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By: Rafael Medoff, September 20, 2018

Later this month, the heads of Italy’s universities intend to issue a public apology for their anti-Jewish actions during the Nazi era. When will American universities such as Columbia and Harvard finally own up to their own disgraceful behavior during those years?


Hoping to impress Hitler and strengthen Italy’s alliance with Germany, Italian dictator Benito Mussolini introduced a series of laws in the autumn of 1938 to strip his country’s Jewish citizens of their rights. The first of these measures required that universities fire their Jewish faculty members and ban the admission of Jewish students. Italy’s universities meekly complied.


Next week, the University of Pisa, on Italy’s northern coast, will hold a “Cerimonia delle Scuse e del Ricordo,” a Ceremony of Commemoration and Apology, for what it did to its Jewish professors and students in 1938. The event has been endorsed by the Conference of Rectors of Italian Universities, thus giving it the official imprimatur of the Italian academic community.


The time has come for some prominent American universities to come clean about the Nazi-era skeletons in their own closets. While obviously not on the level of what the Italian institutions did, many U.S. schools did shamefully pursue friendly relations with the Hitler regime in the 1930s.


Prof. Stephen Norwood, in his book, The Third Reich in the Ivory Tower, describes, for example, how Harvard hosted visits by Nazi Germany's ambassador to the U.S., Hans Luther, and its Boston consul-general, Baron Kurt von Tippelskirch. Harvard President James Conant extended a warm welcome to Hitler's foreign press chief, Ernst "Putzi" Hanfstangl, when he visited the campus in 1934 (for his 25th class reunion). 


Columbia University, too, welcomed the Nazi ambassador. Luther spoke on campus in December 1933, and  Columbia president Nicholas Murray Butler (who was an unabashed admirer of Mussolini) also hosted a reception for the Nazi envoy.  When students protested, Butler insisted that Luther represented "the government of a friendly people" and therefore was "entitled to be received…with the greatest courtesy and respect."  Ambassador Luther's speech focused on what he characterized as Hitler's "peaceful intentions."   


Harvard, Columbia, and other universities also engaged in student exchanges with Nazi Germany. Even the blunt statement by a German official that his country's students were being sent abroad to serve as "political soldiers of the Reich" did not persuade many American institutions of higher learning to pull out of the exchange programs. American students returning from a semester or year in Germany spoke glowingly to their campus newspapers about the Hitler regime’s cleanliness and punctuality.


In 1936, both Harvard and Columbia administration sent delegates to Germany to take part in the 550th anniversary celebration of the University of Heidelberg. They did so despite the fact that Heidelberg already had been purged of Jewish faculty members, instituted a Nazi curriculum, and hosted a burning of books by Jewish authors. Columbia’s delegate, Prof. Arthur Remy, later raved about the "very enjoyable" reception at which Hitler’s propaganda minister, Josef Goebbels, presided.


Harvard president James Conant also invited Nazi academics to Harvard's 1936 Tercentenary celebration, prompting Albert Einstein to boycott the event.  And in 1937, Conant sent warm greetings to the Nazi-controlled University of Goettingen on its 200th anniversary.


At Columbia, student protesters rallied outside the home of President Butler to protest his participation in the Heidelberg celebration. Butler retaliated by having the rally’s leader, Robert Burke, brought before a university court on the charge of being "disrespectful to the president.” Despite Burke’s excellent grades, and even though Columbia's own attorney later acknowledged that "the evidence that Burke himself used bad language is slight,”

Burke was permanently expelled.


Obviously, the apology by Italian universities comes 80 years too late. What this world needs is people with the courage to defy immoral orders when they are issued, not go along with them and then mumble “Sorry” eight decades later.


Still, apologies of this sort do have some value, because the actions and pronouncements of the academic community matter. In Italy, the universities’ compliance with the race laws helped legitimize the fascist regime’s antisemitism and paved the way for further government action against Italian Jews.


In the United States, the universities that welcomed and praised Nazi officials, and participated in student exchanges and other friendly relations with the Hitler regime in the 1930s, helped soften Hitler’s image in America. Precisely at the moment when Americans needed to hear the truth about Nazi Germany, our elite academic institutions were making the Nazis more palatable.



Dr. Rafael Medoff is founding director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, and the author of The Jews Should Keep Quiet: President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, and the Holocaust, forthcoming from The Jewish Publication Society in 2019.



Universities play an important role in shaping public attitudes. They help establish standards which one hopes will be applied in future times of crisis. Acknowledging the mistake of appeasing dictators in the past might help preempt similar appeasement in the future.

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