Thursday October 6th, 10am-12pm, Georges C. Marshall Center

Critical Moments in Intellectual History: Paris-New York and the École Libre

Moderated by Will Milberg, Dean of The New School for Social Research

Why The New School?  by Julia L. Foulkes, The New School of Public Engagement


In the 1940s, the New School for Social Research in New York was a logical place to seek refuge for the French intellectuals who made up the École Libre. The New School’s initiative and dominant role in providing safe haven for intellectuals fleeing fascism in Europe had been established since 1933. But why did the school welcome refugee scholars in the first place? And, perhaps even more important, how did it act so quickly?

This talk focuses on what made the University in Exile possible and, therefore the École Libre, by focusing on two decisive moments. The formation of the school itself as a school—not a university—provides some answer as to why it could provide a home for refugee scholars. The common story of the school’s founding often focuses on a celebration of academic freedom, and that focus provides a clean answer as to why this institution responded to the renunciation of that very ideal in Hitler’s decree of April 1933. But that one link neglects the important role of other ideals in the formation of the school, particularly its clear rejection of degrees and status as a university. The school’s responsiveness to the demands of students and current political needs provided the flexibility and rationale for Alvin Johnson to initiate and act upon a plan to harbor refugee scholars within weeks of Hitler’s action. Its open-ended structure, then, could adapt to form a graduate school, reversing the typical progress of degree-granting institutions from undergraduate to graduate.

How such a rescue effort could be implemented was as important as Johnson’s idea to do so. For this, the network established by Alvin Johnson and Edwin Seligman in their work for the Encyclopedia of Social Sciences, the first of its fifteen volumes published in 1930, proved instrumental. The encyclopedia was a comprehensive intellectual effort, grounded by the social sciences but pushing those fields to include all aspects of society, including the arts and humanities. It pulled together hundreds of scholars across Europe, in essence creating a network of people in contact with one another at a time of enormous fear and secrecy. Because of the encyclopedia, Johnson not only could identify notable scholars quickly, he could rely upon others to funnel money and information to them to move those scholars to safety.

A haven and a university quickly made, but enduring enough to house the next wave of intellectuals-in-need in the École Libre.


Julia Foulkes investigates interdisciplinary questions about the arts, urban studies, and history in her research and teaching. She is the author of Modern Bodies: Dance and American Modernism from Martha Graham to Alvin Ailey (2002); To the City: Urban Photographs of the New Deal  (2011); and A Place for Us: West Side Story and New York (2016). She is also the editor of a journal volume on The Arts in Place (Journal of Social History, 2010) and co-editor with Aaron Shkuda of a section of essays on arts and urban development in the Journal of Urban History (2015).

With Mark Larrimore, she leads efforts to research the history of The New School and oversees a website devoted to exploring the unusual history and far reach of this institution. She has also been a lead faculty member of the Humanities Action Lab, an international hub where the humanities and design generate innovative curricula and public engagement with urgent social issues. The first exhibition, States of Incarceration, examines the history of imprisonment in the U.S.

Claude Lévi-Strauss à la New School for Social Research : exil et création en sciences sociales, by Emmanuelle Loyer, Institut d'Études Politiques de Paris (Sciences Po)


This contribution will examine how the exile of Claude Lévi-Strauss was productive in terms of academic innovation, and it will try to articulate the relationship that existed between the unique institution of the New School for Social Research during the war and the creation of structural anthropology.


Professor at Sciences Po Paris, Emmanuelle Loyer is an ENS Fontenay-Saint-Cloud alumna who graduated in History, and now teaches contemporary history at Sciences Po. As a specialist in the cultural history of contemporary societies, she is responsible for the doctoral seminar, “Literature and social sciences,” offered at the Sciences Po History Center, co-organized with Jeanne Lazarus (CSO, Sciences Po) and Ivan Jablonka (Paris XIII).

The École Libre, Free France and the U.S. Department of Justice, by Judith Friedlander, Hunter College (CUNY)


The École Libre des Hautes Etudes opened in February 1942 at The New School for Social Research in New York City, with a distinguished faculty of over sixty scholars. Refugees from Belgium and France, the faculty offered academic programs conducted in French in the sciences, humanities and social sciences that were equivalent to those taught at universities in France before the Nazi occupation. During the opening ceremony, The New School’s director, Alvin Johnson, read a cable from General Charles de Gaulle, the leader of Free France, officially recognizing the “diplomas and university certificates conferred after examination by the École Libre des Hautes Études in New York…as fully legal French university diplomas.”   

The New School created its first University in Exile in 1933, providing U.S. visas and jobs for social scientists expelled from German universities.  Now nine years later, after the fall of Belgium and France, it had expanded its efforts by establishing the École Libre; this time with the support of exiled political movements representing Free France, Free Belgium and Free Czechoslovakia. Despite these widely publicized endorsements, the École Libre, Johnson proclaimed repeatedly, was not a political institution: it had “no political program, but the noblest of all, freedom and free and creative scholarship.”

From the very beginning, Johnson was walking a thin line between the political urgency of the moment, to save as many persecuted scholars as possible, and the restrictions placed on academic institutions by the U.S. Department of Justice. Neither he nor his faculty had the right to represent a foreign government or political movement, an intolerable restriction for exiled colleagues, many of whom were members of the Resistance.  But if they did not comply, The New School, Johnson warned, founded to defend academic freedom, would be “degraded to the rank of foreign agent.”

