When Adolf Hitler came to power in 1933, German universities immediately began a policy of “self-coordination” with their National Socialist masters.
In just a few months, 15 percent of the country’s university faculty members were dismissed. Most professors were fired for their political stances while several thousand scholars were eliminated for being Jewish.
For “The Betrayal of the Humanities: The University during the Third Reich,” released last fall, more than a dozen scholars contributed essays on the complicity of German universities before, during and after Nazi rule.
“Our book is an affirmation not only of the humanities but of the role of the university in protecting democratic values,” said co-editor Bernard M. Levinson, who holds the Berman Family Chair of Jewish Studies and Hebrew Bible at the University of Minnesota.
In 1933, as Albert Einstein preemptively renounced his German citizenship from Belgium, copies of his works were set ablaze across the Reich by the German Student Union. Heralding the “death of Jewish intellectualism,” the regime sought to remake the academy in its own image.
In an interview with The Times of Israel, Levinson said the preface of his book — which was co-edited by Robert P. Ericksen, chair of the Committee on Ethics, Religion, and the Holocaust at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum — was finalized on January 6, 2021: the day Congress was stormed.
“We wanted readers to see that an ancient and widespread ugly prejudice made it into the modern world, and that it needs to be skewered with intelligent and honest and scholarly investigation and demonstrate its horrible consequences,” Levinson told The Times of Israel.
While some of the disciplines in the book have been well-covered by historians — notably the legal profession — practitioners in subjects including archeology, music, and literature also aligned their fields of study with Nazi ideology.
Long before 1933, German scholars anticipated — and sometimes yearned for — the removal of Jews from society. Some political scientists and historians called for one-party rule, as seen in Mussolini’s Italy, while others bemoaned the Versailles Treaty’s “deathblow” to German society.
German historians, acting across all levels of education, helped build the “scientific foundation for discrimination against Jews and legitimizing of the Führer-state, with its National Socialist demands for a politics of expansion and increase in the soil of the Volk,” wrote the co-editors in their Introduction.
It is hard not to see some parallels between the period covered by the book and now
“It is hard not to see some parallels between the period covered by the book and now, with the resurgence of antisemitism, threats to democratic institutions, and restrictions placed on university curricula,” said Levinson, whose work earned him appointments to interdisciplinary institutes for advanced study in Jerusalem, Berlin, and Princeton.
“Perhaps our book can serve as a canary in a coal mine, reminding us of the fragility of democracy and the larger values of the university in preserving what matters,” said Levinson,
Levinson’s fascination with how German scholars “betrayed the humanities” traces back to his graduate studies, he said.
While Levinson was learning about the “history of scholarship” in the context of — for example — the dating of Deuteronomy, he had no understanding of the ideology that underpinned his studies.
“I had no sense of the larger significance of disciplinary history and the social location and embeddedness of the scholarly positions I was investigating,” said Levinson, an expert on the Bible’s role in western intellectual life.
“These matters are not part of the standard curriculum,” said Levinson.
“Betrayal of the Humanities” contains many examples of academic practitioners who aligned themselves with National Socialism, including about two dozen leading professors who received honorary or military appointments in the SS. A valuable chart in the index summarizes and documents that complicity.
In his essay on “Grapow, Egyptology, and National Socialist Initiatives,” Egyptology professor Thomas Schneider wrote about Nazi thinker and SS member Hermann Grapow, who peddled the concept of “white Africa” alongside other professors at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in Berlin. The Institute’s mission was to provide academic justification for Nazi racial theory, including eugenics.
Calling Africa below the Sahara “the Africa of negroes, Black Africa,” Grapow and his colleagues believed a blonde, north African “western race” should be considered part of Europe. Grapow also maintained that modern development was “destroying the preserved evidence of the white African past,” and he urged German scholars to validate his conclusions.
Praising Hitler as “the man of German destiny” who will lead “the second Frederician epoch of our history,” Grapow was part of “a network of high SS officials who propagated racist and expansionist ideologies,” wrote Schneider.
In his long association with the Nazis, Grapow wrote “study guides” for the SS and deployed “preemptive obedience” when his colleagues were purged. Halfway through the war, as the Wehrmacht swept through north Africa, his “white Africa” concept gained new immediacy.
Many individuals hid their past
After the war, very few academicians were held accountable for their role in legitimizing and advancing Nazi policies.
According to “Betrayal of the Humanities,” most Nazi-aligned professors considered themselves “double victims” of Hitler and subsequently the Allies’ “denazification” process. Simultaneously, the so-called “Heidegger myth” allowed the public (and former Nazi professors) to pin the blame on a handful of academics, including philosopher Martin Heidegger.
“The Führer himself and he alone is the German reality, present and future, and its law,” said Heidegger in an April 1933 speech at Freiburg University. Heidegger had just been elected head of the university, and he officially joined the Nazi party soon after.
Intoned Heidegger, “Study to know; from now on, all things demand decision, and all action responsibility. Hail Hitler!”
The focus on Heidegger and other high-profile offenders helped obscure the role played by thousands of German scholars across dozens of universities. This allowed “many individuals hiding their past [to be] let off the hook, but most of that happened among people who did not deny the reality of the Holocaust itself,” said Levinson.
With “Betrayal of the Humanities” completed on the heels of the US Capitol building attack, the closing section looks at similarities between the “self-coordination” by Nazi German universities and current events on campuses around the world.
In his essay, “Is there an anti-Jewish bias in today’s university,” Alvin H. Rosenfeld, professor of English and Jewish Studies at Indiana University, noted trends including “impatience with Holocaust memory and resentment toward the Jews for keeping such memory alive.”
Rosenfeld does not think we are seeing a “reprise” of the 1930s, but he is concerned about a “serious challenge to the core missions of the university,” including “free inquiry, discouraging attachments to every kind of intellectual or ideological bias or dogma, and searching out truths that reasonable people can agree are demonstrable and worthy of serious attention.”
The replacement of “the Jewish question” with “the Israel question,” wrote Rosenfeld, is one example of how some humanities practitioners are distorting or “recontextualizing” Holocaust history, including the allegation that Jews “exploit” the genocide to justify inflicting suffering on the Palestinians.
“The humanities do humanize,” said Rosenfeld, “but they can never do so if they are employed to dehumanize the Jews or anyone else.”
With Jewish students under assault on campuses across the United States, “Betrayal of the Humanities” demonstrates the role academicians can play in “validating” antisemitism and producing research to underpin genocidal worldviews.
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