Alice Salomon was an educator, feminist, economist, and international activist who was one of the pioneers of the emerging field of professional social work in Germany in the early 20th century. In 1925 she was among the founders of the German Academy for Women’s Social and Educational Work, and she later served as the first president of the International Committee of Schools of Social Work. Her esteemed reputation led her to travel through North America and Europe in the capacity of diplomat for the Weimar Republic. In 1937 she was forced to flee Germany; she was welcomed and honored upon her arrival to the United States, but she failed to find permanent employment. Salomon died in 1948. The manuscript of her memoirs was rediscovered and first published in Germany in 1983.
Alice Salomon, educator, feminist, economist and international activist, was one of the founding mothers of professional social work and particularly social work education. She directed the first full-time course of social work in her native city, Berlin, initiated and chaired the national conference of schools of social work in Germany, and altogether was among those who developed one of the earliest continuing education programs. In Germany, she is acknowledged as the founder of social work as a women’s profession. She was among the initiators and first president of the International Committee (later International Association) of Schools of Social Work. In her long teaching career she wrote twenty-eight books and more than four hundred articles, many on international and intercultural issues. She was also an active and leading member of the Federation of German Women’s Associations (“Bund Deutscher Frauenvereine”) and of the International Council of Women, whose secretary she was beginning in 1909 and whose vice-president she became in 1920. Antisemitism prevented her election as president. Many of her writings were destroyed by the Nazis and much of the rest is widely scattered.
Alice Salomon was born on April 19, 1872, into an assimilated Jewish family that had lived in Germany for generations under a special dispensation issued by Frederick the Great in 1765. She was born almost at the point when for the first time Jewish citizens were granted the same legal rights as all other citizens—a time of enormous creativity on all fronts, particularly in the area of social concerns.
The third of five children, three of whom died young, Alice attended a Protestant school for girls. Her mother’s well-intentioned but ineffectual attempts to have the children learn something about Judaism after their father’s death in 1886 proved counter-productive; in August 1914, while visiting her friends Lord and Lady Aberdeen in Ireland and prevented by the outbreak of World War I from returning to Germany, Alice Salomon converted to Christianity. She herself alleged that the conversion stemmed from her longing for peace in the face of war. Nevertheless, Alice Salomon maintained a prominent place in both religious groups.
Business and family connections across national borders, initiated by her father and continued by her older brother, who resided in England, familiarized her with international and intercultural issues. The seeds of international co-operation had been planted while Alice was still a child. International conferences in various fields of social welfare had taken place during the second half of the nineteenth century and the desire for peace had been a major motivation in the genealogy of international social work. This, in short, was the climate into and out of which Alice Salomon was born. Her life began, as she herself declared, when she was twenty-one years old, in 1893, with an invitation to join a women’s group for relief work.
Leadership in the New Field of Social Work
Front-line experience in the course of six years of practical social work in different settings and personal insight into the grave situation of poor families provided a basis for practice-oriented curriculum building and teaching in later years. In 1899, Alice Salomon headed the first full one-year training course in social work. At the same time, she pursued her own academic studies. From 1902 to 1906, she studied at the Berlin University, though she lacked the school-leaving certificate required for formal admission. Two articles she had published were recognized as qualifying her for attendance. She wrote her dissertation on “The Causes of Unequal Payment for Men’s and Women’s Work.” This controversial topic, coupled with the fact that women were not yet officially accepted at German universities, led to strong opposition to the awarding of her doctoral degree. She became more determined than ever to improve the quality of training and education in social work.
Throughout her practice and her writing, Alice Salomon emphasized the importance of historical awareness and the need for a wide frame of reference within which social work must be perceived: economics, the natural and social sciences, national and world politics, philosophical and religious dimensions. Far ahead of her time, she stressed the “enabling” nature of teaching and the importance of encouraging students to think and judge for themselves.
The remarkable increase of schools of social work—paradoxically during World War I—and the ever-growing curricula necessitated both a streamlining of training efforts and work towards public recognition of professional training, including official accreditation of graduation certificates. To attain this goal, Alice Salomon in 1916 initiated the German Conference of Schools of Social Work for Women, to serve as a forum for representatives of all schools. In 1920 not only diplomas but the profession of social work as a whole gained official recognition. In 1925 Alice Salomon and others founded the German Academy for Women’s Social and Educational Work (Deutsche Akademie für soziale und pädagogische Frauenarbeit), in order to prepare women practitioners for higher administrative positions, build a research and knowledge base specifically for social work, institutionalize continuing education as a life-long process, and recruit social workers for teaching positions in social-work schools. Alice Salomon translated Mary Richmond’s Social Diagnosis and adapted it to German conditions. Together with Marie Baum, she developed the first comprehensive family care program in Germany (“Familienfürsorge”), which was implemented in most public and private social services.
After World War I, Alice Salomon’s reputation abroad led to an offer to work for the German Ministry for Foreign Affairs. Though she rejected the offer, she was privileged to travel in the capacity of a diplomat throughout the entire period of the Weimar Republic. She toured North America and traveled widely in Europe, giving presentations that are reflected in many newspaper articles. Her reputation as a teacher and internationalist led to her being invited to organize a large international congress, the “Quinzaine Sociale” in Paris in 1928, which was attended by five thousand participants.
Censorship During the Nazi Rise to Power
In 1932, by way of celebrating her sixtieth birthday, Alice Salomon was accorded high honors, including an honorary doctor’s degree in medicine. The school she had founded was officially named the Alice Salomon School of Social Work. But only a year later, with the Nazi rise to power, her name was removed from the school and she was not even allowed to enter the building. She was deprived of all public functions and the women’s organization to which she belonged was dissolved. Alice Salomon chose to close the “Women’s Academy” rather than dismiss Jewish faculty and expel Jewish students.
