What I discovered in the Foundation’s archives were fascinating, consequential debates about intellectual life under the Nazis—heart-wrenching correspondence about the state of European universities at a time when Adolf Hitler was beginning to wage war against both independent thought and Jewish academics. The gravity of this campaign wasn’t initially apparent to the Foundation, whose public-health program officers in Europe spent the early 1930s cabling assessments to headquarters of political conditions in the region as Hitler rose to power. (In fact, the Rockefeller Foundation funded German eugenics research prior to World War II, helping support the intellectual ecosystem from which the notorious Nazi physician Josef Mengele emerged.)
Eventually, the organization’s president and trustees concluded that something had to be done to rescue Europe’s top minds. But deciding who to save also meant deciding who not to. Internal memos between Foundation staff in Europe and New York anguished over whether to act or not, whether doing so would endanger the institution, and whether the organization was equipped to engage in such efforts.
One of the surprises for me was the active role that Joseph Schumpeter, the Harvard innovation and economic theorist, played in pushing the Foundation to aid academics. He suggested names of scholars to assist throughout the 1930s. At the same time, however, he expressed the uncertainties of the day about what Hitler’s rise meant and how to contextualize it. Schumpeter went so far as to say he was “prepared to forgive [Hitler] much” in a May 2, 1933 letter to Edmund Day, the head of the Rockefeller Foundation’s social-science division:
[T]he case of Stolper and Merschak who are really exceptional men, might be taken up separately and merely on their merits as economists in which case nothing in the way of an unfriendly act towards the German government would be implied which indeed I should not approve of myself. I know something of the government which preceded Hitler’s and I can only say that I am quite prepared to forgive him much by virtue of comparison...
In July 1940, Thomas Appleget, the Foundation’s vice president, objected to a full-fledged operation on behalf of refugee-scholars, suggesting that the Foundation fund the Institute of International Education to do the work instead. He worried about the “inevitable confusion” that would arise “between the hardboiled desire to save intellect and the humanitarian desire to save lives”—foreshadowing later concerns among Foundation staff that the refugee-scholar program was morphing into a large-scale relief effort. In a memo in which he clearly struggled with the life-and-death realities of scholar-selection, Appleget wrote:
The more I think of the refugee scholar situation, the more I think that the problem is one in which the Foundation should not operate directly. We cannot use the principals [sic] of limitation which control our actions in the case of fellowship awards or aid to deposed scholars. Because we are supposed to have unlimited resources, every grant we would make for an outstanding scholar would bring increasing requests from others who are not outstanding. Incidentally, I am not sure that those who now clamor for our aid in order to leave their native lands are—in many cases—those who most deserve help. There would be inevitable confusion between the hardboiled desire to save intellect and the humanitarian desire to save lives. And this would be complicated by the fact that, because of our aid to institutions and our fellowship programs, we have thousands of friends among the scholars of Europe. To select a few of these for aid and refuse the rest would cause widespread disappointment and bitterness in an area where we want goodwill. In view of all these factors, I suggest that the Foundation take no direct action for refugee scholars.
That same summer, Joseph Willits, the Foundation’s social-sciences director, penned a prescient assessment of the situation in a memo entitled “If Hitler wins—.” A sweeping Nazi victory, he predicted, would have a devastating effect on civil society in Europe. “Great Britain, France, Holland, Belgium, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, will almost certainly cease to offer the kind of milieu in which social science research can flourish,” he wrote. The Foundation’s ad-hoc approach to helping scholars was not effective, he continued. “I would do this cold-bloodedly on the assumption that Nazi domination of these countries makes them a poor place for a first-class person to remain in. And on the further assumption that the Foundation could make no finer contribution to our culture than to bring over, say, 100 of the best minds from Great Britain, 75 from France, and smaller numbers from the other countries.” Willits’s arguments largely prevailed within the Foundation.