Historiography in Emigration: German Historians in Great Britain after 1933

It is doubly fitting that my book on German-speaking historians who emigrated to Britain after 1933 has now been published in the GHIL’s book series. As the holder of a GHIL scholarship, I had the pleasure to be based at the Institute during two archival research trips to London, and since the majority of sources for my project are in British archives, the chance to visit Britain and consult materials in person was indispensable. The GHIL also provided a highly stimulating intellectual environment, especially when I spoke about my Ph.D. project at the Institute‘s colloquium, which strongly shaped the ultimate direction of my research.

At the same time, the GHIL was crucial to my project because of its own archival collections, and indeed as a subject of study in and of itself. The Institute now holds the papers of Francis L. Carsten, for example, a German–British historian who had to leave Nazi Germany for Britain, where he became a professor at the University of London. Carsten was a member of the first generation of historians I study in my book, who were trained as historians in German-speaking continental Europe, whereas the second generation under scrutiny arrived as children and acquired their university education in the UK. A third, middle generation of émigré historians who studied both in German-speaking continental Europe and in Britain completes the picture.

Cover of Birte Meinschien, Geschichtsschreibung in der Emigration (Berlin, 2020).

Carsten’s papers at the GHIL also illuminate the Institute’s own foundation in the 1970s and its mission as a centre of communication and exchange between German and British historians, in which émigré historians took on a formative role. The GHIL is itself an important puzzle piece in my book, which examines for the first time in depth the lives of these historians—their careers, scholarly work, and position in the academic community, both in the UK and in post-war West Germany—in the form of a collective biography.

First, I examine their lives and careers before the Nazis came to power—before persecution and emigration—exploring factors that facilitated or hindered their integration into British academia. Second, my book looks at their post-war careers in the UK, the question of re-emigration and the small group of those who did return as professors to (West) Germany and Austria. Third, I turn to their research, with a focus on works on British and German history, both medieval and modern, and on German–Jewish history. Finally, I examine their influence and position in the community of historians both in the UK and in Germany.

Even though many of these émigrés faced hardship after coming to the UK and some had to find employment outside of their chosen profession as historians, the great majority of them eventually enjoyed professional success—although the human cost of these achievements should not be forgotten or overlooked. In the case of the first generation, the experience of persecution, emigration, and subsequent interaction with a new academic and national culture transformed their knowledge of history, their way of writing about history, and their personal relationship to their subject of study. But at the same time, they kept elements of their ‘continental’ approach to history. The second generation, trained by British historians, often worked first on British history, but retained a particular interest in German and Austrian history, especially in the modern era. This led many of them to ‘return’ to German history at a later stage of their career, often promoting new ways of looking at German (and to a lesser extent, Austrian) history.

These historians also had an important impact on (West) German historiography after 1945 and the ‘westernization’ of Germany. Apart from their writing, many were very influential as supervisors of Ph.D. candidates and as academic teachers, and exerted great influence in the new Federal Republic, sometimes creating and shaping new fields of research. In Britain, finally, they were key movers behind professional organizations such as the GHIL, the Leo Baeck Institute, the Wiener Library, and the Warburg Institute. As a result of their work and influence in these fields, these émigré historians became mediators and bridge-builders between (West) German and British historiography, internationalizing and diversifying historiography in both countries.


Published by

Birte Meinschien

She completed her Ph.D. at Goethe University Frankfurt, where she worked on German-speaking historians who migrated to Britain after 1933.

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