A lost plea, part II: the tale of two academics

In packing up our archives, we came across a stray offprint, pictured below, from a 1936 festschrift entitled “Occident and Orient”. The title of the offprint is “Horace’s Prayer to Apollo Palatinus”, and the author is none other than Wilhelm Lorenz Rechnitz, whom we featured in a blog post last year (A lost plea, a curiosity from the archives). A minor German academic and librarian of Jewish heritage, Rechnitz came to Britain in search of asylum in 1934. In 1938, unable to find a job, he speculatively applied to the Dictionary Committee for work, an application which survived in our archive. This offprint must have been sent along with Rechnitz’s “job application”.

rechnitz offprint

This poignant reminder prompted us to find out what we could about Rechnitz and his rather sad request for a job that didn’t exist. What it turned up, we could never have expected. Set as we were on the sad tale of an academic refugee, we uncovered instead a tale of academic skulduggery and lexicographical villainy, and a window into the brutal world of Britain on the eve of war. A tale of not one, but two academic refugees: one connected and successful, and one almost friendless and forgotten – the twin tales of Wilhelm Rechnitz and Otto Skutsch.

The Academic Assistance Council

For German Jews, and those of Jewish heritage, 1933 was not the best of times. A succession of laws prohibited those designated as non-Aryans from holding posts in teaching or the civil service, and academic grants and funding to ‘non-Aryan’ researchers began to dry up. Many left Germany for other countries, and in Britain, the Academic Assistance Council (AAC) was founded to help them. In his appeal to the Dictionary Committee, Rechnitz mentioned the AAC, so we decided to see what we could find of him in its archives (located, conveniently, in the Bodleian Library in Oxford).

In Wilhelm Rechnitz’s file [1] we do indeed find a mention of the Dictionary. On 23 January 1938 an internal note reads: “Prof. Baxter called. British Academy is currently considering offering some work on the Medieval Latin Dictionary to Rechnitz, but do not have sufficient funds at the moment”. This, it seems, would explain the job application Rechnitz sent to the Dictionary. But it is only the tip of the iceberg: the Dictionary, and Professor William Baxter of St Andrews, both feature prominently in another AAC file, that of Otto Skutsch [2].

The parallel lives of Otto Skutsch and Wilhelm Rechnitz

The applications from both Skutsch and Rechnitz to the AAC provide chilling insight into how the Nazi laws worked in practice. There was no grand expulsion, nothing explicit, just a string of apologetic rejections and politely closed doors: because of his ancestry, Rechnitz’s editorship of the Bibliotheca Philologica Classica would not be renewed, his contract to translate classical plays in the Old Theatre in Leipsig had been dissolved, and no-one would employ him as a librarian (#358-359); Skutsch’s position on the Thesaurus Linguae Latinae would not be renewed. Slowly, but surely, both were shut out of German academic life.

British academic life was not much kinder. While Germans were not shut out by law, few would employ a German over his British counterpart. Even without the general climate of anti-German feeling, there was no more work available to academics in 1935 than there had been in 1933, and many more applicants. The great academic stars, such as Fraenkel, soon found positions, or positions were created for them. For the most part, however, the wave of German academic refugees saw no corresponding rise in funding or vacancies. The system was competitive enough for young British academics – there was no room for Germans.

“I do not know how to live…”, Wilhelm Rechnitz in Britain, 1934–1940.

Rechnitz was not a great academic star. He had few friends, and his referees were either unimpressive, or did not actually know him: AE Housman wrote him a reference, but the tone (while generous) is hardly glowing; the best he could say was that “his editorship … is a responsible post and would not have been conferred upon him unless he was a scholar of known capacity” (#378). Rechnitz was initially able to find temporary work as a schoolteacher, but by 1936 he was working only two hours a week, providing extra tuition in Latin to civil service trainees (#388). Despite continuing efforts, there were no vacancies for him as an academic, schoolmaster, or librarian. By 1936 the AAC was forced to conclude, “Dr Rechnitz’s chances of obtaining an income sufficient for his support from work are extremely slight” (#384).

