In Denial: American Universities' Response to the Third Reich, Past and Present

By Norwood, Stephen H. | Journal of Ecumenical Studies, Fall 2011 | Go to article overview

In Denial: American Universities' Response to the Third Reich, Past and Present


Norwood, Stephen H., Journal of Ecumenical Studies


During the 1930's, America's leading colleges and universities forged friendly ties with thoroughly Nazified universities in Germany. By doing so, they helped enhance the Hitler regime's prestige in the West. Such major American universities as Harvard, Columbia, the University of Wisconsin, the University of Minnesota, and the University of Texas warmly welcomed top Nazi officials to campus, where they enthusiastically praised the Third Reich. Administrators refused to criticize them, despite calls from the Jewish community and some students to do so. Prominent American academics were flattered to have the Nazi government bestow honorary degrees on them. This nation's foremost universities eagerly participated in well-orchestrated Nazi propaganda festivals organized by the Hitler regime at German universities. Leading university presidents such as Nicholas Murray Butler of Columbia and Robert Maynard Hutchins of the University of Chicago repeatedly crossed the Atlantic on German ships flying the swastika flag, ignoring the boycott of Nazi goods and services that had begun in this country in 1933.

Many American colleges and universities, including the most prestigious, enthusiastically participated in student exchanges with German universities that had expelled their Jewish faculty members. The Hitler regime pushed for such exchanges, convinced that they would cause Americans to see the Third Reich as civilized. American university leaders had no problem encouraging their students to study at schools that taught such subjects as Nazi racial science and Aryan physics. Impressionable American collegians often returned from German universities full of praise for the Hitler regime and accused the American press of manufacturing accounts about Nazi atrocities against Jews. German youth who came to America to study were carefully selected "political soldiers of the Reich" and operated as Nazi propagandists on campus. They often extolled Hitler's greatness in American college newspapers and expressed blatantly antisemitic views.

From the beginning of Nazi rule, many American and British journalists observed that the new regime in Germany was far more oppressive and menacing than any the world had ever seen. The Nazis almost immediately expelled Jews from the professions and university faculties, and they savagely beat Jews in the streets. The Jewish press referred to Hitler as the new Haman, and Haman, everyone knew, had tried to destroy the Jewish people. Only a few weeks after the Nazis came to power, the New York Times reported that American travelers returning from Germany were emphasizing that "there is no longer any doubt that to be either of Jewish faith or of Jewish origin ... in Germany now constitutes a crime." (1) The Manchester Guardian reported in April, 1933, that in Germany "in city after city, [in] village after village, [there is] ... such an abundance of barbarism ... that modern analogies fail." (2) Journalist Pierre van Paassen wrote in November, 1933, that "the position of the German Jews is getting worse every day" and urged immediate international action to save German Jewry "from physical extinction." He endorsed Rabbi Stephen Wise's call for settling 150,000 German Jews in Palestine, but van Paassen warned that unless such a plan was carried out at once "there will be no 150,000 German Jews left to be settled in Palestine." (3)

James McDonald, the League of Nations' High Commissioner for Refugees, visiting Rome in August, 1933, reported that when he asked Vatican Secretary of State Pacelli, representing Pope Pius XI, about the Catholic Church's attitude toward the plight of Germany's Jews, "his reply, both the tone and the contents, convinced me that there could be no help expected from that source." (4) The next month the Vatican handed Nazi Germany its first great diplomatic triumph by ratifying the Concordat with it. In the Concordat, the German Catholic Church and its bishops swore allegiance to the Nazi state.

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