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15 February 2021

From the NS archive: Intellectuals in exile

18 February 1939: What the leaders of the Nazi movement cannot tolerate is intellectual independence.

By Herbert Read

In this article, published six years after Hitler gained power in Germany, and seven months before the start of the Second World War, the notable art historian, philosopher and literary critic Herbert Read argued that there is, “in the whole history of culture, no significant renaissance or spontaneous outburst of art or learning which does not owe its origin to the reception of some forcibly dispersed race or class”. The 1,400 teachers and research workers (many of them Jewish) displaced from German universities since May 1933, then, may well have been on their way to forming a great new artistic movement, but where were they to go to? Read highlighted the work of the Society for the Protection of Science and Learning, a council formed to find permanent posts for these academics in Britain, the US and beyond, and the Arden Society, which offered displaced artists, writers and poets a community in their new homes. After all, “The arts were the only medium through which nations could come to a mutual understanding of each other’s peculiar characteristics”, as the Archbishop of York, president of both societies, had pointed out.


The totalitarian states are now very fond of the word autarkie, and the principle of self-sufficiency which it implies is carried into the intellectual no less than the economic life of these countries. Economically, for all I know, there may be something to be said for the idea; but intellectually it has the whole evidence of history against it.

The intellectual poverty which descended on Spain after the expulsion of the Jews and the Moors is the best illustration on the negative side; but positively there is, in the whole history of culture, no significant renaissance or spontaneous outburst of art or learning which does not owe its origin to the reception of some forcibly dispersed race or class. It is no longer the fashion to explain the Revival of Learning as a direct effect of the Fall of Constantinople; but it still remains true that that event typifies a breaking-up of political frontiers and a wandering of peoples which led to the quickening of the intellectual life of Europe. Now in our own time we see a similar process taking place, and it already seems possible that the year 1933 will have the same kind of significance as the year 1453.

I shall presently quote some figures which show that we are concerned with a disturbance of intellectual life far more fundamental than that which was caused by the expulsion of the Huguenots from France. That injection of 400,000 sober and industrious French citizens had a considerable and a very beneficial effect on the economic life of the nations which gave them hospitality; but intellectually they were too homogeneous and too strict to have more than a limited effect on the development of the culture of these nations.

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The present disturbance is more profound and more varied. What the leaders of the Nazi movement cannot tolerate is intellectual independence; and now that six years of domination have failed to produce any indigenous Nazi culture, it is against the intellect itself that they more and more turn their weapons, relying for their own satisfaction on a doctrine of unsanctioned power. It has for some time been obvious that even the Ersatz-intellectual, like Rosenberg, is losing his prestige in Germany, and it was significant that in his Reichstag speech on 30 January Hitler paid tribute to Goering and Ribbentrop, but not to Goebbels. The ideological facade of the Nazi movement always had an artificial air; it proves to be a piece of fake scenery which can be easily pushed out of the way now that there is no need for deception.

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In the broad sense of the word, intellectuals are not a very coherent body, and it would be difficult to trace their settlements in the democratic countries. But this does not apply to those scholars whose work lies within the framework of the educational system, and an organisation soon came into force to deal with this particular group. In its provisional form this organisation was known as the Academic Assistance Council; but when it became obvious that its services would be required for an indefinite period, the Council was given a more permanent constitution and became the Society for the Protection of Science and Learning. The most distinguished scholars in this country have felt it as an honour to be associated with its mission, and a strong executive committee is carrying out an effective plan of action.

The extent of the problem is indicated by some statistics published in the Society’s report for the year 1937-38. It is estimated that the total number of teachers and research workers displaced since May 1933 from German universities and institutions of university rank is approximately 1,400. The Society’s records show that at least another 418 have been displaced from similar institutions in Austria. In Italy, Czechoslovakia and Spain the full effect of recent events is not yet known, but in Italy, apart from the displacement of German-Jewish refugee scholars who had established themselves there since 1933, the new anti-Semitic laws have led to the dismissal from Italian universities of at least 140 full-time professors and of a larger, but not yet ascertained, number of junior university teachers.

Of this vast regiment of learning, the Society has already succeeded in finding permanent posts for 524, and temporary posts for another 306. Great Britain and the United States have accommodated the bulk of them (251 and 247 respectively), but most of the democratic countries have responded generously. The only black spot is the USSR. According to the Society’s report, all the refugee scholars who had been appointed to posts in Russia were displaced and expelled during the period of xenophobia in 1937, and the Society’s officers had to make special efforts to prevent some of them being sent back to Germany.

The distribution of these displaced scholars by subjects is of some interest. The practical sciences (medicine, chemistry, physics etc) account for more than half; economics is the next largest category, but it is run close by two subjects which present special difficulties – law and art history. Law is obviously difficult because of its nationalist character. Art history is difficult because, though it is a normal subject in German universities, it scarcely exists as a subject at all in this country. The Society has found permanent or temporary positions for 30 art historians, presumably mostly in America or the colonies; but to my personal knowledge there are still many scholars in this subject who have not found a position and who are existing on small grants, private charity, or the fringes of the art trade.

What should next be realised is that there are hundreds of intellectuals who do not come under the academic aegis, and whose lot is still more precarious. Journalists, novelists, poets, painters and sculptors – they were born to a precarious existence, and the economic position of their colleagues in the democratic countries is not one which even the exile can envy. But though they must take their chance in an open and indifferent market, there are certain amenities which a hospitable people might provide. A German or Austrian painter cannot continue his career in the third-floor-back of a Belsize Park boarding house; writers have to overcome the handicap which the cost of translation puts on their work; and generally these dispersed intellectuals need a focus for their activities, a centre where they may meet for discussions, concerts, plays and other intellectual activities.

To provide these amenities is the purpose of the recently formed Arden Society, which, in the person of the Archbishop of York, shares a president with the Society for the Protection of Science and Learning, and has a council of distinguished writers and artists. In his speech at the inaugural dinner of this Society last week, the Archbishop pointed out that the arts were the only medium through which nations could come to a mutual understanding of each other’s peculiar characteristics, and the presence of so many foreign writers and artists in our midst offers an exceptional opportunity for the interchange of cultural values.

But nothing will happen unless there is a practical organisation to effect this interchange, and it is for this reason that the appeals issued by the two societies should not be ignored by those who look forward to a rebuilding of European civilisation. It is gratifying to be able to announce that the appeal issued on February 7 by the Society for the Protection of Science and Learning has already brought in between £8,000 and £9,000, but a much larger sum is necessary if the Society is to fulfil its functions.

Read more from the NS archive here and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)