Author’s Note: The above photo of Guenther Thaer appeared in the Ithaca College Yearbook. Thaer was hired by both Cornell and Ithaca to teach German language and literature, even though both of these German faculties probably were aware of his extensive Nazi past through his publications. A copy of his application to teach says nothing about the books and articles he published in Germany, not to mention the art and book exhibitions he organized, in the 1930s and 1940s. Given the complete absence of scholarly credentials in his application, one wonders how they could possibly have justified hiring him. Someone must have hinted to the administrations that he did have scholarly credentials, but they were not the kind that should be mentioned.
In today’s climate, there is a ubiquitous tendency to view everything in terms of the present, as if the eliminationist anti-Semitism we are currently witnessing at American colleges and universities in general, and at elite institutions in particular, arose suddenly, just like Athena, fully formed, out of the head of Zeus without a long gestation period. In fact, the roots of fascism and anti-Semitism in American higher education run very deep, reaching back to the 1930s and earlier.
I am a professor of music theory and history at the University of North Texas. In the course of my research concerning the Finnish composer Jean Sibelius’s acceptance of an honorary doctorate from Heidelberg in 1936, I first became aware of the sympathies at American colleges and universities for the Nazi ideal. An affinity evidenced by their official participation in the Heidelberg Celebration organized by Goebbels. Sibelius—a Nazi sympathizer who had supported the Fascist IKL Party in Finland since 1930—conspicuously accepted an honorary doctorate at the same event (figure 1). The Nazis sought to exploit Sibelius’s fame by placing his name foremost on published lists of Nazi cultural awardees (see, for example, figure 2). A clear ploy to express the Party’s cultural affinities—the so-called Kulturvolk—rather than its barbarian character. I also noticed a number of American recipients alongside Sibelius’s name. Apparently, a significant group of American universities and colleges had sent official representatives. How did this come about?
Figure 1: Sibelius’s Nazi Honorary Doctorate, Sibelius Archive in the Finnish National Archives
Figure 2: List of Awardees of Honorary Doctorates, Newspaper, Volksgemeinschaft, Heidelberg City Archives
Because of the mass firings of Jewish professors and on-going reports of the perversion of science and learning at German universities, on February 2, 1936, Dr. Hensley Henson, the Anglican Bishop of Durham, wrote a letter to the Times of London calling for a boycott of the Heidelberg Celebration—an academic parallel to the 1936 Olympics organized by Goebbels—by all British universities and learned societies:
The essential solidarity of academic purpose, the broadly human interest of science, the supreme and universal claim of truth, the indispensableness of liberty in its pursuit—these are the postulates which govern the policy and practice of civilized universities, and, apart from their honest acceptance, no genuine academic fellowship can exist…. The demented nationalism of the Nazis and Fascists endangers not only the peace of the world, but also the ultimate franchises of self-respecting manhood. In the victimized minorities—religious, academic, racial, and political—humanity has its true champions. That is their claim to the homage and assistance of all who value liberty. It cannot be right that the universities of Great Britain, which we treasure as the very citadels of sound learning, because they are the vigilant guardians of intellectual freedom, should openly fraternize with the shameless enemies of both.
Bishop Henson’s call for a boycott initiated a debate deemed so important for consideration by American universities and colleges that it was immediately published in book form by Viking Press with the title Heidelberg and the Universities of America, with a foreword by Samuel Seabury, Charles C. Burlingham, Henry Stimson, and James F. Byrnes. All four men were influential—Stimson and Byrnes went on to become important members of the Roosevelt administration, Stimson as Secretary of War (1940–1945) and Byrnes as a key advisor to both Presidents Roosevelt and Truman. Stimson supported Roosevelt’s policies of bolstering England and France against Germany in 1939–1941 and containing Imperial Japanese expansion. Later, he was responsible for the Manhattan Project—urged by Einstein—to build the atomic bomb, and argued successfully for the Nuremberg War Crimes trials after Germany’s defeat.
