by Rafael Medoff and Laurel Leff
(Dr. Medoff is director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, www.WymanInstitute.org Prof. Leff is Associate Professor of Journalism at Northeastern University, and author of ‘Buried by The Times: The Holocaust and America’s Most Important Newspaper’.)
A leading German television station has fired its anchorwoman for praising the status of women and family in Nazi Germany.
By contrast, New Mexico State University is refusing to even criticize the head of its journalism department for praising the status of women in Nazi Germany and writing forewords for books denying the Holocaust.
The two cases raise important questions about how democratic societies should respond to outrageous speech.
The controversy in Germany involves NDR-Television’s news anchor, Eva Herman. A critic of feminism, Herman urges a return to the days when most German women were housewives and mothers, and has proposed government subsidies to combat Germany’s low birth rate. German feminist leader Alice Schwerzer called Herman’s proposal reminiscent of the Mother’s Cross award that the Hitler regime gave to women who bore more than three children.
Last week, at an event launching her new book, Ms. Herman remarked: “[The Hitler era] was a gruesome time … but even then there were good things and these were the values of children, mothers, families, togetherness.” NDR Television responded by firing her.
Germany is a democracy, but because of its unique history, it restricts some forms of public expression in ways that would be unthinkable in the United States. The need to prevent a resurgence of Nazism has resulted in German bans on publicly displaying Nazi symbols, publicly praising the Nazis, and denying the Holocaust. In America, by contrast, someone cannot be fired from her job for praising the Nazis; the Constitution protects a person’s right to praise anyone or anything she chooses.
But just because someone can’t be fired, does that mean there should be no response at all to those who praise Hitler?
Consider the case of Dr. Frank Thayer.
Thayer is head of the Journalism and Mass Communications Department at New Mexico State University, where he has taught since 1986. According to the university’s web site, “his teaching concentration is in news writing, editing, and in public opinion and propaganda.”
Sometimes Thayer’s interest in propaganda strays beyond the classroom.
During the mid-1990s, Thayer helped edit, and wrote the forewords for, a three-volume work called “Gestapo Chief,” which purports to be based on secret interviews with Gestapo head Heinrich Muller, but which mainstream historians regard as fraudulent. At one point, Muller is quoted as saying that less than half a million Jews died in Nazi captivity, “mostly from typhus.” The book’s author, one Gregory Douglas, adds his own “reflections” supporting Muller’s denial of the Holocaust. In an interview with the Albuquerque Journal last year, Prof. Thayer was asked about Muller’s claim regarding the Jews. He replied: “I don’t know, I don’t think I can address that.”
Thayer, who says he became friends with Douglas because they both collect war memorabilia, wrote about Nazi Germany again in 1998–in the pages of The Barnes Review, a magazine that promotes Holocaust-denial. His article, “The Role and Status of Women in Nazi Germany,” would no doubt interest ex-anchorwoman Eva Herman, and not only because the article included a photograph by Thayer of the Mother’s Cross.
Thayer favorably cited Hitler’s National Socialist Women’s League for having “promoted healthy lifestyles, solid family life, better education for women, social welfare tasks, and patriotic service to the Reich.” Thayer did not explain how the League’s devotion to Nazism made for better education or a healthy lifestyle.
“[T]he Third Reich ignored gender barriers and encouraged capable women to build impressive careers,” Thayer wrote, pointing to filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl as an example. Riefenstahl’s films glorified and promoted Nazism, but that does not seem to trouble Thayer, who asserts that Riefenstahl’s only critics are those who see her films’ message as “a danger to their world view.”
Thayer repeatedly compared Nazi Germany to America–and not unfavorably. He wrote that the “character-forming” impact of Nazi youth movements was reminiscent of “membership in Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts in the United States” … The U.S. is afflicted by “pandemic domestic violence,” while “a female in the Reich had little to fear except Allied bombs” … The Nazi “Lebensborn” program of using unmarried women to breed ‘racially pure’ Aryan children with SS officers “offered dignity, income and respect for German women,” while “women in similar distress in America” were “shamed and discarded.”
Prof. Philip Kushner of the University of Texas, whose diligence has brought Thayer’s writings to public attention, has urged the New Mexico State University administration to criticize Thayer’s involvement with Holocaust-deniers. So far, no luck. University spokeswoman Mary Benanti said: “The university, at this point in time, is respecting Dr. Thayer’s First Amendment right to free speech as well as the other individual engaged in the discussion. They both have a right to express their opinions.”
The New Mexico State U. administration is missing the point. Nobody is saying Prof. Thayer should be fired or prevented from publicly praising the Nazis. In Germany, of course, Thayer might end up like Eva Herman. But this is America; his repulsive statements are not illegal. All Prof. Kushner is suggesting is that the administration publicly reject Thayer’s views. Yes, Thayer has freedom of speech; but so does New Mexico State University. Is it too much to ask the NMSU administration to exercise its right?