Nazi In Our Midst

May, 1934: Springtime for Hitler?

Courtesy OF Harvard university archives

Ernst “Putzi” F.S. Hanfstaengl, Class of 1909, seen here chatting it up with a classmate at his 25th reunion in 1934, was a close associate of Hitler before the Second World War.

There’s bound to be many a skeleton in Harvard’s closets, but the possibility of links to Hitler rattle a little louder than others. Last October, the media came running when a University of Oklahoma professor, Stephen Norwood, announced that he had found evidence tying Harvard to Nazi Germany. Speaking at an academic conference at Boston University, Norwood declared that Harvard had warmly received Nazi officers in the 1930s, formally recognized German universities taken over by Hitler, and voiced support for the Third Reich.

These were serious accusations—so how come we haven’t heard anything about them since? Norwood has returned to obscurity, and Harvard has declined to issue any apology or acknowledgement of wrongdoing in connection with the historian’s claims. What happened?

Norwood’s research was legitimate—it was the spin he placed on his findings that appears shaky. Central to his claims is the tale of Ernst “Putzi” F.S. Hanfstaengl, a popular member of the Harvard Class of 1909 who, when he returned as a class officer at his 25th reunion in 1934, was a chief Nazi press officer and personal acquaintance of Adolf Hitler. Norwood argued that by inviting the prominent Nazi sympathizer to an official event, Harvard missed a chance to criticize Hitler’s regime and ignored reports of Jewish persecution trickling in from across the Atlantic.

Harvard—which did not send a representative to Norwood’s talk—responded in a November 2004 press release that College tradition calls for inviting all alumni back for their reunions. University spokesman Joseph Wrinn noted that James B. Conant ’14, Harvard’s president at the time, had refused to accept contributions from Hanfstaengl. “Harvard University and President Conant did not support the Nazis,” Wrinn wrote.

Harvard never explicitly condoned Nazism, but it subscribed to the genteel anti-Semitism that pervaded the elite institutions of the country in the early years of the 20th century. The Hanfstaengl incident reveals a campus divided over the rising fascist regimes of the 1930s, but an administration that ultimately refrained from confronting the Nazi in their midst.

HEIL HARVARD

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Son of a prominent New York art dealer and a well-known figure in the city’s social circles, Hanfstaengl was the quintessential Harvard man of his time: as an undergraduate, he rowed crew, enjoyed personal visits with President Charles W. Eliot, Class of 1853, and entertained students and faculty with his renowned piano skills. In an unfortunate bit of foreshadowing, he was particularly fond of reciting Wagner’s compositions.

Decades after his time in Cambridge, this blueblood remained a legend among Harvard students.

“In the early 1960s, we knew about this man,” said Jeffrey S. Mehlman ’65, professor of French Literature at Boston University, who attended Norwood’s lecture. “He was known as a good musician, and the big story was that Harvard was so powerful it had friends all over the world on all sides of every issue.”

Hanfstaengl traveled to Europe after World War I. “I returned to Germany, finding the country ‘flourishing’ under the blessings of the Versailles treaty,” he wrote in his reunion class book. “A year later I ran into the man who has saved Germany and civilization—Adolf Hitler.”

Always a bombastic self-promoter, Hanfstaengl soon became a close friend of the Fuhrer, reportedly delighting the rising politician with his Wagner renditions. By 1934, Hanfstaengl was supervising the Nazi Party’s foreign press office. He even acquired a nickname from his boss—“Putzi”—a moniker that would stick.

When Hanfstaengl’s 25th class reunion approached, he was invited by class marshal Elliott Carr Cutler, Class of 1909, to act as a vice marshal at the reunion. His reputation as a consummate Ivy Leaguer superseded concerns about anti-Semitism among students and faculty.

“He was an international celebrity, a good musician, and that was enough for his classmates,” Mehlman said.

But not all Harvard affiliates were happy to see their institution warmly welcoming a prominent Nazi. News of Hanfstaengl’s invitation spurred a flurry of protests from Jewish alumni and anti-Nazi student groups.

Harvard administrators initially responded with a shrug: the decision to offer the position was made by the independent reunion committee—it was out of their hands.

But as criticism mounted, Hanfstaengl was pressured into resigning his marshal position. The New York Times reported on June 12, 1934, that he would remain in Germany, but two days later ran a banner headline on page one announcing his decision to attend the reuinion anyway.