The Chronicle Review

The Shame of Academe and Fascism, Then and Now

College presidents didn't rally against the Nazis, but maybe they'll do better with Iran

Boston Public Library, Print Department

Ernst Hanfstaengl (center, waving), a Hitler confidant, Nazi foreign-press chief, and former Harvard cheerleader, was feted at the 25th reunion of the Class of 1909 by the university’s president, James Bryant Conant.
August 10, 2009

How should America's university presidents respond to the savagery in Iran today?

The incarcerated student protesters forced to lick toilet bowls. The imprisoned dissidents beaten to death in holding pens, some with their fingernails torn out. The many murdered protesters, including Neda Agha-Soltan, the now-iconic young philosophy student shot in cold blood. The banning of foreign and domestic journalists from honest coverage or even access to news events. The arrest of professors and shuttering of academic institutions.

Here are a few hints from another era.

Night of the Long Knives. Kristallnacht. Auschwitz. Nuremberg.

Too strong a comparison unless what takes place next in Iran is mass murder?

Granted, vast differences exist between Nazi Germany then and Islamic Iran now. But the vast similarities are also plain. The insistence that state power trumps individual rights. The unaccountable supreme leader. The mass trial. The phony exhortations by rulers to a nonexistent Volk, a unified people. The attacks on and discrimination against women. The existence of militia-like forces, wreaking violence on dissidents. Fascism is fascism.

What's a university president to do? Most of us wouldn't expect the species to be more heroic in the presence of foreign evil than the public at large. The value of that characteristic to fund raising is, after all, unproven. The Dietrich Bonhoeffers, Father Kolbes, and Gandhis come along rarely and tend not to get hired by boards of trustees. The ruling personality bent of many academics—play it safe, take care of friends, advance one's own career and those of like-minded people, do some good along the way—trickles upward.

This time, though, our academic leaders should get it right. Because Stephen H. Norwood's just-published, brilliantly researched, utterly thorough and morally upsetting The Third Reich in the Ivory Tower: Complicity and Conflict on American Campuses (Cambridge University Press) shows how they got it wrong in the 1930s. A chilling chronicle of pro-Nazi enthusiasm, shabby indifference, and amoral tolerance toward Hitler in elite American academe of the 1930s, this book should exert direct impact in this season of cracking heads and bones in Tehran. It relentlessly names names, depositing fact after sordid fact before the reader in a way that leaves its implications for then and today overwhelming.

Norwood, a professor of history at the University of Oklahoma and co-editor of the Encyclopedia of American Jewish History, attracted media attention when he unpacked some findings in the past. At a conference last year about Columbia University's ties to Nazi Germany, he detailed how its longtime president, Nicholas Murray Butler, invited the Nazi ambassador Hans Luther to campus in 1933, remained friendly with Nazi-run German universities into the mid-30s, and punished Columbia faculty members and students who protested.

Speaking at a 2004 Boston University conference on the Holocaust, Norwood shared other research that now appears in his fully detailed chapter on Harvard's bad behavior. In the updated version, he describes in gruesome detail how prominent "Harvard alumni, student leaders, The Harvard Crimson, and several Harvard professors assumed a leading role in the 10-day welcome and reception accorded the Nazi warship Karlsruhe when it visited Boston in May 1934."

At the 25th reunion that year of the Class of 09, writes Norwood, President James Bryant Conant, who'd sailed the previous year to Europe on a Nazi ocean liner, feted Ernst Hanfstaengl, "one of Hitler's earliest backers" and his foreign-press chief. In the summer of 1935, Harvard allowed its student band to perform regularly on a Nazi ship. In 1936, Conant dispatched a delegate to help celebrate the 550th anniversary of the Nazified University of Heidelberg, despite its bonfire of "un-German" books in 1933. Conant allowed the German consul in Boston to place a laurel wreath, swastika affixed, in one of Harvard's memorial chapels. Conant continued to maintain until Kristallnacht, Norwood writes, that Nazi universities remained part of the "learned world" and should be treated politely. In the 1950s, Conant, then U.S. ambassador to Germany, drew repeated denunciations from Congressional officials for his efforts to free Nazi war criminals, including some of the most bestial.

And who knew that the "stiff-armed Nazi salute and Sieg Heil chant" was "modeled on a gesture and a shout" that Hanfstaengl had used as a Harvard football cheerleader?

