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Campus radicalism, support for totalitarianism, and general political extremism are not new on Western campuses. Indeed some of the worst political extremism in academic history took the form of enthusiastic support on American campuses for Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy.
This disgraceful chapter in American academic history is the topic of a new book
, The Third Reich in the Ivory Tower
, by Stephen H. Norwood
(Cambridge University Press). The author is a professor of history at the University of Oklahoma and holds a Ph.D. from Columbia University.
The simple lesson from examining the behavior on American campuses in the 1930s is that the appeasement, the support for totalitarian aggression and terror, and the academic bigotry and anti-Semitism that today characterize so many American universities were all predominant forces on many campuses in the 1930s, especially at America’s elite schools.
Norwood’s book is a must read, but also a sad and uncomfortable one. He details the reactions of America’s professors and universities to the rise of Hitler. The responses on American campuses ranged from complete indifference and refusal to join in campaigns against Nazi Germany to widespread support for German Nazism.
Starting in 1933, anti-Hitler mass protests were held throughout the United States. Americans of all creeds joined in. At the same time, “College and university presidents and administrators did not convene protest meetings against Nazi anti-Semitism on the campuses, nor did they urge their students and faculty members to attend the nationwide mass rallies held on March 27, 1933.”
Harvard University stood out in its moral failure and collaboration with Nazism. Many faculty members were openly anti-Semitic, including Harvard’s president, James Bryant Conant. Later, after the war, Conant served as U.S. ambassador to Germany and worked to get Nazi war criminals paroled and hired. He lobbied for appointment of Nazis to various public posts in Europe and at the United Nations.
Harvard’s law school dean, Roscoe Pound, was openly sympathetic to Hitler, vacationed in Germany and attended anti-Semitic events there. Harvard history professor William L. Langer strongly defended Hitler’s reoccupation and remilitarization of the Rhineland, which was the first step in launching World War II. More generally he served as a sort of academic apologist for the Nazis.
Harvard went out of its way to host and celebrate Nazi leaders. The high Nazi official Ernst (Putzi) Hanfstaengl was invited as the Harvard commencement speaker in 1934. The wealthy Hanfstaengl had been one of Hitler’s earliest and most important backers. He was on record insisting “the Jews must be crushed,” and describing Jews as “the vampire sucking German blood.”
The student paper, the Harvard Crimson, defended Hanfstaengl. Harvard called in the Boston police to arrest Jews and others protesting the visit, and they were charged with “illegally displaying signs.” When Hanfstaengl returned to Germany from Harvard, he was personally greeted by Hitler.
Harvard maintained warm relations with many Nazi institutions, particularly the University of Heidelberg, even after it proclaimed proudly that it had expelled all its Jews. In 1937 Harvard’s president was still saluting Nazi universities as playing a legitimate part in the “learned world.”
In 1935 the German consul in Boston was invited by Harvard to lay a wreath with a swastika on it in the campus chapel. Nazi officials were invited to Harvard’s tercentenary celebrations in 1936, held intentionally on the Jewish High Holidays as a slap in the face of Jewish faculty and students. A mock student debate held in 1936 was presided over by Harvard professors as judges. They acquitted Hitler of most of the mock charges (condemning him only for having a German general killed) and declared that German persecution of Jews was simply irrelevant.
Other elite New England academic institutions expressed similar sentiments. Yale was only marginally less friendly to the Nazis than Harvard. Some MIT professors came out vocally in support of Hitler and Nazi Germany. Professor Thomas Chalmers of the history department at Boston University publicly demanded a “hands off ” policy regarding Hitler and opposed American denunciations of Nazi Germany.
Norwood’s own alma mater, Columbia University, is a major target in his book. Columbia was an active collaborator with Nazi Germany in many ways. Months after Germany started book burning, Columbia’s president, Nicholas Murray Butler, went out of his way to welcome Nazi Germany’s ambassador to the U.S. for a lecture at the school and praised the Nazi as a gentleman and a representative of “a friendly people.” Shortly afterward, when a man who had escaped from a Nazi concentration camp lectured on campus, Butler refused to attend.
More than one Columbia faculty member was fired for taking an anti-Nazi stand. These included a Jewish professor of fine arts, Jerome Klein, who dared to protest the campus visit of the Nazi ambassador.
Freedom of speech was selectively defended on campuses in the 1930s, as it is again today in the 21st century. The president of Queens College prohibited an anti-Nazi speaker from giving a lecture on campus as late as spring 1938.
All of the above sound familiar? It does to Norwood, who says he sees frightening similarities between what has been happening on American campuses since the early 1990s and what transpired in the 1930s.
Steven Plaut, a frequent contributor to The Jewish Press, is a professor at Haifa University. His book “The Scout” is available at Amazon.com. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.