Learning to live with Hitler

The heads of major American colleges and universities mostly remained silent when the Nazis came to power.

By DAVID GEFFEN
January 29, 2010 20:27
4 minute read.
third reich ivory tower

third reich ivory tower 58. (photo credit: Courtesy)

When I entered college in 1955, there was silence about the involvement of American institutions of higher learning with the Nazi regime. Finally, through the extensive research of Stephen Norwood, a Jewish historian in the US, a book has emerged telling the story.

Norwood begins with a look at Germany from various sources just after Hitler had come to power in 1933. The Manchester Guardian reported in April that year that the first concentration camps, where 45,000 political opponents and Jews were incarcerated, were “nothing less than torture chambers.”

After seeing Hitler personally on April 8, 1933, James McDonald, later America’s ambassador to Israel, reported in an interview what he had been told. “I will do the thing,” Hitler said, “that the rest of the world would like to do. It doesn’t know how to get rid of the Jews. I will show them.”

To an American Jewish leader, McDonald added a few more words spoken by Hitler. “I’ve got my heel on their neck and will soon have them so they cannot move.”

Nothing moved the heads of major American colleges and universities.

The Reform rabbi in New Haven, Edgar Siskin, Edgar Siskin, asked the president of Yale, James Rowland Angell, to speak at the community protest rally on March 27, 1933. Angell refused. The president of MIT forced a gathering of professors and students to rescind a decision to write a letter of protest to Hitler.

One would have thought that Columbia University in New York, which had the largest number of Jewish students of all the Ivy League schools, would have been the first to focus on the terrifying Nazi actions in Germany. In fact, Nicholas Murray Butler, the school’s president, wanted to be a gentleman. With no hesitation whatsoever, he invited the German ambassador to the United States, Dr. Hans Luther, to speak at Columbia in December 1933.

The invitation “sparked angry protests from many students” for weeks before the lecture and a “massive demonstration the night of the event itself... climaxing in violent clashes with the police.” On the day of the address, the student newspaper, The Columbia Spectator, denounced Butler with its headline “His silence gives consent.” For the lecture itself 1,200 attended. Outside the weather was so frigid that protesters could not hold their signs. Soon after Luther began, a woman protester screamed out, “Why have books of Jewish professors and Columbia professors been burned in Germany... why are there quotas for Jewish students at German universities?” Police promptly seized her and carried her out of the hall.

In 1936, another crisis occurred when Columbia immediately accepted an invitation to send a delegation to the 550th anniversary celebration of the University of Heidelberg in Germany on June 27-30. Faculty, students, alumni and Jewish organizations protested. Columbia announced that it would follow Harvard, whose president, James Conant, said, “We are accepting the invitation and recognize the ancient ties by which universities of the world are united and which are independent of the political conditions existing in any country at any particular time.”

Delegates from most Ivy League schools attended. At Heidelberg the American participants casually walked through lines of SS men guarding them. Edward R. Murrow, the noted radio and TV commentator, powerfully offered his assessment, “The thing that really concerns me about the situation over here is the general indifference of the university world and the smug complacency in the face of what has happened in Germany.”

As early as 1931 the University of Delaware began a junior year in Germany program in cooperation with the University of Munich “and did not hesitate to continue it after Hitler came to power.” During 1933-1934, the first academic year during Nazi rule, 14 of the 19 students in the program were from the noted “Seven Sisters” schools in the US.

From 1933 to 1938, the seven schools sought speakers to come to their campuses and present “the pro-Nazi side of the German picture neglected by the American press.” Various speakers emphasized that German Jews “had pushed Aryans out of jobs” and promoted communism. In April 1935 a speaker at Smith College said that during the entire Nazi regime, only one Jew had been killed. At Vassar, a speaker praised Hitler for achieving “religious unity, reducing unemployment... not being militaristic... speaking for peace.”

Women students from American schools continued to participate in tours to Germany as well as in academic programs throughout the 1930s. They believed the Nazi regime was “so cultured.” Some even wrote letters back to their schools praising the great German nation. Their quotes became propaganda tools in the US.

A chilling chapter, “Nazi Nests: German Departments in American Universities, 1933-1941,” had a personal ring for me. In my college German course in the 1950s, never a word about the Holocaust. No criticism of a nation lowering itself into the depths of depravity. My fellow Jewish students and I, five of us, should have spoken up, but we did not. I was saddened to learn that my German professor taught the same course in the 1930s as in the ’50s.

Now, Norwood has opened the door so that American colleges and universities can be exposed for allowing Hitler and the Nazis to slaughter Jews with reckless abandon.


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