Feb 2009 Journal

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The rescue of refugee scholars

Seventy-five years ago, in 1933, the Academic Assistance Council, known from 1936 as the Society for the Protection of Science and Learning, was founded. The AAC/SPSL was a remarkable body that played a unique part in the rescue of scholars and scientists, mostly Jewish, who had been dismissed by the Nazis from their posts at German and Austrian universities and whose livelihoods, and lives, were endangered.

After the passing of the Gesetz zur Wiederherstellung des Berufsbeamtentums of 7 April 1933, aimed at removing racially and politically undesirable persons from the civil service, something like a quarter of the academic staff at German universities and research institutes were dismissed, of whom some 2,000, or about two thirds, emigrated. This exodus of academic talent was on a scale unprecedented in modern times; Germany lost its place at the forefront of science and scholarship, while the recipient countries, principally the USA but also Britain, benefited hugely.

The dazzling contribution that the Jewish refugees from Hitler made to British intellectual, cultural and scientific life is well known. Some academic disciplines, like art history and psychoanalysis, hardly existed in Britain before the arrival of the refugees, while many others, from philosophy and classics to musicology and economics, were transformed and enriched beyond measure by the intellectual stimulus from the German-speaking countries. In the natural sciences, one need only cite such names as Ernst Chain, Francis Simon, Rudolf Peierls, Hans Krebs and Max Perutz. By 1992, the displaced scholars and their children included 16 Nobel laureates, 18 knighthoods, 74 Fellows and 6 Foreign Members of the Royal Society (in the sciences) and 34 Fellows and 18 Corresponding Members of the British Academy (in the humanities and social sciences), an extraordinary record of academic achievement.

The two principal initiators of the AAC in 1933 were, in different ways, the Hungarian-born scientist Leo Szilard, who had left his university position in Berlin as soon as Hitler came to power, and Sir William (later Lord) Beveridge, Director of the London School of Economics and subsequently father of Britain’s welfare state. In April 1933, Szilard, who was already hard at work persuading threatened colleagues to leave Nazi Germany for positions abroad, was in Vienna, where he met a young Englishwoman, Esther (Tess) Simpson; she became the devoted administrator of the AAC/SPSL, responsible for its day-to-day working.

Beveridge, who was visiting the same hotel in Vienna, lent a sympathetic ear to Szilard’s concerns. Beveridge and the LSE economist Lionel Robbins (later Lord Robbins, responsible for the Robbins Report of 1963 that transformed Britain’s system of higher education) met with the famous Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises, who arrived clutching a newspaper report of the first dismissals at the German universities. The need to provide for these early victims of Nazi persecution was immediately clear to Beveridge, and he outlined his plan to Robbins on the spot. The AAC, which was essentially run from within the academic community in Britain, then came into being very quickly.

In May 1933, a letter signed by a list of leading figures in British university and intellectual life was published in The Times, proposing the establishment of an organisation to rescue the careers and lives of displaced academics. The Council’s initial declaration was signed by over 40 of Britain’s most eminent men of scholarship, including John Maynard Keynes, Gilbert Murray, the Presidents of the Royal Society and the British Academy, and 9 Chancellors or Vice-Chancellors of universities and 7 Masters or Directors of colleges. The celebrated scientist Lord Rutherford became the AAC’s first president. The project received a notable boost on 3 October 1933, when a public meeting was held at the Albert Hall in support of the refugees from Germany. Among the speakers was Albert Einstein, whose speech on ‘Science and Civilisation’ generated enormous enthusiasm.

By summer 1933, the AAC was functioning in cramped offices in Burlington House, above the Royal Society. As its workload increased, it moved to premises in the LSE, to Gordon Square, then to Cambridge during the war. Walter Adams, a London University academic who later became director of the LSE, was its first general secretary, Szilard added his considerable energies, and Tess Simpson ran the office. The AAC faced the twin problems of funds and academic posts. Its funding was modest, consisting mainly of donations from individuals, membership subscriptions and some larger donations from organisations. The then considerable amount of £3,100 was raised from the academic staff at the LSE, who, in a remarkable demonstration of solidarity with their displaced German colleagues, agreed to donate a voluntary levy of 1-3 per cent of their salaries.

