Escape and Exile of German-Language Philosophy

Nicholas Coomann, Max Beck and Roman Yos (from left) explore emigration in philo
Nicholas Coomann, Max Beck and Roman Yos (from left) explore emigration in philosophy. Image: Jürgen Scheere (University of Jena)
Shortly after the National Socialists seized power, a wave of repression began, to which political opponents as well as Jews or other "unpopular" persons were subjected. One consequence was the mass exodus of scientists, cultural workers, and political opponents of the regime. The escape destinations were neighbouring countries such as France, but also the Soviet Union, the USA or countries in South America. What effects and consequences did this emigration have on the subject of philosophy? Who were the exiles, what were their fates? Max Beck and Nicholas Coomann and a small team from the Friedrich Schiller University of Jena want to investigate questions like these. In cooperation with Dr Roman Yos from the University of Potsdam, the two doctoral students are setting up a "Digital Database on Exile Philosophy" (DDEP).

Several hundred people turned their backs on Germany and Austria

"Surprisingly, we don’t know exactly which philosophers emigrated, whereas this is quite well documented for other subjects," says Max Beck. Of course, the escape and exile of well-known philosophers such as Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno are sufficiently illuminated, but for lesser-known representatives of the discipline, the situation is mostly not sufficiently known. In addition, according to Nicholas Coomann, the term "philosopher" lacks definition. The Digital Database on Philosophy in Exile, which the three academics have been working on since this year, is intended to remedy this situation. Preliminary work has been done, and external experts are to be consulted for individual philosophers. "We are working on the assumption that there are several hundred people who turned their backs on Germany and Austria after 1933," says Nicholas Coomann. The aim is to make the sometimes-tortuous paths into exile visible through multimedia, but also to show what impact the foreign country had on the exiles’ thinking and writing. The focus is on lesser-known philosophers such as Helmuth Plessner, who fled first to Istanbul in 1933 and later to the Netherlands. Another name: Paul Ludwig Landsberg. The philosopher with Jewish roots emigrated to France via Switzerland and joined the Resistance there. After his arrest, he suffered through several camps and eventually died in Sachsenhausen in April 1944.

Making the intermediate stages of the escape to a foreign country visible

Based on an open-source software, the website will later make it possible, among other things, to visualise the whereabouts of exiles at a certain point in time. For the early 1940s, for example, this visualisation will show the "density of philosophers" in New York, says Max Beck. However, the stopovers on the way to the saving foreign country are also made visible.

Initially, the database will be created digitally so that changes can be made more easily, says Nicholas Coomann. After all, there are new insights from time to time, for example through the analysis of estates. "But it is conceivable that we will later publish our results in book form," says Coomann.