Burke’s Expulsion: Columbia’s Shame

by Stephen H. Norwood

(Prof. Norwood is a member of the Academic Council of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies)

When I was completing my Ph.D. at Columbia in the early 1980s, Spectator issued a black-bordered editorial bitterly denouncing the administration’s refusal to grant Reed Harris, who had just died, the degree University President Nicholas Murray Butler had denied him in 1932, or an honorary degree. Spectator called this refusal “an embarrassment to the university” (Oct. 21, 1982). Butler had expelled Harris, then editor in chief of Spectator, for criticizing the management of Columbia’s dining services, including exploitation of student waiters. Commenting on the administration’s unwillingness to consider an honorary degree, despite a concerted campaign on Harris’s behalf led by Fred Friendly, professor emeritus of journalism, Spectator declared, “The fact of the matter is that Columbia and the College are ashamed to admit they were wrong.”

I was disturbed to read in Inside Higher Education (Nov. 27) that Columbia provost Alan Brinkley appears more concerned with protecting the institution’s reputation than with rectifying a similar injustice Butler committed against Robert Burke, CC ’38. Butler had Burke expelled for leading pickets protesting the Columbia administration’s insistence on sending a delegate and friendly greetings to a major propaganda festival the Nazi leadership orchestrated in 1936 in Germany, the 550th anniversary celebration of Heidelberg University. Although he was a fine student and had been elected president of his class, Burke was never readmitted.

Brinkley and former associate dean Michael Rosenthal, who also addressed my findings in Inside Higher Education, show little sympathy for Burke and trivialize Columbia administration actions that helped Nazi Germany enhance its standing in the West. Although the Nazis had expelled Jews from university faculties and the professions, and savagely beat Jews in the streets, Butler joined with the presidents of Harvard and Yale to plan how to deflect criticism of their decisions to send university representatives to Heidelberg. No British university would send delegates. Butler selected professor Arthur Remy as Columbia’s representative, who pronounced the reception at which Josef Goebbels presided “very enjoyable.”

Brinkley refuses to comment on Columbia’s expulsion of Burke for anti-Nazi protest. He excuses Butler’s forming ties with Nazified universities in Germany because other “leaders and citizens of the United States” engaged in similar acts of collaboration with the Nazis. This is dangerous logic. The fact that others are doing something does not make it acceptable.

Rosenthal denies that Butler destroyed Burke’s academic career because of anti-Nazi protest, claiming he was expelled for creating a “disturbance.” Butler was indeed angered that picketing occurred while he was entertaining alumni, but it was well understood at the time that Butler was punishing Burke for challenging him on Heidelberg. Unlike Butler, Burke recognized that public protest was necessary when America’s elite universities ignored Nazi crimes. Arthur Garfield Hays, a pre-eminent civil liberties attorney, represented Burke when he filed suit to gain readmission.

Like his counterparts at Harvard and Yale, Butler considered German universities in 1936 to be part of the “learned world” and claimed political concerns were irrelevant when academics interacted. Yet the Nazis tightly controlled Germany’s universities, driving into exile many of the world’s foremost scholars. German universities propagated Nazi racial ideology and helped the Hitler regime develop anti-Semitic legislation. Historian Max Weinreich commented, “German scholars from the beginning to the end of the Hitler era worked hand in glove with the murderers of the Jewish people.”

Butler’s insensitivity to Nazi outrages against Jews was influenced by his own anti-Semitism. Columbia spearheaded universities’ efforts to sharply restrict Jewish admissions. Butler strongly supported Harvard president James Conant, an early supporter of anti-Jewish quotas, when he invited Nazi academics to Harvard’s tercentenary celebration later in 1936.

Many of Columbia’s most distinguished faculty members in 1936, including Franz Boas and Nobel laureate Harold Urey, strongly protested Butler’s decision to participate at Heidelberg, as did a thousand students and professors who signed a objected to the presence of Nazis. Students had similarly demanded that Butler explain his earlier warm welcome to Nazi Germany’s ambassador Hans Luther. They were stunned that a university invited to campus the representative of a regime that staged massive book-burnings. Butler was uncomfortable with Robert Burke, a passionate antifascist working his way through Columbia, and destroyed his academic career. But he considered Nazi leader Luther a gentleman and was pleased to have him on campus.

It is distressing that, over 60 years after the Holocaust, a provost and former associate dean would trivialize Columbia’s efforts to build friendly ties with Nazi Germany, which the Hitler regime exploited to great propaganda effect. It is shameful that President Butler, who was in a position to influence public opinion against barbarism at a critical time, chose instead to cooperate in Nazi efforts to improve Germany’s image in the West. Columbia must explain itself.

(As published in The Columbia Daily Spectator – Dec. 11, 2006)

December 2006