After 1936, Rechnitz’s situation became increasingly desperate. One more letter from him survives in the archives, an appeal written in October 1939 (#391), and it is truly pitiful. “Since the beginning of the War I am completely out of work. Until War I did various research and used to teach German and Classics. Could you give me any help? I do not know how to live”. In one horribly muddled section he asks if his circumstances have changed now that he is a Christian. Rechnitz was referred to a number of charitable groups, who appear to have supported him for a time [3].

Introducing Otto Skutsch

Otto Skutsch, on the other hand, was a rising star. His thesis was a great success, his father had been Professor of Latin at Breslau, and his referees included WM Lindsay and Eduard Fraenkel. He was brilliant, young, and (owing to his situation) very cheap to hire (#58). His English, in contrast to Rechnitz’s halting letters, was idiomatic and fluent. In addition, he had been working on the Thesaurus Linguae Latinae (TLL), the great survey of Late Latin. The Dictionary of Medieval Latin from British Sources had just published its Word List, and was exploring its next steps. He would have been the perfect Assistant Editor for a new Dictionary.

However, there was no money to pay him. None at all. In fact, a number of German academics applied to the Dictionary project in the early 1930s: the names of Professors Maurenbrecher, Wolff (also of the TLL) and Leo feature briefly in Dictionary correspondence from 1934 to 1936. The British Academy Dictionary Committee, led by secretary Harold Johnson together with Charles Johnson, joint Editor of the Word-List, and F J Kenyon of the British Academy, applied to the Rockefeller Foundation for grants, but was unsuccessful. Honorary positions might be created for Home Office purposes [4], but no money was available. Skutsch would just have to try somewhere else.

J H Baxter and the Dictionary of Medieval Latin

At least, that was the case as far as the British Academy committee knew. One member of the Dictionary project, however, had other plans. Professor J H Baxter of St Andrew’s was an eminent historian of the Medieval Church, and was responsible for organising the project’s pre-Conquest material – the ‘slips’ of paper containing quotations, from which the Dictionary would be written. He was the other joint editor of the Dictionary’s Word-List and Chairman of the Europe-wide committee for the creation of a new pan-European Dictionary of Medieval Latin. If the pan-European dictionary ever became a reality, it would be a great source of academic prestige. Baxter wanted to be its editor [5].

By 1936, however, that project was essentially moribund. The other European projects had stalled or barely begun, and the British Academy’s dictionary – despite the publication of its Word-List – seemed years away from even starting. On the other hand, Baxter had in St Andrew’s enough raw material to attempt a British Dictionary of Medieval Latin from AD 600 to 1066. But the material was unorganised, and would need substantial sorting and preparatory checking before a dictionary could be written from it [6]. If only there were someone who could assist him…

On his own behalf, and with no mention of the project to the British Academy committee, Baxter told Skutsch that a grant had been obtained, and that he should join him in St Andrew’s. In 1936, Skutsch travelled to Scotland, and took up an undefined position working on “the preparation of a dictionary of Later Latin” (#58).

The kept man

The grant was a lie. While Baxter had initially found a small amount of funding for Skutsch (£25 from the Scottish Assistance Council), this had only lasted for one year. In practice, Baxter was paying for Skutsch out of his own funds (it is unclear where he got the money from), channeling the money to Skutsch via the AAC, who presented it in the form of a grant (#93-94). While this sounds like a remarkable act of generosity, we should not assume that Baxter was paying out of his own pocket. Moreover, it meant that Skutsch was not an independent researcher, but an indentured servant. Skutsch thought himself an independent researcher, and that the Home Office had been told that he was good enough to have attracted independent funding. Unbeknownst to Skutsch, the funding was not independent.

