Business as Usual: Elite Universities during the 1930s

Resources and intelligence do not necessarily translate into political or moral fortitude. Stephen H. Norwood, The Third Reich in the Ivory Tower: Complicity and Conflict on American Campuses. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

Each academic year we are reminded of the premium Western societies place on schooling. Believing that education is the key to professional success as well as contributing to personal growth and higher ideals, parents of all stripes and socio-economic backgrounds in Europe and North America hope and encourage their children to go to the very best universities they can. Edification, after all, is synonymous with enlightenment, and enlightenment is a positive and progressive force for human society. In other words, universities are good for individuals as well as for humankind more broadly. And, of course, the more prestigious the institution, the better the university, which makes Ivy League universities the most desirable destinations of higher learning. Stephen H. Norwood’s new book, The Third Reich in the Ivory Tower: Complicity and Conflict on American Campuses, challenges this canon, reminding us that not only do universities not always inoculate us against poor judgment and immorality, but also under certain conditions such as those present in interwar America, the best and most prestigious institutions may in fact be the most dangerous for society.  

Norwood’s book is a cautionary tale about the role of universities in American culture and the power and influence they wield. Unfortunately, as his research proves over and again, resources and intelligence do not necessarily translate into political insight or moral fortitude. In fact, his book is a study of the failure of administrators, faculty, and students at America’s most prestigious universities and colleges – especially Harvard, which he singles out – to understand the dangers posed by Hitler and the Third Reich. Most damning is his critique and unequivocal condemnation of the role senior administrators and faculty, and even some students, played in creating and then supporting conservative and fascist German and Italian power structures because they appear to reflect their own values and beliefs about power. Never has the judgment of American academicians and senior administrators proved so wrong-headed as it did during the years leading up to the Second World War, a time when many average Americans were raising the alarm bell against the oppressive and repressive actions of Nazi Germany, yet the smartest people in the United States could not see the danger in supporting those in positions of power in German universities and government. 

What did the leaders of America’s colleges and universities do while large segments of the U.S. population protested the barbaric acts of the Nazi regime? What leaders of universities have always done, carry on with business as usual. This meant not only ignoring all  “opportunities to take a principled stand against the Hitler regime” and its excesses, but also consciously working to improve the image of Nazi Germany among Americans. Harvard President James Bryant Conant, a former chemistry professor at Harvard, openly sympathized with Nazi Germany, spending most of his time before the war entertaining Nazi German scholars in an effort to build relationships with leading German institutions. Conant is a unique and important figure in American and German history as he served as U.S. High Commissioner for Germany from 1953 to 1955 as well as US ambassador to the Federal Republic from 1955 to 1957. During his tenure in these appointments he was instrumental in securing early paroles for some of the most notorious convicted Nazi war criminals including elite leaders of the SS-Einsatzgruppen who were convicted at Nuremberg for crimes against humanity for their part in the genocidal murder of  one million Soviet civilians during the war.  

Even though Nazi Germany took exceptional measures to suppress ideas and curtail academic freedom, issues American universities prided themselves in supporting, Conant did not seem bothered. Harvard students appeared as equally indifferent to Nazi Germany’s repressive acts as their president, continuing to participate enthusiastically in academic exchanges with German universities, which had all been purged of their Jewish faculty by 1934. When Boston’s Jewish community was protesting the arrival of the Nazi warship the Karlsruhe in May 1934, Harvard’s alumni and many faculty ignored them and instead gave the German crew what Norwood describes as “a warm welcome” thereby contributing to General Werner von Blomberg’s assertion to Hitler that Nazi Germany had friends in every port. In 1936 Harvard history professor William L. Langer openly defended Germany’s occupation of the Rhineland as legitimate, when in fact it was a flagrant violation of the Versailles settlement of 1919, which forbade Germany from any military presence in the border region.  Langer was emblematic of a group of revisionist historians that Norwood singles out for their views about Germany’s lack of responsibility in World War I. More typical university behaviour was the invitation extended to Ernst Hanfstaengl to attend Harvard’s 1934 commencement ceremonies. Hanfstaengl, who came from a wealthy Munich family, had been a long-time supporter of Hitler, backing the future dictator during the failed Munich putsch of 1923 and remaining loyal to him thereafter. In fact, it was Hanfstaengl’s close ties to Hitler that undoubtedly garnered Harvard’s invitation, as Ivy League universities prided themselves on producing as well as supporting people who were in positions of power. Hanfstaengl appeared to be one such individual, and Conant himself later fell into this category. Harvard was not the only university guilty of such poor judgment and complicity; it was simply the most influential. Other prestigious colleges and universities behaved equally as badly.

