by Stephen H. Norwood
Professor of History and Judaic Studies, University of Oklahoma
When I began researching how the American academic community responded to the Nazi persecution of the Jews in the 1930s, I expected to find some troubling episodes. But what I discovered is far more disturbing than I ever anticipated.
At a Boston University conference this week, sponsored by the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, I described some of my research findings, especially those pertaining to Harvard University.
The Harvard University administration during the 1930s, led by President James Conant, ignored numerous opportunities to take a principled stand against the Hitler regime and the antisemitic outrages it perpetrated, and contributed to Nazi Germany’s efforts to improve its image in the West. The administration’s lack of concern about Nazi antisemitism was shared by many influential Harvard alumni and students. A faculty panel that supervised a mock trial of Hitler in 1934 ruled that Hitler’s anti-Jewish actions were “irrelevant” to the debate. Nazi leaders were warmly welcomed to the Harvard campus and invited to prestigious social events, as the Harvard administration strove to build friendly relations with thoroughly Nazified universities in Germany. By doing so, Harvard’s administration and many of its student leaders offered important encouragement to the Hitler regime as it intensified its persecution of the Jews and strengthened its armed forces.
President Conant’s insistence on treating Nazi academics as part of the “learned world,” and his reluctance to offer faculty positions to prominent Jewish refugee scholars, was shaped in part by his own antisemitic prejudices. When the DuPont corporation sought his advice about hiring a German Jewish scientist who had fled the Nazis, Conant urged it not to employ him, noting that he was “very definitely of the Jewish type–very heavy.” The scientist they rejected, Max Bergmann, was described by the New York Times as “one of the leading organic chemists in the world.”
Prominent Harvard alumni, student leaders, and some faculty assumed a major role in the friendly welcome accorded the Nazi warship Karlsruhe when it visited Boston in 1934, flying the swastika flag. Boston’s Jewish community protested vociferously. President Conant remained silent. Officers and crewmen from the warship were entertained at Harvard, and professors attended a gala reception in Boston where the warship’s captain enthusiastically praised Hitler.
That year, the Harvard administration welcomed a top Nazi official, Ernst Hanfstangl, who was Hitler’s foreign press chief as well as a virulent antisemite, to the campus for his 25th class reunion. The student newspaper, the Harvard Crimson, editorialized that the university should award Hanfstangl an honorary degree “as a mark of honor appropriate to his high position in the government of a friendly country.” The joyous reception Hanfstangl received on campus was interrupted when a local rabbi confronted him and demanded to know what Hanfstangl had meant when he recently remarked that “everything would soon be settled for the Jews in Germany.” The rabbi cried out, “My people want to know . . . does it mean extermination?” Hanfstangl replied that he “[could] not discuss that. I am on vacation. I am with my old friends.” The Nazi official proceeded to President Conant’s house for tea.
Anti-Nazi activists opposed Hanfstangl’s visit. Some put up posters in Harvard Yard, only to have the Harvard police tear them down. Others held a rally in Harvard Square. Seven demonstrators who tried to speak at the rally were arrested, and sentenced to six months at hard labor. Conant called the demonstration “very ridiculous.”
Several months later, the Harvard administration permitted the Nazi German consul-general to lay a wreath bearing the swastika in the university’s chapel, beneath a tablet honoring Harvard men killed fighting for Germany in World War I.
During the next several years, Harvard participated in academic student exchanges with Nazi universities. In 1936 Harvard contributed significantly to Nazi Germany’s effort to gain international respectability by accepting Heidelberg University’s invitation to send a delegate to its 550th anniversary festival. Heidelberg had expelled its Jewish professors, reshaped its curricula to reflect Nazi ideology, and staged a massive public burning of books by Jews. The Germans had exploited the recently concluded Winter Olympics in Bavaria to extol Nazism. It should have been obvious they would do the same at Heidelberg. American newspapers described the Heidelberg festival as a “brown-shirt pageant” in which Nazi leaders delivered antisemitic harangues.
Moreover, Conant did not sign a petition that some American educators circulated in 1937 when Polish universities required segregated seating for Jewish students. Poland’s Jews considered this a major step toward ghettoization in all areas of life, and appealed to Western educators to denounce it.
It is shameful that the leaders of America’s most prestigious university remained indifferent to Germany’s terrorist campaign against the Jews in the critical years leading up the Holocaust, and on many occasions even assisted the Nazis’ efforts to improve their public image in the West.