Apr 2012 Journal

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An Oxford exhibition

On 15 January 2012, an exhibition on the distinguished classical archaeologist Professor Paul Jacobsthal, who came to Oxford University in 1936 as a refugee from Hitler, opened at the gallery of Oxford’s town hall and museum, where it was shown until 10 March. The opening ceremony was conducted by the Lord Mayor of Oxford, Elise Benjamin, the first Jew to hold that office. The exhibition, ‘Persecution and Survival: A Wartime Refugee’s Story’, was created by Dr Sally Crawford and Dr Katharina Ulmschneider of the University’s Institute of Archaeology, who have undertaken the challenging task of cataloguing Jacobsthal’s papers and researching his life and work in Oxford.

Paul Ferdinand Jacobsthal exemplified the outstanding contribution that the Jewish refugees from Hitler made to British intellectual and cultural life. Born in Berlin in 1880, he was one of the many prominent Jewish scholars and intellectuals to emerge from the matrix of assimilated, emancipated middle-class German Jewry. His mother, Ida Rosenstern, came from a Hamburg merchant family, his father was a doctor, and his younger brother Ernst became a professor of mathematics. The family was well integrated into German society: Jacobsthal was baptised a Protestant.

After studying at Berlin (where his teachers included the legendary classicist Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorf), Göttingen and Bonn, he held positions at Göttingen and Marburg, where he was appointed Professor of Classical Archaeology in 1912. At Marburg he established the first Chair in Prehistory in Germany, a pioneering step in the discipline of archaeology, and oversaw the erection of a new building, the Jubiläumsbau, to house the Archaeology Department. Jacobsthal had a special interest in Celtic art and culture, which took him back beyond the classical era of the Greeks and Romans into the realm of prehistoric archaeology. He established himself as an internationally respected authority in his field, and with single-minded devotion to his subject built up a large working archive of photographs of prehistoric objects.

But in 1935 Jacobsthal was dismissed from his post on racial grounds. He was forced to donate his photographic collection to the university; his star student, Alexander Langsdorff, joined the SS, rising to the position of cultural attaché in London under ambassador Joachim von Ribbentrop, later executed at Nuremberg. (The exhibition contains a chilling image of Langsdorff lecturing on archaeological objects in SS uniform.) With the assistance of the Society for the Protection of Science and Learning, founded in 1933 by William Beveridge and Leo Szilard as the Academic Assistance Council to find posts for academics dismissed or discriminated against by the Nazis, Jacobsthal and his wife came to Oxford, where he was appointed Lecturer at Christ Church in 1936. He subsequently became University Reader of Celtic Archaeology.

Jacobsthal was fortunate: he had already spent a period as Visiting Professor at Christ Church, and the eminent archaeologist Sir John Beazley, with whom he shared a scholarly interest in Greek vases, strongly supported him. As my article ‘Sebastian Flyte, meet Albert Einstein’ (AJR Journal, February and April 2004) showed, Christ Church, despite its association with aristocratic elites more drawn to champagne than to scholarship, was among the Oxford colleges that welcomed refugee academics. Jacobsthal found Oxford a congenial environment, despite the differences in social and academic culture between German and British universities. He and his wife were to settle in an imposing redbrick Victorian house on Banbury Road in north Oxford, the type of abode favoured by so many Oxford dons, though the Jacobsthals occupied only one floor, renting out the other two as separate flats. Jacobsthal refused to return to Marburg, took British citizenship and stayed in Oxford, dying there in 1957.

But before that, in July 1940, he was abruptly arrested and interned; as an ‘enemy alien’, he fell victim to the government’s ill-considered measure of detaining all German nationals on security grounds during the panic that followed the fall of France and the Low Countries. His internment diary starkly conveys that moment: ‘On Friday July 5th 1940 in the morning when I was peacefully writing on Celtic Geometric Ornament a knock came at my door in Christ Church and a plain clothes Police Officer entered producing a warrant of arrest.’

Jacobsthal was held first at a disused cotton mill, Warth Mill in Bury, Lancashire, before being transferred to Hutchinson Camp on the Isle of Man, where he formed part of the galaxy of scholarly talent that was such a feature of the wartime internment of ‘aliens’. He was released in November 1940.

