What emigres gave to American scholarship; Refugee Scholars in America: Their Impact and Their Experience, by Lewis A. Coser. New Haven and London: Yale University Press. 351 pp. $25.
The man who was largely responsible for establishing New York University's (NYU) Institute of Fine Arts was often heard to remark, ''Hitler is my best friend; he shakes the tree and I collect the apples.'' The 1930s and '40s brought to the United States an unprecedented harvest of refugee scholars, far eclipsing the earlier immigration of German refugees who fled to America after the failed revolution of 1848 and exerting a proportionately greater influence on American intellectual life. The impact of these scholars from Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia, and other countries was twofold: They instilled a high degree of professionalism in many fields and, more important, they helped deprovincialize the American mind.Skip to next paragraph
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But not all academics were as eager as NYU's art historian to collect the fallen apples. While some disciplines, such as art history, welcomed the refugees, others, such as classics, resisted the influx of foreign ideas and methodologies and also refused to admit Jews (foreign or domestic) to their ranks. The majority, though not all, of the refugee scholars were Jews or married to Jews. Ironically, in the previous century, German universities had been more open to such groups as Jews and women than had their English or American counterparts.
Coser points out that disciplines like economics welcomed Austrian-trained mathematical economists, whose approach was similar to the American one, but took no interest in German-trained, historically oriented economists, whose approach was unfamiliar and unfash-ion-able.
Similarly, immigrant psychoanalysts (Erikson, Bettelheim, Fromm, and Horney) found America a promised land, receptive to their ideas, while their colleagues in academic psychology, including the founding triumvirate of Gestalt (Wertheimer, Koffka, Koehler) and child development psychologists Charlotte and Karl Buehler, faced a stone wall of silence from a discipline dominated by behaviorists.
A distinguished sociologist and an immigrant himself, Coser sees the experience of the refugees epitomized in Karl Marx's observation: '' . . . men make their own history, but not as they please.''
The fate of the refugee scholar in his or her adopted country was, he admits, to some degree in the hands of the individual scholar. Those who worked at forging links with American colleagues, those who possessed considerable entrepreneurial skills, and those who were more open to American styles of thought tended to enjoy a higher rate of success.
Paul Lazarfeld, an erstwhile Austrian Marxist, would become the father of American market research. The German historian Hajo Holborn not only went on to achieve eminence as a scholar, but also to play a key role in advising the United States in reconstruction of a democratic Germany.
But there were other scholars, as hardworking, as determined, and even as charming as their more successful brethren, who were unable to achieve the same degree of success.
Men make their own history, but not as they please. For the most part, Coser argues - and his evidence is very persuasive - the success or failure of a given scholar was a function of his reception. It was, finally, the attitude of America toward the immigrant rather than the immigrant's attitude toward America , that played the larger role in determining the immigrant's academic fate. Unlike some of the refugee writers who came to Hollywood and hated it, most of the refugee scholars came with the intention of making America their new home and few returned to Europe after the war.
In political science, the behaviorist orientation of Amerian academics favored a morally neutral approach. Refugees such as Hannah Arendt, Leo Strauss, and Eric Voegelin, who rejected behaviorism and urged the retention of classical humanist values, did not find places at the heart of the academic establishment. Yet, there may have been some value in remaining at the periphery. Coser devoted a long chapter to Arendt, who never became part of the academic establishment, yet became one of this country's most influential intellectuals. Although she felt herself to be something of an outsider, a member of the emigre community, Arendt also took a highly active role in the intellectual and political battles of her adopted country. Freedom, in her view, was essentially a political matter. Totalitarian societies prohibited individuals from acting in the public sphere. The essence of freedom in America, she thought, was its participatory democracy. Participate she did.
Coser provides a balanced and judicious overview of scholars in many fields, surveying the careers of Rene Wellek, Erich Auerbach, Leo Spitzer, Roman Jakobson, Erwin Panofsky, and Paul Tillich, as well as writers like Thomas Mann, Hermann Broch, and Vladimir Nabokov. Intended as a work of scholarship, ''Refugee Scholars in America'' is also accessible to the general reader: It is relatively free of jargon, informative - if somewhat lacking in texture and detail - perceptive, consistently interesting, and at times even lively.