Helen Rosenau, Aspiring Art Historian and Archaeologist

Jannik Sachweh

Source Description

Helen Rosenau was an art historian and archaeologist who had to flee Germany for England in 1933 after the Nazis came to power. After her emigration, she, like numerous other Jewish scholars, found herself in a precarious situation. In her publications, a clear political positioning now became visible for the first time. In 1942, she wrote the present article for the publication „Women under the Swastika“ published by the Free German League of Culture in Great Britain Freier deutscher Kulturbund in Großbritannien, an organization of emigrants. The League saw itself as a non-partisan refugee organization dedicated to teaching German culture. It was close to the German Communist Party (KPD). Nevertheless, it fulfilled an important task for many, even non-Communist, refugees in England. In her publication, Rosenau examined the role of women in National Socialist Germany and outlined the development of a German feminism. In doing so, she translated Friedrich Schleiermacher's 1798 “Idea for a Catechism for Noble Women” into English and compared these ideas to the reality of women under National Socialism. Rosenau expressed the hope that the German feminist movement would be resurrected in the future.
  • Jannik Sachweh

Science and politics

In the course of the Second World War, a significant change in Helen Rosenau’s publishing activities became apparent. Rosenau, an art historian and archaeologist who had already emigrated to England in 1933, now published explicitly political writings in addition to scholarly articles. In doing so, she combined her professional interest in the social position of women in art with historical observations, from which she derived clear demands for her present and future. In 1942, she published the present article, “Changing Attitudes toward Women,” published by the Free German Cultural Association Freier deutscher Kulturbund in Großbritannien. In this publication, Rosenau addressed the role of women in National Socialist Germany. The text offers a glimpse into the situation of women scholars in exile. As a source, it speaks to topics relevant to the history of science and cultural history. In order to understand the significance of the article in the context of its creation, we need to consider Helen Rosenau’s biography first.

Helen Rosenau, aspiring art historian and archaeologist at the end of the Weimar Republic

Regular enrollment at a university in Germany had only become possible for women throughout the German Empire from 1908. This right of enrollment was followed by civic rights after the end of the First World War in 1918 and finally by the right to habilitate at universities in 1919. An academic career was thus open to women from this point on, at least legally. Helen Rosenau, born in 1900, studied art history, archaeology and philosophy from 1923 in Munich with Heinrich Wöllflin, in Berlin with Adolph Goldschmidt, in Bonn with Paul Clemen, at the University of Halle with Paul Frankl and at the Technical University in Berlin. She spent the last period of her studies in Hamburg, where she studied with Erwin Panofsky and researched the architectural history of Christian sacred buildings.

The subject of art history in particular attracted young women after the end of the First World War. Many of these new female students came from the educated middle-class Jewish community. Thus, the proportion of Jewish female students in this subject was significantly higher than the overall average for universities. The combination of art history and classical archaeology chosen by Rosenau was popular with many female students.

In 1930, Helen Rosenau received her doctorate from the University of Hamburg. She wrote a thesis on Cologne Cathedral, focusing on its architectural history and the historical uniqueness of the church. For this work, she also conducted archaeological excavations. Thus, according to Panofsky, Rosenau wrote the first modern architectural history of Cologne Cathedral.

Rosenau wanted to continue her academic career after her doctorate and in a next step habilitate under Martin Wackernagel in Münster. She went to Bremen to research the building history of St. Peter's Cathedral through an archaeological investigation and to begin work on her habilitation thesis. In 1931, Rosenau conducted the first planned archaeological survey of Bremen Cathedral. While the excavations in Bremen seemed to open up a career for her as an art historian and archaeologist, they were to be the last she was able to complete.

The art history department in Hamburg as a refuge

There was an open atmosphere in Panofsky's art history department. In Hamburg Helen Rosenau found herself in an academic environment where Jews were frequently represented. However, this was due less to an openly displayed positive self-identification with the Jewish religion than to the exclusion that prevailed at other universities. In other departments of Hamburg’s university, antisemitism became increasingly widespread. It was countered by the openness of the department of art history. Both the department and the Warburg Cultural Studies Library were a veritable refuge for many of the students. Erwin Panofsky was the only art historian to clearly position himself against scholars who argued nationalistically and racially. After the National Socialists came to power, Panofsky lost his position. The university environment in which Helen Rosenau had completed her academic education ceased to exist. The circles among which she had cultivated her acquaintances were about to be torn apart.

Emigration 1933

Based on her successful excavations in Bremen in 1931, the Emergency Association of German Science Notgemeinschaft der Deutschen Wissenschaft granted her a research grant in 1932. The funding period ran until March 31, 1933. Her work on the habilitation thesis progressed well. Rosenau had already presented the first partial results when the situation for Jewish scholars changed fundamentally after the National Socialists came to power in Germany.

When her scholarship ended in March 1933, Rosenau initially applied for further funding. However, the National Socialists quickly installed control mechanisms to oust people they did not want from the universities. In addition to opponents of their ideology, these included those who were “non-Aryan” according to the Nazi definition and those who were married to “non Aryans.” With the enactment of the “Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service” [Gesetz zur Wiederherstellung des Berufsbeamtentums] on April 7, 1933, an academic career for Jews in Germany was no longer possible. Since the end of April 1933, the Emergency Association of German Science[I] also no longer granted funding to “non-Aryan” persons. Instead, it now allocated large portions of its funding to projects that were concerned with racial, soil or settlement research, for example, and thus conformed to the National Socialist ideas of science. Helen Rosenau left Germany in 1933 after this forced end to her academic work, fleeing to England.