Henson’s call for a boycott “went viral.” The administrations at a significant number of Ivies—including Harvard, Yale, Columbia, Vassar, and Cornell—had accepted the Heidelberg invitation routinely—thoughtlessly—only to be confronted with angry protests from some faculty, students, and alumni. An editorial titled “The Rumor Confirmed” in the Cornell Daily Sun of March 3, typifies the responses elicited by news of the acceptance of the Heidelberg invitation:
President Farrand has confirmed Cornell’s acceptance of the German invitation to attend the 550th anniversary of Heidelberg. He has further stated that he does not regard an exchange of courtesies between two institutions of learning as involving an expression of judgment as to the policies of the political regime in Germany or as to the attitude of the German government toward the universities of that country. We understand that the President is in a very difficult position. Having accepted the invitation without due consideration, he is, so to speak, between Scylla and Charybdis. He has chosen the course of reaffirming his former position. We feel he would be wiser and better serve the interests of the University by choosing the difficult path of retraction … It is argued that by being a party to this celebration Cornell will be honoring an institution of learning with a position of the greatest historical importance. We feel that the Heidelberg of the Hitler regime is no longer an institution of learning, and in honoring it we will not be honoring the Heidelberg of President Farrand’s student days, the Heidelberg that has for centuries stood as a prominent center of the best in culture and learning. No amount of sentiment or talk of tradition can excuse Nazi persecution of scholars and students. The Heidelberg of today is an illustration of the exorcism of academic freedom by Nazi censorship and repression.
But—shamefully—most American universities, including Cornell, crossed the picket line! Why? Firstly, money, namely financial support for faculty and student exchange programs and scholarships from both German–American and Nazified German sources, such as the Carl Schurz Foundation, the DAAD (Deutsche Akademische Austauschdienst, the “German Academic Exchange Service”), and wealthy German–American benefactors. Secondly, the influence of pro-Nazi and pro-fascist professors and students, especially in German departments. And, thirdly, the sway of some senior administrators who were themselves anti-Semitic, refusing to hire Jewish professors, whether they were “local” Jews or German–Jewish émigrés. Like Hamas’s Islamo–fascist ideology today, in the 1930s, Nazism had penetrated universities throughout the “civilized” world.
Regarding money—and the influence it could buy—in 1934, the Nazified German-based Carl Schurz Verein of the Hitler regime poured 60,000 RM (a very significant sum at that time)—half from Goebbels’ Propaganda Ministry and half from the Nazi Foreign Office—into the effort to influence American academe. Monies also flowed from the chemical conglomerate I.G. Farben (both the German parent company and its American subsidiary) to pay for academic exchanges, travel, and awards. Some Vassar alumni saw the promise of scholarships as a form of bribery, writing to their president, who had also accepted the invite,
Obviously, the invitation to the Heidelberg celebration is but a transparent ruse to get foreign universities to put their stamp of approval on education in the Third Reich. In the case of Vassar, the offer of six scholarships at Heidelberg cannot, in the circumstances, be regarded as anything but a bribe and as such an insult to the intellectual integrity of the college. In the interest of Vassar’s standing and its liberal tradition we cannot stand by and see the college used as a tool by political forces which deny the very existence of freedom of thought and speech for which Vassar and the American system of education stand in the eyes to the world.
The funding of Hamas support in American universities is the subject of ongoing investigation. A new report from the Network Contagion Research Institute (NCRI), correlates the huge contributions of billions of dollars between 2014 and 2019 to influential American colleges and universities—unrecorded by the U.S. Department of Education—by foreign authoritarian regimes, including Qatar, Saudi Arabia, China, and the UAE, “undermining democratic norms of pluralism, tolerance, and freedom, and the rise of anti-Semitism at the recipient institutions” (Carnegie Mellon received $1.47 billion, Cornell $1.29 billion, Harvard University $894 million, and MIT $859 million).