Alone in St Andrew’s, Skutsch continued work on Baxter’s private dictionary. Baxter himself did no work on  the dictionary, spending most of his time in Istanbul, overseeing the excavation of the Great Palace (#93, #107). Baxter made no mention at all of Skutsch or his work in his reports and letters to the British Academy  Committee in London. Skutsch himself seems to have smelt a rat. In January 1937, he began to ask for details of his funders; when Baxter refused to tell him, the AAC was forced to be coy (#94). Later in 1937, the relationship turned sour. Skutsch was desperately short of money: he was supporting his sister, who had recently fled Germany, and he wanted to marry. It was time, he felt, to seek out a properly paid academic job. In September 1937, Eduard Fraenkel paid a personal visit to the AAC offices. He told the AAC that “[Skutsch] ought not to be immersed too long in Baxter’s work”, might he be found an independent university post?

Baxter refused to allow him to leave. Instead, he threatened Skutsch with dismissal and worse. On 14 January 1938, Skutsch wrote to the AAC that he had learned that  “the unconditional permit [of residence] granted me by the Home Office last year was granted on account of his promise to keep me employed for three years. If the present arrangement were to come to an end he would inform … the Home Office, and the permit would be withdrawn” (#107-108).

The result of this threat was not what Baxter had intended. Not only did Skutsch have powerful academic friends, he had powerful political ones as well. His fiancée was the daughter of Sir Samuel Findlater Stewart, GCB, GCIE, and the Permanent Under-Secretary of State for India. Sir Walter Adams, secretary of the AAC, was able to reply almost immediately to Skutsch’s letter with firm reassurances: he should not feel himself beholden to Baxter, and the Home Office would not present a problem (#109).

Baxter, Skutsch, and Rechnitz

Baxter, clearly angered by Skutsch’s insistence on looking for a permanent job, immediately gave him one month’s notice (#111). It is surely no coincidence that, less than a week afterwards, Baxter proposed that the British Academy might have work for Wilhelm Rechnitz (Rechnitz #390).

Skutsch did not find a position easily, and he was rejected by a number of universities, including Cape Town and Belfast. However, the British Academy intervened on his behalf with Baxter: the Dictionary Committee in London would pay Skutsch’s salary; and his work would be directed towards a future Dictionary of Medieval Latin from British Sources – the first time that Skutsch’s name appears in the Dictionary archives [7]. Skutsch finally found a post at the University of Manchester, but by then war had broken out, and both he and Rechnitz were interned. For Skutsch, the internment was only brief: a series of letters from high-ranking academics and officials no doubt helped ensure a swift release.

So there was no position for Wilhelm Rechnitz after all. His letter of appeal, and the offprint, were sent in the hopes of a position that was dangled before him out of another man’s spite. Baxter wanted to be able to cast Skutsch aside, so he went looking for a replacement. Fortunately for Skutsch, he was not alone. Even so, despite all his connections, he found it difficult to find a permanent academic position – in the end, he was able to obtain a supernumerary post, one created precisely so that British academics would not feel displaced by German emigrés (cf. #159ff.).

Divergent paths

In 1939, as Skutsch planned to take up his post in Manchester, Rechnitz hoped to sign up: “I have become recognised as a refugee. During the next days, I shall apply for admission to the National Service” (#391). As we know, he was not accepted. Instead of being allowed to fight, his bad luck continued. He was interned and (brutally) deported – the treatment on his ship, the Dunera, was sufficiently shocking that the British government was forced to offer a public apology to the German detainees. After the war, he completed his conversion to Anglicanism, and was ordained as a vicar; he spent the rest of his life among the Torres Strait Islanders as a teacher, missionary, linguist, and advocate for the peoples of the Torres Strait. Born in Germany in 1899, he died in Brisbane, Australia in 1978 [8].

As for Otto Skutsch, his name is already familiar to fans of Latin poetry. In 1951, Skutsch moved to University College London, where he was Professor of Latin for over 20 years. In 1985, already a renowned philologist, Professor Otto Skutsch published his magnum opus on the Roman poet Ennius [9]. 40 years in the making, it remains the standard work. There is a prize in his honour at UCL, awarded for excellence in Latin. Born in Breslau, Germany in 1906, he died in London in 1990.

