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  • Strategies and Mechanisms of Scholar Rescue:The Intellectual Migration of the 1930s Reconsidered
  • Simone Lässig (bio)

the forced migration of academics is not a phenomenon unique to our times, nor are contemporary efforts to aid endangered scholars and scientists without precedent. In the early decades of the twentieth century, the Russian Revolution and the ensuing civil war, and the triumph of fascism in Italy, set off a wave of academic migration that differed in cause and duration from the earlier, largely routine cross-border movement of individuals and knowledge. Following the Nazi seizure of power in Germany, the forced emigration of scholars and scientists quickly became a mass phenomenon. On April 7, 1933, the new regime enacted the Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service (Gesetz zur Wiederherstellung des Berufsbeamtentums), whereupon 614 employees of German universities, along with many other Jewish and politically suspect civil servants, summarily lost their jobs. Two-thirds of the dismissed academics were classified as "non-Aryans."1 The situation grew steadily more perilous with the public book burning of May 1933; the enactment of the Nuremberg Laws, which stripped Jews of their civil rights, in September 1935; and, finally, the Kristallnacht pogrom of November 9–10, 1938. By that point, it was unmistakably clear that Jews could no longer lead [End Page 769] normal lives and were increasingly at risk in Germany and its recently annexed territories.

Individuals whose careers were abruptly interrupted by political persecution and/or antisemitic discrimination faced a challenge of a special sort. Neither they nor the states where they sought refuge could fall back on knowledge born of experience or proven coping strategies in responding to the developing situation. It is therefore all the more remarkable how quickly and efficiently a number of actors and organizations outside Germany took action. The question thus arises whether the mechanisms developed to aid endangered scholars and scientists in the singular historical context of the 1930s could serve as a model for academic rescue efforts in the twenty-first century. To answer that question, we must first ask which initiatives to rescue academics at risk under Nazi rule and to help them find their way in foreign academic cultures proved effective, and why.


The history of forced migration and exile in general took shape as a field of research about 40 years ago. The historical profession—especially in Germany and Austria, the countries of origin of most of the refugee scholars of the 1930s—long ignored the subject (Krohn 2012). Only in the 1970s, as a new generation of historians began to engage critically with the very recent past, did it become a productive field of research in the United States and the two German states. Historians in the German Democratic Republic launched a series of bibliographical projects on the "antifascist exiles." In the Federal Republic of Germany, the German Research Foundation (Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft, or DFG) sponsored a major program for "exile research" (Exilforschung) between 1973 and 1984. It was in this context that groups such as the Society for Exile Studies (1977–79) were established and that the first comprehensive accounts of the academic migration of the Nazi era were published (Röder and Strauss 1980–83; Spalek 1978). Much [End Page 770] of this early work was carried out by literary scholars (historians of science took up the subject somewhat later); their disciplinary background was reflected in the heavy concentration on intellectual elites. They were generally less interested in the many "nameless" émigrés than in well-known writers, artists, journalists, political activists, scientists, and scholars (Fermi 1968; Fleming and Bailyn 1969; Hughes 1975; Coser 1984).

Research on the academic émigrés centered at first on their experiences as actors. Biographical studies made clear how widely the émigrés' experiences varied, the challenges they faced in adapting to new academic cultures, the ambiguities of their attempts at identity-building, and the considerable impact of adjustment to life abroad on their scholarly work.

In the late 1980s, scholars began to move from biographical works on individual émigrés to studies of the impact of the Nazi...


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