Rabbits Addressed by a Stoat

Stefan Collini

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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