Memories and Politics of Exile

I will be in Paris next week talking at this symposium that commemorates the École Libres Des Hautes Études (1942-46) that was housed at the New School. I’ve entitled my talk “Why the New School?”

In the 1940s, the New School for Social Research in New York was a logical place to seek refuge for the French intellectuals who made up the École Libre. The New School’s initiative and dominant role in providing safe haven for intellectuals fleeing fascism in Europe had been established since 1933. But why did the school welcome refugee scholars in the first place? And, perhaps even more important, how did it act so quickly?

This talk focuses on what made the University in Exile possible and, therefore the École Libre, by focusing on two decisive moments. The formation of the school itself as a school—not a university—provides some answer as to why it could provide a home for refugee scholars. The common story of the school’s founding often focuses on a celebration of academic freedom, and that focus provides a clean answer as to why this institution responded to the renunciation of that very ideal in Hitler’s decree of April 1933. But that one link neglects the important role of other ideals in the formation of the school, particularly its clear rejection of degrees and status as a university. The school’s responsiveness to the demands of students and current political needs provided the flexibility and rationale for Alvin Johnson to initiate and act upon a plan to harbor refugee scholars within weeks of Hitler’s action. Its open-ended structure, then, could adapt to form a graduate school, reversing the typical progress of degree-granting institutions from undergraduate to graduate.

How such a rescue effort could be implemented was as important as Johnson’s idea to do so. For this, the network established by Alvin Johnson and Edwin Seligman in their work for the Encyclopedia of Social Sciences, the first of its fifteen volumes published in 1930, proved instrumental. The encyclopedia was a comprehensive intellectual effort, grounded by the social sciences but pushing those fields to include all aspects of society, including the arts and humanities. It pulled together hundreds of scholars across Europe, in essence creating a network of people in contact with one another at a time of enormous fear and secrecy. Because of the encyclopedia, Johnson not only could identify notable scholars quickly, he could rely upon others to funnel money and information to them to move those scholars to safety.

A haven and a university quickly made, but enduring enough to house the next wave of intellectuals-in-need in the École Libre.