The massive World War II memorial tablet that spreads across the south wall of Memorial Church dominates the interior, accented by the light that filters down from the barreled ceiling of the church’s nave. The name of Adolf Sannwald, a visiting fellow at Harvard Divinity School (HDS) from 1924-1925, is among the 696 carved into the white marble. But only his is followed by the inscription:
Sannwald, a Lutheran pastor and an authority on German theology, was drafted into the German army in 1942. He was a studious and determined pupil of some of the greatest minds in theology when he left Harvard for Germany in 1925. He most likely died a lonely death on the Russian front in 1943, far from his five children and his wife in Stuttgart, and far from the university that had fostered his brilliance. As we approach a day meant to revere soldiers, the complicity in fascism of one of Harvard’s fallen remains a mystery.
Harvard has lost many to warfare over the span of its three centuries, commemorating its war dead in gracious halls and in hallowed public spaces. One by one, names are carved into stone or wood, pulled from the obscurity of War Records files and installed as permanent fixtures on marble plaques and walnut panels.
At times, though, the University has decided to pick and choose how and whom it remembers. Some names make their way to the memorials, while others remain hidden.
Sannwald wasn’t the only Harvard alumnus who fought under the flag of an Axis nation during World War II. Special Student Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto—one of the central planners behind the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor—and Dr. Shokichi Otajima, a 1934 graduate of the School of Public Health, were killed in the Japanese army in New Georgia and Saipan, respectively. Their names, unlike Sannwald’s, remain tucked in yellowing folders in the University Archives.
The Memorial Church’s plaque was conceived by a committee headed by former Governor and then-Senator Leverett Saltonstall ’14. The $75,000 marker was unveiled the week of Veterans’ Day in 1951; it was hard to miss the notation that followed Sannwald’s name. Almost immediately, The Crimson wrote that the inclusion of his name was “contradictory” to the aims of the memorial.
In January of 1952, the Alumni Bulletin published an article that quoted the Corporation, one of Harvard’s two governing boards, as releasing the following statement: “The inclusion of the name of an alumnus who served in the German Army was an error and will be corrected.”
The name was never removed.
The controversy over Sannwald’s name reflects a struggle at Harvard with the ambiguities of commemorating its war dead. In 1874, the transept of Memorial Hall was completed as a monument to Harvard alumni who were killed and “fought for the Union cause” during the American Civil War. One hundred thirty-six names were engraved on 28 white marble tablets in the opulent transept hall, and no mention was made of those who fought under the Confederacy.
More than 120 years later, while Memorial Church underwent renovation in 1995, the Harvard Alumni Association (HAA) proposed a memorial for the 64 Harvard Confederate dead to the University’s Board of Overseers. Though the proposal drew support from many, including Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Minister of The Memorial Church Peter J. Gomes, it was eventually shelved in 1996 after criticism from the Harvard Black Law Students Association, the undergraduate Black Students Association and eventually then-University President Neil L. Rudenstine.
In a letter to The Crimson on January 17, 1996, Gomes regretfully wrote that he had withdrawn his support for a Confederate memorial, saying he hoped that in the near future, “Harvard will be secure enough in its shared ideals to sustain a memorial to those of its sons who remind us of painful past divisions.”
Does remembering Sannwald, one who was thrust into the violence and hatred of Nazi Germany, constitute that sense of security?
From his home in Tübingen, Germany in 1924, Sannwald completed an application to study German “Christian theology” and “systematic theology” at HDS. Included with his application are four sterling recommendations, including one from famed German theologian Richard Lempp, under whom Sannwald studied.
In a series of postcards, he expresses his excitement about studying in America, especially after receiving an $800 fellowship toward his studies at the University. Divinity School Dean Willard L. Sperry sent a letter to Sannwald during the summer of 1924 congratulating him on his fellowship and enthusiastically welcoming him to the school. “Personally, I am very glad that theological and religious fellowship is thus being reestablished between German and American Christians,” he wrote.
After his short but successful stint at Harvard, Sannwald returned to Germany to be a pastor and professor. In 1931, he published a book on the philosophy of German idealism that made its way back to Harvard, but by 1936, the University had lost touch with him.
Ten years later, in a letter written by friend and colleague Martin C.R. Grabau ’23, the University received word that Sannwald, having been drafted into the German army in 1942, had been killed on the Russian front. There is no definitive explanation of the circumstances of his death. Just what role he had in the Nazi army remains a mystery to this day.
The Alumni Bulletin of December 1951 states that Sannwald was drafted as a “common soldier.” But Saltonstall Professor of History Charles S. Maier, a World War II historian, suggests that a 34-year-old with five children would not have been drafted as a common soldier, but most likely as a pastor.
Chaplain to Harvard College and Assistant Minister in The Memorial Church Mark D. W. Edington offers his own theory. He calls Sannwald “a conscientious objector [who was] sent as a medic in the eastern front…where he perished. That was the whole idea of sending him there, I imagine.” The letter from Grabau also claims that Sannwald may have been an objector and that drafting him was a convenient way of getting rid of him.
This casts Sannwald as a martyr, a dissenter who deserves to be commemorated. Early letters indeed indicate that he was flatly opposed to the Nazi regime. But there is no conclusive evidence that this was why he died.
Prompted by this writer’s curiosity, a recent investigation into Sannwald’s archived file by The Crimson complicates Sannwald’s presumed blamelessness. In a letter dated July 1946, Dean Sperry wrote to Grabau that he had heard from Sannwald in either 1936 or 1937. He wrote that Sannwald invited him to Germany to see “the wonderful rebirth the nation was having under Hitler.”
The letter continues with Sperry wishing that Sannwald “might have gone on quietly teaching at Tübingen.”
It is unclear what Dean Sperry’s comments implied. The University archives and the Andover-Theological manuscript archives have no copies of any correspondence between Sannwald and Sperry from the 1930s. Regardless, this letter raises serious questions about Harvard’s memory of its lost son.
“A lot of Germans were swept off their feet by Hitler,” says Maier regarding Sannwald’s dubious political position. “People might have poor political judgment… [but] we still might commemorate them.”
In a morning prayer service, Gomes seemed to concur with Maier. “It takes courage to remember,” he said. “And yet if we remember, maybe we will remember that it was for love of peace, and not for love of war, that they died.”
Visiting Professor Herrick Chapman, an expert on the aftermath of World War II, proposes two sides to commemorating war dead like Sannwald and his peers. “It’s appropriate to be inclusive,” says Chapman, but inclusiveness is also “a strategy to evade…issues of responsibility and guilt. Even when people face terrible choices, no one is quite let off the hook.”
The World War I commemoration in Memorial Church dealt with this dilemma on Veteran’s Day 1932 by engraving the names of the four alumni killed in German uniform on a separate plaque. The English translation of its Latin inscription reads, “Harvard has not forgotten her sons who under opposite standards gave their lives for their country.”
Under an opposite, if unclear standard, Adolf Sannwald lost his life. Can we pass judgment on men who died under the confusing and terrifying specter of war? “I guess, at a certain point, we concede that death in battle, at least for honorable soldiers, and even for a bad cause, may finally erase all politics,” says Maier. “How else do we pick up and go on?”