World War II: German Emmigration--Imact on America

Figure 1.--.

The American view of immigration during the 1930s and early 40s was America as a haven not matter how restricted. The view was very decidedly how America aided and assisted the refugees from Hitler's Europe. The focus is on what America did for them, not what the refugees did for America. Less understood at the time was the impact that European refugees would have on America. They not only strengthened American science but incredibly enriched American cultural life. Between 1933 and 1940 thousands of German artists, scientists, writers and musicians were forced to leave Germany and many of them settled in the United States. Most of them were Jewish, but not all. With their education, knowledge and talents they soon became part of the American cultural scene, although authors like Thomas Mann and Franz Werfel kept writing in German and had to be read in English translations. Movie directors and actors, however, were able to get in touch with the American public much easier. No doubt, American culture benefitted tremendously by the creative works of these immigrants.

The Refugees

Most if the refugees were Jewish, but not all. The NAZIs sought to cut Jews off from first their professional lives and later Jewish national life in general. The NAZIs also went after politicians who had opposed them, especially Communists. Other individuals as long as they did not oppsed the NAZIs might be dismissed from important positions, but were not persecuted. German writers tht were not approved were not allowed to publish. Modern artists were not allowed to paint, bur were not arrested. Gestapo agents might visit to make sure they were not paintaining. Thus individuals had to decide what was more important, there family or professiinal life. For the Jews of coutse the decession was much more stark as repression wlrsened, culminating in Kristalnacht.

Areas of Experise

Refugees from the NAZIs came to America with a wide range of artistic and professional talents.


Many of the architects and teachers at the famous Bauhaus were forced to resign and into exile. Walter Gropius, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Marcel Breuer and Lyonel Feininger come to mind. They all found refuge and employment in the United States. Except for Breuer, they were gentiles.


The NAZIs in part because Hitler thought of himself as an artist and art critic persued modern art with a vengence. Thus artists and not only Jewish artists fled Germany. New York before the 1930s had been an artistic backwater. Americans wanted to go to Europe to study art. By the end of World War II New York was on the cutting edge of wotrld art today has a cultural image as important as the great European centers of art. Most of the German expressionist painters were not Jewish, but they were very soon put on the list of "entartete Kunst" (degenerated art) by the Nazis. Painters like Emil Nolde and Ernst Kirchner stayed in Germany, but were not allowed to paint. The Nazis regularly inspected their ateliers to see if there was no fresh paint on the pallet ! Others like Max Beckmann, Hans Hofmann, Josef Albers and George Grosz went to Amsterdam, Paris and eventually to America.


Hollywood was already the most important movie industry in the world. Even so the NAZI take over in Germany resulted in a major infusion of talent. William Dieterle, Douglas Sirk ( Detlev Sierck), and Fred Zinnemann were not Jewish. Neither was Marlene Dietrich. Goebels personally pleaded with her to return. Interestingly he did not use threats to her family to force her to return. Many forced out of the film industry were Jewish. These included Joseph von Sternberg, Fritz Lang, Ernst Lubitsch, Robert Siodmak, Billy Wilder, Otto Preminger and Erich von Stroheim were Jews. Preminger and Wilder had a huge impact on Hollywood. Wilder worked as a screenwriter and director. Incredibly he did not even speek English when he arrived in America (1934).


Authors were some of the first intellectuals to experience the NAZI ire with the public book burnings which were conducted throughout Germany (April 1933). Unlike other actions taken by the NAZIs such as setting up concentration camps, the book burings were easily vissible as the NAZIs publicized them. Americans saw then in the movie newsreels. Important authors, especially Jewish authors began fleeing Germany.


It is a fact that Germany for centuries has been a country of music. Some of the most famous composers were German and opera houses and concert halls are everywhere. The Jews with their great love for music have been participating in the musical culture of Germany since Mendelssohn and Meyerbeer. Well-known composers and musicians like Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Kurt Weill ("The Threepenny Opera"), Ernst Toch and Ernst Krenek, Paul Hindemith and Arnold Schönberg continued writing beautiful music in California. Still, something nobody wants to admit, musical life in NAZI Germany remained at the highest level. Richard Strauß and Franz Lehar did not leave the country and conductors Wilhelm Furtwängler and Herbert von Karajan neither. Soprano Elisabeth Schwarzkopf performed in the opera houses until they were destroyed by Allied bombers.


The most famous scientific refugee was of course Albert Einstein, but many other German scientists sought refuge in America. This included Nobel prize lauralates, both those already in Germany or those who won their awards later on in the United States. Without Hans Bethe, Max Born, Enrico Fermi and the Hungarians Edward Teller, Leo Szilard, John von Neumann and Eugene Wigner, the Manhattan Project might not have produced the atomic bomb by 1945. At the turn of the 20th century, America was a major industrial power, but all the major sciebtufic institutes and renoowned universities were in Europe. At the advent of World War II, Ameica's economic and industrial resources had created a major scientific community. Germany until the advent of the NAZIs won more Nobel prizes than any other country. America by this time was accumulating Nobel prizes, but was not the dominant force in science. The exodous of Jewish and other anti-NAZI scientists combined with America's own native born sciebntists to create a scientific power house that has continued to this day. [Snow] It is interesting that as much as many American's fought accepting refugeees that those refugees were a critical force in making America a scientific super power. German science was strong enough that it provided a major support for the war effort. Even so, with the NAZIs, Germans no longer dominated Nobel prize lists. In addition if you look at the great sciebntific achievements after World war II, Germany no longer plays a central role as it did before the War.


It is quite astonishing in reading about the many individuals that came to America and the degree to which they changed and enriched American life. Even more astonishing is the fact that these were the same people that the NAZIs charged with corrupting and weakening German life.


Snow, C.P. The Physicists (Macmillan: London, 1981).

Stueck. Rudi. E-mail, January 31, 2004.


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Created: 11:27 PM 1/31/2005
Last updated: 11:27 PM 1/31/2005