Skip to main content Skip to navigation

It’s not what you know: how professional networks helped Jewish academics flee persecution in Nazi Germany

Header image for article

It’s not what you know: how professional networks helped Jewish academics flee persecution in Nazi Germany

In 1933, the Nazi party passed a law to ‘retire’ academics and other civil servants of Jewish descent from their positions. In the scramble to escape growing persecution, many academics of Jewish heritage sought to emigrate. Sascha O. Becker and Sharun Mukand explain that, for these academics, connections to colleagues – rather than friends – could make all the difference.

When the Nazi regime came to power in 1933, the flourishing academic culture established in Germany came to a sudden halt. Jewish academics were targeted through demonstrations, class boycotts and sporadic violence. Mass dismissal of Jews (defined by the Nazis as individuals with at least one Jewish grandparent) from academic positions began in 1933. By 1939 virtually all Jewish academics had lost their jobs. Growing persecution and the threat of deportation to camps left many of these academics rushing to escape the country. But successful emigration was not a foregone conclusion. Jobs outside Germany were scarce after the Great Depression and anti-Semitism was rife. The majority of Jewish academics did successfully flee Germany to positions in other countries. But how did they do it?

The case of Richard Courant gives us some insight. Courant was a world-leading mathematician at the University of Göttingen. He emigrated to Cambridge in 1933 before moving to New York University the year after. Courant is documented to have received letters ‘by the dozens’ asking for help from mathematicians seeking to flee Germany. Figure 1 shows how he supported some of his former colleagues in finding work in the US.

Figure 1: Richard Courant's involvement in securing faculty positions

Notes: the mathematicians listed in the figure depict professional ties for which we found explicit documentary proof of Courant’s role in facilitating their emigration. Courant’s involvement is represented by the small blue arrows in the figure. Note: Friedrichs and Artin were not of Jewish origin but were persecuted because they had a Jewish wife.

The case of Richard Courant suggests that professional networks could be highly successful in enabling academics to find work outside Germany. But Courant’s success in securing positions for his colleagues may equally have been due to his world-renown. What role, therefore, did networks play in enabling escape from persecution? To find out, we compile extensive biographical data for dismissed Jewish academics in Germany. We find that individuals were more likely to emigrate if they knew others in their profession who had already done so. It was these professional networks (not community or family networks) that gave academics their best chance of leaving the country. The closeness of colleagues was also an important factor: help came more often from recent colleagues and from those who had worked in the same university department as the academic seeking to flee.

To understand how networks enabled escape from Nazi Germany, we compiled a list of all 1370 dismissed Jewish academics. We used the List of Displaced German Scholars alongside university-specific data and subject-specific studies. We then constructed detailed biographies and career paths for each academic using archival and digital resources. From there we were able to set out the professional networks of each academic. We considered academics who had had worked together between the years 1929 and 1933 to be part of a network. We specifically looked at the years before the dismissals began, so that the networks studied were genuine professional connections rather than associations created for the specific purpose of escape.

The dismissal of Jewish academics took place over a number of years. At first, individuals who had fought in the First World War, had lost a father or son in the war or had worked for the civil service since 1914 were exempt from dismissal. In 1935 these exemptions were revoked. The two-stage nature of the dismissal of Jewish academics allows us to consider the impact of early émigrés (those who had been dismissed and had emigrated by 1935) on the emigration decisions of colleagues who were still in Germany in 1935.

We find that those academics who had links to early émigrés were more likely to emigrate themselves. Academics with 10 or more ties to early émigrés were 5 percentage points more likely to emigrate by 1939. Our findings control for variables which could impact the likelihood of emigration including family, languages spoken and academic seniority.

Academics with links to early émigrés were also more likely to move to the location in which the early émigré had settled. This suggests that émigrés were able to use their knowledge and influence in their new location to support their colleagues to move. Indeed, there is evidence to suggest that early émigrés only affected the emigration decisions of those who had not left Germany by 1935, indicating that émigrés had to be settled into a new location before they could effectively support others to escape.

Significantly, we find that professional network ties were much stronger and more effective if the connection was recent and local. Academics with 10 or more ties to recent colleagues (those they had worked with in either 1932 or 1933) were 8 percentage points more likely to emigrate. Older connections were less likely to facilitate emigration. We observed similar trends for geographical proximity. Academics with 10 or more ties to early émigrés who had worked at the same department were 6 percentage points more likely to emigrate. Ties with émigrés who taught the same subject at a different university in the town were 5 percentage points more likely to emigrate. This is a surprising finding given the life-or-death implications of emigrating during this period. It suggests that the strength of networks can decay over time and space, something that has not been observed before.

Among the cohort of academics who emigrated, none of them made use of community networks to leave the country. This is in contrast to low-skilled migrants, who have been found in previous studies of migration to rely on community and family networks. Academic emigration was much higher than for ordinary Jews: by 1945 only 51% of the general Jewish population had left Germany. Professional networks were therefore potentially significant for high-skilled workers in opening up opportunities for escape that were not available to everyone.

Policy implications

The role of professional networks in providing migration opportunities for high-skilled workers has implications for the design of visa policies for attracting high-skilled individuals who may face persecution in their home countries. In recent years academics and other high-skilled professionals have faced persecution for example in Hong Kong, Turkey, Hungary and many other places. According to the organisation Scholars at Risk (SAR), personal attacks on academics have been increasing in recent years. For example, there were 341 attacks on universities in 58 countries, in the period September 2019 to August 2020 alone.

Furthermore, our results suggest that even short-term interruptions or surges of high-skilled migration can have long-term implications for the flow of high-skilled workers to a country. Richard Courant is a case in point. Had he stayed at Cambridge, he would have supported his colleagues to move into appointments in the UK. As it was, he moved to the US in 1934 and many of his former colleagues from Germany joined him there. Policy decisions such as President Trump’s suspension of visas for certain high-skilled workers could therefore have long-term effects on access to expert labour.

Sascha O. Becker and Sharun Mukand

Sascha O. Becker is Xiaokai Yang Chair of Business and Economics and part-time Professor at the University of Warwick

Sharun Mukand is Professor at the University of Warwick

Publication details

This article is taken from Becker, S., Mukand, S., Lindenthal, V., Waldinger, F., ‘Persecution and escape: Professional networks and high-skilled emmigration from Nazi Germany’, CAGE working papers (no. 542)

Image credit: Geza Kurka Photos/