Scientists in Exile – A Phenomenon in Totalitarian Regimes. The Czechoslovak Case.

5-6 2009 Naši ve světě English
obálka čísla

(Short version of plenary lecture at the XXIII International Congress of History of Science and Technology “Ideas and Instruments in Social Context”, 28 July - 2 August 2009 Budapest, Hungary)

Mobility of scientists belongs to the significant social phenomena affecting scientific development. Escape of scientific elites from countries with totalitarian regimes not only represents a specific (and unwanted) type of mobility and extensive brain drain, but in its consequences leads to heavy cultural and social damage or even impair of genetic potential affecting several generations. The recent gloomy history of scientific exile from Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia, Franco’s Spain, Communist countries of Central and Eastern Europe, Chile, South Africa and many other places has shown manifold reasons and motivations of scholars to leave their home countries; among them belonged direct threat to life, active opposition or struggle against the regime, persecution of intelligentsia or some groups of population as a common practice, dissent from the regime, lack of academic freedom or just inadequate living conditions.

Czechoslovakia may be considered a model country for research into scientific exile as it experienced in a relatively short historical time span of 80 years 1918-1989 several waves of scientific exile both as a host country and a country from which intellectuals were forced to flee. These waves taking their course in different historical and political circumstances allow us to study the phenomenon of scientific exile in its variability.

The Czechoslovak Republic founded in 1918 as a one of the successor countries to the Habsburg Empire very soon became thanks to its democratic political system and its central European position target destination of refugees. Between the two World Wars hundreds of scholars were driven to Czechoslovakia by two major exile waves. With the first wave after 1917, refugees arrived from the Bolshevik Russia; in consequence, Prague became between the two World Wars the third most important intellectual centre of the Russian and Ukrainian emigration after Berlin and Paris and seat of its significant scientific institutions, like the Russian and Ukrainian Free Universities and several scientific journals. Foremost Russian and Ukrainian scholars also found positions in the Czech and Slovak universities and contributed to the advancement of several scientific disciplines. The second wave of exile between WW1 and WW2 brought to Czechoslovakia fugitives from Hitler’s Germany, mainly Jews and opponents of the Nazis. Among the ten to twenty thousand people who used Czechoslovakia as a transit country between 1933 and 1938 were a number of foremost German scholars.

The years 1938-1939 became the turning point also with regard to exile. Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia triggered the first exile wave in opposite direction. The country which hosted émigrés turned into a country from which the people were running away. Scholars who declared themselves Czechs, Germans or Jews were leaving under direct threat in all possible directions, especially towards United Kingdom, USA, Palestine, Soviet Union, temporarily France and other later occupied countries, and even Turkey. After WW2 most of the Czech émigré scholars returned back to the liberated country, but part of them diffident of the post-war political developments stayed in their new homelands and often took first-rate academic positions. The second major wave of scientific exile from Czechoslovakia took place after the Communist coup in February 1948. It can be divided into two “sub-waves”. The first “sub-wave” began soon after February 1948 but lasted only about two years as after 1950 it practically stopped due to the hermetically closed borders and severe punishments for leaving the country illegally. The second “sub wave” gradually rose in the 1960s with the onset of political thaw when scientists made use of the new opportunities of visiting under some defined conditions meetings abroad and accepting invitations to work at foreign universities. It was the 1968 “Prague Spring” with its political liberalization and the subsequent occupation of Czechoslovakia by the Warsaw Pact armies in August of the same year which provoked the third and strongest wave of scientific and not only scientific exile. From 1968 until the fall of the Communist regime in 1989 fled in total about 200 thousand persons, that is about 1.4 % population. In both the second and third wave the proportion of people with university education was higher than the average in Czechoslovakia. The same applies to people who we call scholars, that is university teachers and researchers acting in sciences and humanities; we may estimate their proportion in both waves at 1.5 % while their proportion in the Czech Lands and Slovakia was only about 2 per thousand inhabitants. The most significant amount of scholars left the country in a short period between autumn 1968 and spring 1969 when countless universities and research establishments all over the world offered positions to the Czech academics. It is necessary to stress that since 1948 the exile was in most cases connected with breaking the law, as leaving the country without official permit was unlawful and legal emigration was practically impossible. Therefore exile scientists were in most cases considered criminals.

Since the 1930s the exile waves have been accompanied by establishing institutions assisting refugees, mostly by scholars themselves. Rescue and professional placement of exile academics started in Great Britain thanks to the Society for the Protection of Science and Learning (SPSL), called by its foundation in 1933 Academic Assistance Council (AAC), today Council for Assisting Refugee Academics (CARA). Through these organizations, probably first time in history, scholars, namely leading British and a few non-British scientists such as Sir William Beveridge, Lord Rutherford, John Maynard Keynes, Leo Szilárd, A V Hill, and others, committed themselves in assisting their imperilled colleagues. SPSL also played important role in assisting refugees from Czechoslovakia. As early as in 1948 was founded the Czechoslovak Relief Committee for Political Refugees with branches in several parts of the world. In the USA the American Fund for Czechoslovak Refugees started to function in 1948. The University Assistance Fund (UAF) which like the CARA has existed until today was originally founded in 1948 to assist students escaping from Czechoslovakia. The formation of the Czechoslovak exile scientific community has been catalyzed by the Czechoslovak Society of Arts and Sciences (SVU) established in 1958 in the USA.