Old and new networks

Once in England, Rosenau submitted a request for assistance to the Academic Assistance Council (AAC) and attached a plethora of letters of recommendation. One of these letters came from Fritz Saxl. Rosenau knew him from her time in Hamburg. Through contact with Samuel Courtauld, Saxl had succeeded in transferring the famous Warburg Library, including its staff, from Hamburg to London and thus preserving it. He recommended that Helen Rosenau be supported.

In England Rosenau could count on the support of the AAC, which pointed her to Crosby Hall. She also asked for help there in November 1933. This contact point for women academics was set up by the British Federation of University Women, the local group of the International Federation of University Women. Helen Rosenau had already been a member of the International Federation of University Women before she emigrated to England. This organization, founded in 1907, was explicitly dedicated to the advancement of women scholars and had a large international network. Helen Rosenau was able to move into Crosby Hall later that month.

For women art historians in England, however, there were only limited job opportunities in the art trade or in collections. The subject did not become established at universities until the 1950s. The situation was aggravated by widespread hostility toward emigrants, which was also evident in academic circles. There, too, people feared a competitive situation on the job market. Rosenau remained in contact with the Warburg Library. However, the network was unable to find her a permanent position in England.

In mid-1934 she received the Crosby Hall Residential Scholarship of the British Federation of University Women and thus a grant for the following year and later even until January 1936. Unlike many emigrant women who had to accept work far outside their actual education, Helen Rosenau managed to continue working in academia. Rosenau’s life thus stood in marked contrast to the Nazis’ image of women, which she also addresses at the end of her article: “[] the present regime in Germany crushes their independence and considers them primarily as breeding machines for 'warriors’.”

She was given the opportunity to continue the work she had begun in 1932 for her habilitation and to extend it to English cathedrals. In the end, however, her work could only be published in 1934 in greatly abridged form. The habilitation she had originally planned did not result from this publication. Rosenau earned a Ph.D. from London University in 1940 and subsequently worked at the London School of Economics under Karl Mannheim on the representation of the social position of women in art.

New topics

In this article, Rosenau examined the foundations of the women’s movement in Germany and compared them with the social reality of women in National Socialist Germany. In doing so, she builds her article upon a historical consideration of the emerging demand for legal equality of men and women at the end of the 18th century. By referencing Rahel Varnhagen, Dorothea Schlegel, and Henriette Hertz, Rosenau succeeds in drawing a connection between Jewish history in Germany and the political demand for gender equality. Central to her argument are the “Ideas for a Catechism for Noble Women” published by Friedrich Schleiermacher in 1798, which Rosenau had translated into English. Rosenau shows that the idea of gender equality already existed at the end of the 18th century, in stark contrast with her own contemporary experience. National Socialist Germans propagated the subordination of individuality to the national community and the reduction of women to the role of mother for as many children as possible. An independent social position for women was not envisaged under National Socialism. Rosenau’s description of how access to higher education was also made more difficult for women in National Socialist Germany clearly draws on her personal experience. Not only did she leave her original field of research and subject matter, the history of Christian sacred buildings, and increasingly turn to topics of Jewish history and the social status of women, she also left her professional and personal home. Overall, her own experience seems to have significantly influenced her politicization and turn to gender history topics. In this article, she combined the two.

Just as Warburg’s library found a new home in London, Rosenau in a sense exported her knowledge to British society. In her article, she highlights an aspect of German and Jewish history that was all but buried by events unfolding at the time. She combined her account with immediate calls for a resurgence of the feminist movement. Such political writings by Rosenau are not known from earlier years.

Helen Rosenau did not return to Germany. In 1947 she managed to get a low-level appointment at London University. It was only in 1951, 18 years after her prevented habilitation, that she found a permanent position at the University of Manchester, where she focused on the history of urban planning, among other things.

Select Bibliography

Gabriele Hofner-Kulenkamp, Versprengte Europäerinnen. Deutschsprachige Kunsthistorikerinnen im Exil, in: Gesellschaft für Exilforschung (ed.), Frauen und Exil. Zwischen Anpassung und Selbstbehauptung, Munich 1993, pp. 190-202.
Juliane Jacobi, Friedrich Schleiermacher‘s „Idee zu einem Katechismus der Vernunft für edle Frauen“. Ein Beitrag zur Bildungsgeschichte als Geschlechtergeschichte, in: Zeitschrift für Pädagogik 46 (2000) 2, pp. 159-174.
Jannik Sachweh, Brüche im bürgerlichen Wissenschaftsverständnis? Die Ausgrabungen Helen Rosenaus im Bremer Dom 1931, M. A., Bremen 2016.

Selected English Titles

Peter Alter, Refugees from Nazism and Cultural Transfer to Britain, in Immigrants & Minorities 30 (2012), pp. 190-210.
Charmian Brinson / Richard Dove / Anna Müller-Härlin, Politics by Other Means. The Free German League of Culture in London 1939-1946, London 2010.
Emily J. Levine, Dreamland of Humanists. Warburg, Cassirer, Panofsky, and the Hamburg School, Chicago, London 2013.


[I] Notgemeinschaft der Deutschen Wissenschaft

About the Author

Jannik Sachweh is a historian with a focus on the regional and scientific history of Northwest Germany in the 19th and 20th centuries. As a research assistant, he works for several memorial sites and museums.

Recommended Citation and License Statement

Jannik Sachweh, Helen Rosenau, Aspiring Art Historian and Archaeologist (translated by Insa Kummer), in: Key Documents of German-Jewish History, July 20, 2021. <https://dx.doi.org/10.23691/jgo:article-281.en.v1> [April 17, 2024].