Inside StoryIn the 1930s, Harvard tried to keep out Jewish refugees

A century before Claudine Gay, Harvard helped Nazi Germany improve its image in the West

Research into ‘active collaboration’ between Harvard and Nazi Germany gains relevance as Harvard continues to frame antisemitic rhetoric on campus as freedom of speech

Reporter at The Times of Israel

Doctor Ernst 'Putzi' Hanfstaengl, formerly Press Chief for German Chancellor Adolf Hitler at his London home on July 7, 1937. (AP Photo/ Eddie Worth)
Doctor Ernst 'Putzi' Hanfstaengl, formerly Press Chief for German Chancellor Adolf Hitler at his London home on July 7, 1937. (AP Photo/ Eddie Worth)

Ninety years ago at Harvard University, campus administrators had what some historians call “friendly” relations with Nazi Germany.

Whether Harvard president Claudine Gay’s resignation was catalyzed by a plagiarism scandal or her much-criticized lack of response to calls for the genocide of Jewish students, the university already has a century-old history of repressed antisemitism, historian Rafael Medoff told The Times of Israel.

“What today’s Harvard administration has in common with its predecessor in the 1930s is its reluctance to reject an evil regime and its supporters,” said Medoff, director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies.

“In her recent congressional testimony, Gay’s instinctive response was to equivocate when asked about restricting those who advocate genocide of the Jews,” said Medoff.

“Now pro-Hamas non-university groups are being allowed to march on the Harvard campus,” said Medoff, whose center has researched the ties of American university leaders to Nazi Germany for two decades.

In the past few years, Harvard made efforts to atone for its history regarding slavery, including renaming buildings and erecting historical plaques. However, the university maintains a fellowship and professorship named for Alfried Krupp, a top Nazi industrialist.

Harvard President Claudine Gay, left, speaks as University of Pennsylvania President Liz Magill listens, during a hearing of the US House Committee on Education on Capitol Hill, December 5, 2023, in Washington. (AP Photo/ Mark Schiefelbein)

According to some critics, including the Institute for the Global Study of Antisemitism and Policy, Harvard’s response to antisemitism cannot be disconnected from billions of dollars that Mideast regimes — some of them totalitarian — have donated to Harvard in recent decades. Top donors include Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Qatar, where Hamas leaders are said to be hiding.

On December 27, a prominent international partner of the school — the Lauder Business School in Vienna, Austria — severed ties with Harvard “in solidarity with the Jewish student community,” according to a statement.

‘Putzi’ returns to Harvard

In a 1934 editorial, Harvard Crimson student journalists spoke out in favor of hosting top Nazi and former Harvard man, Ernst F.S. Hanfstaengl.

Nicknamed “Putzi,” Hanfstaengl was Hitler’s foreign press chief and graduated from Harvard in 1909. The Crimson editorial was published when the Nazis had been in power for a year and issued enabling laws for Hitler to be Germany’s dictator.

Ernst ‘Putzi’ Hanfstaengl (right) returns to Harvard in 1934 for his 25th reunion (public domain)

“If Herr Hanfstaengl is to be received at all, it should be with the marks of honor appropriate to his high position in the government of a friendly country… a great world power,” wrote the editors.

At the time, Harvard administrators said the decision to invite Hanfstaengl was made by an alumni group and not the university. However, op-eds in the Crimson demonstrate students and faculty alike welcomed Hanfstaengl’s visit to Cambridge for his reunion.

Hanfstaengl arrived to Harvard in June 1934, attending receptions given in his honor at the homes of alumni and top administrators, including the president.

“Many of Hanfstaengl’s fellow alumni seem to have regarded the affair as a joke, turning his visit into the central theme of the parade,” wrote historian Peter Conradi.

“According to contemporary accounts, some participants goose-stepped their way around the stadium in Bavarian peasant costumes. Hanfstaengl was cheered when he gave a Nazi salute to several friends in the crowd,” wrote Conradi, author of “Hitler’s Piano Player: The Rise and Fall of Ernst Hanfstaengl.”

