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Complicity and Conflict: Columbia University's Response to Fascism, 1933-1937
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Complicity and Conflict:
Columbia University's Response to Fascism, 1933-1937

On the night of May 10, 1933, shortly after Hitler assumed power in Germany, Nazi students staged massive public book burnings at universities across the Reich, an act that dramatically communicated to the world their opposition to free inquiry and intense antisemitism. In the capital, students marched in a torchlight parade beside trucks decorated with caricatures of Jews, carrying to the bonfire set up before the University of Berlin many of the world's foremost works of scholarship and literature. The Nazis had spent weeks raiding libraries and bookstores, specifically targeting for confiscation books by Jewish authors, including Sigmund Freud and Albert Einstein, as well as those of nonJews like Thomas Mann, Erich Maria Remarque, Jack London, and Emile Zola. Sinclair Lewis, at the time the only American to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, declared that the Nazis had condemned to the flames "the noblest books produced by Germany in the last twenty years." As the students, amidst Nazi salutes, hurled book after book into the bonfire, Nazi Propaganda Minister Josef Goebbels proclaimed from a swastika-draped podium, "Jewish intellectualism is dead!"1

That night the Nazis burned tens of thousands of books they called "un-German" in sixty "midnight funeral pyres," an event New York Post correspondent H. R. Knickerbocker, reporting from the scene in Berlin, compared to the torching of the renowned library in Alexandria, Egypt in the seventh century C.E., and the Spanish Inquisition's destruction of "heterodox literature." In the West, some reading of the German bonfires undoubtedly recalled Heinrich Heine's prescient warning over a century before, "Where books are burned, in the end people will be burned too."2

The Spectator, student newspaper of Columbia University, upon learning of the German bonfires, reported that the Nazis were burning the works of Columbia professor Franz Boas, world renowned anthropologist, a Jew who had condemned Nazi theories of Aryan supremacy. Among his works that enraged the Nazis was a 1925 article [End Page 253] "Nordic Nonsense." Boas had argued that social environment rather than "race" determined a person's intellectual capabilities, and that "German civilization" was the product of "innumerable cultures influencing it." The University of Kiel, where Boas earned a PhD in 1881, removed his books from its library, prior to staging its own book-burning. Kiel had awarded Boas an honorary medical degree about a year before the Nazis took power, which he now, with a "wave of his hand," announced it could take back.3

Columbia students had already staged campus protests against the Nazi regime's violence against Jews, which began as soon as Hitler became Germany's Chancellor on January 30, 1933. In March, 1933 Columbia's Jewish Students Society (JSS) collected over 500 signatures on a petition denouncing these outrages, which "recall the blackest hours of the Dark Ages." Columbia's advisors to Protestant and Catholic students both signed the petition, which demanded "concerted action" against Nazi antisemitism. A Columbia student contingent also reserved seating at Madison Square Garden for the mass rally against Nazism that the American Jewish Congress had scheduled for the next week. The Spectator editorial board, alarmed by the German government's recent announced expulsion of fifteen Jews from university faculty positions, called on the Columbia administration to hire them as professors, a proposal the administration did not consider.4

Seven months after the book-burnings, Columbia's administration, led by President Nicholas Murray Butler, warmly welcomed to campus Dr Hans Luther, Nazi Germany's ambassador to the United States. Luther had accepted an invitation to lecture on his government's foreign policy, extended by the university's Institute of Arts and Sciences. The Columbia Social Problems Club, a student organization, immediately challenged the administration when it learned of the invitation to Ambassador Luther to speak on campus. It declared that the administration's plan to hold an official reception for Hitler's emissary suggested indifference to Nazi crimes.5

Dismissing the student criticism, President Butler indicated that he held Ambassador Luther in high esteem. He declared that Luther "is the official diplomatic representative to the Government of the...