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The Nazi Who Loved Harvard...

By William E. McKibben

"As faras I know there are no political critieria for accepting gifts to the University, "Peter Clifton, executive director of the Harvard Fund.

Sept. 24, 1934

Dr. Ernst F. Sedgwick Hanfstaengl was a generous member of the Harvard Class of 1909 with a "perennial affection for Harvard, Boston and New England."

"Hanfy," or "Putzy," as his friends often called him, was a minor Nazi official and a personal friend of Adolf Hitler.

Those two factors caused some problems for Harvard in the spring and summer of 1934, a six-month span when "Hanfy" became as much a red flag on campus as "Engelhard" is today. The furor didn't end until September 24 1934, when the President and Fellows of Harvard University voted not to accept $1,000 from Hanfstaengl, a sum that he had hoped would be used to fund a travelling scholarship to bear his name.

As soon as the four Fellows, the treasurer of the Corporation and President James Conant '14 had voted, Conant himself dictated a letter outlining the reasons that there was to be no "Dr. Hanfstaengl scholarship". "We are unwilling to accept a gift," wrote Conant, "from one who has been so closely associated with the leadership of a political party which has inflicted damage on the Universities of Germany through measures which have struck at principles we believe to be fundamental to universities throughout the world."

The Harvard News Office released that statement of principle to the public a few days later. The Associated Press wire carried the story which appeared on October 4th in every major American paper. As several papers realized, though the background to the story was just as interesting as its outcome.

"Dr. Hanfstaengl's name first became known throughout the country last spring," the Boston Globe stated. Dr. Elliott Carr Cutler of Boston, who was to be chief marshal of the alumni at Commencement, announced he had chosen Hanfstaengl, who would be in Cambridge for his class's 25th reunion, to be an aide at commencement. The choice was a bad one as far as many Harvard students and graduates were concerned. Protests began, letters poured in, and soon Hanfstaengl sent notice from Germany that he didn't think he was going to make the reunion after all, so Cutler appointed another aide in his place.

"Hanfy" sent Conant another letter later that spring. "While I'm still not sure that I will be able to attend the reunion, I would like to offer a gift," said Hanfstaengl. The letter outlined the proposed scholarship, which was to "enable an outstanding Harvard student, preferably the son of my old classmates, to study in Germany in any field of art or science." The traveling scholarship was good for a year, six months to be spent in "Germany's cultural center" and Hanfy's native city, Munich.

The letter, which had been mailed on May 24, was made public on June 7. The scholarship offer played second controversy for a while, though, because Hanfstaengl also soon announced that he would indeed attend the reunion. He caught a plane to the coast, and set sail aboard the last steamship that could have gotten him to America in time for the ceremonies. Radical groups, including the National Student League, were unable to persuade the State Department to keep him out of the country. Debarking in New York, he was met with a demonstration, but he managed to avoid a planned protest in Boston when he arrived there the next day.

He spent the day before the reunion scouting about the University to find someone to accept two statues that he had brought from Germany. Because school was over and only Commencement left before the summer began, the Yard and surrounding buildings were deserted, and, according to one newspaper account, the tall Hanfstaengl was soon red in the face and weary from carrying the pair of busts through the June heat. Finally, in music building, he caught sight of Professor Edward Burlingame Hill, a music professor who was about to leave for a vacation in New Hampshire. Hanfstaengl, a tall, strapping man, accosted Hill and insisted that he take the statues, one of Schopenhauer, the other of Van Gluck, another German composer. Hill could find room only for the Van Gluck replica, but he did turn out to be a friendly man, and heand Hanfy spent the afternoon in Boston, antique stores.

The next day, after a restful night at his secretary Nathaniel Simpkin's North Shore home, Hanfstaengl returned for Commencement exercises, ready to do battle with waiting hordes of "newspapermen, photographers, Communists, radicals and liberals." There were some on campus, though who were more friendly to the beaming Nazi. The Harvard Crimson, for one, had recommended that "in recognition of his government," he be given an honorary degree, an idea that prompted protesters to coat the campus with signs calling on the University to award Hanfstaengl "a Bachelor of Book Burning."

Many of the old graduates were also happy to have the friendly German on hand. The entire tenth reunion class, according to the Herald, the Class of 1924, showed up dressed in Bavarian costume, right down to the Tyrolean hats. The Boston Herald reported that "because the doctor had traveled 3,000 miles there was a Harvard version of the goose step, executed with as much snap as unsteady feet could muster ....An Americanized approximation of the Nazi salute replaced the hand shake for the day."

Indeed, by many accounts, Hanfstaengl stole the show. He walked arm in arm with a Jewish classmate, and smiled for countless photographers.

But there was another faction represented at Commencement too. National Student League members and others protested throughout the ceremony, drowning out President Conant's speech. Many of them chained themselves to buildings and poles, refusing to leave or be quiet. Seven of them were arrested, and later tried in Middlesex Superior Criminal Court where on October 22, 1934, they were sentenced to six months in jail for their outburst.

As the college went into summer hibernation, so did the Hanfstaengl issue. But come fall, pressure to reject the scholarship offer mounted. The matter was quickly settled, or at least addressed, by Conant and the Fellows in their letter rejecting the money.