Despite its good intentions, Britain was not kind to Wilhelm Rechnitz or Otto Skutsch. Many great academic names did find a welcome home here; many forgotten figures did not. The AAC’s archives for the period are divided into its success stories and its failures. Sadly, despite the valiant efforts of the AAC and their supporters, it is the list of unsuccessful applicants which is longest: refugees who came to Britain and found only further rejection. The Dictionary’s own records contain the names of five such men (Wolff, Maurenbrecher, Leo, Rechnitz and Skutsch); it is sobering to think how many more like them there must have been.

The AAC became the Society for the protection of Science and Learning in 1936 and since 1999 has been known as CARA (the Council for Assisting Refugee Academics). The charity still supports academics “subject to discrimination, persecution, suffering or violence on account of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion”. For more information, visit http://www.cara1933.org/

[1] All numbered references to Rechnitz which follow are from his file in the AAC archives (MS SPSL 539/3/355-392). References to individual numbers refer to items within this sequence, e.g. #356 = MS SPSL 539/3/356.

[2] All numbered references to Skutsch which follow are from his file in the AAC archives (MS SPSL 296/5/57-187). References to individual numbers refer to items within this sequence, e.g. #154 = MS SPSL 296/5/154.

[3] His address in 1939 is 16 Moor Lane Chambers, London (#392), the headquarters of a small Jewish-Christian organisation known as “The Jewish Christian Community”. Other Christian organisations, such as the League of Friends and the Anglican Church, supported him for a time.

[4] DMLBS Correspondence 29 June 1934. Letters between Wolff, Johnson and Baxter. See also a letter from Kenyon to Johnson, 8 August 1936, and MS SPSL 296/5/73.

[5] Baxter in fact made several attempts to take control of the “new Du Cange”, including a series of political moves in the early 1950s (before and after the UNESCO grant) which were shot down by Francis Kenyon and Charles Johnson. He does not emerge from our archives as a sympathetic character.

[6] Skutsch #93, #107, see also the Dictionary correspondence and records from the 1950s and 1960s. It took Latham and Thompson nearly seven years to organise the slips and bibliography before the official start of the Dictionary of Medieval Latin from British Sources in 1967.

[7] Skutsch’s name appears three times in the Dictionary archives. In each case it is on expense accounts submitted by Baxter.

Later in 1938, the AAC realised that it had been paying Skutsch’s salary for two years without receiving any of the promised payment from Baxter. It took three letters, and a personal appeal from Sir Francis Kenyon, before Baxter paid the money he owed (#141-143). In a 1938 letter to the Dictionary Committee, Baxter bemoaned that any Dictionary work had become impossible, “since Skutsch has abandoned me”, and that could not understand Skutsch’s filing system.

[8] A short (10 page) history of Rechnitz’s life (in Germany, Britain and Australia), based on Rechnitz’s own, unpublished, autobiography, can be found online in “From Judaism in Nazi Germany to Anglo-Catholicism in the Torres Straits: ‘Dunera Boy’ Canon Dr Wilhelm Lorenz Rechnitz (1899-1979) assesses Anglicanism”, John A. Moses, The British World: Religion, Memory, Society, Culture (Harmes, MK et al. eds.), 491–504.

[9] Skutsch wrote a number of memoirs and anecdotal essays. In “Recollections of Scholars I have Known” (HSCP 94 (1992) 387-408) he is often warm in his praise of many of the people named above, such as Fraenkel and Lindsay. He is less warm about Baxter, mentioning only that Baxter recruited him on a visit to Germany (ibid. 400). His account of why he didn’t get the job in Belfast is incredibly diplomatic: “The Town Council, who had a say in the matter, quite rightly refused to have a foreigner. I really had no idea how British Universities worked.” (ibid. 407).


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