Hitler in Bayonne

by Rafael Medoff

The savants of Columbia University, one of the major intellectual and cultural centers of New York City, might assume they have little in common with the residents of blue-collar Bayonne, New Jersey. But last week, woeful ignorance of the Nazi era was on display in both communities.

In Bayonne, two elementary school students triumphed in their legal struggle to wear protest buttons comparing their school’s mandated uniform policy to the ways of the Hitler Youth. One of their parents explained that they chose a photo of the Hitler Youth for the button to illustrate “what can happen when we turn children into ‘uniform’ followers.”

The lawsuit filed by the families of seventh-grader Anthony LaRocco and fifth-grader Michael DePinto generated much controversy over the legality of limiting offensive speech. But there is a much bigger problem if these youngsters and their parents know so little about the Nazi era that they believe the defining characteristic of the Hitler Youth was its regimented dress code.

Once the dust settles from the legal skirmishes, the boys’ teachers need to explain to the class –and to parents as well– that the problem with the Hitler Youth was not how they dressed.

The Hitler Youth movement inculcated millions of German children with totalitarian Nazi ideology, vicious antisemitism, and glorification of violence.

Hitler Youth members took part in numerous atrocities, from forcing Vienna’s Jews to scrub the streets with toothbrushes in 1938, to the mass shooting of Jews swimming from sinking boats in the German harbor of Lubeck, just before Germany’s surrender in 1945. In addition, many of those who graduated from Hitler Youth filled the ranks of the Gestapo and participated in the annihilation of European Jewry.

While other branches of the Nazi apparatus collapsed or surrendered in the waning days of World War Two, Hitler Youth remained fanatically loyal to their Fuhrer to the very end, which is why one often finds them mentioned in connection with atrocities in the spring of 1945. For example, Menachem Weinryb, an Auschwitz survivor forced to take part in a death march from Poland to Germany recalled how when they reached the Belsen area on April 13, 1945, the German guards went to a nearby town “and returned with a lot of young people from the Hitler Youth [and local policemen] … They chased us all into a large barn … we were five to six thousand people … [They] poured out petrol and set the barn on fire. Several thousand people were burned alive.”

It’s bad enough that the Bayonne parents did not take a few minutes to read up on the Hitler Youth before invoking that image.

But what excuse is there for a distinguished historian to exhibit an equally shoddy grasp of history? John H. Coatsworth, dean of Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs, earned a Ph.D. in history, has authored or edited seven history books, and served as president of the American Historical Association. One would expect him to be familiar with at least the basic facts about Nazi Germany.

Yet there was Dean Coatsworth telling the New York Daily News on September 23 that he would “certainly” have invited Adolf Hitler to speak at Columbia in, say, 1939, since “in 1939, he had not started the war and the Holocaust hadn’t begun.” So the ‘bad Hitler’ of the 1940s, the one responsible for World War II and Auschwitz, would not have been welcome at Columbia–but the not-so-bad Hitler of the 1930s would have made a perfectly acceptable guest speaker.

For Dean Coatsworth’s information, Hitler’s 1930s included, among other things, the widescale imprisonment and murder of dissidents; the banning of opposition newspapers and political parties; mass book-burnings; the Nuremberg Laws that stripped Jews of their rights; the Kristallnacht pogrom that devastated German Jewry; the annexation of Austria; and the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia.

Whether the issue is Hitler’s record or the nature of Hitler Youth, is it too much to suggest that those who intend to publicly comment on such issues, whether in Bayonne or at Columbia, should first familiarize themselves with the basic facts?

September 2007