Columbia University, for instance, had a larger Jewish student body than Harvard. Its student population, moreover, was more likely to protest Nazi anti-Jewish policies because many more of its students came from the working classes than Harvard’s. And indeed, Columbia’s student body stood out for its vocal protests against Nazi Germany. However, its senior administration suffered from the same poor judgment as Harvard’s. Columbia University’s president Nicholas Murray Butler showed his real colours when he invited Nazi Germany’s ambassador to Columbia’s New York campus and encouraged student exchanges with German universities because, he claimed, university and student relationships were academic, not political. It was only late in November 1938, after the violence of Kristallnacht was revealed to the world, that Butler broke his silence about the oppression of Germany’s Jews, and even then he did so without enthusiasm because, as Norwood suggests, Butler’s own antisemitism may have coloured his understanding of the violence. 

One might expect that female senior administrators would be more sensitive to the repressive and regressive policies of the Nazi regime, especially those policies directed at women, but they weren’t. Norwood marshals ample evidence to prove that the elite leadership of the Seven Sisters Colleges – Barnard, Bryn Mawr, Mount Holyoke, Radcliffe, Smith, Vassar, and Wellesley – were just as supportive of Nazi Germany as presidents of other elite universities and colleges. In some ways they were more so as they were among the most enthusiastic participants of “academic and cultural exchanges with the Third Reich.” 

The senior administration of elite US universities and colleges were not alone in their views. German-language departments throughout the academy were also more likely to sympathize with Nazi Germany than other departments, as were individual faculty members who embraced revisionist ideas and saw Germany as a victim of World War I, not an aggressor. 

Faced with economic paralysis and physical extermination, German-Jewish academics were in dire straits, and elite American universities and colleges were financially in positions to help. The sad reality was that not only did they fail to recognize the gravity of the situation facing Germany’s Jewish population, but they also failed to do anything about it. The one thing that these institutions could have done – offer temporary residence to academic refugees that included teaching and research positions  – they did not do. With very few exceptions, the elite universities and colleges of the United States failed to act during a time of crisis and, in the process, helped to promote Nazi German racial policy. 

As Canadians, though, we cannot get on our moral high-horse in this instance, as our record was no better than that of the United States and, in fact, as a nation we offered sanctuary to considerably fewer (in terms of real numbers as well as proportionally) German-Jewish refugees than did the United States.   

Norwood’s study is hard-hitting and offers ample evidence of the moral breakdown of the leadership of American universities and, in doing so, he raises a number of pertinent issues about the role of universities in Western society and what responsibility they should have and do have during times of crisis. Should universities speak out against gross human rights violations, even moderate ones and, if so, who should do the speaking-out? Here I am thinking of the recent controversy about Israeli scholars and the decision to ban them from participating in Canadian academic life. Should universities welcome leaders and academics from countries that commit human rights violations? Are universities fundamentally political institutions or should they rise above politics in order to meet their educative and ethical demands? What about honorary degrees? Should universities dispense them to political leaders whose records are questionable? Robert Mugabe, Richard Nixon, and Idi Amin have all received honorary doctorates from prestigious universities. These issues, I would argue, transcend national boundaries, and although not the same circumstances as the 1930s, the ethical questions they raise are as relevant today as they were in the 1930s. 

For example, in June 2010, my home university in North Bay, Ontario awarded Mike Harris, former premier of Ontario, an honorary doctor of letters degree. In the process, it divided the Nipissing University community. Mr. Harris’s legacy was nothing if not controversial (his education policies, for example, have left the province’s teachers angry and universities broke), yet the protestors numbered very few. In fact, in spite of being primarily a teaching institution (Nipissing produces a good number of the province’s teachers), the vast majority of students and faculty and all the senior administrators of the university supported the university’s decision to grant Mr. Harris the degree. He was, after all, a former resident of North Bay whose rise to prominence impressed many. While a private citizen today, he is still a powerful political figure and has important friends with deep pockets. Nipissing’s new Learning Library, for example, was named after the Harris family because of a $1.5 million dollar donation made on behalf of the Harris family by their friend and wealthy industrialist Seymour Schulich. This incident is far from isolated. I can think of any number of such examples. 

