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Werner Jaeger: The Chicago Years

Stanley Burstein

Between 1933 and 1935 about 1700 German academics, roughly 20% of the German professoriate at that time, lost their jobs as a result of the Nazi program that eliminated non-Aryan and politically unreliable individuals from universities and other branches of the civil service. Among these professors were numerous classicists who eventually found refuge in the United States during the 1930s and 1940s. Interest in this remarkable immigration and its impact on American classical scholarship has steadily grown since the pioneering studies of William M. Calder III, and has now been placed on a solid foundation with the publication of Hans-Peter Obermayer’s superb Deutsche Altertumswissenschaftlicher im Amerikanischen Exil. Missing from most of this scholarship, however, is serious consideration of the most prominent German classicist to come to the United States in the 1930s: Werner Jaeger.

This neglect of Jaeger is unfortunate, because Jaeger’s immigration and American career are both exceptional. Most of the other refugee classicists were Jews who had lost their positions in Germany. They came to the United States under difficult conditions, and had to begin their careers all over again, often taking entry-level positions, and struggling for years to achieve positions comparable to those they had left in Germany. By contrast, Jaeger was, according to the Nazi classification, “Aryan” and, therefore, emigrated under different circumstances. Equally important, he was the only classicist who was recruited by a prominent American university and assumed on arrival a permanent senior position equal to the one he had left. This occurred at the University of Chicago, whose president, Robert Maynard Hutchins, is known to have been reluctant to hire German refugee professors, particularly in the humanities. In this situation, both the University of Chicago’s decision to recruit Jaeger and the significance of his three years there—1936 to 1939—for his scholarship require explanation.

The reasons that these issues have been barely discussed are three fold: First, the sources. Jaeger left no memoirs dealing with his life in the 1930’s; his immediate family and the persons involved in the early years of his American career are all dead. As a result, the primary sources for reconstructing Jaeger’s immigration and his career at the University of Chicago are his correspondence, which is preserved in archives in various countries (including the United States, England and German). As a result, much of what has been written about this period of his life has been based on interpretations of incidental remarks in his published writings and impressions of persons who knew him only during the later, Harvard phrase of his career. Second is the controversy over his attitude towards the Nazis sparked by Calder’s description of him as an “unwilling fellow traveler.” Third, and finally, the significance of the Chicago period of his career for his scholarship has been obscured by an incorrect chronology of the completion of Paideia.

The purpose of this paper is to reconstruct the process by which Jaeger came to the University of Chicago in 1936 and his scholarly achievement while there, particularly the completion of Paideia, based on evidence provided by his correspondence.

Session/Panel Title

German and Austrian Refugee Classicists: New Testimonies, New Perspectives

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