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The real story of Nazi's Harvard visit

AT A conference on the Holocaust at Boston University last Sunday, Stephen H. Norwood, a historian at the University of Oklahoma, claimed that Harvard University was "complicit in enhancing the prestige of the Nazi regime" and cited the "welcome" given to the Nazi publicist Ernst Hanfstaengl when he attended his 25th reunion in 1934.

But a close examination of the Hanfstaengl affair reveals that the university and its president, James Bryant Conant, rejected Hanfstaengl's advances; it was Harvard students and alumni who embraced him. The real story is more shocking than Norwood's flawed reconstruction in revealing the common anti-Semitism of the time.

Ernst F. Sedgwick Hanfstaengl, known as "Putzi," was a popular member of the Harvard Class of 1909. He was a large, jolly fellow who wrote a song in the Hasty Pudding show his senior year. His father was a Munich art dealer and his mother a blue-blooded Bostonian. Young Hanfstaengl returned to Germany in 1921.

"A year later, I ran into the man who has saved Germany and civilization -- Adolf Hitler," he wrote in his 25th anniversary report. After the failed Beer Hall Putsch of 1923, Hitler hid at Hanfstaengl's villa outside Munich, and the two men collaborated on the Nazi marching song, "The German Storm." Hanfstaengl became Hitler's press secretary.

Looking toward his class reunion in 1934, Hanfstaengl decided to establish a scholarship for an outstanding Harvard student to study in Germany. He wrote to Conant on May 24, 1934. A few days later, at a Berlin bank, surrounded by reporters and photographers, he signed a bank draft for 2,500 marks, payable to Conant, and the news was flashed around the world.

Hanfstaengl put off leaving for the United States until the last moment, building suspense in the newspapers over whether he would actually attend his reunion. On his arrival in Harvard Square he was met by protesters carrying signs reading: "Give Hanfstaengl a degree, master of concentration camps," "Make him a master of torture," and "A bachelor of bookburning." He had no official role in the commencement except as a member of the class of 1909.

But the editors of the Crimson suggested that Harvard grant him an honorary degree as a representative "of a friendly country, which happens to be a great world power." There were indeed no Jews, blacks, or women on the Crimson editorial board in those days.

During the Class Day exercises in the stadium, Putzi gave a few Nazi salutes to his friends and at least one for a photographer. Five members of the class of 1919 marched across the field holding a sign reading, "Hanfstaengl for class president" and saluting Nazi-style. Several hundred members of the class of 1924 strutted in goose-step and saluted Nazi-style; they wore brown shorts and suspenders, white shirts, and dark green hats with feathers. A beer truck trailed them, dispensing foaming glasses of free beer. This was all done in "good humor."

Members of the class of 1928 wore blue-and-white jockeys' coats and caps above white trousers. Members of the class of 1931 wore bartenders' white jackets and aprons. J.P. Morgan, celebrating his 45th reunion, was photographed drinking beer. All this was duly reported in The New York Times.

In August 1934 Collier's Magazine published an article by Putzi describing the German Jews as "leeches feeding on the body politic" and extolling Hitler as the surgeon cutting off the dead branches of the tree which was Germany. In September the Harvard Corporation voted unanimously against accepting his offer of a scholarship. "We are unwilling to accept a gift from one who has been so closely identified with the leadership of a political party which has inflicted damage on the universities of Germany through measures which have struck at principles we believe to be fundamental to universities throughout the world," Conant wrote to Hanfstaengl.

Still the youthful editors of the Crimson defended the Nazi's offer. "That political theories should prevent a Harvard student from enjoying an opportunity for research in one of the world's greatest cultural centers is most unfortunate and scarcely in line with the liberal traditions of which Harvard is pardonably proud," they wrote. On campus there was a chapter of the Friends of the New Germany as well as various communist and Marxist organizations.

The next year the university awarded honorary degrees to the distinguished German refugees Albert Einstein and Thomas Mann. Conant himself was a brave early interventionist in regard to the European war, speaking out for aid to the Allies in 1939 over nationwide radio.

On the charge of coddling Nazis, Harvard University has nothing to apologize for. The blindness of many of its students and alumni to the Nazi threat unfortunately reflected general American attitudes.

Andrew Schlesinger is the author of the forthcoming book "Veritas: Harvard College and the American Experience." 

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