Saving European Intellectuals

  • Prosperity
  • 1933

As fascism swept Europe, scholars, artists, scientists, and religious leaders began to come under serious official pressure. In Germany, and later the countries that Germany overran, some were discharged from their positions for political reasons. In 1933 the Rockefeller Foundation set up a Special Research Aid Fund for Deposed Scholars charged with relocating these deposed intellectuals to universities in the U.S., Canada, England, France, or the Netherlands, so their minds would not be lost to the cause of human accomplishment. In addition to helping the scholar flee with his family, the foundation typically paid half of his salary, for a time, at the new institution where he was placed.

By the end of the ’30s this effort had moved 214 deposed scholars (people like physicist Leo Szilard and novelist Thomas Mann) into new positions. In 1940, with German soldiers in Paris, it became clear that if Hitler prevailed in Europe, many individuals from disfavored races, religions, occupations, or political backgrounds would be in danger, especially if they were what the foundation described as “persons with capacity for independent leadership.” So that year, the foundation added an additional Emergency Program for European Scholars that even more aggressively whisked individuals out of Germany and conquered countries, mostly to the U.S.

The Rockefeller leadership knew they couldn’t carry out a mass refugee rescue in the middle of a war, so they focused on saving gifted thinkers in their productive years who held promise of producing breakthroughs that could benefit all people. Two foundation officers were permanently stationed in Europe to aid the endangered, and they showed great inventiveness in moving their charges to safety. Among those protected were twelve future or past Nobel Prize winners. As the war wound on, officials at the foundation realized they were making life and death decisions, which they found wrenching, and many began diverting other foundation funds, and even using their own money, to complete some of the relocations.