Rabbits Addressed by a Stoat
Where would you have found, in 1940, ‘the most elite university in the world in terms of the pool of scholars it contained’? The answer, according to the editors’ introduction to Ark of Civilisation: Refugee Scholars and Oxford University 1930-45, isn’t any of the great institutions that may come to mind, but Hutchinson Camp on the Isle of Man. As the result of a slightly panicky policy of interning ‘enemy aliens’ after the fall of France, large numbers of refugee German scholars – most but not all of whom were Jewish – found themselves in this unlikely spot. They immediately set about giving lectures and conducting seminars. Activities for the week beginning 21 October 1940, for instance, included Dr Unger on ‘Greek Philosophy: Plato (continued)’, Mr Stadler on ‘History of Medieval Culture (continued)’, and Professor Marx, ‘Study Group on Goethe’. The exiled journalist Rudolf Olden was also interned there, and ‘in the exceptionally fine summer of 1940’ delivered ‘memorable political analyses on the Hutchinson Square lawns to audiences of 300-400’.
Other domains of culture were not neglected. It was at Hutchinson Camp that the members of what became the Amadeus Quartet got to know one another. Kurt Schwitters was not Jewish, but his work had been included in the Nazi denunciation of ‘Degenerate Art’. Having fled first to Norway and then to Scotland, he was interned in the summer of 1940 and held in Hutchinson Camp for more than a year. There he conducted a thriving little business in painting portraits, though his abstract collages were less well appreciated: he ‘produced sculptures in porridge, though the latter did not last long and could not be exhibited because of fears over health and safety as they grew mould’. Paul Jacobsthal, a distinguished classical archaeologist and art historian, formerly a professor at Marburg, later recalled his dream of ‘opening the German Manx University with terms during the Oxford and Cambridge vacations so that advanced people could come here for courses’.
As a result of Italy’s declaration of war on Britain in June 1940, refugee Italian scholars were caught in the same net. The ancient historian Arnaldo Momigliano and his family had managed to escape to Britain in March 1939 thanks to some prompt and admirably unbureaucratic assistance from the Society for the Protection of Science and Learning, but he too was rounded up as an ‘enemy alien’. As Oswyn Murray reports, ‘it is alleged that when Momigliano presented himself at Oxford Police Station, he was asked to empty his pockets, and extracted John Stuart Mill’s essay On Liberty.’ He was duly sent to the Isle of Man. There was a separate camp for interned Italians, and after a while the commandant took pity on the three professors in his care – the economist Piero Sraffa, the philosopher Lorenzo Minio-Paluello and Momigliano – and offered them a transfer to the German camp, where they might find more intellectual company. ‘The others were keen to go,’ Murray writes, ‘hoping it might improve their German, but Momigliano dissuaded them on the grounds that it was better to be three Italian professors in a camp full of waiters and restaurateurs than three waiters in a camp full of German professors.’
The fact that Jacobsthal and his colleagues took for granted that ‘advanced people’ from Oxford and Cambridge would have much to learn from the internees may partly have been expressive of the sense of standing natural to a ‘Herr Professor Doktor’ in Germany before the war, but it may also have been an accurate reflection of the relative achievements of British and German academic culture in several fields. The impact of refugee scholars on British (and American) culture and science more generally after the war has long been acknowledged, but Ark of Civilisation brings together 23 essays that concentrate specifically on the role of Oxford University. The story isn’t always a happy one, but the benefits, for the institution as well as the scholars to whom it gave shelter, were substantial and long-lasting. For example, ‘when Oxford established its chair of the history of art in 1955, the two candidates – Edgar Wind and Otto Pächt – were both Jewish refugee scholars’: in terms of schools or approaches, Oxford was choosing between Hamburg and Vienna. Or again: ‘When an Italian scholar was asked in the 1950s which was the best German department of classical philology, he is said to have replied “Oxford!”’
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Vol. 39 No. 15 · 27 July 2017
Stefan Collini’s essay on scholars displaced by the Second World War mentions that Eduard Fraenkel’s seminar on Aeschylus’ Agamemnon was described in one account as ‘a circle of rabbits addressed by a stoat’ (LRB, 13 July). I was one of Professor Fraenkel’s ‘rabbits’ from my first week in Oxford. Unusually for Oxford in the 1950s, Fraenkel treated young women as equals, and savaged us equally, which was refreshing at a time when lectures often started with ‘Good morning, gentlemen.’ We progressed at a rate of between ten and twenty lines in two hours. Each session was the responsibility of a single student, who would establish each word of text from a variety of manuscripts and then its meaning with the help of any and every tool known to literature, history, art and scholarship. The bit one ‘did’ was engraved on the brain for months. When I joined, Fraenkel had finished Agamemnon and was working on the Cena Trimalchionis.
