Should a Professorship be Named After a Hitler Backer?

by Rafael Medoff

The campus of Princeton University has been engulfed in protests by students who want President Woodrow Wilson’s name removed from one of the university’s schools because of Wilson’s racist views. By contrast, the news media and academic community have largely ignored a challenge by several historians to Brown University, over its naming of a professorship after an extreme German nationalist who voted for Adolf Hitler.

Professors John Harvey of St. Cloud State University (in Minnesota) and Georg Iggers, of SUNY-Buffalo, raised the issue recently in the pages of Perspectives on History, the magazine of the American Historical Association.

In 2009, Brown University inaugurated a chair known as the Hans Rothfels Assistant Professor of History, funded by a $1-million gift from an unnamed source. “This public honor raises questions about the nature of endowed chairs, the voice of faculties in their acceptance, and the legacy of Hans Rothfels within the American historical community,” Harvey and Iggers wrote.

Rothfels (1891-1976) was born to German Jewish parents but converted to Christianity at age 19. As chairman of the history department at the University of Konigsberg in the 1920s and early 1930s, Rothfels became known as a rabid German nationalist. He advocated an authoritarian government that would dominate Eastern Europe and subjugate its peoples under the German “master race.” Rothfels even prepared a detailed set of racial criteria for ranking the various European nations.

Rothfels “voted for Adolf Hitler in the 1932 presidential election,” and after the Nazis took power, he sought the status of “honorary Aryan,” Professors Harvey and Iggers pointed out. Rothfels played an important role in influencing German academics to accept Hitler, according to Harvey and Iggers. His writings “helped to prepare colleagues and students for further radicalization under National Socialism.”

“Around him formed a ‘Rothfels group’ of loyal students, who closely aligned themselves to German policies of conquest, including plans for the ghettoization Jews as a precursor to genocide,” Harvey and Iggers noted.

Rothfels’ attempts to curry favor with the Nazis failed. He was forced out of his university position–as part of the Hitler policy of “Aryanizing” institutions of higher learning–and eventually compelled to leave Germany altogether, in 1938. Rothfels taught at Brown University for a time, and then the University of Chicago, before returning to Germany after the war.  

In his postwar teachings and writings, Rothfels backed away from Nazism while embracing German conservatism. He insisted the Soviet Union was just as bad as the Hitler regime, and vigorously denied the idea that there was any unique aspects of German culture which had led to Nazism. He also downplayed the role of German antisemitism in the Holocaust.

“I took two seminars with Rothfels at the University of Chicago in 1948,” Professor Iggers told me this week. “I was shocked by some of his views.”

Rothfels nonetheless continues to enjoy the admiration of some historians, especially his former students, such as Gerhard Weinberg of the University of North Carolina. After German historian Nicolas Berg (of the Simon Dubnow Institute at the University of Leipzig) criticized Rothfels’ depiction of the Holocaust, Weinberg insisted that the “interest of Rothfels in the subject” was proven by the fact that  Rothfels wrote an article in 1959 about the treatment of Jews in German-occupied Poland.

Spokesmen for Brown University have declined to respond to the Harvey-Iggers letter in Perspectives on History about the Rothfels Professorship. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, which first reported on the controversy, “faculty members at Brown, including the chair of the history department and Jo Guldi, the assistant professor who holds the Rothfels position, did not respond to requests for comment.”

The Chronicle did manage to wrangle an emailed comment from senior associate provost Elizabeth Doherty, who wrote that “time and history are obstacles to reconstructing how [the chair] was established and to what extent faculty may have contributed to the process.”

Who exactly made the decision to honor Rothfels? Which Brown faculty, if any, were part of the process? Did anybody bother to find out anything about the man whose name and memory the university was asked to honor? The Brown University administration has a moral responsibility to stop stonewalling and start providing some answers.

December 2015