Hear No Evil

by Ari L. Goldman
The Third Reich in the Ivory Tower: Complicity and Conflict on American Campuses
By Stephen H. Norwood
(Cambridge University Press, 339 pages, $29)
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Columbia students stage a mock book burningIn 1933, soon after Hitler came to power, the Nazis began expelling Jewish students and dismissing Jewish professors from their universities. On campuses across Germany, Nazis and their sympathizers publicly burned books written by Jews and other perceived enemies (including books by Columbia anthropologist Franz Boas).

Just months after the first book burnings, Columbia president Nicholas Murray Butler welcomed Hans Luther, the German ambassador to the United States, to Morningside Heights, insisting that he be accorded “the greatest courtesy and respect.” In Cambridge, Roscoe Pound, dean of the Harvard Law School, accepted an honorary degree from the University of Berlin. Returning from a 1934 trip to Germany, Pound told reporters, “there was no persecution of Jewish scholars or of Jews . . . who had lived in [Germany] for any length of time.”

As Stephen H. Norwood ’84GSAS forcefully demonstrates in The Third Reich in the Ivory Tower: Complicity and Conflict on American Campuses, some of America’s top universities adopted a hear-no-evil attitude toward Hitler’s Germany that bordered on complicity.

Columbia was one of the few places where that attitude was challenged. The editors of the Daily Spectator reacted strongly to what was happening in Europe. In the aftermath of the expulsion in 1933 of 15 Jews from university faculty positions in Germany, the newspaper called on Butler to hire them as Columbia professors. Later, in an editorial titled “Silence Gives Consent, Dr. Butler,” the Spectator bitterly denounced what it saw as Butler’s courtship of the German government and its universities. In yet another, the newspaper wrote, “The reputation of this University has suffered . . . because of the remarkable silence of its President . . . ”

Butler responded to criticism from the Spectator and other student groups by emphasizing that Columbia’s relationships with German universities were “strictly academic” and had “no political implications of any kind.” He went on to mock the protests. “We may next expect to be told that we must not read Goethe’s Faust, or hear Wagner’s Lohengrin, or visit the great picture galleries at Dresden, or study Kant’s Kritik, because we so heartily disapprove of the present form of government in Germany.” Butler, who was “a longtime admirer of Benito Mussolini,” wasn’t exactly apolitical, though. In 1934 he fired Jerome Klein ’25CC, ’32GSAS, a promising young member of the fine arts faculty, for signing an appeal against the Luther invitation; and he expelled Robert Burke, a Columbia College student, for participating in a 1936 mock book burning and anti-Nazi picket on campus.

Butler was far from alone in his admiration for Germany and in his distaste for those who would allege that it had a sinister side. The Harvard Crimson, writes Norwood, was an apologist for the German regime and repeatedly belittled protest efforts against it. After a huge Jewish-sponsored anti-Nazi rally was held in Madison Square Garden in March 1933, the Crimson opined that the rally “proved nothing” since Hitler had not been provided with a defense. “Moreover,” Norwood reports, the Crimson “claimed that the audience, containing many Jews, was ‘rabidly prejudiced.’”

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