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Erhabene Welten: Das Leben Rolf Nevanlinnas

Olli Lehto
Publication Date: 
Number of Pages: 
Vita Mathematica 14
[Reviewed by
Michael Berg
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The title, Erhabene Welten, of this exceptionally interesting biography of the Finnish analyst, Rolf Nevanlinna, translates to something like “sublime worlds,” the suggestion being that the book’s subject aimed for transcendence in all he truly devoted himself to. Thus, the book-cover describes Nevanlinna as “a world-famous mathematician, an authority in the area of Kultur [which, in its German usage, means much more than our “culture”], a controversial political figure, and a charismatic personality.”

Nevanlinna’s stature as a mathematician is of course beyond dispute: Nevanlinna theory, for example, is a well-defined and universally acknowledged branch of hard analysis. (Is all Scandinavian analysis hard rather than soft? Consider e.g. Ahlfors, Beurling, (“our”) Bohr, Carleson, Hörmander, and Mittag-Leffler — is Abel at least a Gegenbeispiel?)

We find out in the pages of Olli Lehto’s book, that Nevanlinna also served as rector of the University of Helsinki under the Nazis. This immediately brings to mind the passage in André Weil’s autobiography, Souvenirs d’Apprentissage (or The Apprenticeship of a Mathematician), recounting his arrest by the Nazis in Finland, the ensuing death-sentence (by firing squad), and his providential rescue because of Nevanlinna’s intervention; unfortunately, on p.134 of Erhabene Welten the firing-squad motif is characterized as “ein Produkt der Phantasie.”

Whatever the status of this mitzvah, Nevanlinna’s climb to power in Finnish, then Nazi, and eventually international mathematical circles (recall that in 1978 the IMU came to Nevanlinna’s Helsinki) forms the backdrop for plenty of drama and controversy: how could it be otherwise, given, for instance, the fate that befell such figures as Hasse, Heisenberg, and even van der Waerden? Prestigious and powerful academic positions under Hitler’s regime (and in Heisenberg’s case the putative German A-bomb project) carry a post bellum toll, and Nevanlinna’s tenure during the war years is given substantial airplay in Lehto’s hands, as it should. But the trajectory of Nevanlinna’s ascent to high authority and status in academic and cultural circles always remained largely smooth (globally, if not locally, to coin a phrase).

In addition to doing justice to Nevanlinna’s mathematics, which one expects from Olli Lehto, of course, Erhabene Welten also tells of Nevanlinna’s passion for music (see, for instance, the great picture on p. 108, of Nevanlinna and his son, Harri, playing what appears to be a duet for violin and viola), for the Arts in general, and for women.

In the latter connection, we find for example on pp. 50–51 (in my translation): “Co-eds were interested in him [as junior professor at U. Helsinki], which was not surprising as he came across as an active and passionate young man with the capacity to make difficult material exceptionally clear. The fascination was reciprocated since Rolf was strongly attracted to charming women and did not allow himself to be deterred by the condition that he had become engaged early on in his career and was presently to be married.”

Indeed this sets the stage for much later material in the book concerning Nevanlinna’s unfortunate conduct as a married man; §5.2, for instance, bears the suggestive title, “Der Charmeur” (“The Charmer”) and we read, on p. 98, the passage, “Fascination with the opposite sex was a powerful character trait for Nevanlinna and stayed with him his entire life. Women flocked to the charismatic scientist who admired them in return and often worked his charms on them. His evident erotic attractiveness resulted in many ‘escapades’ — the term used in Rolf’s family circle. His affairs were well-known in Helsinki’s higher cultural circles… [but] they were not openly discussed.”

Lehto covers all the bases in this biography. Despite its attention to detail, Erhabene Welten is easy to read: it is written in an engaging and accessible style, modulo the fact that it is in German. I was particularly struck by Lehto’s on-target use of colloquialisms and adages. I was also happily surprised to discover phrases in the book that hark back to the Dutch of my childhood: I am getting old, I guess, because these phrases seem to be getting more and more anachronistic.

Finally, now that I have introduced an unabashedly personal note, I want to report that I sport only two degrees of separation from Nevanlinna, in that when I was a student at UCLA in the 1970s I knew relatively well his doctoral student and Assistent, Leo Sario. I had the pleasure of taking two courses in commutative Banach algebras from Sario and I particularly recall the elegance and clarity of his lectures. We had a number of conversations about Kultur: an expatriate Finn and an Americanized Dutch-colonial kid chatting primarily about classical music and the vicissitudes of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra (Sario: “Zubin Mehta was a bush; but Carlo Maria Giulini is a tree!”). I am afraid that the description Lehto (also a Nevanlinna PhD and Assistent) offers of the relationship between Sario and Nevanlinna, their severe falling-out and the ensuing vitriol, makes for very unpleasant reading for me. But Lehto’s uncompromising account only serves to illustrate the high-quality reporting that characterizes all of Erhabene Welten. It is a well-written and interesting book, well worth reading.


Olli Lehto, the author of the book reviewed above, contacted me recently to clarify a misunderstanding: I am happy to make the indicated corrections now, particularly as they do tend to contribute to a serious wrong impression.

In point of fact, André Weil was arrested by the Finnish police, not the Nazis, with whom the Finns were not allied at the time (1939). Accordingly Weil’s claims regarding impending execution indeed turns out to be fantasy: Lehto’s careful archival research shows this.

Lehto is also understandably keen on wanting it known that it is a serious misrepresentation to suggest Finnish and Nazi collusion; to wit (in his own words): “During the years 1941–1944, Finland had no formal contract or pact with Germany. Save for occasional exceptions, there were German military forces only in North Finland, and what I would like to stress, Germany did not play any role in the interior politics of Finland. Germany was our support against the Russians, but very few Finns were sympathetic to national socialism. Jews were not persecuted here, and Mannerheim disregarded German requests to attack Leningrad from the Finnish side. To say that Nazis elected Nevanlinna the rector of the University of Helsinki is simply ridiculous.”

Michael Berg is Professor of Mathematics at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, CA.


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