Academics At Work: Paul Petzschmann explores global exchange of knowledge

Petzschmann, director of European studies and senior lecturer and research associate in European studies, is engaged in research on global intellectuals and international affairs.

Cecily Schar ’27 29 March 2024 Posted In:
Paul Petzschmann in front of a window.
Paul PetzschmannPhoto: Erica Helgerud ’20

At Carleton, almost 70 percent of the student body participates in some sort of off-campus study (OCS) program for at least one term. Through OCS, students can study topics in almost all academic disciplines in a “traveling classroom.” This interest in international study is also present in Carleton professors, many of whom lead OCS programs themselves, and in some cases center their research around international topics.

Paul Petzschmann, director of European studies and senior lecturer and research associate in European studies, is engaged in research on global intellectuals and international affairs more generally. With some of his research, Petzschmann seeks to answer the question: What happens to scholars and ideals of the global intellectual community in times of conflict and political tension? As an extension of his work and teaching, he led an Economics and European Studies OCS program in 2018 and 2019, which included time in Brussels, Lille, Cambridge, and Manchester. I sat down with Petzschmann to ask him about what his research looks like and how his findings apply to Carleton.

Broadly speaking, Petzschmann’s research has focused on intellectual migrants — individuals who left their home countries in a global exchange of intellectualism — and how their experiences affect how they interact with the world, specifically in the interwar period of the 1930s.

“I view migration in this context,” Petzchmann said, “not in the abstract, but as a lived experience by these thinkers.” 

Many intellectual migrants in the interwar period had to alter the way they presented their work within the context of life in a different country and sociopolitical environment. Petzschmann also investigates the institutions which allowed these exchanges to occur, primarily the Institute for International Education (IIE), and how their functions have changed over time. 

Petzschmann has conducted case studies into specific refugee scholars like Karl Mannheim and Hans Morgenthau in order to explore how thinkers with “complicated intellectual legacies” and relationships to their native country had to edit their ideas as a “political choice” when they moved to the United States. Leading up to World War II, the U.S. made an effort to bring prominent German intellectuals into the country. Mannheim and Morgenthau are two examples of scholars who had to “balance issues of scholarly integrity with fitting in” to their adoptive homelands and the popular public political climate. 

Because I’m interested in what research in humanities fields looks like in comparison to STEM, I asked about what research looks like for Petzschmann. His immediate response? Lots of archival research. His most recent investigation was into “institutional structures that made intellectual migration more accessible” in the interwar period, which included the IIE as well as the Committee in Aid of Displaced Scholars. The IIE’s main function in that era was to manage interactions between U.S. higher education institutions and foreign universities. The Committee, based at the New School for Social Research, helped intellectual migrants with finding employment in American universities and housed a number of prominent refugee scholars. Now, the IIE can be compared to how American off-campus study programs are often facilitated through outside institutions.

Both the IIE and the Committee served as a part of what Petzschmann calls “reciprocal intellectual engagement with the world.” He recently finished doing work for the Rockefeller Archive Center on a grant, where he spent multiple summers trying to make sense of a collection of records belonging to the IIE. 

“I was one of the first to work with [the collection] and try to make sense of what the collection structure really was,” Petzschmann said.

While these records contained a wealth of information, they were all on microfilm and lacked a uniform structure, hence all the time Petzschmann spent in the Rockefeller Archive Center.

Although Petzschmann has been investigating the global interwar intellectual exchange since before he arrived at Carleton in 2011, over the course of our conversation he discussed how Carleton itself has become a part of his process, and shared events specific to the College that he discovered while teaching here. Carleton was connected, like many other colleges, to the IIE, hosting European exchange students while sending American students to Europe. This exchange became contentious, however, as Germany continued to move closer to totalitarianism. Petzschmann reported that there were exchange students from both Czechoslovakia and Germany at Carleton, as well as a sociologist who was a German refugee, when Czechoslovakia was annexed by Germany, which was obviously a difficult situation for the College to navigate.

Further, Petzschmann discovered photos in the Carleton archive of former dean Lindsey Thomas Blayney with Nazi government officials in 1936 at the 550th anniversary of the University of Heidelberg, which had ties to the Nazi regime. He wrote an article revealing his findings and detailing the controversy of American universities taking part in the Heidelberg anniversary celebration.

While exchange students through the IIE stopped after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Petzschmann discusses why it was so valuable despite its challenges.

“It is a hallmark of civilization to keep intellectual engagement with those we have strong disagreements with,” he said, “that’s the whole point of it.”

Petzschmann plans to engage with both his research and Carleton students with a European studies course he will teach during spring term titled, The European Union: Constitution, Crisis and Conflict. The course will be co-taught by Petzschmann and Ukrainian refugee political scientist Oleksandr Komarenko, exploring the formation and history of the European Union with a focus on Eastern Europe. Through bringing a refugee scholar to the United States himself, Petzschmann has fully come to understand how complicated the process is, as well as the importance of the institutions and resources that facilitate it. This is a clear intersection of Petzschmann’s research and Carleton’s academics, and he is looking forward to teaching the class. As he continues at Carleton, he hopes to put together a series that tells the story of the refugee scholars that were on campus starting in 1930, with a goal of helping bring more visibility to these scholars and their experiences.

This story is part of a series of interviews with Carleton faculty about their research and engagements with the Carleton community. The Academics at Work series allows Carleton professors to talk about the changes they have observed and help lead in their own academic communities, as well as provide further insight into the work they do at Carleton.