The Transfer of the Warburg Institute

The Transfer of the Warburg Institute from Germany to England in 1933 

'Hectora quis nosset, si felix Troia fuisset?
Publica virtutis per mala facta via est.'
Ovid, Tristia, Book IV, iii, 75 ss

There are many cases of escapes of individuals from authoritarian countries, but few of institutes and centres of learning and research moving in their entirety from unfriendly to friendly shores; for such a successful transplantation requires foresight and teamwork. It is therefore perhaps not inopportune, after an interval of twenty years, to recall how, with the help of a group of far-seeing English friends, the Warburg Institute escaped from Nazi Germany.

The National Socialist government came to power in January, 1933. As an inevitable result, the Warburg Institute (Kulturwissenschaftliche Bibliothek Warburg) ceased to function as a 'seminar' of Hamburg University. The authorities prevented the Institute's staff from lecturing and students found it inadvisable to make use of its research facilities and library.

At the time many were of the opinion that the regime would soon be overthrown, but this view was not shared by the Director, Professor F. Saxl, who declared that he considered further work in Germany to be impossible. The Staff unanimously declared its willingness to follow him. Mr. Max M. Warburg, the brother of the founder, agreed that an attempt should be made to move the Institute with all its human and physical assets to a country in which the atmosphere was conducive to research and learning; and once this, for him, very grave decision was taken he gave it his full backing.

If such a transplantation were to be accomplished successfully, it was essential that two prerequisites be fulfilled. First a plan had to be evolved to prevent physical harm befalling the Institute and its Staff while still in Germany. Secondly discussions had to be opened at once with friends in foreign lands who might be interested in providing a refuge. The 'burning of the books'' by the Nazis provided an opportunity to take action towards realising the first prerequisite. The Warburg Institute was a foundation partly supported by American members of the founder's family. Hence the United States Consul General in Berlin, Mr. George Messersmith, who had a keen perception of what was happening in Germany, issued a statement to the effect that portions of the Foundation were considered U.S. property. Although the Nazi Mayor of Hamburg resented the action that had been taken, alleging that it had never been the intention of his party to interfere with the Institute, it showed him that there were persons other than German nationals interested in the well-being of the Institute and its personnel.

Meanwhile, the question was to whom to turn abroad; and speed and secrecy were essential to success. Small though the possibility seemed of achieving the objective, it was felt that it would have ceased to exist had the plans been prematurely disclosed. In the ensuing negotiations Professor Saxl showed his rare qualities of diplomacy, resourcefulness, tenacity, and above all disarming unpretentiousness.

The University of Leiden in the Netherlands would have welcomed the Institute and could have supplied it with suitable quarters, but had no funds available to support it. The Italians displayed interest and even offered a palace in Rome as a home, but they too had no funds for financial support. Furthermore going to Italy seemed like getting out of the frying pan into the fire. American friends indicated that eventually funds, and probably substantial funds, might be forthcoming, but these were not immediately available. Only one group of friends acted with the speed the moment required.

Towards the end of July, 1933, Professor W. G. Constable of the Courtauld Institute and the late Dr. C. S. Gibson of Guy's Hospital, who had been informed of the plan through the Academic Assistance Council, came to Hamburg. They visited the Institute and became strong advocates for a move to London. They gained adherents to their view, and in October of the same year, at their suggestion, the late Sir Denison Ross, at that time Director of the School of Oriental Studies, visited the Warburg Institute. He showed a profound understanding of the situation, and infused belief in the ultimate success of the transplantation in those who were worriedly holding out in Hamburg.

Upon his return to London Sir Denison Ross's report found a remarkable response. A committee was formed composed of Lord Lee of Fareham (Chairman), Sir Robert Witt, Sir Denison Ross, Professor Constable, Professor Gibson, Sir Richard Livingstone (who had previously lectured to the Institute in Hamburg), and Mr. Eric M. Warburg. A temporary home for the Institute was found in the premises of Thames House, Millbank. Support was guaranteed for three years jointly by Mr. Samuel Courtauld and the Warburg family.


The steamboat Hermia on which the Warburg Institute came to England.

The first hurdle was taken; but the most difficult part of the task lay ahead, namely obtaining permission from the Nazi authorities to move the Institute. To have requested authorisation for a permanent transfer of the Institute would have involved such problems as taxation and foreign exchange claims. Since, however, the Nazis were actually preventing the functioning of the Institute in their own country, what could have been more natural than for a distinguished British committee to invite the Institute to visit England for a three year period? The letter of invitation to the late Mr. Max M. Warburg, Chairman of the Hamburg committee, reads as follows:

White Lodge Richmond Park London
October 28, 1933.