Returning to 1936, presidents at American universities and colleges who decided to send envoys to Heidelberg collaborated with Nazi authorities by sending professors who were known to be pro-Nazi or had exhibited clear signs of Nazi sympathies and anti-Semitism. Here are a few representative examples. Cornell President Farrand selected Albert W. Boesche, a professor of German, to participate in the Heidelberg Celebration. Boesche (1874–1973), a long time faculty member (1905–1942), was also closely associated with Professor Albert Bernhardt Faust (1870–1951), Chair of the German Department at Ithaca College, an outspoken Nazi sympathizer; on June 27, 1937, by which time most American universities and colleges—including Cornell—had finally cut ties with German universities, Faust traveled to Germany where he accepted his honorary doctorate from the University of Göttingen with a Hitler salute.
Harvard University selected as its representative George David Birkhoff (1884–1944), mathematician, Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and Perkins Professor of Mathematics. Einstein and mathematician Norbert Wiener (1904–1964), among others, accused Birkhoff of advocating anti-Semitic hiring practices. During the 1930s, when many Jewish mathematicians fled Europe and tried to find jobs in the U.S., Birkhoff is alleged to have influenced the hiring process at American institutions to exclude Jews.
Yale chose Hanns Oertel (1868–1952) as its delegate. German-born, he studied linguistics, comparative philology, and Vedic Sanskrit at Yale, completing his doctorate in 1890. From 1911 until 1921, he served as Dean of the Graduate School. In 1921, Oertel returned to Germany to teach at Marburg, and, in 1925, moved to the University of Munich until his retirement in 1935. An indicator of Oertel’s pro-Nazism is that he promoted Walter Wüst to assume his Munich chair; by lending Wüst his backing, Oertel supported one of the most virulent Nazi ideologues, a man described in Hitler’s newspaper, the Völkischer Beobachter, as “among the most loyal and dependable to the Führer”—a man who would soon also become the head of Himmler’s notoriously racist and anti-Semitic “Research Department,” the Ahnenerbe.
Columbia’s choice fell on Professor Arthur Frank Josephy Remy (1871–1954), Villard Professor of Germanic Philology, author of The Influence of India and Persia on the Poetry of Germany (1901). His selection was, as historian Stephen Norwood reports in The Third Reich and the Ivory Tower (2009), “also provocative. Remy had appeared as a speaker with Nazi Germany’s ambassador Hans Luther in December 1933 at an event in which the swastika flag was prominently displayed, the Steuben Society of America’s German Day commemoration. New York City’s mayor O’Brien had forbidden the use of a city armory for what he considered a Nazi propaganda celebration.”
The University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, sent two faculty delegates: Aloysius J. Gaiss (1895–1960), Professor of German, and Dewitt H. Parker (1885–1949), Professor of Philosophy. Norwood observes that “the University of Michigan student newspaper reported … Professor Gaiss was looking forward to the Heidelberg ceremonies ‘with great excitement.’ He declared that the presence of delegates from American colleges and universities would improve relations between the United States and Nazi Germany.” Indeed, American universities sought to build bridges with Nazified German universities. For example, on December 17, 1935, the Mitteilungen der Vereiningung Carl Schurz reported on the five-week study trip of a group of mathematics students from Columbia University under the direction of Professor William David Reeve (a professor of mathematics at the Teachers College): “Although the focus was also on our schools and their facilities, they were also seeking to gain insight into the most varied questions of our political, cultural, and social lives. The director of the America Institute, Dr. Bertling, who, as a member of the board of directors of the Vereinigung Carl Schurz greeted the guests for tea, recalled, looking back at the visit of the American group in Göttingen, the special connection of this university to the United States.” This American group of mathematicians had to ignore the fact that the Göttingen mathematics faculty recently had been gutted of precisely those men and women who had made it world famous, namely Emmy Noether (1882–1935), Hermann Weyl (1885–1955), Richard Courant (1888–1972), Otto Neugebauer (1899–1990), and Edmund Landau (1877–1938).