Collini asks whether ‘the historical record will contain a comparably positive balance-sheet about our contemporary response to the plight of, for example, scholars displaced from Iraq and Syria.’ In my current role as chair of the Council for At-Risk Academics (Cara), the successor to the Academic Assistance Council/Society for the Protection of Science and Learning (active from 1933), I think it only fair to pay tribute to the very generous response of many universities, including Oxford, and that of many individual academics, to the plight of their colleagues from Iraq, Syria and elsewhere who have been forced into exile, or have tried to carry on at home despite the obvious dangers.
Working with our 117 partner universities in the UK and others abroad, Cara’s fellowship programme acts as a lifeline to academics globally, helping them to escape from immediate danger and to reach a place of sanctuary where they can continue their research and teaching. Most plan to return home when the situation allows, but they need support in the meantime to develop their skills and build the networks to help them when that day comes. Cara helps them to identify a host institution, agrees all the funding issues, and assists with immigration formalities and the many travel and arrival arrangements. As of July 2017, Cara is working with some 260 fellows, and has another 350 or so dependants; the host university waives any fees, and covers some or, increasingly, all of the other costs as well – a substantial commitment. From 2006 to 2012 Cara also ran an Iraq Programme, to help academics still in Iraq or the surrounding region, to which many universities and individual UK academics contributed pro bono. In 2016 Cara launched a regional programme for Syrian academics, again with the support of many universities and individual academics.
There is always much more we could do, given more resources. Anyone who would like to donate can visit our website at www.cara.ngo.
Vol. 39 No. 16 · 17 August 2017
As the daughter of a German academic who escaped to London in 1933 and went on to the US the following year, I can add a few comments to Stefan Collini’s piece on refugee scholars at Oxford in that period (LRB, 13 July). In addition to the various factors listed by Collini that discouraged refugees from seeking academic homes at Oxford (and Cambridge), British immigration policy in 1933 did not encourage stays of more than one year. Most migrants were required to move on elsewhere. Longer stays or permanent residence were more likely to be granted to well-known senior scholars and scientists or to writers and people in the arts. Younger exiles usually emigrated again, most of them to the US. There, the Emergency Committee in Aid of Displaced German Scholars played a major role not only in helping scholars find positions, but also in arranging funding, supplied in particular but not exclusively by the Rockefeller Foundation, until their universities and colleges could support them fully.
Hanna Holborn Gray
University of Chicago
Vol. 39 No. 17 · 7 September 2017
Stefan Collini writes about the presence of scholars in internment camps during the Second World War (LRB, 13 July). On 20 May 1940 my father, Erwin Rothbarth, wrote from the Aliens Internment Camp in Huyton, Merseyside:
I am enjoying highly intellectual company. On the second day we formed a university. There are courses on maths, physics, law, economics, languages. The boys are nice, sensible and cheerful.
‘The boys’ included the statistician Claus Moser, then 17, who was released later in the summer in time to begin his degree at the London School of Economics in September 1940.
On 6 June my father writes:
We are a large number of people living within a fairly small radius in unfinished council houses. There is a certain amount of autonomy in our administration and we are free to walk about and visit our friends … The food is good but not quite sufficient especially for boys between 16 and 20 … Moreover it is lacking in protein, fats and carbohydrates, but as most of the underlying difficulties seem temporary we don’t worry over much. To compensate for all that there is the free and easy comradeship of a large number of people all far above the average in moral and intellectual qualities.
And the day after:
Our food has greatly improved and we now get 2800 calories per day … the quality of the cooking is very high – our own mainly Austrian cooks are working miracles … Our main worry is our utter isolation from the outside world. We are not allowed any papers, periodicals etc and are not allowed to listen to BBC news.
On 12 June:
Could you send me fruit, halibut oil capsules, sandals, underwear, two shirts, Courant’s Differential Calculus Vol. 2, Courant-Hilbert’s Mathematische Physik.
His next letter was written six days later from the Central Promenade Camp in Douglas on the Isle of Man, where he remained until his release at the end of August. He is distinctive, it appears from the Fifth Report of the Society for the Protection of Science and Learning (1946), as one of two men registered with the society (the other was Flying Officer H.O. Ziegler) who died on active service, as a private in the Suffolk Regiment.
The report classifies as ‘academic refugees’ the 2541 scholars and scientists who registered with the society in the period 1939-45. I rather doubt my father would have accepted that classification. When he came to England in 1933 he was 19 years old, having completed his first year studying law at the Goethe University in Frankfurt, his home town. My mother used to claim that he had read Mein Kampf and believed Hitler meant what he said. But it is anyway clear that my father had decided to abandon his legal studies and study economics instead, and that the best place to do that was at the LSE.
Hanna Holborn Gray is right to draw attention to the generosity of the US academic community and its attraction for younger academics (Letters, 17 August). Her comments are borne out by the Society’s Fifth Report, which states: ‘The great majority of the scholars registered with us who have found employment abroad are in the United States. We know of 624 placed there.’ The number remaining in the UK is given as 601, with the caveat that the figure is ‘probably excessive’ because it almost certainly includes people intending to return to their home countries.