Singling Out Harvard

Recent allegations of Nazi affiliations are true but out of context

Harvard made headlines this week after a University of Oklahoma historian published a paper severely scrutinizing the University’s association with Hitler’s Nazi regime. Full of anecdotes suggesting that the University was complicit in forming “deliberate ties” with the Nazis, Professor Stephen H. Norwood’s presentation at Boston University provoked curious outrage, and now some are calling for Harvard to issue a public apology for old anti-Semitism.

We would be more sympathetic if the professor’s findings weren’t oversimplified. Indeed, with an upcoming book to be published on the relations between American academia and the rise of Nazism, we suspect Norwood has ulterior motives in singling out Harvard for criticism. Rather than presenting a constructive paper for the sake of scholarship, it seems he is attempting to gain some name recognition by attacking the American university with the most name recognition.

First, a disclaimer: We do not think that Norwood’s findings are false, per se. The professor’s paper, entitled “Legitimating Nazism: Harvard University and the Hitler Regime,” contains some damning accusations against Harvard and in particular former University President, James B. Conant ’14. And Norwood is probably on point about many of the anti-Semitic attitudes and actions endorsed by individual Harvard professors, students and alumni during the 1930s. This is, of course, a sad fact of history. But that Norwood singles out Harvard as the main perpetrator in his paper—on the basis of some seemingly tenuous links—makes us wonder why he has chosen to focus solely on one institution when anti-Semitism clearly was not a sentiment exclusive to Harvard.

According to the Boston Globe, during Sunday’s Holocaust conference, Norwood heavily criticized Harvard for “welcoming a prominent Hitler deputy to his reunion in 1934, for sending a delegate to celebrate the anniversary of the Nazi-controlled University of Heidelberg in 1936, and for failing to help Jewish refugee scholars.” All of this under the tenure of then-president Conant, who Norwood insists was a Nazi-sympathizer; and all of this while knowing full well the plight of the Jews under the Nazi-regime.

Harvard officials have responded to Norwood’s claims with a focus on Conant’s autobiography, published in 1970, in which he explicitly states his aversion to Nazism and asserts that he later turned down donations from Nazi philanthropists. Norwood, however, points out that Conant’s words had the benefit of 30 years’ worth of hindsight and that the events that took place under his tenure demonstrate his underlying anti-Semitism. And he may be right.

No one is denying that Harvard’s past is not peppered with highly contentious actions on the part of its students and faculty. And no one is looking for a pardon. Yet, while Norwood’s examples are certainly disgraceful, they are not uncommon to the interwar period, when many American institutions struggled with their relationships with pre-war Germany. The fact that Norwood has chosen to harp on Harvard alone makes his paper smack of opportunism, not the qualities of an honest scholarly attempt to provide accurate historical perspective.