After Norwood's 2004 talk, The Boston Globe reported that David S. Wyman, the leading scholar of America's response to the Holocaust, put current Harvard administrators on notice: "Harvard should issue an apology without excuses and say, 'We as an institution would never conduct ourselves like that again.'" At the time, Harvard spokesman Joe Wrinn issued a statement that said, "Harvard University and President Conant did not support the Nazis." Wrinn also urged: "If there are new facts, they should be added to the archives of history and the dialogue of those times."

Welcome, then, to The Third Reich in the Ivory Tower. Norwood appears to have mined every microfilmed college, labor, and Jewish newspaper, every minor publication of the 1930s, every dusty collection of diplomatic correspondence related to his subject. His findings astonish, especially if you naïvely believe that America's academic leaders must, on the whole, have been on the side of the angels.

Norwood begins shrewdly in his opening chapter, "Germany Reverts to the Dark Ages: Nazi Clarity and Grassroots American Protest, 1933-1934." Offering one citation after another, he demonstrates that within months after Hitler came to power, on January 30, 1933, the news that Nazis were beating Jews in the streets, degrading them, banishing them from public life or yanking them off to torture cellars and early concentration camps was widely reported. Public figures outside of academe were already condemning Hitler.

On March 7, 1933, Norwood relates, Boston's The Jewish Advocate declared that Germany's entire Jewish population of 600,000 was "under the shadow of a campaign of murder." Days before, the London Daily Herald had predicted the Nazis would launch a pogrom "on a scale as terrible as any instance of Jewish persecution in 2,000 years." On April 7, the Nazis enacted the law expelling Jews from the civil service, which included all professors. By spring 1934, the Manchester Guardian correspondent Robert Dell opened his book, Germany Unmasked, by quoting a diplomat in Berlin: "The conditions here are not those of a normal civilized country, and the German government is not a normal civilized government and cannot be dealt with as if it were one."

The Third Reich in the Ivory Tower continues like that: chapter and verse of journalists and diplomats reporting anti-Semitic violence, public figures such as Einstein and La Guardia denouncing the Nazis, grass-roots activists successfully fomenting a boycott of German goods and services—while the leaders of America's universities "remained largely silent." Worse, the latter sometimes defied the anti-Nazi boycott, trading exchange students with Nazi universities, "warmly receiving Nazi diplomats and propagandists on campus."

In one remarkable chapter, Norwood exposes how "many administrators, faculty, and students at the elite women's colleges known as the Seven Sisters—Vassar, Smith, Mount Holyoke, Wellesley, Bryn Mawr, Radcliffe, and Barnard—shared a sanguine view of Nazi Germany and enthusiastically participated in academic and cultural exchanges with the Third Reich." As Norwood shows, the solidarity could only be regarded as bizarre, given that the Nazis were pressuring German women to have a "five-child family," eliminating women from the professions, and imposing a "quota limiting women to 10 percent of those admitted" to universities. Erika Mann, Thomas Mann's daughter, noted in 1937 that not a single female full professor remained in any German university.

Other chapters recount how the University of Virginia's Institute of Public Affairs gave Nazi apologists repeated respectful hearings, how more than a few departments of German amounted to "nests" of Hitler sympathizers, and how Catholic universities and their leaders repeatedly spoke up for Hitler, Mussolini, Franco, and even Antonio de Oliveira Salazar, Portugal's dictator.

At times, Norwood's details make one wince at what one might charitably call academic tunnel vision. President Walter S. Hullihen of the University of Delaware, who maintained that stories of Nazi persecution in the American press were "grossly exaggerated, in many cases utterly false," lamented that "the Night of the Long Knives had thrown the Junior Year in Munich program into temporary disarray because Germans prominent in leading or administering it had been murdered by the SS." Talk about unforeseen consequences! Similarly we read that "Kristallnacht pushed Junior Year in Munich Inc. director Edmund Miller into a 'slough of Despond.' Miller had hoped after the September 1938 Munich Conference that Neville Chamberlain's concessions to Hitler ensured 'unperturbed development' for the program and 'normal enrollment [for] the following year.' He now worried about sending American students into 'such a depressing environment.'"

