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Cultural and Intellectual Enrichment En-Masse

front cover of the book Exiles and Expatriates in the History of Knowledge.
Exiles and Expatriates in the History of Knowledge, 1500-2000
Peter Burke
Brandeis University Press
312pp £39

Peter Burke’s latest, and timely, book, Exiles and Expatriates, examines the ways people, moving across national and political boundaries, often as refugees, have brought in their wake the transfer – and thereby the widening – of knowledge. Burke’s purview is vast, as ever revealing an easy familiarity with material from across the whole of Europe as well as from a variety of Arabic, Indian, Russian and Chinese sources, the Americas, both North and South, and beyond.

The text is packed with a plethora of instances, such as the pioneering Italian Jesuit, Matteo Ricci, whose enthusiastic missionary work helped create a bridge between the European and Chinese intellectual worlds in the late 16th and early 17th centuries; or of such celebrated early Protestants as Comenius and John Foxe (of ‘Martyrs’ fame), who fled Catholic persecution in Central Europe and England, respectively, and
in each case sought respite in the Low Countries. Burke introduces French expatriates in Brazil, British physicists and botanists in India, Poles who fled to France after 1830,
a colony of Germans in London after the revolutions of 1848 and the Paris-based Russian diaspora that developed in the wake of the 1917 Revolution and Civil War. En-route, we are reminded of how Japan, after centuries of intellectual isolation, opened up to ideas and people from the wider world in the later 19th century and how Turkey under Atatürk did much the same in the 1920s after the fall of the Ottoman Empire. Burke includes a substantial chapter on the ‘Great Exodus’, the wave of émigrés from Fascist Italy and Hitler’s Third Reich: the scientists, economists, sociologists, philosophers, historians and others who enriched the intellectual life of Britain, the US and elsewhere (though not the painters, playwrights or musicians et al; the book focuses primarily on ‘knowledge’ rather than culture and the arts more broadly).

The transfer of knowledge took three broad forms, Burke suggests. Some migrants, immersing themselves in the intellectual life of their new homeland, became teachers, interpreters, translators. Others, from Pierre Bayle to Eric Hobsbawm, seemed more inclined to critical detachment, turning for example to the writing of ‘impartial’ history. Then there were those who seemed primarily intent on bridging their two worlds in ways that led to the enrichment of both. Burke describes each of these three processes, labelling them ‘Mediation’, ‘Distanciation’ and ‘Hybridization’. As for the individuals he discusses in his narrative, these range from ‘exiles’, desperate asylum seekers some of them, who felt compelled to seek refuge elsewhere to escape persecution or worse, to ‘expatriates’ who, for the most part, chose to move elsewhere because of new opportunities that seemed to beckon. Either way, Burke argues, the movement of people led to the wide dissemination of knowledge: more so than the movement of books.

When the British voted to leave the European Union, Burke was appalled. He writes that ‘if Brexit takes place, it will be a disaster not only for the British economy but also … for British culture’. His argument in Exiles and Expatriates is that immigrants of all kinds have had much to teach people in their ‘hostland’, as well as a good deal to learn from them. Burke calls this a process of ‘double deprovincialization’. If Britain does leave the European Union, he fears, it will be in danger of becoming ‘more insular, more provincial, less creative’. It is a disturbing prophecy on which to end.

Daniel Snowman is a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Historical Research and author of The Hitler Emigrés: The Cultural Impact on Britain of Refugees from Nazism (Pimlico, 2003).

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