columbia University invited a representative of the world’s most anti-Semitic regime to speak on its campus. This week’s news? Try 1933.
Seventy years before this week’s invitation to Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Columbia rolled out the red carpet for a senior official of Adolf Hitler’s regime. The invitation to Iran’s leader may seem less surprising, but no less disturbing, when one recalls that in 1933, Columbia president Nicholas Murray Butler invited Nazi Germany’s ambassador to the United States, Hans Luther, to speak on campus, and also hosted a reception for him. Luther represented "the government of a friendly people," Butler insisted. He 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. Students who criticized the Luther invitation were derided as "ill-mannered children" by the director of Columbia’s Institute of Arts and Sciences.
The Luther visit, and Columbia’s other efforts to maintain friendly relations with Nazi Germany in the 1930s, have been documented in new research by Stephen Norwood of the University of Oklahoma, who is completing a book on the American academic community’s response to Nazism.
While Williams College terminated its program of student exchanges with Nazi Germany, Columbia and other universities declined to do likewise. Columbia refused to pull out even after a German official candidly asserted that his country’s students were being sent abroad to serve as "political soldiers of the Reich."
In 1936, the Columbia administration announced it would send a delegate to Nazi Germany to take part in the 550th anniversary celebration of the University of Heidelberg. This 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. Arthur Remy, a professor who served as Columbia’s delegate to the Heidelberg event, later remarked that the reception at which chief book-burner Josef Goebbels presided was "very enjoyable."
"Academic relationships have no political implications," President Butler claimed. Many Columbia students and faculty members disagreed, Norwood notes. More than 1,000 of them, including Nobel laureate Harold Urey and world-renowned anthropologist Franz Boas, signed a petition opposing the decision to participate in Heidelberg. The student newspaper, The Spectator, also opposed it. Students held a "Mock Heidelberg Festival" on campus, complete with a bonfire and mock book-burning. "Butler Diddles While the Books Burn," their signs proclaimed.
That was followed by a student rally in front of Butler’s mansion. Butler was furious that a leader of the rally, Robert Burke, "delivered a speech in which he referred to the president [Butler] disrespectfully." As punishment, Burke was expelled from Columbia. He was never readmitted, even though he had excellent grades and had been elected president of his class, and even though Columbia’s own attorney later acknowledged that "the evidence that Burke himself used bad language is slight."
Eventually, in the late 1930s, Butler would change his position and speak out against the Nazis. Unfortunately, it was too late to undo the damage he already had done by helping to legitimize the Hitler regime.
As Norwood has found, Columbia was not the only prominent U.S. university to behave shamefully with regard to the Nazis. Harvard hosted a visit by Hitler’s foreign press spokesman, Ernst "Putzi" Hanfstaengl. American University chancellor Joseph Gray visited and praised Nazi Germany. MIT Dean Harold Lobdell personally tore down posters for a rally against a Nazi warship docked in Boston’s harbor, and MIT participated in a 1937 celebration at the Nazi-controlled University of Goettingen. Yale, Princeton, Bryn Mawr, and others continued student exchanges with Nazi Germany into the late 1930s, and more than ‘0 U.S. colleges and universities took part in the 1936 Heidelberg event.
But Columbia is unique in one important respect. Its administration alone seemed to have learned so little from the mistakes of the 1930s that it was prepared to welcome the leader of yet another anti-Semitic, terrorist regime.
According to Israel’s ambassador, inviting Ahmadinejad to speak is the equivalent of "inviting Hitler to [speak] in the 1930s," because "appeasing fanatics and granting them legitimacy leads to genocide and war." Will some future Columbia president one day look back at the invitation to Ahmadinejad and say the same thing?
Rafael Medoff is director of the Pennsylvania-based David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies.