Inviting Hitler to Campus

by Dr. Rafael Medoff

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

Inviting Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to speak “is like inviting Hitler in the 1930s,” an Israeli official has said, in response to the invitations extended to the Iranian leader by the Council on Foreign Relations and Columbia University. Those invitations followed, by less than two weeks, Harvard University’s hosting of a speech by former Iranian president Mohammad Khatami, a supporter of the Ahmadinejad regime.

The Israeli official’s remark was closer to the truth than he realized. Although neither Columbia nor Harvard invited Adolf Hitler to speak in the 1930s, they did the next worst thing–they welcomed senior officials of the Hitler regime.

Thanks to recent groundbreaking research by Prof. Stephen Norwood of the University of Oklahoma, the shameful details of this Ivy League flirtation with the Nazis is a secret no longer. Perhaps it makes their recent invitations to Iranian officials seem less surprising.

In May 1934, the Harvard administration played host to Nazi Germany’s ambassador to the U.S., Hans Luther. He visited Harvard’s Germanic Museum and Widener Library. The following month, Harvard president James Conant rolled out the red carpet for Hitler’s foreign press chief, Ernst “Putzi” Hanfstangl. A graduate of the class of 1909, Hanfstangl came for the June 1934 commencement and his 25th class reunion. He had been a close ally of Hitler’s since the early 1920s, and in his new position was responsible for spreading Nazi propaganda abroad.

President Conant received the Nazi official at a tea for the Class of ’09 in his home. The student newspaper, The Harvard Crimson, even urged the administration to award Hanfstangl an honorary degree “as a mark of honor appropriate to his high position in the government of a friendly country.”

Later that year, the Harvard administration hosted Germany’s Boston consul-general, Baron Kurt von Tippelskirch, at a ceremony honoring Harvard graduates who had died while fighting in the German army in World War I. The consul’s wreath included the infamous Nazi swastika.

Meanwhile, at Columbia, president Nicholas Murray Butler in 1933 invited Nazi ambassador Hans Luther to speak on campus, and also hosted a reception for him. Luther represented “the government of a friendly people,” Butler insisted. He 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.

Three years later, the Columbia administration announced it would send a delegate to Nazi Germany to take part in the 550th anniversary celebration of the University of Heidelberg. (Harvard did likewise.) This, 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,” 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 signs proclaimed.

That was followed by a student rally in front of Butler’s mansion. Butler was furious that a leader of the rally, Robert Burke, “delivered a speech in which he referred to the President [Butler] disrespectfully.” As punishment, 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.)

Universities are uniquely positioned to shape public attitudes. As the pillars of America’s educational system, they are looked upon as exemplars for our society. But what example did they set in the 1930s, by hosting officials of the Hitler regime and expelling a student for the ‘crime’ of leading an anti-Nazi rally? What message do they send today by welcoming leaders of a regime that sponsors international terrorism and threatens to annihilate five million Israeli Jews?

As it happens, President Ahmadinejhad will not speak at Columbia, but for the wrong reason. He was originally invited by the dean of Columbia’s School of International Affairs, Lisa Anderson, to speak as part of the University’s “World Leaders Forum.” Following protests, university president Lee Bollinger told Anderson that Ahmadinejhad should speak at the School of International Affairs itself rather than at the university-wide forum. Anderson, for her part, said the logistical and security requirements for the visit were too complicated to resolve on short notice. Unfortunately, neither Bollinger nor Anderson acknowledged any moral problem with inviting the Iranian president.

Robert Burke is the person who should be embraced by Columbia, not Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Even at this late date, an honorary degree for Mr. Burke would constitute an appropriate replacement for the Iranian leader’s speech, and a powerful expression of Columbia’s opposition to fascist tyrants and their supporters.

October 2006