Cara’s roots go back to 1933, and the Nazis’ expulsion of many leading academics from Germany’s universities. Over eighty years on, Cara is still working to help at-risk academics facing discrimination, persecution, suffering and violence around the world, and to advance education by supporting academics and their educational institutions whose continuing work is at risk or compromised.
While travelling in Austria in April 1933, William Beveridge, then the Director of the London School of Economics, learned of the Nazi authorities’ decree, dismissing many leading academics from German universities on racial and political grounds. He returned to the UK and set about enlisting the support of prominent academics, scientists and others for an urgent rescue mission. The Academic Assistance Council (AAC) was launched in May. Its founding statement appealed for “means to prevent the waste of exceptional abilities exceptionally trained”. The Nobel Prize-winning chemist and physicist Ernest Rutherford was chosen as the first President. A V Hill, another Nobel Prize-winning scientist, and later also Cambridge University MP, became Vice-President. The Hungarian physicist Leo Szilard, who had met Beveridge in Vienna, moved to London and for a while also worked from the AAC offices in the Rooms of the Royal Society, at the top of Burlington House. He was never fully part of the AAC, as he saw his task as being to mobilise an international, rather than primarily British, response to the crisis; but he influenced its early thinking, until he left for the USA in 1937.
The AAC’s founders, supported by the redoubtable Esther (‘Tess’) Simpson, who had been recruited by Szilard, threw themselves into their new task. Between May and August 1933, the AAC raised nearly £10,000 to get its work off the ground – around £350,000 in today’s values – most of it from UK academics. The AAC was one of four organisations who came together as the ‘Refugee Assistance Fund’ in October 1933 to hold a major fundraising event at the Royal Albert Hall. In his last public speech in Europe before leaving for the USA, Albert Einstein urged his audience to stand up for intellectual and individual freedom: “If we want to resist the powers which threaten to suppress intellectual and individual freedom we must keep clearly before us what is at stake, and what we owe to that freedom which our ancestors have won for us after hard struggles. Without such freedom, there would have been no Shakespeare, no Goethe, no Newton, no Faraday, no Pasteur and no Lister … Most people would lead a dull life of slavery … It is only men who are free who create the inventions and intellectual works which to us moderns make life worthwhile.”
By 1936, it was clear that a new, more formal, structure was needed to take over the AAC’s work. Rutherford explained the rationale in an open letter in ‘Science’ (Vol 83, No 2155, 17 April 1936): “The council hoped that its work might be required for only a temporary period, but is now convinced that there is need for a permanent body to assist scholars who are victims of political and religious persecutions. The devastation of the German universities still continues; not only university teachers of Jewish descent, but many others who are regarded as “politically unreliable” are being prevented from making their contribution to the common cause of scholarship.”
As a result, he announced the creation of a permanent successor, the Society for the Protection of Science and Learning (SPSL). In a joint letter on the same page, Albert Einstein, Erwin Schrödinger and Vladimir Tchernavin paid tribute to the work of the AAC in its three short years: “The warm sympathy extended to all who approached the Academic Assistance Council has helped in hundreds of cases … The Academic Assistance Council is coming to an end in its emergency form, but we and our friends will endeavor to make it remain unforgotten. May we hope that the continuation of our scientific work – helped in no small measure by its activities – will be an expression of our gratitude?”
Between 1933 and 1939, the AAC/SPSL raised £100,000 from donors and universities, the equivalent of some £4 million today, and used it to support individuals, and their families, with grants and advice while they found new posts in universities in the UK or in other safe countries. A number of the AAC’s founders and Council members also personally provided places and/or funds to help individual academics; and the AAC was closely involved in the successful effort in 1933 to bring to London the Warburg Institute art library, which had been proscribed by the Nazis, and six of its staff. In 1940, when many German academics were interned by the British authorities as part of a much wider round-up of ‘enemy aliens’, the SPSL worked with specialist Committees to get them released again (a poster exhibition outlining the work of the Committee led by the Royal Society of Medicine can be seen here). In, all some two thousand people were saved, and helped to build new lives. Sixteen won Nobel Prizes; eighteen were knighted; over one hundred became Fellows of The Royal Society or The British Academy. Their contribution to British scientific, intellectual and cultural life was enormous. To give just a few examples: Ernst Chain, Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, 1945; Hans Krebs, Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, 1953; Max Born, Nobel Prize in Physics, 1954; Max Perutz, Nobel Prize in Chemistry, 1962; Lise Meitner, celebrated nuclear physicist; Nikolaus Pevsner, architectural historian and author; Marthe Vogt, prominent neuroscientist; Geoffrey Elton (born Gottfried Ehrenberg), Tudor historian and philosopher of history; Ernst Gombrich, the notable art historian, who was able to work as a Warburg Institute research fellow in London; Karl Popper, political and social philosopher; Ludwig Guttmann, neurologist at Stoke Mandeville, ‘father’ of the Paralympic movement. It was a unique effort; there was no parallel elsewhere in Europe. At a commemorative event at the House of Lords in 2012, Mrs Eva Loeffler, Sir Ludwig Guttmann’s daughter, warmly thanked Cara for its vital role in obtaining visas for her family and for giving her father a grant to support his needs and to enable him to continue his research at the Radcliffe Infirmary in Oxford. Without Cara’s help, she said, they would all have perished in the Nazi concentration camps. Instead, her father’s dream of the Paralympics had come true.
The SPSL’s work continued even after the Second World War had come to an end. Beveridge wrote in his A Defence of Free Learning (1959) that “although Hitler was dead, intolerance was not”, and concluded that “continued needs and the possible future crises” rendered the Society’s services as necessary as ever, in Europe and across the world. In the 1940s and 1950s, the SPSL helped many academics seeking refuge from the Stalinist regimes in the USSR and Eastern Europe. As time passed, the SPSL’s focus expanded, to include, among others, those fleeing the apartheid regime in South Africa and juntas in Chile and Argentina. One of the most prominent South African exiles, whom the SPSL helped in 1966 and again in 1988, was the anti-apartheid leader Albie Sachs, later a Justice in the South African Constitutional Court under Nelson Mandela. In 2012, he wrote of the importance of Cara’s work: “My story has been repeated a thousand times and more, with different details, but the same theme. An intellectual driven from his or her homeland by repression and intolerance, enabled by Cara to share ideas and values with welcoming hosts, improving skills … Through living the principles of free enquiry we become natural apostles of peace and understanding and of internationalism at its best. Cara does more than provide succour for people in need. It helps keep alive the spirit of free enquiry.“
More recently, Cara’s focus has shifted to the Middle East, particularly Iraq and now Syria, and to troubled regions of Africa, helping hundreds of academics at risk to escape to places of safety through its Fellowship Programme. In addition, Cara has developed and run regional programmes to support academics and their institutions.
In 1999 the SPSL changed its name to the Council for Assisting Refugee Academics (Cara). This was modified again in 2014 to become the Council for At-Risk Academics, reflecting the fact that Cara helps many who are at great risk but do not see themselves as ‘refugees’, and instead still hope to return to their home countries when conditions allow.
“A society which respects and cherishes the freedom of its academic institutions and their members is much less likely to fall victim to the enemies of freedom in general than a society which does not. Without freedom, how little of what happens on this planet has ultimate moral significance?"
Lord Robbins, President of The Royal Society, 1966