An Apology Seventy Years Late

Crimson pride may be in ample supply these days. But in the 1930s, Harvard did not have much to be proud of. At a time when it could have been a voice of moral and intellectual responsibility in America, our university played a role in legitimizing the Nazi regime. Today, in the face of growing evidence to this effect, the administration still refuses to apologize for or even acknowledge its predecessors’ complicity. This is not only an affront to the Jewish community. The administration’s silence shames us all.

The historical record is clear, as disclosed most recently by University of Oklahoma Professor Stephen Norwood, and corroborated by contemporary accounts in The Crimson and records of the Harvard Student Union. Harvard sought to accord an honorary position to an alumnus who happened to be a top-ranking Nazi propagandist and close friend of Hitler, Ernst F.S. “Putzi” Hanfstaengl ’09, at his class reunion in 1934, after which he thanked Harvard in writing for its “extremely cordial reception.” Later that year, Nazi naval officers, on a visit to Boston harbor, were treated to a banquet benefiting Phillips Brooks House.

Then, after purges of Jewish professors and students had swept German universities in 1936, the Harvard administration sent a delegation to participate in the 550th anniversary celebration of the University of Heidelberg, alongside Joseph Goebbels and Heinrich Himmler. “Should not one be ready to build a scholarly bridge between two nations?” asked Harvard’s then-President James B. Conant ’14 in his autobiography.

No, one should not, if a nation is under a regime that employs terror, repression, and systematic murder. A “scholarly bridge,” like financial or political ties, can only grant a kind of legitimacy to those with whom the bridge is built. President Lawrence H. Summers today likes to claim that Harvard is not a political institution. But to refuse to distinguish between a Hanfstaengl and other alumni, or between a University of Heidelberg and other universities, as President Conant did, is undeniably a political decision. The fact is that Harvard’s actions—and its inaction—can have political repercussions affecting people around the world.

Further, the administration has more to apologize for than a series of one-time incidents. For these incidents reflected a broader set of policies and attitudes at Harvard at the time which substantially bolstered the proponents of anti-Semitism and Nazism. By 1931, according to the American Jewish Historical Society, the ranks of Jewish students at Harvard had been cut to 15 percent of the freshman class from 22 percent a decade earlier. The student employment office cooperated with employers who explicitly discriminated against Jewish students.

President Conant repeatedly neglected to assist distinguished Jewish scholars fleeing Nazi Germany to seek refuge in American academia. Yet the current administration persists in defending Conant’s policies, and rebuffing any suggestion of the University’s culpability.

Harvard’s apologists have never actually denied most of the allegations. Rather, they have opted either to remain deafeningly silent, to downplay the significance of the findings, or to counter that, well, everyone was doing it.

This is never an excuse for doing the wrong thing, especially when it’s not even true. Though Harvard was certainly not alone in its stance towards the Nazis, there were other universities that did not share its anti-Semitic and pro-Nazi attitudes. Williams College, for instance, was moving to terminate its relations with German universities. The same year that President Conant had tea with Ernst Hanfstaengl, the Chancellor of New York University called on “teachers, scientists and men of letters” to “resist with all their power” the academic policies of the Nazis.

There were some students who had the wisdom and the moral courage to stand up to Nazism and anti-Semitism from the very start. They organized a demonstration thousands strong in Harvard Square to protest Hanfstaengl’s visit. Other students fought to end discrimination against Jewish students and professors within the University. Half a dozen students even volunteered for combat in Spain in 1936, fighting against the combined forces of Hitler and fascist general Francisco Franco. At least one, philosophy student Eugene Bronstein, was killed in battle, but his name appears nowhere in campus memorials to Harvard’s war dead. It is time for Harvard to honor those who saw what was happening when the University turned a blind eye, those who acted against Nazism when the administration did not.

This administration, for once, must get off its high horse. One might have cause to wonder whether the continuing silence on this matter might be, to quote President Summers, “anti-Semitic in effect, if not in intent.” For it seems to attribute more importance to the image of this university than to the suffering of the Jewish people under the Nazi regime.

The administration must acknowledge where Harvard went wrong in the 1930s, honor those students who did right, and offer an immediate apology to the Jewish community and all those with families that were decimated by the Nazi regime. And Harvard must recognize its international moral responsibility in its current and future decisions, for its past “neutrality” has only helped the tyrants of the world.

Michael A. Gould-Wartofsky ’07, a Crimson editorial editor, is a government concentrator in Currier House. He is a member of the Progressive Jewish Alliance.