Saturday, September 26, 2009

The Third Reich In America's Ivory Towers by Stephen H. Norwood

During the early months of Nazi rule in Germany, many Americans recognized that the Hitler regime represented an unprecedented relapse into barbarism. James Waterman Wise declared in 1933, in one of the first books to be published about Germany under Nazi rule, that the Third Reich was conducting "a bloodless war of extermination" against the Jews, "which gives no quarter and recognizes no non-combatants." In May 1933 Lord Melchett described Germany as a death trap for its entire Jewish population. The Nazis had expelled Jews from the professions and university faculties, shut down their businesses, and brutally beat them in the streets, in torture cellars, and in concentration camps. They delighted in inflicting the most degrading and humiliating forms of punishment on Jews, often in full public view. Respected Americans and British journalists, reporting directly from Germany or drawing on interviews from refugees from the Third Reich in neighboring countries, regularly provided detailed accounts of Nazi antisemitic atrocities, discrimination and harassment.

As the chapters in this book demonstrate, the leaders of America's colleges and universities remained for the most part uninvolved as others in this country forcefully protested the Nazis' barbaric treatment of Jews. The Nazis' antisemitic terror in 1933 precipitated demonstrations and boycotts on an unprecedented scale, often initiated at the grassroots level. Several U.S. senators and big-city mayors joined in these protests, which the American press widely publicized. But although academicians were the Americans most conversant with European affairs, few engaged in public anti-Nazi protest.

As many working and lower-middle-class Americans marched in the streets and struggled to organize a nationwide boycott of German goods and services, American universities maintained amicable relations with the Third Reich, sending their students to study at Nazified universities while welcoming Nazi exchange students to their own campuses. America's most distinguished university presidents willfully crossed the Atlantic in ships flying the swastika flag, openly defying the anti-Nazi boycott, to the benefit of the Third Reich's economy. By warmly receiving Nazi diplomats and propagandists on campus, they helped Nazis Germany present itself to the American public as a civilized nation, unfairly maligned in the press. Influenced by their administrators' example, and that of many of their professors, college and university students for the most part adopted a similar outlook, although there were significant student protests against Nazism at some schools, such as Columbia, which is analyzed in Chapter 3.

Chapter 2 considers the role of America's most prestigious institution of higher learning, Harvard University, in legitimating the Hitler regime. It focuses particularly on President James Bryant Conant; on the undergraduate newspaper, the Harvard Crimson, which reflected the outlook of the most influential segment of student opinion; and on alumni. Chapter 3 examines the role of this nation's most prominent university president, Columbia's Nicholas Murray Butler, in enhancing the image of the Third Reich, and on his highly vocal student opponents, some of whom edited the undergraduate newspaper, the Columbia Spectator. The Columbia Spectator's outlook towards Germany and antisemitism differed significantly from that of the Harvard Crimson.

Chapter 4 focuses on the Seven Sisters, the elite women's colleges, which were centrally involved in promoting student exchanges with Nazis Germany. Chapter 5 examines this nation's most prestigious foreign policy symposia, sponsored by the University of Virginia's Institute of Public Affairs. During the 1930s, these symposia provided an important forum that permitted apologists for Nazi Germany's domestic and foreign policies to reach American audiences. Chapter 6 explores the role of university German Language departments in the 1930s as disseminators of Nazis propaganda in the United States, and in hosting campus visits by Nazi Germany's diplomats. Chapter 7 analyzes the role of Catholic colleges and universities in promoting appeasement of Nazi Germany and providing a platform for propagandists for Mussolini and Franco. Chapter 8 examines the limits of protests against Nazism within academia even during 1938, a year that culminated in the Kristallnacht, when German barbarity finally instilled widespread alarm.

The Epilogue explores the role of former Harvard president James Bryant Conant in encouraging the parole of Nazis war criminals during the 1950's, as U.S. High Commissioner for Germany and as ambassador to West Germany. It also focuses on the effusive praise and respect prominent American higher education leaders accorded Mircea Eliade during his long postwar career as a professor at the University of Chicago, despite his role as a propagandist for Romania's antisemitic Iron Guard, enthusiastic collaborators with the Nazis during the 1930s and the Holocaust.


  1. Although none of his obituaries mentioned his Iron Guard past, the character of Rad Grielescu in Saul Bellow's novel Ravelstein is modeled upon Mircea Eliade ( e.g. "in the old country he was a fascist. He needs to live that down. The man was a Hitlerite")

    Waffen SS general Josef "Sepp" Dietrich was an early follower of Hilter who participated in the 1923 Munich Beer Hall Putsch, was appointed head of Hitler's bodyguard in 1931 and directed the SS firing squad that executed six leaders of the Sturmabteilung (SA) at Munich's Stadelheim prison during the Night of the Long Knives. After ordering the massacre of several hundred unarmed American prisoners of war and Belgian civilians during the Battle of the Bulge he became known as the "Butcher of Malmedy". William L. Shirer, who knew Dietrich personally when he was a correspondant in Nazi Germany, decribed him as "one of the most brutal men of the Third Reich". Originally sentanced to life in prison, the War Crimes Modification Board reduced it to twenty-five years in 1951. Ambassador Conant succeeded in getting him released in 1955.

    This book also covers the run of the infamous, fiercely antisemitic Oberammergau Passion Play throughout the 1930's in Germany and America. Also, the run-in that the German anti-nazis playwright Ernst Toller had with President Klapper of Queens College as late as 1938. Another notorious case was that of Lienard Bergel, a German language professor fired from Rutger's University for anti-nazis sentiments. Also, the case of Dr. Moyer Springer Fleisher, head of Bacteriology Department at the St. Louis University School of Medicine, fired for inviting the Rev. Michael O'Flanagan, one of the few anti-Franco Catholics, to speak on campus.

  2. The reasons that college administrators and professors gave for admiring Hitler, Mussolini and Franco were varied. Many felt that Germany ha been wrongly punished after W.W.I, had suffered grievous economic harm and that Hitler was restoring Germany to its rightful place in Europe. Many were antagonistic to both organized labor and democracy itself. Catholics especially saw the dictators as leading the fight against 'godless communism". Some liked to imagine National Socialism as only a slighly less benign version of the New Deal. But the author makes clear, in examining various documentary sources, that the personal views of many administrators such as Conant and Butler were deeply antisemitic to begin with.

    "The Third Reich in the Ivory Tower; Complicity and Conflict on American Campuses" by Stephen H. Norwood, Cambridge University Press, 2009

    Professor of History at the University of Oklahoma, author of 'The Encyclopedia of American Jewish History".

  3. The book contains a particularly interesting account of the case of Robert Burke, a student expelled from Columbia University for "inappropriately" protesting president Butler's hosting of various Nazi diplomatic 'bigwigs'. The issue remains alive today,especially because of the light shed by Mr. Norwood's book. Here are some links that give brief accounts of the incident and indicate the reasons for the current revival of interest in it.

  4. Colleges and Universities were extremely sparing in their attempts to find places in their institutions for professors and students forced out of German academia, the big exception being the New School of Social Research in NYC. They did not raise much money for scholarships. It was considered appropriate to balance the rolls of the few professors and students receiving benefits provided with non-jews. Neither did administrators protest the strict rules governing the granting of visas set by the Dept. of Immigration

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