Berkeley: a radical home for Hitler’s émigrés

An exhibition reveals the impact of refugee scholars on the University of California flagship

February 6, 2014

An exhibition at the University of California, Berkeley explores “the lives of scholars who came to Berkeley as refugees from fascist Europe” – and the ways they helped to shape the radical campus of the 1960s.

Saved by the Bay: The Intellectual Migration from Fascist Europe to UC Berkeley, which runs until  June, brings together about a hundred documents such as letters, photographs, travel permits and personal records from the university archives.

Although there has been a good deal of work on the artists and scientists sometimes known as “Hitler’s émigrés”, explained curator Francesco Spagnolo, “there has been little research on those who went to the West Coast, except for Hollywood”.

A cohort totalling about a hundred in all worked at Berkeley, including some of the earliest victims of Nazi persecution: volumes by some of the future émigrés were among those thrown into the flames by students during the book burnings of May 1933.

Some of those featured in the exhibition, notably logician Alfred Tarski, mathematician Hans Lewy and musicologist Alfred Einstein (who had taught at other US universities but died before taking up his post at Berkeley), were already internationally renowned scholars. Others came as children and only later went on to become eminent academics.

Some of the latter were still alive to be interviewed for the project. In the words of lawyer Richard Buxbaum, who appears in the accompanying video, Berkeley made “a conscious effort to rise from being a very good regional university to a global university by being much more open to the hiring of émigré scholars than other universities”.

Two major factors underpinned their continuing impact, added Dr Spagnolo: “It made Berkeley part of the wider circuit. The global outlook of the university owes a lot to those arrivals. And their first-hand knowledge of totalitarianism gave a different dimension to their political awareness. Their experience of fascism informed their reactions, even though they responded in very different ways.”

Professor Lewy, who had been deprived of his “licence to teach” at Göttingen University in 1933, reacted very badly to the loyalty oath all University of California faculty were required to sign in 1949. Sociologist Reinhard Bendix, although he had been part of a radical anti-fascist resistance movement in his youth, rejected the student activists of the 1960s as a “mob” similar to those he had seen in Nazi Germany. Professor Buxbaum, by contrast, helped students in the Free Speech Movement (1963-64) who faced criminal charges and others in later legal disputes over protests against the Vietnam War and affirmative action.

Some of the émigrés returned to Europe after the war, but others refused to have anything to do with their former homes.

One striking document records the response of Professor Einstein when the International Mozarteum Foundation in Salzburg offered him the prestigious Mozart Medal in 1949 (although it had first been sent to his namesake Albert Einstein by mistake): “I regret to inform you that I am not in the position to accept this honor…due to the events between 1938 and 1945, it has lost its importance to me entirely. Such events can repeat themselves, and I want to save you the embarrassment of having to regret your generosity in a more imminent or distant future.”

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