No Excuse for Columbia’s Nazi Links

by Dr. Rafael Medoff

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

Columbia University has responded to revelations about its past ties to Nazi Germany–by claiming that everyone was doing it. That’s a poor excuse for forging warm relations with the most evil regime in human history.

The controversy began last month when new research by Prof. Stephen Norwood of the University of Oklahoma revealed that:

* Columbia invited Nazi ambassador Hans Luther to speak on campus in 1933 (about Hitler’s “peaceful intentions”) and university president Nicholas Murray Butler hosted a reception for him;

* Columbia continued student exchanges with Nazi-controlled German universities in the 1930s, even after a Nazi official characterized German exchange students as “political soldiers of the Reich”;

* Columbia sent a delegate to a celebration at the University of Heidelberg in 1936, even after it had been purged of Jewish faculty members, instituted a Nazi curriculum, and hosted a burning of books by Jewish authors; and

* Columbia permanently expelled student Robert Burke after he led an anti-Nazi rally outside President Butler’s mansion.

There are, of course, different ways that an institution might respond to such revelations. For example, when Prof. Laurel Leff revealed, earlier this year, that leading U.S. newspaper publishers and journalism schools refused to help German Jewish refugee journalists in the 1930s, the Newspaper Association of America apologized and agreed to publicize her findings.

Columbia is trying a different approach: circling the wagons.

Columbia Provost Alan Brinkley told the online journal Inside Higher Ed (Nov. 27): “If the events that Professor Norwood describes are examples of ‘collaboration,’ then the collaborators include many thousands of leaders and citizens of the United States, Britain, and many other nations.”

In other words, “Everyone-was-doing-it, so don’t blame us.”

Considering some of the other unsavory things that “many thousands” of people did in those days, one wonders if Columbia’s provost has really thought about the implications of his position. For example, if a researcher were to find evidence that Columbia officials tried to forge relations with the Ku Klux Klan in the 1930s, would the fact that “many thousands” of people were associated with the Klan absolve Columbia of criticism?

The fact is, however, that not everyone was doing it. There were universities that built friendly relations with the Nazis, but there were others that took a morally appropriate stance.

While Columbia insisted on maintaining its student exchange program Nazi Germany, Williams College terminated its exchange program.

While Columbia sent a delegate to the 1936 celebration at the Nazi-controlled University of Heidelberg, leading British universities refused to do likewise, and one thousand Columbia students and faculty signed a petition opposing Butler’s plan to send a delegate.

While Columbia’s president Butler strongly defended Harvard University’s invitation to Nazi professors to take part in its tercentenary celebration, Albert Einstein (then a professor at Princeton) boycotted the celebration because of the Nazis’ participation.

While there were university presidents who were indifferent to the persecution of Jews by Hitler, there were others who did the right thing. Dr. Frank P. Graham, president of the University of North Carolina, helped arrange faculty positions for Jewish refugee scholars, testified before Congress to favor of legislation to grant haven to refugee children, and was active in the Emergency Committee to Save the Jewish People of Europe (the Bergson Group), which lobbied for U.S. action to rescue Jews from Hitler’s genocide. The fact that there were “many thousands” of people in North Carolina who were hostile to Jews (and who kept re-electing the extreme nativist Robert Reynolds to the Senate) did not deter Graham.

And while Columbia permanently expelled student Robert Burke for criticizing Butler at an anti-Nazi rally, no other American university is known to have expelled student critics of Hitler.

A respected institution of higher learning should not be teaching its students that immoral conduct is in any way mitigated by the fact that “many thousands” of other people did it, too. Our universities are looked upon as exemplars for our society, and they therefore bear a moral responsibility to speak out against injustice, regardless of what others are doing.

Brown University, in Rhode Island, has shown the way by recently acknowledging its past ties to slavery and taking steps to make amends, such as constructing a memorial to slaves and establishing a center to study slavery. It is not too late for Columbia to do likewise–that is, to admit that its friendly relations with Nazi Germany were wrong, and to grant Robert Burke the degree he would have earned had he not been unjustly expelled seven decades ago.

(As published in The Columbia Daily Spectator – October 26, 2006)

October 2006