Approval of the decision came clattering off printing presses around the country. The Montgomery, Alabama Observer called it "one more point scored for enlightenment in America," and the New York Post said the move "does Harvard honor." Syndicated columnist Joseph Brainin said that "the President of Harvard acted in the tradition of a great American institution of higher learning. He felt that the Hanfstaengl scholarship at Harvard would be a contradiction of all that great University stands for." In a somewhat different tone, the San Diego Union crowed that by "rejecting a scholarship from a Hitler henchman, Harvard hoists the college colors over German," adding "and is Herr Hitler's face crimson!" The New York Sun carried a letter from "an old Yale man" who said that "naturally and properly, I have always had a rather slight opinion of Harvard and all its works. That's all over now. I am as proud of Harvard as I am of Yale--nearly."

Virtually the only criticism came from The Harvard Crimson, which blasted Conant's letter both for its substance and its tone. "That politics should prevent a Harvard student from research in one of the world's greatest cultural cities is most unfortunate and scarcely in line with the liberal tradition of which Harvard is pardonably proud," said The Crimson, adding that Hanfstaengl's "letter making the offer is couched in the friendliest of terms, in no sense meriting so curt and caustic a reply." The budding young Fascists of The Crimson may protest as they will," responded the New York Post, "but [former Harvard President] Dr. Eliot would approve of the stand."

Hanfstaengl, who served as a Nazi press liaison, was not about to let the matter rest. He dispatched a letter to Conant informing him that he was sure Harvard would come to its senses and insisted that the scholarship offer would remain open indefinitely. Another chance to grouse arose two years later when, as part of a mass mailing to alumni, he got a letter requesting funds. Conant was obliged to write again and explain that the University's position had not changed.

Hanfstaengl became famous as Hitler's piano player, the U.S. went to war with Germany, and the offer of a German traveling scholarship to commemorate "Putzy" was never accepted. Indeed, an offer by another by another Harvard grad, Paul Mellon, who was careful to point out that he had not ties to the Nazis and didn't embrace their creed, to replace the scholarship with an exact duplicate funded by him was also rejected by the University.

Hanfstaengl returned to Cambridge for the 60th reunion of his class in 1969, and again in 1974 for the 65th.

Hanfy died November 19, 1975, more than 40 years after the battle with Harvard. Presumably he went to his grave with the same "Perennial affection for Harvard, Boston and the New England area" that had prompted his offer.


A traveling Harvard man, wandering by a little apartment on Berlin's Thierschastrasse during the early 1930s might have heard a tune to warm his heart. Inside, in the apartment of Adolf Hitler, Ernst Hanfstaengl would sit at the piano and hammer out the melody of "Harvardiana." But the passer-by might wonder at the lyrics; To honor der Fuehrer, Hanfy had changed the words a bit. Instead of the traditional repeating "Harvard" chorus, Hanfstaengl would bellow out "Sieg Heil" again and again.

That's the kind of man Hanfstaengl was, a strange mix of Harvard old boy, genial party host and amateur politico.

Born in Munich, the son of a wealthy art dealer, "Putzy," as he was known, graduated with the Harvard Class of 1909. During his years here, Hanfstaengl held down a seat in the varsity eight boat, led cheers at football games and joined Hasty Pudding.

He spent the next ten years in his father's New York art gallery, but the onslaught of World War I sent him back to Germany. He fell under Hitler's spell after listening to him preach a beer hall sermon that Hanfy said ended "in an orgasm of words. I agreed with 95 per cent of what he said" he added.

He quickly became a friend of Hitler, performing three main functions for him according to Reginald H. Phelps, retired senior lecturer in German.

"He had a somewhat unclear role, but his knowledge of English was regarded as important" said Phelps, who once sat in Hanfy's apartment and listened to him play "a few Yale songs, just for fun." Hanfstaengl also served a something of a financier for the Nazis in the early days, bankrolling the purchase of a new printing press for the party daily, and he helped introduce the lower-class Hitler to Berlin's upper crust. "Hanfy was from a well-off family, and he thought he played a key role in making Hitler 'fit to be seen,'" according to Phelps.

Hanfy in fact belonged to the prominent Sedwick family of Boston, explaining part of his passion for New England. The strapping German's influence waned in party circles as the Nazis became stronger, although he was still a close personal friend of Hitler, who fled to Hanfy's country villa after the infamous Beer Hall Putsch.

Hanfy played the piano to soothe Hitler (Wagner and Beethoven were the leader's favorites) and his son Egon who later attended Harvard would wrestle him.

The romance, though, didn't last forever. Hitler played a cruel joke on Hanfy, had him "taken for a ride" in a German fighter plane with orders to parachute out over Spain, a sure suicide mission. The pilot turned back eventually and brought Hanfy home, but the terrified Hanfy had had enough. He fled with Egon to Switzerland and then to the United States, where he waited out the war before returning to Germany to live in relative obscurity until his death in 1975.

No biographer ever accused Hanfstaengl of being a complex man. Phelps found him a "little shallow, although certainly not stupid." "He was a pseudo-cultured and not very serious....certainly politically immature" Richard Hunt, senior lecturer on social studies, adds.

His talents, instead, were as a showman. From Hasty Pudding to Hitler, Hanfy was a performer, and a skillful one. The Boston Transcript captured his spirit precisely in a story about his trip to Harvard for the 25th reunion of his class. "His loud manner and thirst for American gin captured everyone's affection."

"We are unwilling to accept a gift from one who has been so closely associated with the leadership of a political party which has inflicted damage on the universities of Germany through measures which have struck at principles we believe to be fundamental to universities throughout the world." James B. Conant.

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