Refugee Scholars in America

Fifteen years ago, Donald Fleming and Bernard Bailyn edited an important collection of essays by prominent refugee scholars and scientists entitled The Intellectual Migration: Europe and America, 1930-1960 (1969), and two years ago Anthony Heilbut published his arresting interpretation of refugee experience, Exiled in Paradise: German Refugee Artists and Intellectuals in America, from the 1930’s to the Present (1983). Indeed, an understanding of the refugee contribution to American life and thought has been fed by dozens of memoirs, eulogies, and biographies. Although Lewis Coser’s book represents a milestone in refugee scholarship, it is unlikely that the impulse to assess and reinterpret this remarkable moment in history will diminish in the near future. The last of the greatest refugee scholars are now quite up in years, and those a generation younger, born after World War I, are largely past their prime. When they finally do fade away, like Douglas MacArthur’s “old soldiers,” their contribution to the maturation of American culture will probably seem even more impressive than it does in the mid-1980’s.

Why? One has to go back to the dispersion of Greek scholars, scribes, and tutors throughout the Roman world to find an intellectual migration of comparable importance. America was not in cultural darkness before the refugees arrived, any more than Rome needed the Greeks to become itself, but in both cases the contact served to legitimize the intellectual authority of the receiving culture—to grace supplanting power with the best that the older culture had to offer. There is great irony in the fact that Adolf Hitler divested Europe of the one resource America needed to achieve cultural parity: theoretical and scholarly superiority in the humanities and sciences. Was America sufficiently aware of the advantage Hitler’s insane bigotry had given her? Yes and no. Himself a refugee and an eminent American sociologst, Professor Coser has done a masterful job of recording the intellectual, social, and personal experiences of dozens of prominent European émigrés. He illuminates not only their trials and accomplishments but also the development of the several disciplines in America with which they became involved.

This book does not touch on the stellar contributions of refugee physicists, but the natural and physical sciences are adequately presented in earlier works such as the Fleming and Bailyn volume. Coser concentrates on the psychological and social sciences, but he also has important vignettes on humanists and writers. He chose to omit artists and experts in international law. The refugee contribution is simply too subtle and extensive to summarize in one book. The introduction stresses the “marginality” of the refugee intellectuals and notes how their being “wanderers” somehow gave them the power “to throw a novel and more searching light on American society and scholarship” than their American-born counterparts. They could not help but think “otherwise” and used their privilege as immigrants in a free country to become innovators and gadflies, to challenge American optimism and “present-mindedness” with their own deeply felt and often tragic sense of history and tradition.

The social marginality of the refugees was often reflected in their interdisciplinary approaches. As thinkers, they seemed at home in crossing from one discipline to another to flesh out their intricate sense of intellectual history, what they called Geistesgeschichte. The great psychoanalyst Erik Erikson and his famous explorations in psychohistory (Young Man Luther, 1958, and Gandhi’s Truth, 1969) brought together historical and psychoanalytical interpretation. The economist George Katona developed a theory of consumer behavior based on economic theory and Gestalt psychology. Another economist, Fritz Redlich, merged entrepreneurial and business history, in the German...

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