Emergency Committee in Aid of Displaced Foreign Scholars

Building transatlantic networks in science and learning

Updated: February 01, 2014

The Emergency Committee in Aid of Displaced Foreign Scholars (EC) was the most prominent refugee organization working in the fields of science and learning in the 1930s and 1940s. It aimed to provide practical assistance to European scholars who had been persecuted because of their Jewish descent or political opinions and were attempting to flee from Nazi oppression and restart their academic career abroad. Established in May 1933 by Stephen Duggan, then director of the Institute for International Education in New York, the EC initially focused on Germany until growing political crises in other European countries convinced the organization to widen its scope and assist endangered scholars across Europe. With support from the Rockefeller Foundation and other prominent philanthropic bodies, the EC was at the heart of the effort to relocate leading scholars from Europe to the United States. In doing so, it accelerated the transnationalization of knowledge and research within a transatlantic context and helped shift the much of the international scientific community from Europe to America. Thus, the EC became a vital node in the transnational networks that managed the forced emigration of academics from European countries to destinations overseas.

In the wake of the so-called Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service, passed by the National Socialists in April 1933, many scholars lost their positions overnight after the withdrawal of their academic titles; emeritus status was forced on professors close to retirement age and young scholars were dismissed from permanent jobs. Subsequently, a considerable number of established academics and junior scholars were pushed out of academia within a short period of time. By 1938, around thirty-nine percent of German university teaching staff had lost their positions; estimates for the humanities are even higher at forty-three percent. If we add in other persecuted academic groups—teachers, students, intellectuals, journalists, artists, and writers—the figure increases to approximately 12,000 highly educated individuals that were banned from their occupations.

Unable to continue their former lives and careers, most of these individuals opted for emigration, hoping that host countries such as Great Britain, Switzerland, and the United States would offer them a fresh start and the chance to continue their work. To assist them, academics in these countries organised transnational support networks. In light of the difficulty of obtaining exit permits, entry visa, and work permits, and of networking with university institutions abroad in order to find new positions, these transnational support networks were essential for the emigration of many refugee scholars. Hosted by the Institute for International Education, the EC’s founders built upon the IIE’s pre-existing infrastructure for the transnational exchange of students and lecturers. Since 1919, the Institute had sent American students abroad and invited foreign students to the United States; consequently, it had at its disposal the necessary knowledge and experience to organize and maintain a transatlantic network of scholarly exchange.

One of the EC’s primary tasks was to collect information about scholars in Europe who were at risk and to help them find lectureships or teaching assignments at American universities and colleges. In doing so, organizing the flow of information across the Atlantic and mobilizing funds were at the heart of the EC’s aid measures. Accordingly, the EC saw itself as a “clearing house” operating as a go-between for universities, donors, émigré scholars, government institutions, and the public. In order to obtain information about political circumstances in Europe and to be able to relocate scholars, the EC cooperated closely with its British counterpart, the Academic Assistance Council (AAC), and the German exile organisation, Notgemeinschaft deutscher Wissenschaftler im Ausland (NWA). The three organisations kept registers of scholars looking to leave their home countries, and a so-called List of Displaced Foreign Scholars was published with the help of the Rockefeller Foundation in 1936.Both the list and the registers contained information about the émigré scholars’ professional profile that was intended to pique the interest of universities and colleges abroad. Until 1936, cooperation was organised within the framework of the High Commission for Refugees (Jewish and others) Coming from Germany that was set up at the end of 1933 under the auspices of the League of Nations. James G. McDonald—the first High Commissioner and, from 1938 to 1945, chairman of the President’s Advisory Committee on Political Refugees—laid the organisational framework for regular meetings in which the organisations involved exchanged information, decided upon the division of work, and agreed to assist on another. Most accounts of this collaboration have ignored the flow of money from the EC to its European partner organisations; financial assistance that in 1934, for example, enabled the High Commission to employ a liaison officer whose task it was to act as an intermediary between the émigré scholars, universities, and the rescue efforts in Europe and America. The liaison activities of the High Commission proved to be vital for the many small—and in most cases financially unsound—aid initiatives in France, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and Denmark. However, with the resignation of James McDonald in 1936, this form of institutionalized cooperation and cross-financing fell apart and, despite later attempts to revitalize this scheme, it was never relaunched.

