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American Jewish History 92.2 (2004) 189-223

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Legitimating Nazism:

Harvard University and the Hitler Regime, 1933–1937

The Harvard University administration during the 1930s, led by President James Bryant Conant, ignored numerous opportunities to take a principled stand against the Hitler regime and its antisemitic outrages, and contributed to Nazi Germany's efforts to improve its image in the West. Its lack of concern about Nazi antisemitism was shared by many influential Harvard alumni and student leaders. In warmly welcoming Nazi leaders to the Harvard campus, inviting them to prestigious, high-profile social events, and striving to build friendly relations with thoroughly Nazified universities in Germany, while denouncing those who protested against these actions, Harvard's administration and many of its student leaders offered important encouragement to the Hitler regime as it intensified its persecution of Jews and expanded its military strength.

The few scholars who previously addressed this subject devoted insufficient attention to antisemitism in the Harvard administration and student body, and underestimate the university's complicity in the Nazis' persecution of the Jews. William M. Tuttle Jr., to be sure, criticizes Conant's unwillingness to help place German scholars exiled by the Nazis at Harvard, calling this "a failure of compassion." Morton and Phyllis Keller, in their recent history of Harvard, similarly describe its administration as slow to appoint refugees from Nazism to the faculty, particularly Jews. They describe Conant as "shar[ing] the mild antisemitism common to his social group and time," but then go on to state that an alleged commitment to meritocracy "made him more ready to accept able Jews as students and faculty." The Kellers acknowledge that under Conant Harvard restricted the number of Jewish students admitted and hired few Jewish professors, so the trend toward meritocracy was limited. Tuttle, while conceding that Conant publicly criticized the Hitler regime only for suppressing academic freedom, and "ignor[ed] other and related Nazi crimes," nonetheless praises him as "one of the more outspoken anti-Nazis in the United States from 1933 until World War II." This, however, was hardly the case.1 [End Page 189]

From 1933, when he assumed the presidency of America's oldest and most prestigious university, through 1937, Conant failed to speak out against Nazism on many occasions when it really mattered. He was publicly silent during the visit of the Nazi warship Karlsruhe to Boston in May 1934, some of whose crew Harvard entertained. He welcomed the high Nazi official Ernst (Putzi) Hanfstaengl to the June 1934 Harvard commencement. In March 1935, the Harvard administration permitted Nazi Germany's consul general in Boston to place a wreath bearing the swastika emblem in the university chapel. Conant sent a delegate from Harvard to the University of Heidelberg's 550th anniversary pageant in June 1936, and extended warm greetings to the Georg-August University in Goettingen on its two-hundredth anniversary in June 1937. In providing a friendly welcome to Nazi leader Hanfstaengl, President Conant and others prominently affiliated with Harvard communicated to the Hitler government that boycotts intended to destroy Jewish businesses, the dismissal of Jews from the professions, and savage beatings of Jews were not their concern. Conant's biographer, James Hershberg, trivialized Hanfstaengl's 1934 visit to Harvard by calling it "farcical"; it was, in fact, highly dangerous.2

President Conant remained publicly indifferent to the persecution of Jews in Europe and failed to speak out against it until after Kristallnacht, in November 1938. He was determined to build friendly ties with the Universities of Heidelberg and Goettingen, even though they had expelled their Jewish faculty members and thoroughly Nazified their curricula, constructing a "scholarly" foundation for vulgar antisemitism, which was taught as "racial science." The anniversary ceremonies in which Harvard participated, by sending a representative or friendly greetings, were simply brown shirt pageants designed to glorify the Nazi regime. James Hershberg admits that Conant "dignified a crudely Nazified spectacle," but ascribes his eagerness to do so to "fear of igniting controversy," rather than to insensitivity to Jewish suffering.3 Harvard...