Feb 2004 Journal

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'Sebastian Flyte, Meet Albert Einstein ...'

When one thinks of Christ Church, Oxford, in the interwar years, one thinks of it as the college where Sebastian Flyte in Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited holds court, or where the Bollinger Club dinner is held at the start of Decline and Fall. But there was more to the college than effete and dim-witted aristocrats, for it was also keen to add to its scholarly lustre by taking on German-Jewish professors who had been removed from their posts by the Nazis after 1933.

The first German-Jewish academic to take up a post at Christ Church, already before 1933, was Albert Einstein. That Einstein enjoyed a connection with the college in the early 1930s is remarkably little known. He first came to Oxford in 1931, through the initiative of Frederick Lindemann, Professor of Physics at Oxford, who had excellent connections with scientists in Germany. Lindemann, later Lord Cherwell, is most famous as Churchill's wartime scientific adviser, his 'Prof'. Einstein stayed in Oxford for three short periods between May 1931 and June 1933. He was accommodated at Christ Church, 'the calm cloisters of which he relished as much as Oxford relished him', according to a historian of science at Oxford; he was happy to accept the offer of a research studentship (fellowship) at Christ Church for five years, at an annual salary of £400.

The correspondence in Einstein's file at Christ Church shows that relations between the scientist and the college were cordial. In late May 1931 Einstein wrote to the Dean of Christ Church to thank him for the hospitality he had enjoyed. The following month the Dean wrote to Einstein, offering him a research studentship, 'for something like a month during term time in the course of the year at such periods as may be convenient to you'. In July 1931 Einstein replied, expressing in fulsome terms his pleasure at the prospect of spending time in surroundings that were unfamiliar but highly congenial. On 23 October 1931 the Dean was able to inform Einstein that the college's Governing Body had elected him to a research studentship and to express 'our earnest hope that we may often have the pleasure and honour of seeing you in our Society'.

However, on 24 October the Dean received a letter from Professor J.G.C. Anderson protesting vehemently against Einstein's appointment, on the grounds that those who had framed the relevant statutes had never intended emoluments to go to people of non-British nationality, and that it was wrong to 'send money out of the country' in the dire economic situation of the Great Depression, especially as the university was receiving a large grant from public funds. The Dean replied the same day, arguing that the academic benefits to the college from the appointment far outweighed narrow nationalism: 'I think that in electing Einstein we are securing for our Society perhaps the greatest authority in the world on physical science; his attainments and reputation are so high that they transcend national boundaries, and any university in the world ought to be proud of having him.'

Einstein, unaware that he had incurred the wrath of Little Englanders reluctant to burden the British taxpayer with foreign scientists, was delighted to accept the appointment on 29 October. But on 2 November Anderson wrote to the Dean a further letter covering over three tightly packed sides. His argument that 'Oxford emoluments were never meant to be used for the benefit of foreigners, however eminent' was openly xenophobic, though cloaked in patriotism: 'it does not seem to me to be patriotic, especially in such times as the present, to use College revenues to endow foreigners ... The University cannot carry on its work without a very large Government grant, and yet a College can pay out money to subsidize a German.'

Faced with such a blinkered interpretation of college (and national) interests, the Dean circulated the missive to his colleagues, asking for comments. Only one response appears on file, evidently from the one 'outsider' mentioned by Professor Anderson as having been appointed to a studentship. This simply reads 'Is the Professor quite accurate in describing me as an English-speaking member?', and is signed 'A.S.R'. Alexander Stuart Russell had been appointed Dr. Lee's Reader in Chemistry in 1919 and a Student of Christ Church in 1920. He had studied at Glasgow, and presumably spoke with a Scots accent to match. This ended the exchanges; indeed, after such a withering put-down, it is hard to imagine what any further nationalistic tirades by Anderson could have achieved.

That Christ Church was far from sharing Anderson's attitude to refugee academics shows that scholarship flourished there in the interwar years, alongside the antics of the jeunesse dorée. After 1933 Einstein could not return to Christ Church, so he proposed that his salary be used to create posts for scholars for whom regular funding was not available. Thanks in part to his generosity, German-Jewish refugee scholars deprived of their positions by the Nazis became dons at Christ Church. (To be continued)
Anthony Grenville

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