In fact, the connections of the Columbia Teachers College with Nazi Germany seem to have been especially cozy. Perhaps they were encouraged by its president Nicholas Murray Butler, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1931, who, quoted by Sally Denton, “encouraged college students to embrace totalitarianism, which produced ‘men of far greater intelligence, far stronger character and far more courage than the system of elections.’” Professors Richard Thomas Alexander (1887–1971), chairman of the Teachers College from 1932–38, and Peter William Dykema (1873–1951), professor and chair of the music education department at that Columbia institution from 1924 until his retirement in 1940, led groups of students for a series of study tours of the “New Germany.” The April 17, 1935 issue of the Carl Schurz Newsletter reports that Alexander was even given an office in the Carl Schurz House in Berlin from which to organize tours. The August 15, 1935 issue of the same publication enthused:
In honor of a group of fifty-five American music teachers who came to Germany under the leadership of Professor Dykema of Columbia University in New York for study visit, the Vereinigung Carl Schurz organized a tea reception in the garden of the Carl Schurz House, in which the president of the Reich Music Chamber, Professor Dr. Peter Raabe, and the director of the German Music Institute for Foreigners, Professor Dr. Schünemann, took part. … drawing on his personal experience, he [Raabe] closed with the wish that the exemplary open-mindedness and readiness to help that he himself had found in leading personalities in the United States in his own sphere of work would be everywhere extended between the two countries. Thereafter, Professor Dykema expressed the gratitude of the group. A series of American folksongs performed by the group were later transmitted via short wave radio to America.
Interestingly, the extensive biographies of both Alexander and Dykema published online by Wikipedia fail to mention their connections with Nazi Germany.
In Heidelberg, a group of American scholars marched in the procession shown in figure 3; we see the rector of Heidelberg University leading faculty from Heidelberg and foreign delegations in their academic regalia through the streets of the old town and giving the Nazi salute to the crowd. Figure 4, a photograph from the scrapbook of another American attendee shows the American academics in the procession entering the hall for the celebration surrounded by SS guards.
Figure 3: Procession of Heidelberg and Foreign Professors in Academic Regalia, Heidelberg City Archives
Figure 4: The American Delegation enters the venue for the awards ceremony, University of Milwaukee Archives
Another aspect of the problem concerns the post-war hiring of Nazis to teach in American institutions. Here, a single example related to my Sibelius research will have to suffice. In 1954, Cornell engaged Guenther Thaer to teach in its German department. I first became interested in Thaer because of his role in promoting Nazism in Finland, and his connection with Sibelius. In 1935, Reichsleiter Rosenberg asked Thaer to interview Sibelius and write about him for his magazine. Rosenberg arranged for him to help curate the German Art Exhibition in Helsinki and the Finnish Art Exhibition in Berlin, which Hitler visited, and a book exhibition in Finland foreseen for 1936. Around 1935 (and possibly earlier), along with the ardently pro-Nazi Finnish author Maila Talvio, Thaer began working on a German translation of the Finnish epic, the Kalevala. Thaer managed to interest Himmler in the project and secure a stipend to publish a complete translation under SS auspices; his main contact was Wolfram Sievers, hung in 1948 at Nuremberg for his part in human medical experiments on Jewish prisoners. Behind the scenes Himmler was thrilled. The aim was to prepare the German translation for release during the planned 1940 Olympic Games, to be published by Himmler’s above-mentioned Ahnenerbe. During this period, Thaer remained in touch with Sibelius.
Figure 5: Symposium of cultured pro-Nazi Germans and Finns, Nazi Radio Magazine Funke Stunde
Figure 5 above shows a “Symposium” of cultured pro-Nazi Germans and Finns, including, from left to right, Prof. Mikkola (husband of author and poet Talvio), Government Minister Oskari Mantere, the German Ambassador Hans Carl Büsing, Thaer (standing), the song composer Yrjö Kilpinen (1892–1952, an enthusiastic Nazi and the Finnish composer most admired by the Nazis after Sibelius; Kilpinen represented Sibelius in the Third Reich), Mrs. Hüsch (wife of the singer), poet and author Talvio, the Lapp poet V. E. Törmänen, baritone Gerhard Hüsch, and poet and playwright Arvi Kivimaa.
