Historian: Harvard Was Tied to Nazis

In 1934, Crimson called on Conant to give honorary degree to Hitler's degree

A historian is claiming that Harvard and its president, James B. Conant ’14, built “deliberate ties” with Hitler’s regime, even as reports of anti-Jewish policies in pre-war Nazi Germany made their way across the Atlantic.

Stephen Norwood, a professor of history and Judaic studies at the University of Oklahoma, presented evidence yesterday that a high-ranking Nazi officer was offered an honorary position at his 25th Harvard reunion, that crew members of a Nazi naval ship were invited to a reception benefiting Phillips Brooks House and that the University recognized the 550th anniversary of the University of Heidelberg, a German institution purged of Jewish professors. Norwood also cited Crimson editorials as evidence of anti-Semitism within the Harvard student body.

“It is truly shameful that administrators, alumni and student leaders of America’s most prominent university, who were in a position to influence public opinion at a critical time, remained indifferent to Germany’s terrorist persecution against the Jews,” Norwood said at a conference at Boston University sponsored by the David Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies.

Harvard officials were quick to dismiss any suggestion of Nazi sympathy.

“The University was then and is now repulsed by everything that Hitler represents, and the specter of Nazism rightly inspires horror and revulsion to this day,” University spokesman Joe Wrinn said in a statement.

Organizers say they informed University President Lawrence H. Summers of the conference in June, and even offered to “pick a date” convenient to his schedule, but were told he was unavailable, according to Wyman Institute director Rafael Medoff.

Wrinn said Summers could not attend due to a scheduling conflict. Repeated calls to Summers’s personal spokeswoman were not returned this weekend.

In his talk, Norwood presented research culled from an upcoming book on American academia’s response to the rise of Nazism. Norwood claimed that Harvard faculty, student leaders and top administrators ignored news reports of systematic persecution in Nazi Germany, instead tacitly condoning anti-Semitic viewpoints that were “pervasive” in American society at the time.

“Harvard presumably should be a pathfinder, not one that lags along with the worst elements,” said retired University of Massachusetts Professor David S. Wyman, a prominent Holocaust scholar and chairman of the event’s sponsoring institution. He said Harvard should apologize for its actions, “without excuses.”

Norwood aimed much of his criticism at former President Conant, who is credited today for the shift towards meritocracy in American higher education, and particularly with instituting the SAT.

“The basic view of Conant today is pretty favorable. The Harvard administration continues to put forth that view while ignoring the actual trend,” said Norwood, who claimed that Conant “was not just silent” towards anti-Semitism, but “actively collaborated in it.” Norwood said Conant refused to hire many Jewish professors and insisted that Harvard maintain friendly ties with German universities, despite knowing their curricula had been modified to support Nazi beliefs.

Harvard issued an extensive rebuke to Norwood’s claims this weekend, asserting that Conant maintained a “consistent opposition” to the Nazi cause.

Norwood spoke extensively on a 1934 controversy surrounding a high-level Nazi official’s return to Cambridge.

Ernst F.S. Hanfstaengl ’09, a close friend of Hitler’s and a high-powered press officer in the Nazi party, was invited by a classmate to act as a vice marshal at his 25th reunion. News of Hanfstaengl’s invitation spurred a flurry of protests from Jewish alumni and anti-Nazi student groups. Harvard administrators responded that the decision to offer the invitation was made by the reunion committee and was out of the hands of the University.

Due to media pressure, Hanfstaengl eventually declined the marshal position, but his visit to Cambridge in June 1934 was marked by protest. Escorted by a security detail of four state troopers, he attended receptions at the homes of prominent alumni, including a tea party at Conant’s residence.

In his autobiography, Conant discussed the event in question. “My response was cold; I did not return the greetings,” he wrote.

University spokesman Wrinn said, “Harvard tradition is to invite all members of the class back for its 25th reunion, and that should not be read as a show of support” for Nazism.

When anti-Nazi student groups protested Hanfstaengel’s presence on campus, according to contemporary articles in The Crimson, several protesters were arrested.

But Norwood cites Crimson editorials of the time as evidence of pro-Nazi sentiment on campus.

In a June 13, 1934 editorial, Crimson editors spoke out in favor of Hanfstaengl’s appearance, arguing that “if Herr Hanfstaengl is to be received at all, it should be with the marks of honor appropriate to his high position in the government of a friendly country...a great world power.”

In May of 1934, a Nazi naval ship arrived in Boston harbor to protests from anti-fascist groups and greetings from prominent Boston politicians, according to Norwood. The paper editorialized against students who protested the sailors’ presence.

“Obviously the positions taken by The Crimson in the 1930s are pretty regrettable, and I’m sure current members of The Crimson would find these views abhorrent,” said The Crimson’s Managing Editor Elisabeth S. Theodore ’05, a panelist at yesterday’s talk.

—Staff writer Michael M. Grynbaum can be reached at grynbaum@fas.harvard.edu.