Shelter from the Storm

For the last eighty years, academics in various parts of the world whose freedom and whose lives have been threatened in their home countries, have been helped to build new lives in the UK by CARA.  That’s the Council for Assisting Refugee Academics, as it is known today.   In 1933, when it started its work, it was called the Academic Assistance Council, and the impetus for its creation was the dismissal from German Universities of Jewish academics.  The Council had three related goals: to promote acceptance of the value of employing refugees by British universities, colleges, and industry; to raise funds to support them; and to ensure that the Government allowed refugees to enter Britain (Zimmerman, p. 33).  The name changed in 1936 to the Society for Protection of Science and Learning, as the darkening climate in Europe showed that the threat was not just to individuals but to academic freedom.   By the outbreak of the Second World War, they had helped over 900 scholars.

It was not a foregone conclusion that the academic establishment would respond in this way.  Many took their time to conclude that maintaining an ‘aloof and detached’ stance outside of politics was unsustainable in light of what was happening in Europe.   My own University’s initial response to a request for support and funds makes uncomfortable reading:

‘The funds at our disposal are very small indeed and that there is a very strong feeling that our own students – many of whose parents are unemployed – have the first claim upon them. The opinion has also been strongly expressed that, as there are many rich men of the Jewish religion whose individual incomes are larger than the whole income of the University, it would be appropriate that they be asked to support the teachers in the first instance. At the same time we are very far from being unsympathetic towards the condition of these unfortunate persons, and it is only our poverty and not our will which suggests difficulties.’
Now, Sheffield was very aware of its own origins, founded by donations from working people in the city, many of whom in the 1930s were suffering severely from the economic downturn.  But the immediate recourse to the stereotype of the rich Jew – with the implication that those individuals were not doing what they could, and that the University and the working people of Sheffield were being asked to make up that lack – is dispiriting, though very much of its time.
However, whilst anti-Semitism played a part in our response in the UK to the call for help, the House of Commons also heard in April 1933 from the rather marvellous Colonel Josiah Wedgwood:
‘ I would like to see the strengthening of this country and of the British race by the admission freely into this country of those elements which are now suffering from persecution. The hon. and gallant Member for Chippenham (Captain Cazalet) who has just spoken is a Huguenot of distinguished Huguenot ancestry. Does not everybody to-day realise the enormous strengthening of the Anglo-Saxon race that has come from the admission of those Huguenot migrants into this country? They were flying from a persecution that was, I suppose, as bad as that which reigns in Germany to-day. The dragonnades of Louis XIV sent to this country an element of religion and of independence, and a commercial and intellectual element which has been of inestimable service to this country in war and in peace. I would beg the Government not to miss this opportunity of so benefiting England to-day and in the future. There we have, driven out of Germany, flying, when they can fly, to all the neighbouring countries, the thinkers, the intellectually-independent people, scientists, doctors, civil servants, artists and musicians. …  To-day those people are being turned back at Harwich, while nations like France, Belgium, Spain—rejuvenated Spain—are welcoming this new intellectual element. Those scientists would be our business men of the future, just as the Huguenots brought us the silk trade, made Norwich and made Leek in my own county of Staffordshire. The Huguenot element built up a great export trade for this country. We are now anxious to import foreign capital into this country; how much better is it to import foreign brains and amalgamate them. I do not speak from the obvious humanitarian point of view, but from the point of view of the material advantage of this country. Get those people in. …  Let English people see whether they, too, cannot receive these people into their family to make a home here, and to show that whatever the Prussian Aryan may feel about the Jews, or the peace-mongers or even the Socialists, we in this country realise the value of brains and the duty of hospitality to the oppressed.  … I wish that one result of this Debate to-day might be the opening of those doors, and the welcoming here not merely of the scientists who make the trade of the future, not merely of the doctors whom in the past all the world has gone to seek in Germany, but of those political exiles about whose fate we hear less, and who are now under preventive arrest in a dozen concentration camps throughout Germany. I wish that we might welcome those men, the free spirits of a free people, who decline to live in a land where liberty is no longer allowed, and get them here to strengthen our home and our love of liberty.

