Columbia Should Follow Brown by Facing its Past

by Dr. Rafael Medoff

(Dr. Medoff is director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies,

Brown University, in Rhode Island, is preparing to take steps to atone for its connections to slavery. In the same spirit, it is time for Columbia University to finally right a grievous wrong which it committed in 1933, concerning Nazi Germany.

After three years of studying Brown University’s ties to slaveholders, a University committee has now proposed a series of remedial steps, which the university administration apparently intends to adopt. These include construction of a memorial to black slaves, creation of a center to study slavery, and greater efforts to recruit African and West Indian students.

“We cannot change the past,” said Brown president Ruth Simmons. “But an institution can hold istelf accountable for the past, accepting its burdens and responsibilities along with its benefits and privileges.”

Dr. Simmons is right. One hopes that the administration at Columbia University is paying attention, because justice has not yet been done in the case of a reprehensible action that Columbia took in 1933, the year Adolf Hitler rose to power in Germany.

Prof. Stephen Norwood of the University of Oklahoma, who is working on a book about the U.S. academic community’s response to Nazism, has found that a number of Ivy League universities, shamefully attempted to build friendly relations with the Hitler regime.

Harvard, for example, hosted Nazi Germany’s ambassador to the U.S., Hans Luther, in 1934. Harvard President James Conant gave a red-carpet welcome to Hitler’s foreign press chief, Ernst “Putzi” Hanfstangl, when he visited the campus that year (for his 25th class reunion). The student newspaper, The Harvard Crimson, even urged that Hanfstangl be given an honorary degree “as a mark of honor appropriate to his high position in the government of a friendly country.” The university also hosted a visit by Germany’s Boston consul-general, Baron Kurt von Tippelskirch. He took part in a ceremony honoring Harvard graduates who had died while fighting in the German army in World War I, and laid a wreath featuring the infamous Nazi swastika.

Columbia’s actions regarding the Hitler regime were equally troubling.

At the invitation of the Columbia University administration, Nazi ambassador Hans Luther spoke on campus in December 1933. Columbia president Nicholas Murray Butler also hosted a reception for him. When students protested, Butler insisted that Luther represented “the government of a friendly people” and therefore was “entitled to be received … with the greatest courtesy and respect.” Ambassador Luther’s speech focused on what he characterized as Hitler’s “peaceful intentions.”

Columbia also insisted on maintaining friendly relations with Nazi-controlled German universities.

While Williams College terminated its program of student exchanges with Nazi Germany, Columbia and other universities declined to do likewise. Even the blunt statement by a German official that his country’s students were being sent abroad to serve as “political soldiers of the Reich” did not persuade Columbia to pull out of the exchange program.

In 1936, the Columbia administration announced it would send a delegate to Germany to take part in the 550th anniversary celebration of the University of Heidelberg. It planned to take this friendly step despite the fact that Heidelberg already had been purged of Jewish faculty members, instituted a Nazi curriculum, and hosted a burning of books by Jewish authors.

“Academic relationships have no political implications,” President Butler claimed. Many Columbia students disagreed. The student newspaper, The Spectator, denounced Butler’s intention to send the delegate to Heidelberg, and students held a “Mock Heidelberg Festival” on campus, complete with a bonfire and mock book burning. “Butler Diddles While the Books Burn,” their posters proclaimed.

Next, the students staged a protest rally in front of Butler’s mansion. Butler accused a leader of the rally, Robert Burke, of having “delivered a speech in which he referred to the President [Butler] disrespectfully.” Even though Burke had excellent grades, and even though Columbia’s own attorney later acknowledged that “the evidence that Burke himself used bad language is slight,” Burke was permanently expelled from Columbia.

In the late 1930s, Butler would change his position and speak out against the Nazis. Unfortunately, it was too late to undo the damage he already had done. To make matters worse, despite Butler’s own change of heart regarding the Nazis, he never readmitted Robert Burke to the university.

Seven decades have passed, but it is still not too late for Columbia to acknowledge its mistake and make amends. Brown University is doing so, even though more than two hundred years have passed since slavery was officially abolished in Rhode Island. A public apology and the awarding of an honorary degree to Mr. Burke is the least Columbia should do.

October 2006