This post expands on my comments in the piece by Matthew Reisz on refugee scholars in this week’s Times Higher Education.
From the 1880s until the Second World War, personal connections extending to the universities of the British settler world (Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa) were crucial to many aspects of academic practice in Britain. Such connections had been particularly important to appointments procedures, bringing settler scholars into British universities as the same time as they took British-born academics out to the Dominions.
But the urgent need to find academic homes for the influx of European refugee scholars in the 1930s both re-orientated and circumvented this cosy system. Pre-existing connections opened a path for the admission of some émigré professors, then once in Britain their recommendations helped to bring out others. The Academic Assistance Council established by Beveridge and Rutherford set up a register that formalised this process. Virtually overnight, it brought into being a tangible, paper archive that recorded the kind of information that for settler academics had never needed to be written down.
In doing so the AAC created a mechanism that facilitated the artificial injection of individuals from the German and European systems into British academia. This was a world that must have seemed entirely foreign to many European professors upon their arrival. Not only did they find a small university sector with limited opportunities for new arrivals (in 1938/9 there were only 3,994 academics teaching 50,002 students in 16 institutions), but they also found an educational system based on very different principles and practices that those they knew in Germany. This was certainly the feeling of the Nobel Prize winning nuclear physicist Hans Albrecht Bethe, an exile from Tübingen. ‘England’, he recalled, ‘had been used to having Englishmen and Commonwealth people in their universities and so we refugees were rather a foreign element’.
But as Matthew Reisz notes, if this sense of otherness proved an obstacle for some, it was also the basis of the significant intellectual influence they would have in Britain. From a foreign system, they brought new ideas, new methods, and new connections that would energise and redirect many disciplines. Yet British austerity and academic insularity meant that many did not stay. Ultimately it was in the universities of the United States that the majority of these refugee scholars found a home.
Elsewhere on the web:
Displaced Scholars is a comprehensive blog of the refugee academics who settled in America
The Oxford Institute of Archaeology is undertaking a project on the lives of refugees living in Oxford during the Second World War, focusing particularly on Paul Jacobsthal (pictured above).