By mid-1936, however, the tenor of the debates had shifted.   There were concerns being raised about refugees taking work from British people, and the word ‘alien’ rather than refugee started to be used.   The marvellously named Lt-Colonel Gilbert Acland-Troyte raised the familiar question: ‘Why should we give away public money on these refugees from other countries?’  Another marvellously monikered military chap, Tufton Percy Hamilton Beamish, came up with yet another reason to be cautious – apparently ‘every refugee received into this country is only an incitement to foreign rulers to get rid of people who, in their opinion, are either racially or politically undesirable’.  And MP Will Thorne, in 1938, in a debate about permitting refugee doctors to practice in the UK, asked the question: ‘Does not the right hon. Gentleman think that if an application were made to the German Government, they would allow these doctors to stop in their own country?’.   Hansard does not record the right hon. Gentleman’s response.

The Chair of SPSL, Professor Archibald Hill of Cambridge University (Nobel laureate in Physiology & Medicine, 1922) spoke in 1943 in response to comments about the danger of anti-Semitism here, in response to the influx of refugees.  It is pertinent to quote him at some length, since these and similar arguments are to be found every day on the pages of the Daily Mail, and in less literate form in the comments below the line on every newspaper article concerning refugees.

It has been urged on the Home Secretary that a danger of anti-Semitism will exist, if more Jews are introduced here. This, again, is the argument of the last straw. Are the Jews so powerful and baneful an influence that one extra Jew among 5,000 Englishmen will make the whole mixture unstable? That is the proposition. To those who prefer arithmetic to magic, the whole thing is pure moonshine, but Hitler has managed to put his own pet obsession across among an otherwise sensible people. We hear wonderful stories about the number of Jews in Great Britain who have arrived here in the last ten years. An hon. Member asked me recently what on earth we were to do with the 40,000 Jewish doctors who were now in this country. As a matter of fact he had got the number 50 times too large. The Jews are said to be living in luxury while others fight; but the records of the last war and of this one show that this insult is completely unwarranted, either as to the number of those serving, or the number of distinctions for gallantry. The country is said to be flooded with Jewish refugees; in fact 60,000 or 70,000 have come in since 1933, and of that number between 10,000 and 20,000 came in as children, of whom many are still children. That is one to 700 of our population, which seems to make a funny sort of flood, not comparable with the one which has just been made by the R.A.F.

It is said that the danger to our national traditions from having so many Jews here must be regarded; but our national traditions must be pretty weak things if people who make up rather less than one per cent. of the whole can produce so great an effect. One is forced to regard anti-Semitism as a sort of contagious mental disease upon the victims of which facts and arguments are completely without effect. Ridicule, not reason, is the only form of treatment. To suggest, as responsible people sometimes do, that there is serious danger of anti-Semitism here if an extra 10,000 Jews are introduced from Europe, one in 5,000 of our people, is a gross insult to the intelligence, good nature and common sense of the normal citizen and is to confess oneself the foolish dupe of Nazi propaganda. The success of that propaganda shows that there is little chance for the human race being able to settle its affairs sensibly if it does not learn to examine critically and quantitatively what it is told.

With the benefit of our knowledge of what lay ahead for Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe, we might find it difficult to echo Sir Samuel Hoare’s belief that the most tragic aspect was that many of those driven out ‘have been men of intellectual eminence who felt that their life’s training had been wasted, and that there was no future for them to carry out the professional work in which they held so eminent a place.’   But this was one aspect of the tragedy and the roll-call of ‘men of intellectual eminence’ who left in time, with the help of AAC/SPSL/CARA is extraordinary.  The loss to science, music, literature, medicine, philosophy – to all academic disciplines – had this and other organisations not reached out, would have been vast.  The loss of those who did not make it, who might have been as great or greater, is impossible to grasp.  This is not to say that the murder of a brilliant scientist or composer is worse than that of a clerk or a factory worker.  But it surely is the role of the academy to rally to the defence of academic freedom – and the freedom of individual academics – wherever it is under threat, and to the support of those who have risked so much for its sake.

With CARA’s 80th birthday and the start of Refugee Week in mind then, here are just a few of those who they helped in those first few years:

