While Harvard students lament pending restrictions on their already lackluster social lives in light of the 121st Yale-Harvard bout, a controversy is brewing over a stain in that university’s past that should more seriously trouble their collective conscience.
According to a recently delivered historical paper by Oklahoma University professor Stephen H. Norwood, Harvard University and its newspaper of record, The Crimson, took a series of actions in the 1930s — unparalleled in academia — that lauded the Third Reich as a force for good in the world.
In 1936, after the passage of the Nuremberg laws and the eviction of Jewish professors and students from German universities, Harvard sent representatives to attend the 550th anniversary celebration of the University of Heidelberg (the site of a book-burning), where Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels and Gestapo Chief Heinrich Himmler sat in attendance. That same year, Albert Einstein refused to attend Harvard’s tercentenary because of the university’s affiliation with the Nazis. One notorious incident was Harvard’s welcoming of Nazi propagandist Ernst Franz Sedgwick Hanfstaengl (Harvard Class of 1909, varsity crew, football cheerleader, Hasty Pudding performer) back to campus for his 25th reunion in 1934. Hanfstaengl attended a tea at Harvard President James Bryant Conant’s home and was feted by the university’s most prominent alumni. Harvard police tore down anti-Nazi posters when demonstrators, whom Conant labeled “ridiculous,” descended upon Cambridge to protest Hanfstaengl’s visit. Most offensive, however, was that The Crimson had the audacity to recommend Hanfstaengl for an honorary degree and lauded his homeland as a “great and proud nation.”
These are just a handful of incidents recounted in Professor Norwood’s paper, presented at an academic conference at Boston University two weeks ago to which Harvard refused to send a delegate.
Rather than own up to the actions of its predecessors, The Crimson has instead tried to whitewash its role in these events and attack Professor Norwood’s motives. In a Nov. 18 editorial titled, “Singling Out Harvard,” The Crimson let loose with a series of equivocations, cynically prevaricating about “seemingly tenuous links” between Harvard and the Nazis. The most they would concede was that Norwood’s allegations about Conant’s pro-Nazi sympathies “may be right” and that Norwood is “probably on point” with regard to the anti-Semitic attitudes of Harvard faculty and students at the time.
The Crimson most objected to Norwood’s selecting their dear Harvard for rebuke, going so far as to impugn the professor’s character by voicing suspicion of his “ulterior motives in singling out Harvard for criticism.” For this, Norwood’s paper “smacks of opportunism,” The Crimson sneered. As for contrition, the most The Crimson has done is chalk up Harvard’s previous support for Nazism to a “sad fact of history” and deflect any historical responsibility by essentially claiming, “Everyone else did it.” That excuse did not work with my kindergarten teacher and it certainly does not work in the real world. In an ironic twist of history, it’s a coy variation on the “I was only following orders” bit.
If Harvard’s actions in the 1930s were bad, its response to the current allegations is even worse, considering what we now know of the extent to which Americans were aware of Nazi oppression at the time. In an interview last week, Professor Norwood told me, “What disappoints me about the current Crimson is this kind of flip dismissal of all of this. There’s no depth of feeling here. They don’t seem to understand what all of this led to.”
But not only is The Crimson’s claim of “everyone else did it” craven, it is just plain wrong. Norwood told The Boston Globe that “Harvard was among the worst [universities], and its record was shameful and unjustifiable.” Williams College and New York University, for example, were both early critics of the Nazi regime and encouraged other schools to end all relations with German counterparts. But even if Harvard’s behavior were typical of the time, which it was not, this would not excuse the university’s reprehensible behavior.
No serious critic is attempting to tar the current institution with the brush of Nazi sympathies. Yet in obfuscating their own history and refusing to fully confront their past, both Harvard and The Crimson sully their own reputations. Harvard’s arrogance has now moved beyond being just an offensive trait to an unconscionably immoral one.
Harvard wants it both ways. Just last week The Crimson patted itself on the back by boasting that “The Times’ Higher Education Supplement just ranked Harvard the best university in the world.” It wants to be “singled out” as the world’s pre-eminent institution of higher learning, yet refuses to suffer the appropriate consequences when it makes grievous mistakes. A price comes with being a part of the elite, and that’s a higher standard of judgment for one’s behavior. We rightfully expect more of our leaders because they profess to be the bearers of the public trust. My high school headmaster used to tell his students that, “To whom much is given, much is expected,” and as Harvard students have been given much, the consequences of their actions, or inaction, thus carry a heavier burden. This lesson must not be lost on those affiliated with Harvard, Yale or any other of the nation’s top schools.
Professor Norwood, a professor of Judaic Studies, glumly commented to me that, “As we move farther away from the Holocaust, all of this gets more and more remote to people.” It is so remote in the collective mind of Harvard University that the institution and its students are more concerned with protecting their reputation than fully acknowledging Harvard’s past. In bitterly accusing its accuser of “singling” Harvard out, The Crimson has taken the last refuge of cowards.
James Kirchick is a sophomore in Pierson College. He is an occasional columnist.