The Third Reich in the Ivory Tower: Complicity and Conflict on American Campuses

Americans today assume that higher education is a bastion of liberal thought. Stephen H. Norwood’s excellent monograph, The Third Reich in the Ivory Tower, offers critical historical perspective on that assumption with a sobering portrait of American academic indifference toward Nazi racism and violence, and even sympathy with fascism, in the years leading up to World War II.

The author begins by describing American journalists’ reports of violence, racism, and anti-intellectualism in Nazi Germany during the 1930s. Those news reports inspired many American Jews and some sympathetic non-Jews to organize mass protests and pageants and to boycott German-manufactured goods and travel to Germany to oppose the Nazi regime.

Using university archives and college newspapers as his chief sources, Norwood then contrasts those protests against Nazism with the profound lack of concern about Nazi atrocities and anti-intellectualism at schools such as Harvard University, Columbia University, and the Seven Sister colleges. Rather than joining protests against the Adolf Hitler regime, most administrators, professors, and students at those schools were primarily interested in maintaining good relationships with German universities. Administrators and faculty members maintained exchange programs that sent American students to Nazified German universities and to the homes of committed Nazi families throughout the 1930s, while visiting exchange students from Germany were allowed to propagate pro-Nazi sentiment on American campuses. Ivy League colleges invited Nazi speakers to campus and sent delegates from their schools to participate in celebrations and pageants that legitimized the Nazi regime. The Kristallnacht pogrom in 1938 led to increased activism on U.S. college campuses against Nazi violence, Norwood argues, but it was still mostly students who actively protested, not administrators or faculty.

Perhaps the best portion of the book is Norwood’s pointed comparison of Harvard and Columbia universities. Both universities were led by presidents who harbored anti-Semitic beliefs (James Bryant Conant at Harvard and Nicholas Murray Butler at Columbia). However, Columbia had a larger number of Jewish and working-class students, and it was located in New York City—a center of anti-Nazi protests. Thus Butler’s administration was forced occasionally to make concessions to Columbia students’ activism against Nazism.

Third Reich in the Ivory Tower suffers somewhat from its incomplete context. For example, Norwood talks little about elitism and racism in higher education in the years before World War II, although such a discussion might contextualize academic responses to the Nazi regime in the 1930s. Then, too, the context that Norwood does provide—of prominent non-Jews publicly expressing outrage at the atrocities committed against German Jews in the 1930s—is a bit overemphasized. Much of America remained silent in the face of Nazi atrocities against Jews. The frightening story that Third Reich in the Ivory Tower illustrates is not that educated academics sympathized with Nazis while American laypeople opposed the Nazi regime and sympathized with Jews’ victimization in Germany during the 1930s. Instead, the book illustrates that higher education, for the most part, reflected a larger cultural environment of anti-Semitism and indifference throughout the United States during that era.

Kirsten Fermaglich
Michigan State University
East Lansing, Michigan