Expulsion that enriched West

January 11, 2002

Daniel Snowman on Hitler's unwitting legacy to the UK and US.

Hitler, by his brutal and obsessive cultural nationalism, inadvertently presented some of the finest products of German and Austrian culture to the wider world, thus internationalising the very ideas he tried to suppress. Rarely in history can so single-minded a policy have produced such contrary long-term effects. "Hitler's loss" was also "Hitler's gift".

Britain was arguably the greatest beneficiary by comparison with its small size. Between the Nazi accession to power in January 1933 and the outbreak of war in September 1939, something over 50,000 emigres from the Third Reich, the great majority of them of Jewish lineage, came to settle permanently in the United Kingdom. Nearly a fifth of them arrived on the "children's transports" that the British authorities accepted in the final desperate months, among them Karel Reisz, the film director, and two members of the future Amadeus Quartet. America took larger numbers than Britain, including such luminaries as Albert Einstein, Arnold Schoenberg, Bertolt Brecht and Thomas Mann. Some, including the architect Walter Gropius and several of his former Bauhaus colleagues, settled in the United States after a prolonged sojourn in England. Americans, in any case, were used to immigrants; all Americans except those of Native Indian descent traced their ancestry back to migrants from abroad, so that the "Hitler émigrés", however distinguished in some cases, were merely the latest to land at the quayside. Once they had been admitted, furthermore, they tended to scatter throughout their vast new homeland. Some found work at the New School in New York or Black Mountain College in North Carolina. Gropius eventually settled in Harvard, Einstein in Princeton, Leo Strauss in Chicago and Thomas Mann in Los Angeles.

In Britain, by contrast, the arrival of a large cohort of German-speaking refugees within a six-year period was quite exceptional - and all the more visible as so many congregated in and around northwest London. Until very recently, you could still think yourself back in pre-Hitlerian Vienna or Berlin as you took your coffee and strudel among the berets and fur hats of Hampstead and Swiss Cottage. This was where Freud and his talented progeny settled; Herbert Read gave encouragement to modernist artists and architects; Hans Keller and the Amadeus Quartet helped to refine British musical tastes; Nikolaus Pevsner contemplated the "Englishness of English art"; and writers such as Elias Canetti and painters such as Oskar Kokoschka held court. Here (and to some extent in Oxford, Cambridge, Manchester and Edinburgh) was a potent concentration of émigré talent, a critical mass that was to enrich British cultural and intellectual life for the next half century.

Two recent books attempt to describe and assess the intellectual migration from the Third Reich. Jean Medawar and the late David Pyke have written about some of the famous "scientists who fled Nazi Germany". They knew many personally, Lady Medawar through her husband Sir Peter Medawar, while Pyke was a distinguished physician and author whose father was a scientific adviser to Lord Mountbatten. Their book consists of a series of portraits under headings such as "Rescuers", "Refugees to Britain", a tiny section on "Refugees to the United States" and, interestingly, one on "Those who stayed". There is a short introductory chapter about science in pre-Hitlerian Germany, and later ones on Einstein, internment and the bomb. A foreword is contributed by one of the greatest, and most modest, of the émigré scientists, the Nobel prize-winning biochemist Max Perutz.

No single pattern describes the Hitler émigrés. Perutz originally came to Cambridge from his native Vienna to further his studies and was, technically, not a refugee. Nor were the film producer Alexander Korda, the architect Berthold Lubetkin, the art historian Ernst Gombrich or the economist Friedrich Hayek, all of whom came to Britain to work but stayed as the situation on the continent lurched towards nightmare. Hayek, like the founder of the Edinburgh Festival, Rudolf Bing, made a mark in Britain but left for the US after the war; others, such as the philosopher Karl Popper, spent the war years elsewhere before taking up residence in Britain. Some were of German or Austrian origins, others Czech or Hungarian. Kokoschka and Gropius were internationally celebrated when they left the Third Reich; George Weidenfeld and Claus Moser unknown teenagers. What, if anything, did all these have in common? And - this is the interesting question - what is the cultural baggage they brought with them from central Europe?

