darmstadt, Germany

1 Sept 1982

Ludwig Bieberbach submitted his habilitation thesis in 1911. It was an important work on groups of euclidean motions, and it was a major step towards proving Hilbert 's eighteenth problem. Bieberbach was appointed professor of mathematics in Basel in Switzerland, Frankfurt am Main in Germany, and the University of Berlin where he held the chair of geometry. He did important work on function theory and had a reputation as an inspiring but rather disorganised teacher.

Bieberbach is best remembered (other than for his anti-Jewish views) for the Bieberbach Conjecture (1916). This was completely solved, after many partial results, in 1984 by Louis de Branges. Bieberbach also studied polynomials (1914), now named after him, which approximate a function that conformally maps a given simply-connected domain onto a disc. Another significant contribution by Bieberbach was a joint work with Schur , published in 1928, Über die Minkowskische Reduktiontheorie der positiven quadratischen Formen.

The conversion of Bieberbach to the Nazi cause seems to have been quite sudden. On 30 January 1933 Hitler came to power and on 1 April there was the so-called "boycott day" when Jewish shops were boycotted and Jewish lecturers were not allowed to enter the university. Hirsch writes in :

Everyone who was there had to make a little speech about the rejuvenation of Germany etc. And Bieberbach did this quite nicely and then he said "A drop of remorse falls into my joy because my dear friend and colleague Schur is not allowed to be with us today."

However, soon after this Bieberbach was converted to the views of the Nazis and energetically persecuted his Jewish colleagues. On 7 April 1933 the Civil Service Law provided the means of removing Jewish teachers from the universities, and of course also to remove those of Jewish descent from other roles. All civil servants who were not of Aryan descent (having one grandparent of the Jewish religion made someone non-Aryan) were to be retired. By November 1933, when he acted as one of Ledermann 's examiners, Bieberbach was wearing Nazi uniform when conducting the examination.

In 1934 Edmund Landau was dismissed from his post at Göttingen. By this time Bieberbach was strongly in favour of such actions against Jewish mathematicians. He wrote :

A few months ago differences with the Göttingen student body ended the teaching activities of Herr Landau . ... This should be seen as a prime example of the fact that representatives of overly different races do not mix as students and teachers. ... The instincts of the Göttingen students felt that Landau was a type who handled things in an un-German manner.

Bieberbach was managing editor of the Jahresbericht der Deutschen Mathematiker-Vereinigung in 1934 and he published an "open letter" in the journal which was highly critical of Harald Bohr because he had attacked Bieberbach's racist views. Since the letter had been published by Bieberbach without him having obtained approval from the other editors, the Deutschen Mathematiker-Vereinigung was critical of his actions and Bieberbach was forced to resign his editorial position.

Bieberbach developed the notion of a 'German' synthetic style mathematics as opposed to the abstract 'Jewish' analytic style. He founded a journal Deutsche Mathematik to encourage this German style in mathematics but, happily, the journal failed.

On 7 April 1938 Schur was forced to resign from the Commissions of the Prussian Academy of Sciences after Bieberbach had written (on 29 March):

I find it surprising that Jews are still members of academic commissions.

Helmut Grunsky , who was a doctoral student of Bieberbach's in 1932, became editor of the Jahrbuch über die Fortschritte der Mathematik in the mid-1930s. He resisted pressure put on him by Bieberbach not to use Jewish referees. At the beginning of 1938 Bieberbach wrote to Grunsky :

Above all, may you finally dismiss the Jews from your staff in the New Year. ... I emphasise again that your staff of referees must be in accordance with the regulations which have been obligatory to all Germans since 30 January 1933. ... You see how your conduct harms the good reputation of the Academy.

Bieberbach wrote many papers expressing his racist views. Grunsky who wrote the obituary of Bieberbach, yet in this article he does not mention Bieberbach's ideological papers at all. Many mathematicians feel that Bieberbach could not have honestly held the views he did, rather the feeling is that he was ambitious to become the leader of German mathematics and followed a route which he thought would make him successful in this.

After the end of World War II in 1945 Bieberbach lost all his positions because of his political involvement. Despite this Ostrowski invited him to lecture at Basel University in 1949. Ostrowski respected Bieberbach's contribution as a mathematician, and considered his political views were irrelevant in his remarkable contributions to mathematics. Many were critical of Ostrowski for making this invitation to Bieberbach. Perhaps there is an irony in the fact that de Branges became the first winner of the Ostrowski Prize for solving the Bieberbach conjecture.

In Grunsky gives a list of 137 papers and books by Bieberbach, and a list of 17 honorary doctorates he received before his dismissal in 1945.

Source:School of Mathematics and Statistics University of St Andrews, Scotland