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The Nazi Who Returned to Harvard

May 9, 2009 | by Jeff Jacoby

New research shows that Harvard, like other elite institutions, was largely unmoved by the early horrors of the Hitler regime.

He was an alumnus to make Harvard proud.

The son of a renowned Munich art dealer and a blue-blooded Boston mother, Ernst Franz Sedgwick Hanfstaengl, who graduated in 1909 with a degree in history, spoke four languages and moved easily in international circles. As a student he had thrown himself into campus life, rowing with the varsity crew, cheerleading at football games, and performing at the Hasty Pudding Club -- where he was in demand, The Boston Globe noted, "for theatricals, musical productions, and literary work."

In the years since graduation, Hanfstaengl had managed the New York office of his family's famous art gallery and then become the trusted confidant of a leading European politician. He contributed generously to Harvard and even offered to underwrite an annual scholarship for a Harvard student to study abroad.

So when he returned to Cambridge for his 25th reunion, Harvard's upper crust received him warmly. He enjoyed the hospitality of wealthy alumni. He attended a tea at the home of Harvard president James Bryant Conant. He had a long meeting with Conant's predecessor, Abbott Lawrence Lowell. The Crimson, Harvard's student newspaper, even urged that he be awarded an honorary degree.

There was just one problem. Hanfstaengl was a Nazi. The European politician he was so close to was Adolf Hitler, whom he had avidly supported since the early 1920s. By 1934, he was the head of foreign press operations for the Third Reich, responsible for disseminating Nazi propaganda abroad.

Why would Harvard have embraced such a man? With everything that was known about the Nazis in 1934 -- their violent anti-Semitism, their public book-burning, the concentration camps into which they were already herding their enemies -- why would Harvard have treated a Nazi official like Hanfstaengl with such courtesy? Why would it let itself be used, in the words of historian Stephen Norwood, "to help cloak the Nazi cause with a layer of legitimacy?"

"Harvard had repeated opportunities to take a principled stand against the Nazis, and repeatedly passed them up."

Norwood, a professor of history and Judaic studies at the University of Oklahoma, has studied the response of academia to the rise of Nazi power. In a paper to be delivered at a conference on the Holocaust at Boston University today, he contends that Harvard, like other elite institutions, was largely unmoved by the early horrors of the Hitler regime. "It is disturbing to see the indifference of American higher education to what was going on in Germany," he said last week. "Harvard had repeated opportunities to take a principled stand against the Nazis, and repeatedly passed them up."

Others didn't. As soon as word got out that Hanfstaengl had been invited to play a role in the 1934 commencement, protests began pouring in, many from Harvard alumni. The Crimson's editorial recommending him for an honorary degree was denounced. At least one member of Congress, Representative Samuel Dickstein of New York, urged that he not be permitted to spread any of his "Hitler propaganda."

The flap over Harvard and its Nazi was widely publicized -- so much so that Hanfstaengl initially sent word from Germany that he wouldn't be coming after all. He couldn't understand, he told reporters in Berlin, why anyone would object to his presence at Harvard simply because "I am identified with a government that represents something new and different from the established order… I doubt whether those who clamor against my coming represent real Americanism."

In Boston, meanwhile, Harvard luminaries like Elliott Carr Cutler, chief surgeon at the Peter Bent Brigham Hospital and chief marshal for the June commencement, blamed the controversy on the emotionalism of those who get worked up over "political issues." He was dismayed that anyone could object to a Nazi's being welcomed at Harvard -- after all, he said, "freedom of thought and speech is the breath of life of a real university." Then as now, it seems, some academics were ready to aid the exploitation of liberty by those who would destroy liberty.

In the end there was no honorary degree and no special role for Hanfstaengl. But his mere attendance was seen by many as an outrage, and anti-Nazi protesters kept up a clamor during the ceremony. Seven were arrested and prosecuted, and eventually sentenced to six months at hard labor. According to Norwood, Conant approved of the prison terms, and refused to intercede on the demonstrators' behalf.

The Hanfstaengl episode wasn't the only instance of Harvard's deference to Nazi Germany. When the Nazi warship Karlsruhe stopped at the port of Boston, Harvard invited its crew to a ball. When the University of Heidelberg -- by then under firm Nazi control -- celebrated its 550th anniversary in 1937, Harvard refused to join Oxford and Cambridge in boycotting the festivities.

In time, of course, Harvard became staunchly anti-Nazi. (Conant would go on to play a key national defense role during World War II.) But where was its moral judgment when it could have done the most good -- when Nazi Germany was relatively weak and Hitler's aggression had not yet begun?


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