Outsiders' insights

Out of the Third Reich
September 18, 1998

Around 1910, German universities, and to a lesser extent those in German-speaking central Europe, were the best in the world. In almost every area of the humanities, German dominance was assured: the constellation of genius represented by Max Weber, Adolf von Harnack, Otto Hintze, and Ulrich von Wilamovitz-Moellendorf was unsurpassed at the time, and perhaps since. The Technische Hochschulen were the envy of scientists and engineers elsewhere.

For obvious reasons, all this had changed by 1969, when to universal surprise Sidney Pollard, the eminent historian of European industrialisation, refused the offer of a chair at Berkeley in favour of one at the West German university of Bielefeld. Pollard's move was all the more remarkable for the fact that he had been born Siegfried Pollak into a Viennese Jewish family forced out by the Nazis; most of his close relations had been murdered in the Holocaust.

The extent of the self-laceration inflicted by National Socialism on German universities is evident from Peter Alter's splendid collection of refugee autobiographies, Out of the Third Reich, commendably sponsored by the German Historical Institute in London. These men brought to Britain a range of technical skills and new perspectives. Classic examples would be the Tudor historian Sir Geoffrey Elton (born Gottfried Ehrenberg) and Walter Ullmann, whose understanding of medieval law, which had "died" in this country after the reformation but formed a staple of German university training for jurists, enabled him to make previously unseen connections.

Perhaps more important, the refugees became prominent exponents of a comparative history that aimed to relativise British "singularity" in some areas, to explain it in others, and very occasionally, to suggest its deficiency. One thinks of H. G. Koenigsberger's work on European representative assemblies, Peter Pulzer's comparative politics and anti-Semitism and E. P. Hennock's elucidation of how German models underlay social reform in late 19th-century Britain.

Surprisingly, despite their brutal treatment, almost all of the refugee historians were to the forefront of Anglo-German historiographical cooperation by the late 1960s. Partly this was because of their enduring respect for the better traditions of German scholarship. Partly it was thanks to the generosity of spirit that these erstwhile refugees evinced. But it was also due to the willingness of a younger generation of German historians and governments to seek them out and make an honest attempt to come to terms with the past.

The most topical comparison made in the book concerns that between the mass lecture-based courses in German-speaking universities and the individual tuition that many of the refugees experienced, and later practised, in Oxford and Cambridge. Ullmann's comments will be of interest to those seeking to abolish the college fee: "This type of teaching [tutorials] is not only advantageous for the students - I had sorely missed this sort of contact in Vienna - but also extremely worthwhile for the teacher, because he is forced to remain up to date with the most recent literature, and to adapt to the individual needs of each student in their weekly sessions."

Brendan Simms is a fellow, Peterhouse, Cambridge.

Out of the Third Reich: Refugee Historians in Postwar Britain

Editor - Peter Alter
ISBN - 1 86064 189 X
Publisher - Tauris
Price - £39.50
Pages - 1

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