Europe’s Loss, our Gain

The Refugee Intellectual.
By Donald Peterson Kent.
Columbia University Press. 317 pp. $5.00.

The Cultural Migration.
Edited by W. Rex Crawford.
University of Pennsylvania Press. 156 pp. $3.00.

 

Between 1933 and 1941 approximately 7,600 refugee professionals—scholars, artists, lawyers, doctors, engineers, etc.—came to the United States from Germany, Austria, and other parts of Hitler’s Europe. Their experiences in and reactions to America are discussed in these two volumes.

The Refugee Intellectual is a sociological study of the extent to which these professionals have adjusted to American life—occupationally, economically, socially, and psychologically. From responses to a mail questionnaire and personal interviews, the author presents a competent quantitative and qualitative picture of the refugees’ struggles and successes in overcoming various obstacles, from finding jobs and making friends to learning how to live with the American’s chronic inability to say no when he means no.

The book, however, is disappointing, and the title misleading, because the study does not concern itself with the adjustment of the refugees as intellectuals, and the effects of their migration and new cultural environment on their intellectual products. The experiences refugee professionals encountered in getting settled physically and occupationally were not significantly different from those of their non-professional compatriots, and consequently the book often comes up with the same conclusions reached by Maurice R. Davie’s 1947 study, Refugees in America.

The Cultural Migration is the printed version of the Benjamin Franklin lectures given by five noted ex-European intellectuals from diverse fields of knowledge (all but one of them refugees). Franz L. Neumann relates this cultural migration to previous ones; Henri Peyre, in what is the best essay in the book, compares European and American intellectual life; Erwin Panofsky describes the Europeans’ role in encouraging the study of art history in America; Wolfgang Köhler contributes a history of European and American psychology; and Paul Tillich analyzes the pragmatic approach to theology he found in the United States. The lectures are rambling and unconnected; they are good when they offer personal experiences and evaluations, poor when the authors simply rehash their own intellectual specialties.

Both books are at their best when the European scholars describe how they view American life. Thereby they contribute not only to an ever developing comparative study of American and European culture and social structure, but also to the strengthening of the realization that with all its faults, American society permits the intellectual more emotional, social, and intellectual freedom than European society. The authors of The Cultural Migration do not hesitate, however, to express their fear that this freedom is now being threatened by internal forces.

The five lecturers agree that the refugee scholar’s major contribution to American intellectual life has been his essentially theoretical and system-building approach, which has helped to temper and broaden the more strictly empirical, often a-historical, and narrowly problem-solving approach of many American researchers and scholars.

But it seems to me that the refugees have done much more for our intellectual life than to introduce “European” methodology and enrich college curricula and journals with their knowledge of European culture. It is true that the refugees have not made sensational contributions or blazed new trails. But how could they? Kent’s study shows clearly that, except for the few hundred intellectuals who had “names,” most of the refugee scholars had to worry about getting jobs and providing for families rather than about competing with Americans for intellectual headlines.

At the same time, the refugees have made an important contribution, in a quiet and unobtrusive way, by continuing to “be themselves” while becoming integrated into our intellectual life. The European intellectual’s training and knowledge cuts across the sciences and the humanities; it is much broader than that of his American colleague. Furthermore, he has an attitude towards his status as an intellectual which reflects his membership in a society in which the intellectual was highly respected and lived a leisurely and relatively independent life. Once established in a European university, the scholar was allowed complete freedom in choosing the subjects he would study and teach, and was less dependent on research grants, course assignments, and the opinions of colleagues than his American counterpart.

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The refugee scholars could not fail to impress American students and colleagues alike with the broadness of their knowledge, and thus lent strength to those who fought for broader liberal arts programs in higher education. With their lack of doubt about being “intellectuals,” they showed American scholars how to achieve self-confidence and greater security in the right to be intellectual, to pursue basic research and esoteric “impractical” studies. It may have been pure coincidence, but the refugees came in time to give American intellectuals of the post-World War I era the final psychological boost up into their place in American society.

One might even suggest that the refugees played some role in the American intellectuals’ reacceptance of American culture, shown so clearly in the recent Partisan Review symposium. By their freely expressed gratitude to America, and their ability to see the many freedoms and blessings of American society, as well as its faults, the refugees set examples to the American intellectuals of the 30’s and 40’s who saw only the darker sides of the picture.

But we really know very little about the refugees’ influence on these aspects of American intellectual life. Nor do we know how the European Ph.D., given to participation in the political struggles of his country, has affected the more aloof American intellectual; or the changes he has helped to bring about in the hierarchies and social relationships of American college faculties. We know that he has helped to improve the communication between the American and what is left of the European intellectual communities, but we do not know how this has affected both of them. And most important, we are still ignorant about the way an immigrating intellectual assimilates—how and to what extent he absorbs the intellectual culture of his new society, and how this changes his world view, frame of reference, and methods of scholarship.

There is clearly room for another study to attack directly the subject both these volumes have only approached. Methodologically, neither Crawford’s “European” approach of combining impressionistic essays by five name-intellectuals, nor Kent’s more typically American statistical analysis, more accurate but with fewer insights, would alone seem to be satisfactory for such a study.

Indeed, a study of the intellectual assimilation of refugees should attempt a new assimilation of the intuitive and empirical research methods usually ascribed to Europe and America respectively. What more suitable problem is there for which to develop a more balanced research approach embodying the best techniques of each?

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