Thankfully, a procession of the sensible and righteous also existed in those years, both in and out of academe. William E. Dodd, U.S. Ambassador to Germany from 1933 to 1938, refused to accept any German honorary degrees and expressed disgust at Nazi activities. President Daniel Marsh of Boston University was "one of the very few university presidents or administrators to speak publicly against Nazism at protest rallies or forums." The conductor Arturo Toscanini, the only non-German ever invited to conduct at the Bayreuth Festival, canceled his contract to protest Nazi anti-Semitism and instead conducted an orchestra of Jewish refugee musicians in Palestine. The American Federation of Labor put its weight behind the boycott of German goods as early as October 1933. Sen. James Davis of Pennsylvania denounced Nazi Germany as "an insult to civilization." Clarence Darrow expressed the hope that someone would kill Hitler. A student protester at Harvard in 1934 waved a sign that Hanfstaengl should be awarded a "Doctor of Pogroms" degree.

Indeed, students, journalists, labor leaders, and elected officials—at least some of them—are the heroes of Norwood's book, showing more moral courage and activism than university administrators did.

Those who lack specialized knowledge of the 1930s may be surprised to realize that the United States maintained diplomatic relations with Nazi Germany throughout the decade, so that various forms of business as usual—speaking dates by the Nazi ambassador to the United States, student-exchange programs—continued. By contrast, the United States hasn't had diplomatic relations with Iran for decades. Given the sanctions on Iran, administrators needn't review the kind of junior-year-abroad programs that propelled American undergraduates into the arms of Nazi propagandists in the 30s.

Do such differences make the moral challenges that face our university presidents today subtler, or more clear-cut? Columbia President Lee Bollinger's highly publicized invitation to (and confrontation with) Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad two years ago reflected some of the changed circumstances. Bollinger adopted a halfway strategy unseen in Norwood's pages. First he invited the morally reprobate foreign leader and let him speak (upholding the courtesy and free-discussion principles of academe that were supposedly of great importance to Conant and others). Then he confronted him critically, in person, before an audience—something Conant and most of the academic leaders in Norwood's pages fought hard to avoid. Showing how controversial such strategies remain, Bollinger took heavy criticism (and some praise) for his choices.

The Third Reich in the Ivory Tower presents stark moral challenges to today's leaders of those institutions that, Norwood shows, acted shamefully in the 1930s. Apologize or do nothing? Clear the record of students and professors punished for their anti-Nazi activities, or do nothing?

The distinguished historian Drew Gilpin Faust, now Harvard's president, must read this book and take a stand on two of her predecessors: Conant (who "displayed impatience with, and often contempt for, Jewish and other activists determined to publicly expose Nazi barbarism") and Abbott Lawrence Lowell (reported here to have "voiced his anti-Semitism publicly" and shown hostility to Jews and German academic refugees). President Richard C. Levin of Yale also has some required reading to do about his predecessor, James Rowland Angell. That goes for a host of other top guns—see Norwood's index and extensive notes.

Another moral challenge is how university presidents should apply the lessons of Norwood's disturbing history to Iran. It's a familiar ethical dilemma: When does business as usual stop? When does the immoral behavior of an individual or regime go so far over the line that it overrides etiquette? When does the warning to speak out against abuse of others, and not just abuse of one's own tribe, become second nature?

The acts of conscience undertaken by students and others during the 1930s provide ideas for today. Activists back then created "libraries of burned books" to shame Nazi universities that had made bonfires of such treasures. Maybe the same could be done today with what Iranian autocrats have censored. Activists tracked and harassed Nazi speakers in the United States; the same could be done with Iranian diplomats here. (Anti-Nazi activists, of course, didn't possess Twitter, which has given brave Iranian citizen-journalists an extra weapon to monitor the government and keep the outside world informed.) Alvin Johnson founded the University in Exile for refugee scholars as a graduate division of the New School for Social Research, in New York. A similar institution could be started for Iranian exiles. Finally, and most important: Our university presidents could repeatedly, loudly, and defiantly speak up, regardless of whether their warnings fall on deaf ears.

No one stopped Nazi and Italian fascism before it killed millions. Perhaps someone will stop Iranian fascism. Wouldn't it be wonderful for a scholar to look back, decades from now, at how America's academic leaders spoke out against the thugs and butchers of Tehran?

Carlin Romano, critic at large for The Chronicle Review and literary critic of The Philadelphia Inquirer for 25 years, teaches philosophy and media theory at the University of Pennsylvania.