How Britain rescued scientists from Nazi tyranny
|Fig 1. Signatories to Letter to The Times, 22 May 1933|
In March 1933 while visiting Vienna, William Beveridge, Director of the London School of Economics, learned that Hitler had just decreed it illegal for “non-Aryan,” mostly Jewish people to hold posts in the Civil Service. Many lawyers, doctors, and academics were deemed “undesirable” and dismissed instantly. Nazi concentration camps, mass desecration, medical atrocities,1 and slaughter were imminent.
Dismayed, Beveridge returned to England keen to help threatened German scholars; seven were Nobel laureates and many more were distinguished academics. How could Britain try to restore the liberty of scholars in diverse disciplines? The British response was remarkably altruistic, exigent, and effective. It proved crucial in rescuing many refugee scholars from Nazi tyranny.2 European countries did similar work.3 In the US, Beveridge persuaded the Rockefeller Foundation and American Emergency Aid for Displaced Scholars to raise funds and find university facilities. However, many Americans feared the competition, at first accepting no more than 100 Jewish academics in a year.7
In Berlin on 10 May 1933, students led by Joseph Goebbels destroyed twenty-five thousand “degenerate books” by title, in each case naming the author, who was either Jewish or an opponent of the Nazi regime. In a speech in Berlin Goebbels began: “The era of extreme Jewish intellectualism is now at an end.”
The famous German Max Planck, Nobel laureate and founder of the quantum theory, although not Jewish had tried to reason with Hitler that German learning and science were endangered by the dismissal of talented men and women on racial and political grounds. Hitler responded:
“If the dismissal of Jewish scientists means the annihilation of contemporary German science, we shall do without science for a few years.”
In July 1938, all remaining Jewish doctors lost their certificates to practice medicine. The works of many famous authors (several not Jewish) were selected for burning or banning. They included Emile Zola, HG Wells, Marcel Proust, Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud, Karl Marx, Stefan Zweig, and Margaret Sanger. So-called degenerate art was likewise banned or destroyed; amongst many artists were Max Beckmann, Paul Klee, and Oskar Kokoschka. The Sonderfahndungsliste or “Black Book” listed 2,800 people to be arrested by Himmler’s Gestapo following a planned Nazi invasion.
|Fig 2. Archiblad Vivian Hill. Photograph. Credit: Wellcome Collection. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)|
Of many names in physics were Albert Einstein, James Franck, and Erwin Schrödinger, who already were Nobel laureates; five others later received the prize.
A few weeks after Beveridge’s return to England on 22 May 1933, forty-one prominent British academics, including seven Nobel laureates in science and medicine, wrote to The Times (Fig 1) announcing the foundation of an organization named the Academic Assistance Council (AAC), accommodated in the Royal Society’s two small rooms in Burlington House. The AAC became in 1936 The Society for Protection of Science and Learning (SPSL). The role of the SPLS in the history of academic freedom has not been adequately recognized. The famous physicist Lord Ernest Rutherford despite ill health was the first president, and the great physiologist AV Hill (1886–1977)4,5 was vice president of AAC. Its first meeting in October 1933 in London’s Albert Hall to aid refugee scholars was addressed by Albert Einstein, who had fled to the US in December 1932. Because of antisemitism in Britain, the AAC emphasized that many who suffered at Hitler’s hands had no Jewish connection.
They were strongly supported by Sir Frederick Gowland Hopkins, then President of the Royal Society, and William Temple, Archbishop of York. They used their resources to assist the exodus from Nazi Germany and provide safe havens and worthy jobs for threatened academics—many, but by no means all of them, Jewish. The redoubtable Esther (Tess) Simpson (1903–1996) joined the AAC as secretary. The help of refugee scholars became her life’s work, and she became the trusted, human contact for the refugee scholars. Hill found her his equal in humane and practical yet principled action.
Leo Szilard, an eminent nuclear physicist, moved into the two-roomed attic of Burlington House in 1933 to support Beveridge and the AAC; in 1938 he left for the US. Meanwhile, the 1935 Nuremberg Laws passed in Germany removed the rights of citizenship from Jews.
|Table 1. Scientists relocated in Britain who advanced medicine|
Between 1933 and 1939, the AAC/SPSL raised £100,000 from donors and universities, equivalent to some £4 million today. By the outbreak of the war in 1939 it had aided at least 900 scholars. By the end of the Second World War, 2,541 refugee scholars were registered with the SPLS.6 Its speed and efficiency were astonishing. It was funded by appeals to the academic community, philanthropists, and Jewish charities in Britain. Many scholars fled from other European countries, including Soviet Russia. During the war years, the Society moved to Cambridge, its finances assisted by the government. It found work for its grantees, and attempted, not wholly successfully, to alleviate the effects of the tight internment regulations on foreign scholars’ residency in Britain.
Others found their way to Palestine (Israel), and America aided by the Emergency Committee in Aid of Displaced German (later Foreign) Scholars, which rescued more than 300 academics. They included scientists such as Einstein, Fermi, Schoenberg, Bartok, Brecht, and composer Kurt Weill, who found places in the US.
The SPSL operates to this day as the Council for At-Risk Academics. A small sample of biologists and chemists7 who advanced medicine is shown in table 1.
