Talcott Parsons' Role: Bringing Nazi Sympathizers to the U.S

By Wiener, Jon | The Nation, March 6, 1989 | Go to article overview

Talcott Parsons' Role: Bringing Nazi Sympathizers to the U.S


Wiener, Jon, The Nation


Talcott Parsons, perhaps the most influential American sociologist of the twentieth century, worked with Army Intelligence officers and State Department officials after World War II in an operation to smuggle Nazi collaborators into the country as Soviet studies experts. According to documents discovered by Charles O'Connell, a graduate student at the University of California, Los Angeles, Parsons went to Germany during the summer of 1948 and interviewed Russian exiles who had worked for the Nazis; along with Army Intelligence officers, he proposed ways to circumvent government policies that barred Nazi collaborators from obtaining U.S. visas.

Parsons was teaching at Harvard University in 1948, but when he traveled to the American zone of occupied Germany that summer he entered the world of Nazis and collaborationist expatriates who desperately wanted to avoid prosecution for their crimes. They hoped to use their knowledge of the Soviet Union to obtain the protection of the U.S. government, now committed to a cold war with the Russians. Klaus Barbie, the "Butcher of Lyons," traveled in this crowd, as is documented in the Marcel Ophuls film Hotel Terminus. Many of these Nazis and their abettors had already succeeded in convincing Army Intelligence officers and the newly established Central Intelligence Agency that the United States needed them; Talcott Parsons believed Harvard University needed some of them too, for its Russian Research Center. whose structural-functional theory dominated the profession during the 1940s and 1950s, taught at Harvard from 1927 until his retirement in 1973. He died in 1979. He was president of the American Sociological Association in 1949 and served as chair of Harvard's department of social relations from 1946 to 1956. He was the mentor of the next generation's leading sociologists, including Robert Merton, Kingsley Davis, Robert Bellah and Neil Smelser.

The discovery of Parsons' efforts on behalf of Nazi collaborators is likely to inflame the debate over the political significance of his sociological theory. Parsons advocated a value-free sociology, arguing that social science had to purge itself of political values to achieve scientific status. His theory was ahistorical and highly abstract. During the 1960s, his work came under attack by a new generation of sociologists, who argued that his claims to "value-neutrality" masked a commitment to the status quo and to cold war ideology. The discovery of Parsons' recruitment of Nazi collaborators will strengthen that critique of his work.

The evidence of Parsons' postwar activities was discovered in the Harvard archives by O'Connell, whose dissertation is a study of the origins of the Harvard Russian Research Center. There he found ten letters Parsons wrote to a colleague, Professor Clyde Kluckhohn, head of the center. The letters report on Parsons' recruiting efforts in Germany and indicate that the most important of his Russian contacts was Nicholas Poppe, an expert on the languages of Soviet Asia who had been a professor at the University of Leningrad from 1925 to 1941. Parsons dedicated himself to obtaining a U.S. entry visa and a Harvard appointment for Poppe - a difficult task, since Poppe was not only a Nazi collaborator but had been banned from entering the United States and had recently been the object of a U.S. manhunt in Germany for extradition to the Soviet Union.

Poppe is a central figure in Christopher Simpson's recent book Blowback: America's Recruitment of Nazis and Its Effects on the Cold War. Poppe defected to the Nazis in 1942, the day they arrived in the Caucasus town where he was teaching. Simpson reported that Poppe "actively collaborated in the creation of the quisling government" in one of the ethnic minority areas, an administration that promptly expropriated Jewish property and murdered the region's Jews. In 1943 the SS brought Poppe to Berlin to work at the Wannsee Institute -the SS think tank where, in January 1942, the plans for "the final solution to the Jewish question" had been announced. …

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