The University of Toronto’s 1997 decision to grant George H.W. Bush, a former director of the CIA and U.S. president from 1989-1993, an honorary degree, for example, caused a tremendous amount of controversy, including petitions and protests. The Bush debacle fell on the heels of the University of Victoria’s earlier decision to give an honorary degree to Chinese President Jiang Zemin. This decision caused such an outcry that Zemin actually declined the invitation, citing scheduling conflicts as the reason. In 2009, some faculty at the University of New Brunswick’s St. John campus launched a protest against its board arguing that it was impossible for them to support an honorary degree for the province’s sitting premier, Shawn Graham as his policies, they believed, were detrimental to education. These are but a few examples from the Canadian context, and I would not hesitate to say that an entire book could be written about the questionable decisions of Canadian universities to grant honorary degrees to political figures. What is certain from these few cases, is that people in positions of power – that is, senior administrators, high-ranking faculty, and members of boards of governors – support the honorary awards largely because they perceive them to be beneficial to the institution, either in terms of financial compensation (often recipients donate large sums of money in exchange for the degree) or simply in terms of prestige. Whatever the reasons, the honorary degrees serves as a form of legitimizing the recipients and their political legacies, especially with the university graduates and their families who attend the graduating ceremony. The practice of granting honorary degrees to political figures is, in my view, highly problematic in that it compromises the real purpose of the institution, which is to promote the free and unfettered exchange of ideas, to support academic research, and to promote the freedom and a plurality of information, none of which can be accomplished when the university practises partisan politics. 

What happens, though, when controversial people and their ideas are sponsored by university student groups? Norwood highlights several examples of Harvard students who did just that in the 1930s, and he argues that in doing so the university helped to legitimize the Nazi regime and its policies. Should universities support individuals whose ideas are harmful to others? Here I am thinking of the recent controversy surrounding the University of Ottawa’s decision to warn Ann Coulter that hate-mongering would not be tolerated on their campus. Coulter threatened to sue the university, citing infringement on her freedom of speech. Eventually she backed down and withdrew from the engagement claiming that she feared for her personal safety. I recall another such incident when I was an undergraduate student at the University of New Brunswick. A student organization – I cannot recall which one now – sponsored Holocaust denier David Irving to give a talk. The invitation caused such an uproar (I was among the protestors) that the university decided to ban Irving from speaking on campus, even though it was a university student group that had sponsored his talk. These two examples, it seems to me, offer us hope, as they highlight the ability of university administrators to make good ethical and moral decisions and prevent hate mongering on-campus. One has to wonder though, if they did so because the stakes were so low. Neither Coulter nor Irving was in political power, they were ordinary citizens with big mouths and controversial ideas. The reality is that political figures, no matter how blemished their records or controversial their policies, cloud the judgment of those who run our universities. Politics is seductive, and people, even smart ones, are too frequently seduced by it.

Someone once remarked that if Hitler had died in 1939, history would remember him differently. He would be a hero of German history, not its principal villain – because it was only the Holocaust that blemished his record. The suggestion here, of course, is that the only bad thing Hitler did was commit genocide and in the 1930s no one knew that the Nazis would do that, including the senior administration of America’s elite institutions. While this may be true – that no one foresaw the genocide – the warning signs were all there. Well before the “Final Solution to the Jewish question” was brought to fruition, Hitler was solving Germany’s political, social, and economic problems on the backs of socialists, communists, Jews, and the women of Germany. Not only did he disenfranchise these groups, they were frequently imprisoned and sometimes murdered. And, while the Nazis were not killing the Jews en mass in the 1930s as they would later during the war, they were systematically persecuting them, revoking their rights, and making it impossible for them to earn a living. The smartest people in the United States and Canada turned a blind eye to these acts and, instead, pretended that it was business as usual. In retrospect this behaviour seems foolish, yet the truth is that universities and those who run them, attend them, and work at them behaved no differently in the 1930s than they do today, or have at any other time, the only difference is the context has changed. This fact leads me to wonder whether universities have learned anything at all from the past.   

Hilary Earl is an associate professor of history at Nipissing University.