The altruistic, self-effacing generosity of British academics is illustrated by the story of Hermann Lehmann, assistant to Otto Meyerhof, at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in Heidelberg. In 1935 Meyerhof sent him to visit the department of biochemistry at Cambridge, headed by Sir Frederick Gowland Hopkins. When Lehmann was about to return to Heidelberg, Gowland Hopkins told him to leave his white coat hanging in the laboratory to await him whenever he wished to return. In 1936 he took up this offer, returning to Christ’s College Cambridge to brilliantly elucidate the abnormal hemoglobins.
Many individuals assisted the safe passage of Hitler’s victims. One was Doreen Warriner, who personally led the most audacious and successful efforts to rescue endangered political refugees in Prague in the winter of 1938–9: “she must have been responsible for saving hundreds, probably thousands of Jewish and Social Democrat lives” (J. Rowntree, The Times, 30 Dec 1972).
Another figure was the controversial Professor Frederick Lindemann FRS, (later Viscount Cherwell). Though no great friend of the Jews, Lindemann did personally assist Churchill in the rescue of many German Jewish scientists from the University of Göttingen; they emigrated to Britain to supplement his vital wartime expansion of the Clarendon Laboratory; this included the Manhattan Project. Lindemann was a German non-Jew, a cynical, irascible man, but a brilliant physicist. His violent hatred of Hitler endeared him to Churchill, who made him his chief scientific adviser.
Amongst many British academics, I pick out two stalwarts whose academic attainments perhaps overshadowed their selfless devotion and their resources to this cause.
|Fig 3. William Henry Beveridge. From Encyclopædia Britannica|
Archibald Vivian Hill CH OBE FRS (1886–1977) (Fig. 2) was a preeminent physiologist who elucidated the physiology of muscle contraction. He was awarded the Royal Society’s Royal and its Copley Medal (1948). He shared the Nobel Prize for 1922 with Otto Meyerhof of Germany.
Hill was a stout proponent of international collaboration in research. His student and later successor Bernard Katz wrote his biography and called him the “most naturally upright man I have known.” By the start of the Second World War, the SPSL in which Hill played a major role had saved 900 academics from Nazi persecution. Eighteen of them were to win Nobel Prizes.
Hill displayed in his laboratory a toy caricature of Hitler, which he explained was in gratitude for all the scientists Germany had expelled, some of whom were working with him. He had nearly a hundred research collaborators, from twenty different countries, including three Nobel laureates. Katz said of Hill:
In an attempt to present a detailed account of A. V. Hill’s scientific work, his personal character and the great intellectual and moral impact he made on his friends and pupils may tend to get obscured . . . It was his concern for others, the encouragement he gave to young colleagues, his upright defence not only of the cause of science, but of scientific men who had been driven from their places of work and needed help, in short it was his devotion to such wider issues, outside the boundaries of his own research, through which he exerted his most important influence on other people’s lives and on the course of events.
|Fig 4. Cover of Medawar J, Pyke D. Hitler’s Gift.|
William Henry Beveridge, 1st Baron Beveridge, KCB (1879-1963) (Fig 3) was educated at Charterhouse School, and Balliol College, Oxford where he achieved first class honors in classics. He was Director of the London School of Economics from 1919 until 1937, when he was elected Master of University College, Oxford. More than any other single figure, he brought the welfare state, including the National Health Service, to Britain through his 1942 report on Social Insurance and Allied Services. He worked tirelessly to remedy the causes and cures of unemployment. Behind his political mask lay a man devoted to “the happiness of the common man” and outspokenly opposed to “Want, Disease, Ignorance, Squalor and Idleness.” He was a Liberal politician but played a vital role as the chief architect and the prime mover in the exodus of German scholars.
What became of these Hitler rejects? Although their calamities and suffering might have hindered their subsequent careers, fifty-four became Fellows of the Royal Society, thirty-four the British Academy, twenty were awarded Nobel prizes, and ten received knighthoods.7
In his inspiring book Hitler’s Gift (Fig 4), written with Jean Medawar,7 David Pyke’s just appraisal is poignant:
This has been a glimpse into a large story. The enforced emigration of scientists (and intellectuals, musicians and artists) in the few years of the 1930s and early 1940s is one of the most remarkable episodes in the history of man—in wickedness and nobility, stupidity and good sense. There has never been anything comparable, nor—as far as I can see—will there ever be. Whether that is so or not, the story carries a powerful, even deadly message, on the danger of intolerance.
- Silver JR. The Decline of German Medicine, 1933–45. J R Coll Physicians Edinb 2003; 33:54–66
- Kohn R. Nazi Persecution: Britain’s Rescue of Academic Refugees. European Review; Cambridge 2011;19(2):255-283.
- Duggan S, Drury B. The Rescue of Science and Learning. New York: Macmillan. 1948
- Hill A. V.: Science National and International and the basis of cooperation. Science 1941; 93: 579-584.
- Rall JA. Nobel Laureate A. V. Hill and the refugee scholars, 1933–1945. Adv Physiol Educ 2017; 41: 248–259.
- Pyke D. Contributions by German emigrés to British medical science. Quart J Med 2000;93:487-495.
- Medawar J, Pyke D. Hitler’s Gift: Scientists Who Fled Nazi Germany. London Judy Piatkus Ltd 2001.
JMS PEARCE is a retired neurologist and author with a particular interest in the history of science and medicine