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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The Harvard case was particularly disturbing, most infamously because of the warm welcome extended to alumnus Ernst Hanfstaengl at the 1934 commencement and reunion. Hanfstaengl was a Nazi leader and close friend of Hitler. While much of the national press was appalled, most of the Harvard community was delighted. “It is truly shameful,” writes Norwood, “that the administration, alumni, and student leaders of America’s most prominent university, who were in a position to influence American opinion at a critical time, remained indifferent to Germany’s terrorist campaign against the Jews and instead, on many occasions, assisted the Nazis in their efforts to gain acceptance in the West.”

Norwood, a professor of history at the University of Oklahoma, reveals how widespread this attitude was among administrators, professors, and students at some of America’s elite universities, who not only argued that academic life should be free of political considerations, but actually supported the Nazi regime. Aside from Harvard and Columbia, Norwood deals with several other colleges and universities, including the Seven Sisters, several Catholic universities, and the University of Virginia. What makes his book all the more chilling is his documentation showing that from the earliest days of Hitler’s reign, there was no shortage of people who seemed to notice what was going on: American and British newspaper reporters, political figures, Jewish leaders, and refugees, who offered firsthand testimony.

Meanwhile, he writes, “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.” In so doing, he concludes, “they helped Nazi Germany present itself to the American public as a civilized nation, unfairly maligned in the press.”

One minor flaw in Norwood’s book is that he lumps together sins of omission and commission. For example, he writes that university presidents did not urge their students to attend the 1933 Madison Square Garden rallies or other protests. Later, he writes that they “showed no interest” in the nationwide boycott of German goods. The sins of commission are much more convincing in building his case.

The record of the younger generation is more encouraging. Though students of the early 20th century had been conditioned to be complacent and go along with the wishes of the administration, the angry resistance of many Columbians during this period was unlike anything seen before on American campuses. In some ways, the student reaction to Columbia’s entanglement with the Third Reich in the 1930s foreshadowed what would happen a generation later when students challenged their university administrations over such issues as the war in Vietnam and civil rights. The 1930s was a more volatile and engaged time for students than most of us may have realized, and Norwood does us a special service by revisiting it in this book.

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