Scientific exile is a multifaceted phenomenon with political, economic, social, cultural, psychological, moral, and gender aspects. To understand more deeply its various manifestations a four years lasting project Czech Scholars in Exile financed by the Grant Agency of the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic has been started. It is focused on the circumstances and consequences of the Czech scientific exile especially in the years 1952-1989 concentrating on the target group of scholars affiliated to the Czechoslovak Academy of Sciences as the central research institution of Communist Czechoslovakia. At the heuristic level a database of the scientific workers of the Czechoslovak Academy of Sciences from the Czech and Moravian based institutes who left Czechoslovakia in the year 1952-1989 is being prepared. Also an extensive collection of archives related to the exile scientists’ biographies, and contemporary legal, governmental, political and institutional documents and bills associated with the so-called “illegal abandonment of the Republic” is being compiled with special regard to handling scholars. The database is serving among other things as a resource of an encyclopedia of exile entitled “100 Czech Scholars in Exile” whose manuscript is ready and will be published next year. It encompasses besides biographic entries of foremost Czech exile scholars also chapters analyzing the reasons, consequences and meaning of the most recent wave of scientific exile in the Czech history. The biographic entries have been prepared, where possible, by contemporary Czech academics in cooperation with still living émigré scholars. Supplemented by other methodical tools, especially oral history, they offer a valuable resource for the analytical level of the project.

We have so far put together from archival records an almost complete list of over 700 names of the Czech employees of the Czechoslovak Academy of Sciences with university education. This means that around 5% of the highly educated workforce of the Czech part of the Academy has chosen to stay abroad mostly illegally before 1989. The most frequent target countries were West Germany, USA and Canada. About half of the top scientists selected for the Encyclopedia belong to the life and chemical sciences one third to the group of inanimate sciences, and the rest of it to humanities. The narratives in the biographies testify on the family and political background of exile scientists, motivations of their decisions, sometimes dramatic routes of escape, incorporation in the new scientific communities, scientific achievements before and after escape. The prevalent subjective stimulus for emigration was the complex state of affairs which impaired effective research, grim political and economic situation, along with the perspective of a promising scientific career and more satisfactory personal life in the free world, while almost no scholar who left the country in this period was under direct threat of political victimization, imprisonment or at a risk of life. Family histories played quite important roles in choice of profession and decision making. Although considerable part of the exile scientists were politically neutral or came from families opposing the Communist system, still quite a large proportion were surprisingly members of the Communist Party. Most of the émigré scholars under consideration made successful careers abroad; in sciences the prerequisite was younger age at the time of emigration (approx. under 45) the most prominent group being formed by some young gifted yet hitherto unknown men around 30 who became recognized scientists after settling abroad. In humanities age did not play such role. After the political change in 1989 large part of the successful exile scholars have made effort to assist scientific advance in Czechoslovakia/Czech Republic.

The Czechoslovak example enables to deliberate on both the reasons and consequences of the scientific exile during the Communist regime. Among the general incentives we should mention oppression of scientific and academic freedom and mutilation of independent thinking, ideology driven science, subordination of science to the needs of the socialist economy as “productive force”, unproductive planning and control of scientific production, key positions reserved for Party members, etc. Talking about the consequences, it is obvious that scientific exile has been one of the reasons of impairment of scientific progress especially in the fields where the brain drain was enormous. Apart of this apparent effect we may notice others like loss of noteworthy cultural strata of the population, apathy and decline of interest in exploration, downgrade of education of new scientific generations, loss of contacts with the foreign scientific communities, fear and uncertainty in communication with the colleagues who left. Beside mostly disastrous effects, we may also see some positive ones like enhanced dissemination, circulation and cross-fertilization of ideas and benefit for the countries where the émigré scientists found their new homes. These, however, do not surmount the cost of scientific exile Czechoslovakia had to pay.

Additional data would be needed to collate the situation with countries where the communist regime treated the intellectual strata in a similar manner, especially Slovakia, Hungary, Poland, GDR and other countries of the Eastern Bloc, although each of them had in their history different turning-points triggering scientific exile, like Hungary its 1956 revolution. Nevertheless, even data based on the Czechoslovak model allow drawing a picture of science under political pressure in totalitarian countries.

Soňa Štrbáňová and Antonín Kostlán
Centre for History of Sciences and Humanities,
Institute for Contemporary History Academy
of Sciences of the Czech Republic

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