Visit Iran? It’s Been Tried Before–with Nazi Germany

by Rafael Medoff

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

Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad concluded his remarks at Columbia University with an effusive invitation to the students and faculty to visit Iran’s universities.

Ahmadinejad could be taking quite a chance, since, according to the State Department’s latest report on human rights in Iran, their college campuses are virtual hostages of the regime. To gain admission to an Iranian university, an applicant must “pass ‘character tests’ in which officials eliminate applicants critical of the government’s ideology.” Students who dare to become politically active are “banned from university or prevented from registering for upcoming terms,” and informers are “common on university campuses” to keep things in line. The faculty are likewise handcuffed: “To obtain tenure professors had to refrain from criticism of the authorities.” To make sure no dissidents slip by, Ahmadinejad in 2005 “called for the removal of secular and liberal professors from universities,” and as a result “dozens of university professors were dismissed or forced to retire.”

But one may assume that any Columbia students or faculty who take up Ahmadeinjad’s offer will receive a highly selective tour. After all, totalitarian regimes are experts at manipulating visits by foreigners to show only what they want to be seen.

During the 1930s, Nazi Germany welcomed visitors, especially from the U.S. academic community. Hitler correctly perceived such visits as an opportunity to soften his regime’s image and gain international legitimacy. Sadly, more than a few Americans fell for this ploy, enjoying the charms of a carefully-choreographed visit and then returning to share with the American public a whitewashed picture of life under the Nazis.

In his forthcoming book on the U.S. academic community’s response to Nazism, Prof. Stephen Norwood of the University of Oklahoma describes how American University chancellor Joseph Gray returned from a visit to Nazi Germany “full of praise” for the Hitler regime. Gray reported to the American public in 1936 that German cities were “amazingly clean” and that “everybody was working in Germany.”

That same year, more than twenty U.S. universities sent delegates to take part in celebrations at the Nazi-controlled University of Heidelberg, scene of some of the earliest mass book-burnings. In fact, the chief book-burner, Nazi propaganda minister Josef Goebbels, presided over one of the receptions for the American delegates. Columbia’s representative, Prof. Arthur Remy, was not uncomfortable in Goebbels’s company; in fact, Remy reported that the reception was “very enjoyable.”

American students, too, visited Nazi Germany, thanks to a program of student exchanges with German universities, in which Columbia, Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and others took part. Despite a German official’s candid assertion that his country’s students were being sent abroad to serve as “political soldiers of the Reich,” only Williams College terminated the exchanges.

And in 1937, representatives of seven American universities took part in the bicentennial celebrations at the Nazi-controlled University of Goettingen, an event which the New York Times reported took place in “a thoroughly National Socialist atmosphere.” Among the American delegates was the chairman of Cornell University’s German Department, Prof. A. B. Faust, who accepted an honorary degree and even gave the Nazi salute during the ceremony.

During the Holocaust itself, Hitler used visits by foreigners to camouflage the mass murder of the Jews. As part of this disinformation strategy, the Nazis in June 1944 invited a delegation from the International Red Cross to visit Theresienstadt, the Jewish ghetto that the Nazis had created in northwestern Czechoslovakia. Theresienstadt was a transit point for Jews being shipped to the gas chambers in Auschwitz; but the Nazis sought to present the camp as a final destination where Jewish prisoners lived happily.

In the days before the Red Cross visit, the Nazis worked the Jewish inmates at breakneck speed to pretty up the site. Houses were freshly painted–but only those portions that would be visible to the Red Cross inspectors as they walked down the street on the preselected route. Schools, stores, a bank, and a cafe were quickly built, to give the appearance of a normal village. Deportations to Auschwitz were increased so as to temporarily relieve overcrowding in the camp. With Theresienstadt’s flower beds neatly trimmed and its orchestra well rehearsed, the Red Cross delegates could see only what the Nazis wanted them to see.

The visitors’ subsequent reports to Red Cross headquarters were critical of some aspects of Theresienstadt, but also described conditions there as “relatively good.” They agreed with the Germans’ contention that it was a final-destination camp–even though the Red Cross knew that the population of Theresienstadt at the time of the visit was 30,000 less than it had been shortly before. From the Germans’ point of view, the visit was quite a success.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s choreographers would no doubt likewise make sure that visitors from Columbia visit only selected campuses and meet only those students and faculty who can be relied upon to make the regime look best. Given the atmosphere of repression at Iranian universities, they should be in ample supply.

September 2007