Such questions are particularly difficult to answer in the sciences. Hans Krebs and Rudolf Peierls, accustomed to the hierarchies of German academic life, were impressed by the informality they found in Britain, while Max Born, transported from Gottingen to Edinburgh, was said to find it hard to accept the British preference for assessing top students by written rather than oral examination. But good physics is good physics, whether researched and practised in Berlin, Birmingham or Boston. Medawar and Pyke, therefore, tend to recount a series of attractive life stories of admirable people who flowered in their new homeland and contributed greatly to the wellbeing of mankind. They tell of the importance of Bernard Katz's contributions to muscle neurophysiology, Ludwig Guttmann's pioneering work on paraplegia, Perutz's on haemoglobin and the contributions of Peierls, Hans Bethe, James Franck and Leo Szilard to the Manhattan Project. They write sensitively about "those who stayed", and consider how far Werner Heisenberg and his colleagues were developing atomic weaponry for Hitler - an issue on which they remain generously agnostic. Throughout, there is a warm, human touch. Max Planck, Einstein and Lise Meitner enjoyed musical evenings together; Otto Frisch played the piano for his fellow nuclear physicists at Los Alamos; Sir Francis Simon, mocking the accent he never lost, referred to himself endearingly as "vice-president of the Broken English-Speaking Union".

What Medawar and Pyke do not attempt is to assess the overall nature and impact of the scientific exile from the Third Reich. A short final chapter does little more than summarise the bonhomie of earlier sections. It is not enough to show how many German scientists won Nobel prizes before Hitler and very few thereafter. It would have been interesting to know whether the reception and absorption of émigré scientists differed in Britain and the US, or how far the arrival of the émigrés altered the directions and priorities of science in the two countries. It has been argued that the more radical of the Hitler émigrés tended to settle in the US, the more conservative in Britain. Was that true in the sciences? Was it true of the intellectual migration from the Third Reich as a whole? Such questions are scarcely raised by Medawar and Pyke in an engaging book that is stronger on personality than on analysis.

Tom Ambrose attempts more and achieves less. His ambition is evidently to undertake a comprehensive survey of "What Britain and America Gained from Europe's Cultural Exiles", no less, in just over 200 pages. It is a journey he seems singularly unfit to undertake. Ambrose makes no acknowledgements (did he interview anybody for his book?) and appends a tiny and patchy bibliography and no notes. It is almost as though he does not want readers to know, or to be able to check, most of the sources of the quotations and opinions he cites. None of this would matter overmuch if his writing generated an aura of authority. But it is littered with errors. Some may be merely typographical (though suspicions are aroused when "Covent Garden" repeatedly appears as "Convent Garden"). Others simply betray unfamiliarity with the subject matter. It will be news to many that Igor Stravinsky, Bela Bartok and Paul Hindemith were Jewish, that Carl Ebert (founding producer at Glyndebourne) was a conductor, or that Hindemith's Mathis der Maler is "based on an ancient German legend" (the opera is about the Renaissance painter Mathias Grunewald). Popper's Logic of Scientific Discovery first appeared in 1934, not 1959; what Ambrose cites was the long-delayed English translation. The God that Failed was not Arthur Koestler's autobiography, but a set of essays by disillusioned communists, including Koestler, edited by Richard Crossman. Ambrose writes of Brecht - also Jewish, it seems - and refers several times to his play Mother (does anyone else call it that?).

The combination of Ambrose's large ambition and manifest lack of mastery of his subject matter makes one wary. When an author keeps resorting to phrases such as "many critics have noted", I want to know: who? when? where? Alas, Ambrose provides few answers. The result is a book that feels dangerously unreliable.

This is a pity, because the questions raised by his topic, and that of Medawar and Pyke, continue to be of pressing interest. The émigrés from the Third Reich were, in today's argot, asylum-seekers, the latest in a series of waves of migrants who, in the British case, have included Huguenots in the late 18th century, Irish after the famine, Jews from the Tsarist pale and, in our own times, people from the Caribbean, the Indian subcontinent, and the post-communist Balkans and eastern Europe. Like all refugees, those who escaped Nazism carried with them the attitudes and values of their former homelands. They were exceptional, perhaps, in that, far from resembling the traditional huddled masses, many were from educated, well-connected families and were fleeing a regime that burned their books, banned their music and derided their art. But, as we try to adjust to the migrations of the 21st century, we would do well to reflect more deeply on the cultural enrichment from which we benefited thanks to the émigrés from Nazism we admitted back in the 20th. In the words of Walter Cook, director of the New York Institute of Art, where many of Europe's leading art historians landed in the 1930s: "Hitler is my best friend: he shakes the tree and I collect the apples!"

Daniel Snowman's The Hitler Emigrés will be published in May.

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