In Harvard Yard on the day of Hanfstaengl’s visit, several students were arrested for protesting Nazism and Hanfstaengl’s welcome back to campus.

“Seven were found guilty of disturbing the peace and sentenced to six months hard labor in the Middlesex House of Correction. Six of the seven were pardoned after just one month, however, immediately becoming Harvard heroes,” wrote Conradi.

British Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald chats with Doctor Ernst ‘Putzi’ Hanfstaengl, Press Chief for German Chancellor Adolf Hitler and a delegate from Berlin, at the opening of the World Economic Conference in the Geological Museum, London on June 12, 1933. (AP Photo)

‘Important encouragement to Hitler’

Harvard’s president from 1909-1933, A. Lawrence Lowell, did not mince words when he told a friend that “blood will be spilled” if American Jews did not learn to assimilate.

In 1922, Lowell proposed a quota on Jews admitted into Harvard wherein no more than 15% of the student body would be Jewish. The measure was not formally implemented but was favored by President James B. Conant, who succeeded Lowell in 1933. [Many American universities maintained quota systems until after World War II.]

Harvard’s last pre-Hitler president, A. Lawrence Lowell (public domain)

Today, Lowell House is an undergraduate residence on campus, while the college’s dazzling Lowell Lecture Hall was renamed to honor the Jewish quota-supporting Harvard president in 1959.

When Lowell passed the baton of leadership to Conant in 1933, the latter made a clear choice to support the Nazis, said Medoff.

For example, Harvard sent a high-profile delegate to the University of Heidelberg for celebrations on the heels of the university purging all of its Jewish faculty. Oxford and Cambridge, for their part, declined to send delegates, demonstrating the agency of higher education institutions to protest Nazism before World War II.

“[Harvard] contributed to Nazi Germany’s efforts to improve its image in the West,” wrote historian Stephen Norwood in his book, “The Third Reich in the Ivory Tower: Complicity and Conflict on American Campuses.”

“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,” Norwood wrote.

Conant “was not just silent” about antisemitism, said Norwood, but “actively collaborated in it.”

In May 1934, Conant was publicly mute during the visit of the Nazi warship Karlsruhe to Boston, some of whose crew members were entertained at Harvard.

The next year, Conant permitted Nazi Germany’s top diplomat in Boston to place a wreath bearing the swastika in a Harvard chapel, according to Norwood.

Throughout the 1930s, Harvard tried to keep out Jewish refugees — and especially Jewish professors — as demonstrated in research on European scholars who attempted to flee Hitler.

Conant did not speak out against Nazism until after the Kristallnacht pogrom in November 1938. Three years had passed since the Nuremberg race laws stripped German Jews of citizenship.

This student is shown reading a bulletin board announcement of a meeting November 16, 1938 at Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass., which met to denounce wild persecution of Jews in Germany. (AP Photo/Fox)

‘Everybody was doing it’

In response to Norwood’s book, published in 2004, Harvard issued a rebuke declaring former president Conant maintained “consistent opposition” to National Socialism.

“The University was then and is now repulsed by everything that Hitler represents, and the specter of Nazism rightly inspires horror and revulsion to this day,” Harvard spokesman Joe Wrinn said in 2004.

However, Norwood pointed to examples of Conant building personal relationships with Nazi university leaders across academic disciplines, including those involved in race sciences.

Harvard president James B. Conant (public domain)

“Conant 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,'” wrote Norwood.

Conant was far from the only Harvard man to be inspired by Hitler’s new Reich.

In 1934, the dean of Harvard’s law school, Roscoe Pound, toured Germany and Austria and wrote favorably of Hitler’s leadership. Pound noted Hitler’s potential to reign in “agitator” groups that plagued Germany in the liberal Weimar years.

In his book, Norwood highlighted the agency and influence held by American university presidents during the lead-up to World War II.

“The excuse that ‘everybody was doing it’ in the 1930s is not impressive,” said Medoff.

“Williams College ended its student exchanges with Nazi Germany; British universities refused to participate in events at Nazi-controlled universities; and the New School for Social Research welcomed Jewish refugee scholars. Harvard made a choice — it chose the wrong side,” said Medoff.

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