However, the Nazis could not control her involvement in international affairs and she carried on with the work of the “International Committee” despite increasing difficulty in obtaining permission to leave Germany. Finally, when the Nazis threatened that all German schools would leave the organization if she did not resign from the presidency, she complied with the demand, but was each time immediately reinstated by the international board. The German schools did leave the “International Committee” and Salomon came under constant surveillance. Joining the Jewish aid committee, she used her countless contacts abroad to help younger colleagues escape. She herself received a grant from the Russell Sage Foundation in New York to compile a first international survey of social work education and subsequently was invited to the United States, partly to introduce this first international study.
Fleeing Nazi Germany
On May 25, 1937, three months after she returned from the speaking tour in the U.S., she was summoned by the Gestapo, interrogated for hours at the Gestapo headquarters in Berlin Alexanderplatz and then confronted with an ultimatum: within three weeks she would have to leave Germany or be sent to a concentration camp. Her alleged crime: too much traveling! She wrote her own detailed memories of the interrogation because she was aware that a written record would not be made by the Gestapo. In fact, she was never given any written reason or explanation for the verdict (Collection Alice Salomon, Archives of the Leo Baeck Institute New York).
Now sixty-five years old, and after having travelled with diplomatic privileges during the Weimar Republic, Alice Salomon was given a time-limited passport which acted like a time bomb. She received her passport at the Dutch-German border in Bentheim, and after crossing the Channel arrived in Harwich on June 14, 1937. Before her departure from Germany she had asked friends in the United States for an affidavit and soon after her arrival in Great Britain she applied for a quota visa at the United States Embassy in London. While temporarily living with friends and waiting for her visa, she had to book her trans-Atlantic passage without being certain if she would receive her visa in time.
Life in the United States
The news of her expulsion from Germany had reached the United States and her arrival was announced in private and professional correspondence as well as in newspapers. Some colleagues in the States had called her the “Jane Addams of Germany” when she toured America. But when she came permanently as a refugee and not just for visits as a celebrity, she shared the same experiences as many of the uprooted elderly academics and distinguished professionals that were hoping for a new lease on life in America.
Colleagues and friends welcomed Alice Salomon and she was invited to the White House for tea with Eleanor Roosevelt, America’s First Lady, on January 6, 1938. Occasionally, she was honored by social services and women’s organizations. Some of her birthdays were celebrated with famous musicians and fellow refugees from Berlin, Rudolf Serkin and Adolf Busch. But except for occasional lectures and speaking engagements she did not find what she had hoped for: permanent employment.
Alice Salomon lived in six locations in New York City. She mentioned the help of generous friends, but she finally had to share her last apartment with other tenants. In 1939 she was officially informed that she had been stripped of her German citizenship (No. 24 Deutscher Reichsanzeiger of January 23, 1939) and the University of Berlin annulled her doctor’s degree (New York Times April 24, 1939). At that time—being stateless—she filed papers for naturalization and was granted United States citizenship in 1944.
After the war, too weak to return to Germany, she learned from former students that her old school in Berlin, built in 1914 according to her own plans with a flat roof and a spacious roof garden, had survived the Allied bombardments: bombs that would definitely have destroyed the building had become lodged in the flower-beds of her beloved roof-garden and in consequence had failed to explode.
In 1944, Alice Salomon finished the manuscript of her autobiography and desperately tried to find a publisher. But as with other manuscripts, she could not find anyone sufficiently interested at that time. She asked friends to translate and publish her memoirs in Europe, also without immediate success.
During a severe heat wave at the end of August 1948, Alice Salomon died in New York City. The exact time and date of her death is uncertain because she was alone in her apartment. The door had to be forced open and relatives had to come to the city to identify her. One of her former admirers went to her funeral in the Cemetery of the Evergreens in Brooklyn. He had hoped to join a good number of old friends from Berlin and new ones from New York. However he reported that there was no funeral service and that only four or five people attended.
The manuscript of her memoirs, deemed to have been lost for a number of years, was re-discovered, translated and first published in Germany in 1983. A few years later her former school in Berlin was—for the third time—renamed in her honor and in 2001 the Alice Salomon Archive was inaugurated in Berlin. Finally, in 2004, sixty years after she had finished her reminiscences, Alice Salomon’s memoirs, with the title “Character is Destiny,” were published in her country of exile.
Baron, Rudeger and Rolf Landwehr, eds. Salomon, Alice. Charakter ist Schicksal. Lebenserinnerungen. With an epilogue by Joachim Wieler. Weinheim und Basel: Beltz, 1983.
Feustel, Adriane, ed. Alice Salomon. Ausgewählte Schriften. Volume I 1896–1908. Berlin: 1997; Volume II 1908–1918. Berlin: 2001; Volume III 1918–1948, Munich: 2004.
Lees, Andrew, ed. Character is Destiny: The Autobiography of Alice Salomon. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2004.
Orywa, Renate and Annette Dröge, eds. Alice Salomon in ihren Schriften. Eine Bibliographie (an annotated bibliography). Fachhochschule für Sozialarbeit und Sozialpädagogik. Berlin: 1989.
Berger, Manfred. Alice Salomon. Pionierin der sozialen Arbeit und der Frauenbewegung. Frankfurt/Main: Brandes & Apsel, 1998.
Kuhlmann, Carola. Alice Salomon. Ihr Lebenswerk als Beitrag zur Entwicklung der Theorie und Praxis Sozialer Arbeit. Weinheim: Deutscher Studien Verlag, 2000.
Wieler, Joachim. Er-Innerung eines zerstörten Lebensabends. Alice Salomon während der NS-Zeit (1933–1937) und im Exil (1937–1948). Darmstadt: Lingbach, 1987.