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News > The House > Anthony Grenville (1962): Einstein at the House

Anthony Grenville (1962): Einstein at the House

Oxford University took in the most refugee scholars of any British academic institution and, although the reception of these refugees was distinctly mixed, their impact was great and lasting.
8 Nov 2022
Written by Olivia Tan
The House
Einstein in Tom Quad. Photo credit © Mirrorpix / Bridgeman Images
Einstein in Tom Quad. Photo credit © Mirrorpix / Bridgeman Images

Anthony Grenville (1962, Modern Languages) originally wrote this article for CCM13, which have edited and reproduced with permission for this Giving Day edition of e-Matters. We have also included sections from Anthony’s article ‘The refugee scholars who found safety among the spires,’ which can be found in the October 2019 edition of Jewish Renaissance.

The popular image of Christ Church in the interwar years is of Sebastian Flyte holding court in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, or of the Bollinger Club dinner at the start of Decline and Fall. But there was more to the House in the 1930s than effete and dimwitted aristocrats, for it was also keen to add to its scholarly lustre by taking on German-Jewish professors who had been removed from their posts by the Nazis.

Oxford University took in more refugee scholars than any other academic institution in Britain, according to a report in November 1938. Though Oxford – and Christ Church’s – record in its reception of these refugees was, like that of British society as a whole, distinctly mixed, the impact on its academic standards was great and lasting.

The first German-Jewish academic to take up a post at Christ Church, already before 1933, was Albert Einstein (1879- 1955. Research Student, Christ Church, 1931-2). Einstein first came to Oxford in 1931, through the initiative of Frederick Lindemann, Professor of Physics at Oxford, later Lord Cherwell, Churchill’s wartime scientific adviser. Einstein stayed in Oxford for three short periods between May 1931 and June 1933. He was accommodated at Christ Church, ‘the calm cloisters of which he relished as much as Oxford relished him’, according to a historian of science at Oxford.

The correspondence in Einstein’s file at Christ Church shows that relations between the scientist and the House were cordially warm. In June 1931 the Dean wrote to Einstein, offering him a research studentship at an annual salary of £400, ‘for something like a month during term time in the course of the year’. Einstein replied in July, expressing his unconcealed delight at the prospect of spending time in unfamiliar but highly congenial surroundings. On 23 October the Dean was able to inform Einstein that the Governing Body had elected him to a studentship and to express ‘our earnest hope that we may often have the pleasure and honour of seeing you in our Society’.

However, Oxford was not entirely welcoming. On 24 October the Dean received a letter from Professor J.G.C. Anderson, protesting vehemently against Einstein’s appointment; those who had framed the relevant statutes never intended emoluments to go to people of non-British nationality, Anderson argued, adding that it was wrong to ‘send money out of the country’ in the dire economic situation of the Depression, especially as the university was receiving a large grant from public funds. The Dean retorted that the academic benefit to the House far outweighed narrow nationalism: ‘I think that in electing Einstein we are securing for our Society perhaps the greatest authority in the world on physical science; his attainments and reputation are so high that they transcend national boundaries, and any university in the world ought to be proud of having him.’

Einstein, unaware that he had incurred the wrath of Little Englanders reluctant to burden the British taxpayer with foreign scientists, accepted the appointment on 29 October. But on 2 November Anderson fired off a further letter, covering over three tightly packed sides. The Dean circulated this missive to his colleagues, asking for comments. Only one response appears on file, evidently from the one ‘outsider’, a lecturer in chemistry, mentioned by Professor Anderson as having been appointed to a studentship. This simply reads ‘Is the Professor quite accurate in describing me as an English-speaking member?’, signed ‘A.S.R’. Alexander Stuart Russell had been appointed Dr. Lee’s Reader in Chemistry in 1919 and a Student of Christ Church in 1920. He had studied at Glasgow, and presumably spoke with a Scots accent to match. This ended the objections to Einstein; indeed, after such a withering put-down, it is hard to imagine what further xenophobic tirades from Anderson could have achieved.

After 1933 Einstein could not return to Christ Church, so he proposed that his stipend be used to fund posts for Jewish academics dismissed from German universities by the Nazis. In May 1934, Dean Williams was able to inform him that the House proposed to give a sorely needed £200 to the distinguished classical philologist Eduard Fraenkel, formerly of Freiburg University and now in Oxford. Two distinguished German-Jewish professors found refuge at Christ Church. Felix Jacoby, a specialist in Greek historiography and poetry, had been Professor of Classical Philology at Kiel University from 1907 until his dismissal in 1935. He emigrated to Britain in 1939, where he continued to work on his Fragmente der griechischen Historiker, publishing fifteen volumes of texts and commentary over the 35 years during which he pursued this magnum opus. One can imagine what it meant to Jacoby, stripped of his position and at the mercy of the Nazis, to receive a letter from Dean Williams in December 1938 inviting him in the warmest terms ‘to continue your important work on the fragments of the Greek historians as soon as possible here at Oxford’.

Paul Jacobsthal, who had been Professor of Archaeology at Marburg University from 1912 until his dismissal in 1935, was appointed to a post at Christ Church in 1937. An expert on Greek vase painting, his studies of the influence of Mediterranean civilisations on early North Alpine cultures led to his also becoming University Reader in Celtic Archaeology. On Jacobsthal’s death in 1957, Christopher Hawkes, Professor of European Archaeology, wrote to Dean Lowe: ‘Everyone at all connected with these studies must always owe a very great debt of gratitude to the House? All that great generosity has of course not only assured [Jacobsthal’s] residing and working here, but in so doing has also guaranteed that the prime opportunity for holding the central position in these studies shall lie with Oxford.’

Christ Church was also generous in offering places to refugee undergraduates who had come to Britain as children in the 1930s, for example the distinguished poet and translator Michael Hamburger [see below]. Another was Walter Eberstadt, who served with distinction in Normandy in 1944 and then, as a young bilingual officer with the British occupation forces, played a key role in setting up Nordwestdeutscher Rundfunk (North West German Broadcasting), the Hamburg-based radio station that was to serve as the model for West Germany’s public broadcasting system.

In the 1960s the refugees from Nazism in Britain raised £96,000 – about £2 million today – as a gesture of thanks to Britain. They gave it to the British Academy, which still uses the money to fund the Thank-Offering to Britain Fellowship, awarded annually alongside the Leverhulme Senior Research Fellowships.

ANTHONY GRENVILLE (1962) with thanks for the expert assistance of archivist Judith Curthoys


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