Preserving knowledge in the face of war and oppression: Stories of academic refugees fleeing Hitler’s regime

Wednesday, June 1, 2016


Caleb Snider, Congress 2016 student blogger

When academics and researchers are displaced by war or persecution, it is more than their lives and those of their families that face destruction; we also risk losing their accumulated expertise and future contributions to human knowledge. In times of political turmoil, intellectuals make easy targets for scapegoating and targeting, as they represent an imminent threat to totalitarian systems. The rise of the Third Reich in the middle of the 20th century proved no exception, resulting in the deaths and displacement of many of the German-speaking world’s academics.

This is the subject that six eminent academics spoke on, as part of multipart panel entitled Personal stories and institutional narratives from German-speaking émigré physicians, scientists, and academics between the 1930s and the 1960s. Presented by the Canadian Historical Association (CHA) and the Canadian Society for the History of Medicine (CSHM) on May 30th at Congress 2016, each speaker took his or her own perspective on the subject: some panelists looked at groups of refugee academics by place of refuge (such as Canada or the USSR); others delved deeply into the biographies of individual researchers displaced by Hitler’s rise to power as microcosms of the greater tragedy. All of the panelists discussed the role that the Society for the Protection of Sciences and Learning (SPSL) played in the support and placement of academic refugees, and all acknowledged the role that anti-Semitism and political extremism played both in forcing those academics into exile and making if difficult for them to find sanctuary in places like the United Kingdom, the United States, Turkey, the USSR and Canada.        

Many of the panelists reminded their audience that the SPSL still exists today, now known as Cara (the Council for At-Risk Academics), and that academic refugees from such war-torn areas as Syria face the same obstacles that their German-speaking predecessors faced in the mid-20th century (xenophobia, isolationist immigration laws, limited resources) and are as much in need of our help today as those fleeing Nazism in the 1930s and 1940s.

The panelists included Professor Paul Stortz (University of Calgary), Dr. Aleksandra Loewenau (University of Calgary), Professor Guel A. Russell (Texas A&M), Professor David Zimmerman (University of Victoria), Professor Frank W. Stahnisch (University of Calgary), and Doctoral Candidate Erna Kurbegovic (University of Calgary).


Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences