Learned outsiders

January 9, 1998

Refugees from Central Europe have had a huge impact on British historiography since 1945. Peter Alter reflects on the reasons for their success

The two greatest historians of the postwar era, Elton and Namier, were foreign by birth." The late historian John Kenyon's intriguing observation is from his 1983 survey of the historical profession in England. Not everyone will agree with Kenyon's definition of nationality, yet it is undeniable that historians from continental Europe have made a huge contribution to the writing and teaching of history in Britain since 1945.

Who were these "continental Britons"? What enabled them to pursue successful academic careers in a country whose language few of them spoke on their arrival?

Lewis Namier, born in 1888 in the then Russian-occupied part of Poland, was a sort of exception. He had studied in Britain before 1914, and in the 1920s he returned of his own free will to make his home there. Geoffrey Elton's story was rather different. As Gottfried Ehrenberg, he came to England with his parents shortly before the outbreak of war in 1939 -one of thousands of desperate refugees from Central Europe forced into exile by the Nazi dictatorship.

These refugees had to find work in Britain under extremely difficult conditions. Only a few were lucky enough to continue in their chosen fields. Some, particularly those from the learned professions, faced a bitter reality: what they had learned and studied at home was useless in their new environment. Despite the problems of assimilation and adaptation to life in Britain, there were successes, particularly in the field of history. Elton, who became regius professor of modern history at the University of Cambridge, was one.

Other refugee historians from Central Europe also had a remarkable impact. Highly individualistic, they never formed a close-knit network or showed any ambition to establish a "school" of like-minded scholars. In retrospect, however, it seems to have been their backgrounds that enabled them to make their amazing contribution to British historiography after the war. All were born in German-speaking Central Europe before 1933. They had all had to flee the Third Reich's terror, often under dramatic circumstances, before eventually settling in Britain.

On the one hand, there were those who had completed university studies in Germany or Austria and had, in some cases, already started working as academics there. On the other, there were those refugee scholars and scholars-to-be who, after fleeing the Third Reich, went to university, and perhaps school as well, in Britain before embarking on careers as historians.

The first group faced profound difficulties in continuing their academic careers. British universities in the 1930s had only limited opportunities to appoint emigrants to appropriate positions, particularly when their English was not always good enough for lecturing. Members of this group include distinguished historians such as Victor Ehrenberg, Elton's father, medievalist Hans Liebeschutz, Eva G. Reichmann, Veit Valentin, Erich Eyck, Wilhelm Levision and Gustav Mayer.

The other group, the younger generation of refugee historians, came to Britain as adolescents or even as children. Apart from Elton, they included Julius Carlebach (born in 1922), Edgar Feuchtwanger (1924), John Grenville (1928), Peter Hennock (1926), Helmut Koenigsberger (1918), Karl Leyser (1920), Wolf Mendl (19), Werner E. Mosse (1918), Arnold Paucker (1921), Sidney Pollard (1925) and Peter Pulzer (1929).

In some cases, it is hard to draw a clear line between the older and the younger generations. Examples are the Cambridge medievalist Walter Ullmann (born in 1910) or Nicolai Rubinstein (1911), the leading scholar on Renaissance Italy, and Francis L. Carsten (1911). Carsten completed his legal training before leaving Nazi Germany. Only as an emigrant did he become a historian, enjoying a distinguished career after 1945 that took him to the Masaryk chair of Central European history at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies in London in 1961.

A superficial glance at the career of Elton, Koenigsberger or even Carsten conveys the impression that the younger emigrants had a head start as professional historians in Britain. But this was not true. Although most of them won scholarships to Oxford or Cambridge, some had to overcome enormous prejudices and social barriers. In 1944, for example, John Grenville, then aged 16, worked as a gardener at Peterhouse. He received permission to use the library provided, he remembers, "that I would not attempt to enter Cambridge University". Three years later, he entered Birkbeck College instead, went on to the London School of Economics and became a professor in Leeds at the tender age of 38.

Reflecting on the careers of those postwar British historians with origins in Central Europe, one question springs to mind: what distinguishes them from British-born historians? Do their origins have any significance for their work? It is tempting to answer "yes" for one simple reason: with one or two exceptions, all these historians have displayed a strong interest in the history of Central Europe. In Britain they are often seen as specialists in Central European history.

Perhaps the most notable exception to these generalisations about the teaching and scholarly work of refugee historians is Elton, whose writings focused exclusively on Britain. This, one might argue, was almost to be expected from a man who is said to have proclaimed, a few months after his arrival in Britain, that this was the country in which he ought to have been born. Elton soon established himself as the authority on early modern English history.

Yet, even in Elton's case, looking back at his work almost four years after his death one might go so far as to suggest that his concentration on government, institutions and the state puts him in the mainstream of prewar German history writing. His application of the "German approach" to early modern English history is an essential ingredient of his originality as a British historian.

Peter Alter is professor of modern history at the University of Duisburg, Germany, and editor of Out of the Third Reich: Refugee Historians in Postwar Britain, I.B.Tauris, Pounds 35.

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