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Harvard's stance on Nazis questioned

Historian calls '30s record 'shameful'

Harvard University maintained friendly relations with Nazi Germany long after Americans became aware of the persecution of the Jews during the 1930s, and after some academic leaders had taken stands against the Nazis, according to a historian who will present his findings at a conference on the Holocaust at Boston University today.

Despite the school's portrayal of itself in official records as clearly anti-Nazi, a new paper by Stephen H. Norwood says Harvard had a much more ambiguous relationship with Adolf Hitler's regime in the mid-1930s. Harvard welcomed one of Hitler's closest deputies to campus for his reunion in 1934, sent delegates to celebrate the University of Heidelberg's anniversary in 1936 -- after the German university had purged all its Jewish professors and students -- and passed up numerous opportunities to help Jewish refugee scholars, according to Norwood, a professor at the University of Oklahoma.

''Harvard was involved in active steps that helped legitimate the Nazi regime in the West," Norwood said in an interview Friday. ''Harvard was among the worst [universities], and its record was shameful and unjustifiable."

Harvard officials dispute Norwood's conclusions, which he will present today in a research paper titled, ''Legitimating Nazism: Harvard University and the Hitler Regime."

''The university was then and is now repulsed by everything that Hitler represents," a Harvard spokesman said in a statement.

After Norwood's findings were described by a Globe reporter, Harvard officials said they were unfamiliar with some of the material, much of which comes from documents gathered from archives around the country.

In some cases, Harvard agrees with Norwood's facts but not with his interpretation, saying that he has mischaracterized the motives of school leaders or blamed the institution for the acts of individual students and professors whose views were common in their day.

The organizers of today's conference say they sent Harvard President Lawrence H. Summers a detailed summary of Norwood's paper, and that Summers declined to speak at the event. A spokesman said he had a scheduling conflict.

Norwood, author of books on labor history and co-editor of a forthcoming encyclopedia of American Jewish history, is writing a book about American universities' responses to the Nazis, and was asked to speak about Harvard by the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies in Pennsylvania, sponsors of today's conference. He says many elite institutions maintained unseemly relationships with Nazi institutions. But he said Harvard had a particular responsibility. ''Harvard could have helped influence public opinion toward greater sympathy for admitting refugees," Norwood said, referring to America's refusal to admit any sizable number of Jews fleeing German persecution.

In contrast, the president of Williams College terminated relations with German universities, and New York University Chancellor Harry Woodburn Chase said in 1934 that it was the duty of all ''teachers, scientists and men of letters" to ''resist with all their power" Nazi higher education policies.

Norwood singles out for criticism former Harvard President James Bryant Conant, famous for developing Harvard's core curriculum and establishing a more meritocratic admissions policy for a school once reserved for the wealthy elite. Conant is officially remembered on Harvard's archival website as ''an outspoken critic of Nazi Germany."

But Norwood said that Conant criticized the Nazi regime only after coming under withering criticism from both inside and outside Harvard, and that his private correspondences revealed anti-Semitism.

In one letter that Norwood found in Conant's papers, the former president was asked by the chemical company DuPont whether it should hire Max Bergmann, a world renowned chemist who had lost his job in Germany. Conant, himself a chemist, replied that Bergmann was ''certainly very definitely of the Jewish type -- rather heavy," and had ''none of the earmarks of genius."

Harvard spokesman Joe Wrinn was unfamiliar with the Bergmann letter, but relying on Conant's autobiography, other books, and university archives, he said, ''Everything we have seen in the official record shows a consistent public opposition of the university and Conant to the Nazi cause."

Central to Norwood's research is the 1934 visit of Ernst ''Putzi" Hanfstaengl, Hitler's foreign press secretary and one of his earliest backers. Hanfstaengl, who graduated from Harvard in 1909, was there for his 25th reunion, and he was surrounded by admiring classmates and their children, Norwood said. He also attended a reunion tea at Conant's house.

Although the United States maintained strained diplomatic relations with Nazi Germany, by the time of Hanfstaengl's visit, the anti-Semitic character of the Nazi regime was well known. Jewish scholars had been purged from German universities, Jewish businesses boycotted, and Jews beaten in the street.

Hanfstaengl's visit galvanized 2,000 protesters to show up in Harvard Square, according to a book about Hanfstaengl quoted recently in Harvard Magazine. Norwood said Boston newspapers reported that Harvard police tore down anti-Nazi fliers during commencement, and seven protesters were sentenced to six months hard labor for civil disobedience.

Conant came under pressure from professors, students, and activists to intervene on behalf of the protesters. In one letter, he called their sentences needlessly harsh, but expressed an unwillingness to intervene. The Crimson, Harvard's student newspaper, did report that Conant asked for clemency, but Norwood said his documents show Conant would only have done so reluctantly.

Conant later refused two attempts by Hanfstaengl to donate to Harvard. ''I was convinced that Hitler's henchmen were trying to use Harvard as an American base to spread approval of the Nazi regime," Conant wrote in his autobiography, which also said he was ''cold" when Hanfstaengl attended the tea at his house.

Norwood counters that the book was written in 1970, decades after public revelation of the Holocaust made anti-Nazism the only acceptable position. He also criticizes the Crimson, which he says was a bastion of elite anti-Semitism. The newspaper called on Harvard to give Hanfstaengl an honorary degree, ''appropriate to his high position in the government of a friendly country."

Norwood said that in 1934, the Karlsruhe, a German battle cruiser, visited Boston. Some of the crew members were entertained at Harvard, and some professors attended a banquet for the officers and crew at the Copley Plaza Hotel that featured stirring defense of Hitler's government. Wrinn said the university should not be held responsible for the actions of individual professors or students.

In 1936, Norwood said, Harvard sent a delegate to the University of Heidelberg's 550th anniversary celebration, which Norwood called a thoroughly Nazi affair, with Joseph Goebbels and Heinrich Himmler participating.

Conant wrote in his autobiography that he considered refusing the invitation, but concluded: ''Even if one despised the regime in power, should not one be ready to build a scholarly bridge between two nations?"

Charles S. Maier, a leading Harvard historian, said he could not judge Norwood's findings without reading his paper, and that he is not an expert on Harvard's response to the Nazis. But he said many institutions struggled over their relationships with Germany in the 1930s.

''There is an argument that one maintains channels of communication with people who need some support against the forces of the regime," he said. ''The question is, when are you going to say 'No more?' "

Norwood said he hopes Harvard decides to take a close look at his findings, which he believes are still relevant today. ''There are disturbing trends in a number of American universities today with speakers who present anti-Semitic views," he said. ''Often people in positions of influence don't take principled stands against that."

Marcella Bombardieri can be reached at

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