In the United States, the EC was crucial for what historiography has called the modernization of American science and learning, for example, with regard to the social sciences and to sub-disciplines of the natural sciences such as nuclear physics or biochemistry. In general, the internationalization of science via conferences, journals, and the knowledge of foreign languages—which had intensified noticeably in the decades before the First World War and the launch of fellowship programs by the Rockefeller Foundation and the Carnegie Endowment in the 1920s—facilitated the relocation of researchers from Europe to America. Additionally, the model of the German university had played a leading role in the establishment of the American system of higher education starting in the 1890s—something that eased the integration of German scholars into U.S. campuses. The EC, in turn, modeled its fellowship schemes on those of the Carnegie and Rockefeller programs. To avoid criticism and public disapproval, and in light of the isolationist attitudes and financial distress of American universities in the wake of the Great Depression, the EC decided not to appeal for public donations. Instead, the EC approached philanthropic bodies to raise funds for fellowships, for which universities could then apply if they suggested the appointment of a particular refugee scholar and if they could guarantee the employment of the scholar on a permanent basis after the expiration of the fellowship. In this way, the EC helped many prominent scholars build a transatlantic career, including the likes of Ernest DichterMario Einaudi, Ernst FraenkelWalter GropiusHans Hirschfeld, Albert O. Hirschman, George KatonaHans Kelsen, Paul Lazarsfeld, Raphael Lemkin, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Marie MunkRichard NeutraWilhelm Viggo von Moltke, Martin Wagner, and Marianne Welter.

Though this rescue scheme received harsh criticism for catering more to the needs and expectations of universities and the American public than to the distress of the émigré scholars, the EC helped 350 scholars emigrate from Europe to the United States. Yet, not all émigré scholars made use of the EC’s assistance. Some found new positions in the United States on their own due to existing professional networks, for which mathematics scholars are a good example.

The emigration of European scholars in the years after 1933 remains a controversial issue, particularly when it comes to methodological questions of cultural assimilation, failed integration, and attempts to measure the concrete impact of the émigré scholars on American research and academia. To assess these issues properly, the emigration process should be conceptualized as a (forced) transfer of knowledge between already closely intertwined societies—an exchange that had a lasting impact on scholarship and learning on both sides of the Atlantic. The émigré scholars triggered transformations of knowledge in several fields and many of these advances affected academic cultures across Western societies. Well-known examples are the development of nuclear physics, the merger within the social sciences of pragmatic-behavioral and theory-based approaches, and the advancement of international law that paved the way for the postwar order. At the same time, many of the émigré scholars contributed to the reconstruction of West German academia. Though only a limited number opted for remigration, a considerable number of émigré scholars agreed to return temporarily as guest professors or lecturers with the aim of sharing the results of research conducted abroad and of helping the shattered European universities catch up with the evolving standards of other institutions. In this context, the emigration of refugee scholars made possible by the EC contributed to the internationalization of science and learning and to the emergence of particular transatlantic academic traditions and discourses. 

Selected Publications

Duggan, Stephan and Betty Drury. The Rescue of Science and Learning: The Story of the Emergency Committee in Aid of Displaced Foreign Scholars. New York, NY: Macmillan, 1948.

Emergency Committee in Aid of Displaced Foreign Scholars and Notgemeinschaft Deutscher Wissenschaftler im Ausland. List of Displaced German Scholars. London: EC and NWA, 1936.

Mann, Erika and Eric Estorick. "Private and Governmental Aid for Refugees." American Academy of Political and Social Sciences 203 (1939): 142-154.

Selected Bibliography

Feichtinger, Johannes. Wissenschaft zwischen den Kulturen. Österreichische Hochschullehrer in der Emigration 1933-1945. Frankfurt am Main: Campus, 2001.

Frank, Tibor. "Organized Rescue Operations in Europe and the United States, 1933-1945." In In Defence of Learning: The Plight, Persecution, and Placement of Academic Refugees 1933-1980, edited by Shula Marks, Paul Weindling, and Laura Wintour, 143-160 Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.

Krohn, Claus-Dieter. Intellectuals in Exile: Refugee Scholars and the New School for Social Research. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1993.

Krohn, Claus-Dieter et al. (eds.). Handbuch der deutschsprachigen Emigration 1933-1945. Darmstadt: Primus Verlag, 1998.

Lamberti, Majorie. "The Reception of Refugee Scholars from Nazi Germany in America: Philanthropy and Social Change in Higher Education." Jewish Social Studies, New Series 12, no. 3 (2006): 157-192.

Archival Collections

Emergency Committee in Aid of Displaced Foreign Scholars Records (1927-1949), New York Public Library, Manuscripts and Archives Division, New York, NY.

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"Emergency Committee in Aid of Displaced Foreign Scholars," Transatlantic Perspectives, 2017, Transatlantic Perspectives. 15 Dec 2017 <http://transatlanticperspectives.org/entry.php?rec=153>

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"Emergency Committee in Aid of Displaced Foreign Scholars." (2017) In Transatlantic Perspectives, Retrieved December 15, 2017, from Transatlantic Perspectives: http://transatlanticperspectives.org/entry.php?rec=153