Dear Mr. Warburg,

It has been brought to the notice of myself and certain of my friends who are also deeply interested in the history of art that the famous Warburg Library in Hamburg has, for the time being, practically ceased to function as a living institution. If this be so, it has occurred to us that it might be possible for this Library to be temporarily housed in London-say for a period of three years-so that the advantages and facilities which it offers to all students of art and culture might have an opportunity of continuing to be used and developed under the guidance of those who have for so long been connected with it.

In the event of its being possible for you to lend the Library to London for such a period, I have much pleasure in informing you that-owing to the generous enthusiasm of a small group of friends who are interested in the history of art I am in a position to offer you accommodation of a temporary character in the West End of London, which, we shall be able to secure for this purpose.

We presume that should this offer be accepted it would enable you to continue the work of the Library and its development as in the past.

Yours sincerely,
(signed) Lee of Fareham.

The following weeks of waiting were full of anxiety. It was learned subsequently that the request of the Institute to visit London had started a heated discussion within the Hamburg government, for fortunately such matters were still handled by the state authorities in Hamburg rather than the Reich authorities in Berlin. The best elements in the government of the Free City, bound by tradition and friendship to the founder and his family, were against the move. Others argued that the books, properly distributed, could be used advantageously in various Nazi 'cultural centres'. Still others contended that as it would not be possible to integrate the Staff in a Nazi community because of philosophic, racial or religious reasons, one should 'allow them to take their books with them'. The proponents of the latter view carried the day-but with reservation. It would be 'advantageous', they said, for the Institute to make a concession to the state. Could not 2,000 books relating to the first world war be presented to the authorities? Rarely has such a request been complied with more rapidly. The 2,000 volumes in which the Nazi authorities evinced interest were hardly connected with the specific purposes of the Institute.

In due course the decision arrived. It was not a green light but a white one. The National Socialist authorities would not officially approve the Institute's visit. They would simply ignore the transfer to London of personnel and books. They emphasised that no 'adverse publicity' should be given to the move. The German press was told to ignore it completely. The British committee issued a most carefully worded release to the British press. Fortunately all of this was accomplished in the nick of time. Two weeks later Dr. Goebbels' Propaganda Ministry took over all decisions such as that involved in the Institute's visit. A fortnight later the design would have been subject to central review in Berlin, and certain failure.

The physical removal of about 60,000 books, thousands of slides, photographs and furniture then followed, and on December 12th, 1933, the little steamers 'Hermia' and 'Jessica' with 531 boxes aboard moved slowly down the Elbe. The final scene in Hamburg was enacted in the bare elliptical Reading Room which Professor Warburg had built six or seven years earlier; here his widow offered tea, on trestles and planks, to the staunchly anti-Nazi packers who had completed the move in record time.

When the two small steamers docked in the Thames the Institute had reached what proved to be its new permanent home. At the end of the three years of guaranteed support, Mr. Samuel Courtauld granted support for a further seven years. One year later, in 1937, the first direct link with the University of London was established. When the accommodation in Thames House was required for business purposes, the University offered hospitality in the rooms in the Imperial Institute Buildings which were vacated by the removal of the University Library to the Senate House. The importance of the link which was thus created became clear on the expiration of the period during which the Institute had enjoyed the generous support of Mr. Courtauld. Negotiations with the authorities of the University led to a decision which was to have far-reaching effects : on November 28th, 1944, a Trust Deed was signed by Viscount Lee of Fareham on behalf of the Warburg Society, and by myself on behalf of the Warburg family, handing over the Warburg Institute to the University of London, which assumed financial responsibility for the maintenance of the Institute and its personnel, and inaugurated the present phase of its close association with the teaching and research activities of the whole University.

Today, twenty years after, one cannot help wondering what made the exodus from Germany possible, in the face of obstacles which caused similar attempts to fail. In a large measure success was undoubtedly due to the well co-ordinated and tireless efforts of Professor Saxl, and Lord Lee and his committee, during these decisive months.

When in 1933 Professor Saxl arrived for meetings with Lord Lee at White Lodge, the contrast between the tranquillity of life in the English country-side and the daily shocks of existence in Nazi Germany gave rise to a confidence, since justified, that the Institute's continental roots could not fail to flourish in British soil. There could be no doubt that the Institute would grow in the spirit of the 'good European' of whom the founder had always spoken.

October, 1953.

From: The Warburg Institute Annual Report 1952-1953