Judith Friedlander is Professor of Anthropology at Hunter College, City University of New York.  Between 1993 and 2000, she was Dean of the Graduate Faculty of Political and Social Science (now known as NSSR) at The New School, where she also occupied the Eberstadt Chair of Anthropology. In 2002 she returned to Hunter College where she had been Dean of Social Sciences between 1990 and 1993, to serve as Dean of Arts and Sciences.  Since stepping down from her last administrative post in 2006, Friedlander has been teaching Anthropology and working as a special adviser to the provost and president on a number of new academic initiatives, including the creation in 2010 of the Roosevelt House Institute of Public Policy.  Friedlander has written extensively on questions of ethnic identity among indigenous peasants in Mexico and Jewish intellectuals in France and the United States.  Among her publications, she is the author of Being Indian in Hueyapan (L’Indien des autres) and Vilna on the Seine:Jewish Intellectuals in France since 1968. She is currently finishing a book about the  history of the New School for Social Research.

L’Exil comme expérience et comme projet, by Jacques Revel, EHESS


The recent efforts of scholars such as Laurent Jeanpierre and Emmanuelle Loyer have substantially transformed our understanding of French emigration—especially that of scientists, intellectuals, and artists to New York during WWII. It is not only a matter of finding new information, but of bringing to light shared interpretations of the experience of exile. The variety of these experiences led to the development of various projects, despite the state of anxiety that marked the final years of the École Libre des Hautes Études from 1944 onwards.

This academic emigration is the focus of this brief presentation: a few dozen individuals, from relatively heterogeneous backgrounds, found themselves participating in a common project, about which they didn’t necessarily share the same conception, in an unfamiliar environment, where they were living as outsiders. In the face of this unprecedented situation, which many saw as a downgrade, the protagonists made different choices. This was the case during the active years of the École Libre at the heart of the New School for Social Research. This was again the case when some of them were offered the opportunity, at least to a certain degree, to take advantage of the experience acquired during their years as New Yorkers.

This is a chance to return to the very category of exile. On the French side, it has not been the subject of a conceptualization such as what has been produced among the German-speaking emigration (Arendt, Adorno, Kracauer). There is a good chance that an exploration of this asymmetry can be explained by the manner in which, in both cases, exile in America was lived.

Des travaux récents, ceux en particulier de Laurent Jeanpierre et d’Emmanuelle Loyer en France, ont substantiellement renouvelé ce que nous pouvons savoir de l’émigration française, en particulier de l’émigration scientifique, intellectuelle et artistique à New York pendant la Seconde Guerre mondiale. Ils n’ont pas seulement livré une masse de données neuves. À partir d’elles, ils ont remis en cause des interprétations communes de l’expérience de l’exil. Ils ont suggéré que celle-ci pouvait avoir été vécue selon des modalités différentes et qu’elle avait donné lieu à des projets divers, voire contradictoires à l’occasion des tensions qui ont marqué les dernières années de l’École Libre des Hautes Études à partir de 1944.

C’est sur l’émigration universitaire que l’on entend se concentrer dans cette brève intervention : quelques dizaines de personnes, venues d’horizons relativement hétérogènes et qui se sont trouvées participer à un projet commun dont elles n’avaient pas nécessairement la même conception, dans un environnement qu’elles connaissaient mal et auquel elles sont, pour une large part, demeurées étrangères. Face à cette situation inédite, et que la plupart d’entre eux ont vécue comme un déclassement, les protagonistes ont fait des choix différents. Ce fut le cas pendant les années actives de l’École Libre au sein de la New School for Social Research. Ce le fut encore lorsque la possibilité fut offerte à certains, au moins jusqu’à un certain point, de tirer parti de l’expérience acquise pendant les années new-yorkaises.

Ce peut être l’occasion de revenir enfin sur la catégorie même de l’exil. Du côté français, elle n’a pas fait l’objet d’une élaboration comparable à ce que l’on peut trouver du côté de l’émigration germanophone (Arendt, Adorno, Kracauer). On se risquera à suggérer que cette asymétrie pourrait s’expliquer par la manière dont, dans l’un et l’autre cas, l’exil américain a été vécu.


Professor at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales (EHESS) in Paris and a professor at NYU, Jacques Revel is one of the directors of the EHESS publication Annales. Histoire, Sciences Sociales. As a historian, he is interested in the social history of European cultures from the 16th to 19th centuries, as well as their contemporary transformations and historiographical practices.

His publications include: Histories. French Constructions of the Past, New York, 1996 (with L. Hunt) ; Jeux d’échelles. La micro-analyse à l’expérience, Paris, 1996 ; Un momento historiogràfico, Buenos Aires, 2005 ; Penser par cas, Paris, 2005 (with J.-Cl. Passeron) ; Un parcours critique. Douze exercices d’histoire sociale, Paris, 2006 ; Proposiçaoes. Ensaios de historia e historiografia, Rio de Janeiro, 2009 ; Makers of Jewish Modernity, Princeton, 2016 (with J. Picard, M. Steinberg, I. Zertal, eds.).