These funds did not run to creating jobs for dismissed scholars. Instead, the AAC provided them with maintenance grants, to tide them over while it helped them to make contact with institutions where they might find posts. The grants were modest: £250 per annum for a married scholar, £182 for a single person. As the absorptive capacity of the British university system was limited, the SPSL paid travel grants to enable scholars to visit the USA, where often enough they found positions at universities with which the SPSL had put them in touch.

Tess Simpson’s devoted work on behalf of the refugee academics encompassed the estimating of their means and needs, the registration of their qualifications and research expertise, and the painstaking work involved in fitting the right scholar to the right position. The individual attention that Simpson dispensed so generously to her charges earned her the lasting affection of entire sections of the British scientific establishment. She had to dovetail her work with that of other organisations in the field, particularly the Notgemeinschaft deutscher Wissenschaftler im Ausland, a Zurich-based organisation created by refugees that later merged with the SPSL, and the Emergency Committee in Aid of Displaced German/Foreign Scholars in the USA.

The AAC’s work rapidly bore fruit: by July 1935, 57 refugee scholars had been found permanent positions in Britain, and 155 more were in temporary research and teaching posts. By 1936 it had become apparent that the AAC was not just facing a passing emergency, but that the persecution of ‘undesirable’ scholars in Germany was likely to continue and intensify. The Council was accordingly reconstituted on a more permanent basis as the SPSL, which aimed to provide research fellowships to the most distinguished refugee scholars, alongside its relief grants. By 1945, 2,541 scholars were registered with the SPSL, of whom some 1,500 had been in direct contact with it; 624 were known to be in the USA, 615 in Britain, and over 200 in other countries.

The SPSL’s successes should not blind us to the bleaker aspects of the experience of the refugee scholars. Many suffered from the meagre pay and insecure temporary positions that were their initial lot, from the sudden loss of status and from the general difficulty of adapting to a strange working environment. Some did not manage the transition at all and failed to re-establish themselves and their careers; there were even suicides. The bulk of those placed by the SPSL were established scholars of some distinction in their thirties and forties. Academics over 50 proved less willing to emigrate, while less assistance was provided to those under 30, since the host universities were reluctant to deprive young native scholars of job openings.

Scientists were at an advantage, since science spoke an international language and the benefits of attracting top-class scientists were obvious. Alfred Lindemann, later Lord Cherwell and Churchill’s wartime scientific adviser, transformed science at Oxford by finding positions, often research fellowships funded by the chemicals giant ICI, for refugee scientists: with the arrival of Francis Simon, Kurt Mendelssohn, Nicolas Kurti and Heinz London, Oxford suddenly outclassed Cambridge in the field of low temperature physics. By contrast, history was a subject divided by national boundaries, and historians fared badly: Arthur Rosenberg, author of seminal studies of the fall of the Wilhelmine Empire and the birth of the Weimar Republic, held a temporary post at Liverpool University for three years, but then had to re-emigrate to America, while Hans Baron, an expert on the Italian Renaissance, stayed in Britain for two years jobless, before he too found a position in the USA.

Many refugee scholars passed through Britain, but found permanent positions in America. The wealth of talent lost to Britain has often been lamented: among the scientists who went on to America were such giants as Edward Teller, Hans Bethe and Leo Szilard. There is some truth in the charges that British universities were too insular, too unreceptive to foreign scholarship (and foreigners) and, during the Great Depression, too poorly funded to grasp the prizes waiting on their doorsteps. On the other hand, the SPSL saw the refugee scholars as human beings to be saved, not as an investment to be harvested. Tess Simpson, in particular, never approached them in the spirit of the president of an American university who declared: ‘Hitler is my best friend. He shakes the tree and I collect the apples.’

Anthony Grenville

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