Radio Research and Refugee Scholars: American Philanthropies Respond to the European Crisis before the War, 1933-39

by Joseph Malherek

Jul 19, 2018

University presidents and foundation administrators in the United States viewed the global refugee crisis precipitated by Hitler's rise to power in Germany in 1933 as a serious humanitarian disaster in need of immediate attention.  It was also, in their view, a historic opportunity to salvage the great minds of Central Europe.  For the officers of the Rockefeller Foundation, the crisis coincided with an increasing interest in sponsoring studies on radio and mass communications, public opinion, and the vulnerabilities of Western democracies to fascism.  Many European social scientists, with their background in empirical research, were ideally suited to study these problems.  The sociologist Paul Lazarsfeld, for example, chose to remain in the U.S. as a Rockefeller fellow when fascism took hold in his native Austria in 1934, and he went on to become the head of a major research institute at Columbia University.

This paper considers the efforts of American citizens, academic elites, and foundation officers to aid refugee scholars and researchers by placing them at American institutions and supporting their work through grants and other forms of aid.  Officers in the Humanities and Social Sciences divisions of the Rockefeller Foundation, working in concert with the leaders of organizations like the Emergency Committee in Aid of Displaced Foreign Scholars, were instrumental in supporting these émigrés and their work in the United States.  The Emergency Committee, with the financial assistance of the Rockefeller Foundation, assisted more than six-hundred refugee scholars with securing university appointments and grants over its twelve years of existence.

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