Prelude to Brazil: Leo Waibel’s American Career as a Displaced Scholar

PRELUDE TO BRAZIL: LEO WAIBEL’S AMERICAN CAREER AS A DISPLACED SCHOLAR

Geographical Review 106(1)

Stephen Bell

 

American Geographical Society: What is the main purpose of your study?

Stephen Bell: Stated very briefly, my main purpose is clarification.  Although Leo Waibel has received biographical and bibliographical attention, very little of this has addressed the years between 1939 and 1946 when he worked from the United States.  I seek to shed new light on the least understood portion in the career of a distinguished European geographer.  At the same time, Waibel provides a valuable external perspective for understanding preoccupations in academic geography in the United States at this time, including things that are insufficiently appreciated, such as the “M” Project.

American Geographical Society: What are the practical, day to day implications of your study?

Stephen Bell: We live at a time when Europe is once more facing serious issues with displaced persons, although this time people are striving to reach Germany rather than leave it.  This article shows how even the most established (and the holders of chairs in German universities before 1933 would certainly count as examples of this) can run into difficulty.  Somehow, a passage of the powerful lyrics from Johannes Brahms’s A German Requiem, sung in German, keeps running through my head: “Denn alles Fleisch es ist wie Gras,” (For all flesh is as grass).  There is always scope for further reflection on the vulnerability of humankind.  And the quest of helping to understand what happened, whether to displaced geographers or others, is endless.

American Geographical Society: How does your study relate to other work on the subject?

Stephen Bell: I see this article as helping to fill an important lacuna in knowledge of Waibel’s career.  When researching in Germany for a spell during 2011, I was invited to speak about Waibel in the Colloquium Geographicum of the Geographical Institute at the University of Bonn, an appealing department to me for its efforts to conserve at least Bell2vestiges of institutional memory.  My talk there, “‘No Country in the World has a more Exciting Pioneer Fringe’: Leo Waibel’s Singular Journey from Bonn to Brazil,” (the first part of the title comes from phrasing used by Isaiah Bowman in one of his letters) sketched in part the nature of my subject’s career in exile working within the United States.  The presentation had a strong impact.  Under the guiding stimulus of the Bonn historical geographer Professor Winfried Schenk, German colleagues published in 2013, in German at Bonn, a book within the Colloquium Geographicum research series on the reception of Waibel’s research concerning Brazil, Africa, and Germany.  The present article links directly in English with the German substance of Professor Schenk’s edited volume.  I have further work treating Waibel’s Brazilian career underway.   

 

American Geographical Society: What are two or three interesting findings that come from your study?

Stephen Bell: This study provides a more positive view of Isaiah Bowman’s actions with regard to displaced scholars than in the earlier geographical literature.  The relatively seamless way in which Bowman harnessed Waibel’s research skills for the benefit of the United States is revealing.  On the other hand, the limited capacity of university departments of geography within the United States to absorb the talents of international colleagues who were experiencing extreme difficulty is also striking.  Unlike such disciplines as mathematics or physics, the number of German faculty in geography at serious personal risk from Nazi politics were few.  It worries me how little Carl Sauer seemed prepared to do for a colleague with whom he shared many broad research interests.  It appears that competition was not always welcome!

American Geographical Society: What might be some of the theoretical implications of this study?

Stephen Bell: Any single article opens new threads, insufficiently developed, so authors are bound to ponder the most important of these in terms of their historiographical implications.  In my archival research on Waibel, I have become increasingly aware of the importance of barely revealed transatlantic networks, within and beyond geography, where threads of co-operation linked at difficult times both departments and individuals.  Bowman (president of the International Geographical Union, 1931-1934) maintained professional links with Carl Troll (president of the IGU, 1960-1964) from at least 1931 onwards, when Troll claimed he would be using Bowman’s book The Pioneer Fringe (published in 1931) at Berlin for teaching a course on the comparative geography of the continents.  My article reveals some of the connections between the University of Bonn and the University of Wisconsin, Madison.  Connections also held some importance between Bonn and Johns Hopkins, through the geologist brothers Hans Cloos (a close colleague and friend of Waibel), based in Germany, and Ernst Cloos, working from Baltimore.  On a very different issue, I remain unsure whether Waibel’s 1944 explicit concern at Madison for land use inefficiencies in Latin America may constitute the early roots of the Land Tenure Center at the University of Wisconsin (founded in 1962), today the world’s leading university-based institution on land policy, part of the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies.

American Geographical Society: How does your research help us think about Geography?

Stephen BellI can make a strong case here for the value of (and need for) international archival research where the history of geography is concerned. The academic geography of the period treated was one where professional geographers often worked across a broad international canvas. While dealing only with the career of a single individual, I am struck how the consequences of the Nazi race laws for German public servants, including university professors, affected an enormous range of places and at a wide variety of geographical scales.

My research here also reminds us of the importance of the Geographical Review in the history of academic geography in the United States. The majority of my citations drawn from the English-language journal literature in this research come from this periodical and they also evince a high degree of internationalism in its publication patterns.

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