American Universities and the Nazis:

Inside Higher Ed has a story about controversy surrounding what strikes me as a curious book, The Third Reich and the Ivory Tower. I only glanced at the book, but according to the story, the book documents the fact that American universities maintained cordial ties with German universities and in some cases the German government until Kristallnacht in 1938.

What I find curious about this book is that while Germany from 1933 through 1938 treated Jews very badly, it wasn’t until Kristallnacht that one could say that Germany was more vicious in its treatment of minorities than, say, Mississippi. American universities certainly weren’t boycotting Mississippi, so it strikes me as an obvious issue of hindsight bias to argue that American universities that were exceedingly tolerant of domestic racism should be specifically excoriated for paying little attention to foreign anti-Semitism, just because in historical retrospect we know that German anti-Semitism led to the Holocaust. Not to mention that universities have generally (and usually properly) tried to stay out of political causes, absent extreme circumstances.

Of course, to the extent individuals in universities were sympathetic to the Nazis and their aims, and the book apparently discusses such individuals, they deserve individual condemnation, as do the likely much greater number of Stalinists who populated American academia. But substitute Communist for Nazi and Russian for German in the following sentence, and you will likely accused of promoting McCarthyism and anti-Communist hysteria, even though Stalin had killed far (far!) more people by 1938 than had Hitler: “but what is most alarming about the case is the administration’s indifference to having an all-[Communist] [Russian] department at NJC, and the Rutgers’ trustees’ obvious hostility to committed opponents of [Communism].”

According to IHE, the author “criticizes American Catholic universities for keeping up friendly relations with Benito Mussolini’s Fascist government, and also for their support of the Fascist General Francisco Franco in Spain.” So universities are never supposed to have any relationships with dictatorships? Shall we cancel the visas of the thousands of Chinese students currently in the U.S.? What should we do about the many Latin American Studies professors, indeed populating entire departments, who are favorably inclined toward Castro? (BTW, given that the Spanish Republicans murdered around 7,000 priests and nuns, it’s not surprising that Catholic universities, run by priests, preferred Franco.)

So, to sum up, I think (1) it’s a curious feature of the U.S. that we like to focus on how Americans dealt with evil foreigners while we are much more reluctant to discuss how dealt with our own evils; (2) Nazi Germany had proven itself quite evil before 1938, but few people, including even many Nazis, anticipated what was to come, and it’s unfair to treat people’s reactions to Nazi Germany circa 1935 as if it they knew what Nazi Germany was going to be doing circa 1943–there’s a big difference between various forms of official anti-Semitic harassment (though that was bad enough), which many, including many German Jews, thought or hoped was a passing phase as the Nazis consolidated power, and genocide. Fascist Italy and Franco’s Spain were rather unremarkable dictatorships, and to argue that universities should have cut ties with them would mean that universities should cut ties with any dictatorship; and (3) it remains true that in most intellectual circles, even a whiff of cooperation with the Nazis identifies one as a bad person, but overt Stalinists are not only forgiven but often celebrated. (See, e.g., Paul Robeson, I.F. Stone, the Hollywood Ten. Bard College still has a professorship named for Stalinist Soviet spy Alger Hiss!)

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