Helping academics under threat for 80 years

Eighty years ago last month, the German government began dismissing university professors and staff for racial and political reasons. William Beveridge, director of the London School of Economics, decided to organise the British academic community to ‘temporarily’ assist the misplaced scholars.

Beveridge later described what followed as “the spontaneous uprising of British universities against learning directed by Hitler and his imitators”. In May, with the backing of the Royal Society, the Academic Assistance Council (AAC) was formed.

To Beveridge this uprising was not a revolution, but a reaction to a revolution, a way to preserve what was best in German university scholarship, culture and tradition until the German people came to their senses.

The AAC was not a political organisation, but existed only because the German government had violated the sacred freedom that universities have to pursue science without ideological and legal interference.

’Protests butter no parsnips’

The AAC’s mandate was not to protest against Hitler’s policies, but to aid his academic victims. Beveridge explained in a speech in March 1935: “It is a challenge not to be taken up by protests. Protests butter no parsnips. It has to be taken by remedial action.”

Beveridge and the AAC walked a sensitive tightrope to accomplish this mission. Protest would have rendered their work impossible.

The German government would have banned correspondence with the AAC, potential corporate donors would have declined to contribute fearing damaging their business interests in Germany, and the British government – which generally gave quiet approval to the council’s work – made it clear that this support was contingent on the academic refugees not becoming a political hot potato.

Perhaps even more importantly, the balancing act could not be allowed to arouse opposition to refugee scholars from within British universities, particularly among students and junior scholars who had not yet found a secure permanent position.

The AAC’s campaign and the presence of displaced scholars at British universities transformed political attitudes. Many scholars, particularly scientists, knew professionally and, in many cases, personally, those who were losing their positions in Germany.

What seems to have motivated all British academics, almost without exception, was perhaps best expressed by AV Hill in a letter to Beveridge: “It is not that these people will perish as human beings, but that as scholars and scientists they will be heard of no more, since they will have to take up something else in order to live.”

In 1934, of course, the Holocaust was still beyond imagination: help was offered to save careers not save lives.

Second World War

By late 1934, it became apparent to Beveridge that the academic refugee crisis was not temporary. The AAC was transformed into the Society for the Protection of Science and Learning, or SPSL.

After the Nuremburg Laws were promulgated by the Nazis, Beveridge and other members of the society began to actively and publicly challenge the assault on academic freedom, yet the crisis continued to grow.

Before the Second World War began, thousands of academics had been dismissed from universities in Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Spain, Portugal and Italy.

It is important to note that Beveridge's uprising was not just British, although the uprising of the British academic community was far more successful than in any other country. There were numerous similar agencies established in other countries. The SPSL, however, did the lion’s share of the work in providing initial support and guidance, even when final placement was the responsibility of another agency.

The official figures state that between 1933 and 1939 the society assisted around 900 scholars financially and-or by finding them a position.

Beveridge believed that number might be closer to 2,000 since many required no direct financial support or placement, but required simply guidance or perhaps even nothing more than a friendly place to meet or get information. Among those aided were 16 future Nobel laureates and more than 100 future Fellows of the British Academy or the Royal Society.

Refugees who were aided by the society had little doubt that Beveridge's uprising saved their careers and lives. In 1961, a letter signed by more than 200 refugee scholars reflected that “in 1933, the Academic Assistance Council was to us what the consulate is to British subjects.

“It was even more, because to the protection of the British consulate we are entitled, but at that time no claim, no right was ours, yet overnight a powerful organisation appeared for the sole purpose of protecting and helping us. And here is the second miracle: the enthusiasm never waned!”

Beveridge would likely be dismayed to learn that today the organisation he founded is still needed to assist refugee academics. The Council for Assisting Refugee Academics, as the SPSL was renamed in 1999, works tirelessly to aid scholars at risk in Iraq, Syria, Iran, Zimbabwe and anywhere else that academic freedom is under threat.

CARA remains one of Lord Beveridge’s most enduring legacies to the world’s academic community.

* David Zimmerman is professor in the department of history, University of Victoria, Canada. This article is based on his CARA-LSE Scholars at Risk lecture in March.