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Paul Johansen in the Year 1939

This article revisits Paul Johansen’s life (1901–1965) during the fateful year of 1939, focusing mainly on two major changes in his personal career. Despite the circumstances that he was Danish by parentage but born in Tallinn in 1901, educated in German, and received his Ph.D. from the University of Leipzig in 1924, his complex identity was still accepted in the multinational Estonian society of the interwar years. After years of service as archivist at the Tallinn City Archives, Johansen came to realise that he could not hope to continue his double life as a high-ranking municipal official and a devoted medievalist. His two monographs as well as numerous scholarly articles and archival publications earned him a good reputation among Baltic and Nordic historians. Considering his family life with three small children in the garden city of Nõmme, Johansen’s monthly budget guaranteed an average living standard without any optimistic future perspectives.

The Faculty of Philosophy of the University of Tartu advertised the vacancy for the newly opened Professorship of Medieval History in October of 1938. Paul Johansen realised that this was a unique opportunity for his academic career and applied for the vacant position in November of 1938. His opposing candidate, the Estonian historian Evald Blumfeldt, held only an M.A. degree and could not compete with a Ph.D., either in number of publications or in overall scholarly competence. Professors Arno Raphael Cederberg (Helsinki), Peeter Tarvel (Tartu) and Hans Kruus (Tartu) were invited to review the candidates and their scholarly publications. Prof. Cederberg deemed Paul Johansen fully competent for the professorship; Tarvel and Kruus, however, expressed their reservations regarding Johansen’s advantage and suggested that he be offered a temporary adjunct position instead of the full professorship. Nevertheless, an unexpected academic intrigue broke out in Tartu over Johansen’s candidacy, and the leading university history professors – Professor Hans Kruus in particular – refused to acknowledge Johansen’s doctorate from the University of Leipzig. The question caused a sharp debate among the faculty members, then reached the Learned Council of the University of Tartu, and finally the Ministry of Education, where the decision was made to acknowledge Johansen’s doctoral degree. This unprecedented intrigue marked the attitude of nationally-minded professors toward a non-Estonian candidate, whose contacts and cooperation with Baltic German scholarly societies were amplified by xenophobic apprehensions.

The beginning of World War II on 1 September 1939 changed the political and mental climate in Estonia. Rapid and unexpected political events like the treaty of mutual assistance, which included the establishment of Soviet military bases in Estonia, and thereafter the news about the resettlement of Baltic Germans (Umsiedlung) resulted in growing uncertainty and fear among the local population. On 17 October 1939, after all the preceding embarrassing academic procedures, Paul Johansen withdrew his candidacy from the University of Tartu with the explanation that he was leaving Estonia forever with the resettling Baltic Germans. Johansen confessed his motives and circumstances for leaving Estonia in a letter to the Danish historian Svend Aakjær, emphasising that the Danes had once arrived here (Estonia) with the Germans, and as a Baltic Dane he had to share the fate of the departing Germans. Furthermore, he explained that his wife was German, and his children spoke German, and their future was much more important than his own. Accepting that the future held great risks, he confessed that he had to leave behind his entire lifework, the renewed City Archives, the re-established City Museum, and his historical studies. He confided the same arguments to his teacher from the University of Leipzig, the German Hanseatic historian Fritz Rörig, in a letter on 23 October, adding that all his close friends and fellows were departing, and that staying in this country no longer made any sense. His role as mediator between Germans and Estonians had also come to an end, and therefore he ironically referred to himself as a superfluous man. He was also frightened of the Russian military forces, which had started arriving in Estonia the same day, 18 October, as the first ship of Baltic German resettlers left the harbour of Tallinn.

Indeed, on 26 October Johansen resigned his post as Tallinn’s city archivist, and on 31 October 1939 he departed from Estonia with his family on the German Kraft durch Freude steamer “Sierra Cordoba”. Estonian journalists asked Paul Johansen at Tallinn harbour why he was leaving, alluding to his Danish origins. Johansen answered with the same words as in his above-mentioned letter, that the Danes had come with the Germans, and so the Danes were leaving with the Germans. Such an answer, fraught with historical irony, apparently annoyed Danish diplomats, but Johansen meant this seriously, looking at his life in a historical context. His decision to leave Estonia and resettle was certainly the right decision and was well timed in order to avoid deportation to Siberia in 1941, which was to be the fate of Johansen’s brother, Karl Adam Johansen, who starved to death in a GULAG camp in Kazakhstan. The question why the Johansen family decided to emigrate to Germany, and not to Denmark, remains open. As Johansen was not born in Denmark and had since renounced his Danish citizenship, perhaps there were some legal obstacles which may explain the dilemma. It can only be conjectured that the decision to resettle was affected by Johansen’s frustrating experience of unfair academic procedures at the University of Tartu.

As was the case for many who shared a similar fate, Johansen’s departure from Estonia and the outbreak of the Second World War constituted a watershed in his life. Many of his creative plans and manuscripts were left unfinished, for example the major collective work Tallinn which he and other colleagues had been compiling for many years, the manuscript of which was burned during the war. The Johansen family shared the fate of other Umsiedler: instead of finding a place to live and work in the Altreich, i.e. Germany, they were sent to Nazi-occupied Poland. After difficult months and a desperate job search in Poznan, Paul Johansen was invited to the University of Hamburg in April of 1940 and appointed to the post of extraordinary professor of Hanseatic and East European history in May of 1941. Thus, the second period of Johansen’s life began as a faculty member of a wartime university in Nazi Germany. After wartime hardships he returned to the University of Hamburg and continued teaching East European and Hanseatic history; in his historical research and writings he remained devoted to his old home country.