Back in Oxford, Jacobsthal devoted himself to rewriting in English his magnum opus Early Celtic Art, the German version of which he had been unable to publish under the Nazis. Published by Oxford University Press in 1944, it remains, as Crawford and Ulmschneider state, ‘the first port of call for anyone who wants to learn about ancient Celtic art and ornament’, its two magisterial volumes representing ‘a tremendous and lasting achievement of scholarship’. It was also a key contribution to a highly political debate, pitting the traditional scholarship of the liberal West against the debased, ideologically contaminated pseudo-scholarship of the Nazis.

The Celts had assumed a significant role in the Nazi view of history, which was largely devoted to giving scientific underpinning to the myth of the superiority of the Germanic master race. That alleged superiority extended to the realm of culture, where the Nazis were eager to trace the origins of European civilisation, in manifestations ranging from language to ancient artefacts, to Germanic origins. The Nazis allocated the Celts, who lived across much of Europe from about the fifth century BCE, to the broader category of the ‘Indo-Germanic’ (Indo-European) peoples, who had supposedly originated in Central Europe and spread their culture outwards from its Germanic cradle across the European land mass.

Jacobsthal’s book ran flatly counter to these theories of an ‘Aryan’ national prehistory, since it proved that the Celts, far from being the originators of proto-Germanic culture, owed much to the Greeks in their artistic development. In any case, Jacobsthal had no time for the projection of national divisions back into prehistory, where they were in reality unknown. In advancing such arguments, Jacobsthal was crossing the most dangerous of enemies, including the Reichsführer-SS, Heinrich Himmler, who in 1939 assumed the office of Reichskommissar für die Festigung des deutschen Volkstums (Reich Commissioner for the Consolidation of Ethnic Germanness, to attempt a translation), which aimed to implement a programme for the reordering of Eastern Europe on racial lines, with cataclysmic consequences for its ‘unGermanic’ inhabitants.

To provide intellectual support for his endeavours, Himmler could call on the Ahnenerbe, originally Deutsches Ahnenerbe (German Ancestry), an organisation inspired by the notion of an ethnocentric German prehistory that would prove the superiority of the Germanic race. Himmler, an obsessive dabbler in mysticism and the occult, controlled the Ahnenerbe from 1936. Like Arthur Rosenberg’s Amt Rosenberg, the Ahnenerbe misused archaeology and the excavation of materials from archaeological sites to justify the conquest of neighbouring European lands and to support the Nazi view of Germans as the motor force behind European civilisation, invoking theories of cultural diffusion that saw ideas and influences as passing from more advanced, ‘creative’ peoples to the less advanced. As a result of the propaganda value of archaeology to the Nazis, prehistory, which had had only one university chair in Germany in 1933 (Jacobsthal’s at Marburg), boasted no fewer than nine by 1935.

Oxford benefited greatly from the exodus of classical scholars from Nazi Germany, like Felix Jacoby at Christ Church or the towering figure of Eduard Fraenkel at Corpus Christi College. Their heritage, unlike that of their Nazi rivals, lived on beyond them, among the younger generation of refugees as well as among the British. One of Jacobsthal’s students was Brian Shefton (Bruno Benjamin Scheftelowitz), who was born in Cologne in 1919, came to Britain in 1933, and studied at Oxford. Shefton became a highly acclaimed Professor of Archaeology at the University of Newcastle, where he achieved widespread celebrity in 2004 for reuniting the two halves of the head of a terracotta lion, dating from about 500 BCE, which had been separated for most of their existence. The reunited head, which would have decorated a Greek temple, went on show at the University’s Shefton Museum of Greek Art and Archaeology (now part of the Great North Museum), named after its founder. Shefton, who died in January 2012 aged 92, represented a high tradition of classical scholarship, whose lineage can be traced via Jacobsthal back to Wilamowitz himself.

Another refugee who distinguished himself as a classicist was Thomas Braun of Merton College, Oxford, who was born in Berlin in 1935, came to Britain as a small child, and studied with distinction at Balliol College, Oxford. When Braun was killed in a car accident in 2008, aged 73, his obituary recorded his prodigious knowledge of Herodotus and the fragments of Greek historians to be found in Felix Jacoby’s Fragmente der griechischen Historiker. Evidently, Britain has proved fertile ground for the scholarship evicted from Germany after 1933.

Anthony Grenville

next article:Latvia: A personal march through history