To signal the anti-Semitic animus of this illustrious group, Thaer reproduces a poster from the recent 1933 Finnish election, which shows a hammer with a Swastika upon it striking the head of a serpent, who is identified as Jewish by the Star of David. The caption reads in Finnish: “Workers, free yourselves from your oppressors.” On the Jewish snake’s body are engraved the words “macro-capitalism” and “Jewish power.” The notion of Jewish conspiracy to control world economics and politics appealed to many prominent Finns, including Pehr Evind Svinhufvud, who served as Finnish Prime Minister (1930–31) and President (1931–37).
During the war, in 1942, Thaer continued to produce pro-Nazi articles and books, including his selection of excerpts in German translation from Vidkun Quisling’s speeches and essays in a book bearing the title Quisling ruft Norwegen! [Quisling calls upon Norway!]. Characteristic chapter headings include such titles as, “Regeneration of the Nordic People,” “Regeneration of the Farmers and People,” “The Victorious Procession of National Socialism,” and “Democracy Falls to Pieces—a New Age Dawns.”
After the war, Thaer crossed the Atlantic on the M.S. Havörn, entering New York on August 15,1954, with one trunk, one parcel and four suitcases, and in September married his second, German–American wife, thereby legalizing his immigration to the United States. Thaer then found employment as a German instructor first at Cornell University (1956–1958) and also at Ithaca College, first as a lecturer, then an instructor; by 1964 he was promoted to assistant professor, retiring in 1965.
It is difficult to imagine, on account of his publications, that Thaer’s illustrious Nazi past was completely unknown to the chair and members of both the Cornell and Ithaca German Departments; rather, their willingness to let bygones be bygones probably reflects the fact that other long-time members of the faculty—like Boesche—had not only harbored Nazi sympathies, but had even actively participated in promoting Nazism in academe at Heidelberg with the support of Cornell’s President. This history of collaboration with and then toleration of Nazism and its concomitant anti-Semitism, it is perhaps less surprising that today so many distinguished American institutions of higher learning appear to be enthused with Islamo–fascism.
America is not an ordinary country—it is an “aspirational nation.” At its founding, it set itself certain ideals of equality and opportunity for its citizens, based upon Judeo-Christian values, which, in turn, consider the individual—rather than the group—to be of paramount importance. The focus on the individual—rather than the collective—distinguishes Judeo-Christian values and ethics from those of Fascism, Nazism, and Communism, all of which, by contrast, valorize the nation or state over the individual.
At its founding, America, as an aspirational nation, had to contend with the racist ideas and social practices of the 18th and 19th centuries, which were inimical to the value of the individual, especially slavery. I cannot rehearse here all the efforts made to bring real, practical life in America asymptotically closer to its founding ideals. The Civil War, which was fought in large part to eliminate slavery, was, in its expenditure of human life and treasure, by far the costliest war in American history. To our nation’s credit, it paid this heavy price to take a fundamental step toward the realization of its ideals. The Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, as defined by Dr. King, also brought us closer to creating a society with equal opportunity for all citizens, regardless of race. That being said, the solution to our problems is not to lie about our history, but to embrace it, warts and all, in order to correctly understand our attempt to reach our highest goals. As Bishop Henson wrote in his private diary in 1935, regarding the fact that all tendentious ideologies must censor the past, “Fascism has been obliged to dismiss the Past, or, when it remembers it, to slander history, which remains a silent but ever-mocking observer.” Henson, who had a remarkably accurate moral compass, spoke out not only against the persecution of the Jews, but also the abuse of native people in Peru, and Africans in 1912. After Mussolini invaded Ethiopia in 1935, Henson publicly asked,
In organizing the slave trade Europe inflicted on Africa a cruel and lasting injury. Is Abyssinia [Ethiopia] destined to stand in history as the occasion of another and not less ruinous wrong? Will the conquest of Abyssinia be, in the history of Africa, such a root of bitterness as the division of Poland was in that of Europe? Does the Moral Law count for nothing in the affairs of men?
“The Lord is known to execute judgment: the ungodly is trapped in the work of his own hands. For the poor shall not always be forgotten: the patient abiding of the meek shall not perish forever” (Psalms ix. 16, 18).
Photo of Thaer — Archivist at Ithaca College — 1958 College Yearbook