Sir Walter Bodmer, a prominent human geneticist who is also credited with expanding public understanding of the sciences – his family escaped in 1938, when he was two years old.
Sir Hermann Bondi, a mathematician who helped develop radar and influenced relativity theory, served as Chief Scientist to two UK government departments and as Master of Churchill College, Cambridge.
Max Born became the Tait Professor of Natural Philosophy at the University of Edinburgh and won the Nobel Prize in 1954 for his pioneering work in quantum mechanics.
Sir Ernst Chain won the Nobel Prize in 1945 for his shared work on penicillin.
Sir Geoffrey Elton, a historian and philosopher of history, helped to advance understanding of the Tudor government.  Born Gottfried Ehrenburg, his father Victor was also a historian, and came to England in 1939, from Czechoslovakia.
Sir Ernst Gombrich brought fundamental questions of aesthetics in art to scholarly and public attention.  He came to Britain in 1936, along with colleagues from the Warburg Institute, which had itself relocated to London from the University of Hamburg.
Sir Ludwig Guttmann, founder of spinal cord injury treatment, the Paralympic Games and the National Spinal Injuries Centre at Stoke Mandeville Hospital.
Sir Otto Kahn-Freund was a leading theorist and practitioner of labour law.
Sir Bernard Katz won the Nobel Prize in 1950 for shared research on mechanisms of neuro-muscular transmission.
Sir Hans Krebs won the Nobel Prize in 1953 for his shared research into the complex sequence of metabolic chemical reactions known as the Krebs Cycle.
Sir Rudolf Peierls taught theoretical physics at Birmingham and Oxford and was involved in both the development of atomic weaponry and the Pugwash anti-nuclear movement. He was studying on a Rockefeller Scholarship at Cambridge when Hitler came to power. Granted leave to remain in Britain, he worked in Manchester under a fund set up for refugees
Sir Nikolaus Pevsner brought new perspectives on the UK’s architectural heritage to scholars and the wider public.  The AAC helped to fund a research fellowship at Birmingham University when he left Germany in 1933
Sir Francis Simon pioneered research in thermodynamics and low-temperature physics at Oxford’s Clarendon Laboratory.

A guest editorial in International Psychiatry on the occasion of CARA’s 75th anniversary said that:
‘It is perhaps unsurprising that academics (about one-third of whom in CARA’s experience are in medicine or other related disciplines relevant to psychiatry) are overrepresented among refugees from the professions. When regimes are, or become, dictatorial, or where civil strife intensifies, those who ‘speak truth unto power’ through criticism, through pointing out alternative possibilities, or through upholding ethical standards – key academic duties – are all too likely to suffer job loss, imprisonment, torture or expulsion. Furthermore, the loss of the academic members of a society will, unless they can maintain skills in exile and later return, permanently affect that society’s future. Germany was a world leader in scholarship before Hitler but never fully recovered its academic position (Medawar & Pyke, 2000); the USA, Australia, Canada and the UK all gained immeasurably, as to a lesser extent did others. The number seeking CARA’s help has quadrupled in the past 3 years and continues to grow. There has been a very significant increase in the number of medical and other healthcare professionals seeking refugee status in the UK and in other countries according to our own figures. This is partly because of the situation in Iraq, where healthcare professionals are still being targeted by extreme elements,despite media reports that the situation is improving. Several hundreds have been assassinated there since 2003, mostly because they have sought to continue their work in their specialty. Also, in Zimbabwe extremely harsh conditions apply and many have gone to South Africa and neighbouring countries after finding it impossible to practise.’  (Boyd et al, 2009)
The article ends with a call to the psychiatric profession, which could go out to all academic disciplines, to ‘ assist this constituency of academic colleagues by speaking up against the stigmatisation of such refugees, supporting the correct view that they are and may increasingly become key local and global assets for a better future and, importantly, helping them to become re-established in their careers.’

Syrian academics ‘must be helped just like those who fled the Nazis’ (
‘Eighty years of solace for exiles fleeing the storm’, THE, 13-19 June 2013, p.p. 18-19

Robert Boyd, John Akker, Laura Wintour, ‘Academic Refugees’, International Psychiatry, 6, 3 (July 2009), pp. 53-4
Renee Farrar, Ludwig Guttman and the Paralympics, The Lancet, 380, 9845 (8 September 2012), p. 877.
Lucy Mayblin, ‘Beyond the Hostile State: Imagining Universities of Sanctuary’, Oxford Monitor of Forced Migration,1, 1 (2011), 31-34. Online access at
Bee Rowlatt and May Witwit, Talking about Jane Austen in Baghdad (Penguin,2010)

Jeremy Seabrook, The Refuge and the Fortress (Palgrave Macmillan, 2nd edition, 2013)
David Zimmerman,’The Society for the Protection of Science & Learning and the Politicisation of British Science in the 1930s’, Minerva (2006), 44: 25–45


  1. Refugee Week 2017 – Different Pasts, Shared Futures | Passing Time

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