The Academic Assistance Council (AAC) was established in April 1933 by William Beveridge. Whilst en route to Vienna he learnt of the Nazi authorities' dismissal of a number of leading professors from German universities on racial and/or political grounds and was moved to launch a ‘rescue operation’ for the increasing number of displaced academics. On his return to Britain Beveridge set about enlisting the support of prominent academics. Ernest Rutherford and A.V. Hill joined as President and vice President of the Council.
By 22nd May 1933 a founding statement had been produced, signed by many of the most prominent British academics of the day. It was circulated amongst British universities, politicians and philanthropists. This initial rallying call focused on the need for practical support in helping academics to escape persecution and relocate to British universities, and deliberately avoided making any sort of political comment.
In October 1933 ten thousand people attended an AAC event at the Albert Hall at which Albert Einstein spoke on the importance of academic freedom. In his address Einstein encouraged his audience to “resist the powers which threaten to suppress intellectual and individual freedom” and spoke of the duty to “care for what is eternal and highest amongst our possessions”.
In 1936 the AAC changed their name to the ‘Society for Protection of Science and Learning’ - SPSL. This change reflected the development of the understanding of the role of the organisation, from assisting individual academics to the protection of academic freedom itself.
Hundreds of academics were helped by the SPSL in the 1930s and 1940s. Many of these achieved great distinction. Sixteen became Nobel Laureates, eighteen were knighted and over a hundred were elected as Fellows of the British Academy or the Royal Society. Ludwig Guttmann went on to found the Paralympics. Max Born was a pioneer of quantum mechanics and was one of the most prominent Physicists to oppose the development of nuclear weapons. Ernst Chain was instrumental in the development of penicillin. A more detailed list of the numerous eminent academics helped by the SPSL in the 30s and 40s can be found here.
The SPSL’s work continued even after the Second World War had come to an end. Beveridge would later explain in his ‘A Defence of Free Learning’ (1959) how “although Hitler was dead, intolerance was not” and “continued needs and the possible future crises” rendered the Society’s services as necessary as ever, in Europe and across the world. In the 1940s and 1950s, the SPSL helped many academics seeking refugee from communist China and the Stalinist regimes in the USSR and Eastern Europe.
As time passed, so the SPSL's focus shifted, to include, among others, those fleeing apartheid regime in South Africa and Pinochet's Chile. One of the most prominent South African exiles, whom the SPSL helped in 1966 and again in 1988, was the human rights leader Albie Sachs. Sachs often speaks of the “immense moral and emotional comfort” which the SPSL’s assistance provided, and he continues to be a supporter of the charity.
In the 90s the focus shifted to the Middle East, particularly Iraq, and to troubled regions of Africa. In 1999 the SPSL changed its name to CARA – the Council for Assisting Refugee Academics – but the mission and vision remain the same.
A reading list for those interested in CARA's history is available here.