Rafael Medoff: Columbia “Invites Hitler to Campus” --As it Did in 1933

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Dr. Medoff is director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, www.WymanInstitute.org)]

Columbia University has invited a representative of the world’s most antisemitic regime to speak on its campus.  This week’s news?  Try 1933.

Seventy years before this week’s invitation to Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Columbia rolled out the red carpet for a senior official of Adolf Hitler’s regime. The invitation to Iran’s leader may seem less surprising, but no less disturbing, when one recalls that in 1933, Columbia president Nicholas Murray Butler invited Nazi Germany’s ambassador to the United States, Hans Luther, to speak on campus, and also hosted a reception for him.  Luther represented "the government of a friendly people," Butler insisted. He was "entitled to be received ... with the greatest courtesy and respect."  Ambassador Luther's speech focused on what he characterized as Hitler's peaceful intentions.  Students who criticized the Luther invitation were derided as “ill-mannered children” by the director of Columbia’s Institute of Arts and Sciences.

Columbia also insisted on maintaining friendly relations with Nazi-controlled German universities.  While Williams College terminated its program of student exchanges with Nazi Germany, Columbia and other universities declined to do likewise.  Columbia refused to pull out even after a German official candidly asserted that his country’s students were being sent abroad to serve as “political soldiers of the Reich.”

In 1936, the Columbia administration announced it would send a delegate to Nazi Germany to take part in the 550th anniversary celebration of the University of Heidelberg.  This, despite the fact that Heidelberg already had been purged of Jewish faculty members, instituted a Nazi curriculum, and hosted a burning of books by Jewish authors.  Prof. Arthur Remy, who served as Columbia’s delegate to the Heidelberg event, later remarked that the reception at which chief book-burner Josef Goebbels presided was “very enjoyable.”

"Academic relationships have no political implications," President Butler claimed.  Many Columbia students and faculty members disagreed.  More than one thousand of them, including Nobel Laureate Harold Urey and world-renowned anthropologist Franz Boas, signed a petition opposing the decision to participate in Heidelberg.  The student newspaper, The Spectator, also opposed it.  Students held a "Mock Heidelberg Festival" on campus, complete with a bonfire and mock book burning.  "Butler Diddles While the Books Burn," their signs proclaimed. 

That was followed by a student rally in front of Butler's mansion.  Butler was furious that a leader of the rally, Robert Burke, "delivered a speech in which he referred to the President [Butler] disrespectfully."  As punishment, Burke was expelled from Columbia.  He was never readmitted, even though he had excellent grades and had been elected president of his class, and even though Columbia’s own attorney later acknowledged that “the evidence that Burke himself used bad language is slight.”

Eventually, in the late 1930s, Butler would change his position and speak out against the Nazis.  Unfortunately, it was too late to undo the damage he already had done by helping to legitimize the Hitler regime. 

As Prof. Stephen Norwood of the University of Oklahoma has found in his research on the academic community’s response to Hitler in the 1930s, Columbia was not the only prominent U.S. university to behave shamefully with regard to the Nazis.  Harvard hosted a visit by Hitler’s foreign press spokesman, Ernst “Putzi” Hanfstaengl.  American University chancellor Joseph Gray visited and praised Nazi Germany.  MIT Dean Harold Lobdell personally tore down posters for a rally against a Nazi warship docked in Boston’s harbor, and MIT participated in a 1937 celebration at the Nazi-controlled University of Goettingen.  Yale, Princeton, Bryn Mawr, and others continued student exchanges with Nazi Germany into the late 1930s, and more than twenty U.S. colleges and universities took part in the 1936 Heidelberg event.

But Columbia is unique in one important respect.  Its administration alone seems to have learned so little from the mistakes of the 1930s that it is prepared to     welcome the leader of yet another antisemitic, terrorist regime.

According to Israel’s ambassador, inviting Ahmadinejad to speak is the equivalent of “inviting Hitler to [speak] in the 1930s,” because “appeasing fanatics and granting them legitimacy leads to genocide and war.”  Will some future Columbia president one day look back at the invitation to Ahmadinejad and say the same thing?
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Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

This article is a load of scaremongering bunk. The parallel to the 1930s is too idiotic for words. Go to the front pages of any news website to read how the Columbian President today dressed down the Iranian baboon and showed the world how a civilized country proud and confident of its traditions and values responds to a slimly foreign demagogue. If the White House and Congress had been staffed by persons of Bollinger's courage, moral consistency, and vision, instead of the third-rate tricksters, hypocrites, and hopelessly incompetent spineless spin-machines that have dominated them over the past 6 years, America would be facing far fewer Ahmadinejads today and in future years.

Susan Cohen - 10/2/2007

The behavior of Bollinger, or those who invited Ahmanedijad to Columbia in the first place, is not what I would call any sort of positive role model. He should never have been accorded the dignity of an invitation, but, once that mistake had been made, he should have been treated as politely as any other guest, and protests should have been allowed to voice what needed to be said. None of this happened.

Susan Cohen - 10/2/2007

I say that Michael Green was not appropriating any special authority: he was identifying himself so as to make sure everyone knew that he was not "softpedalling" either Ahmanedijad or the decision to have him speak at Columbia. To say otherwise without his express statement of intent is to be at least somewhat unfair to him.

N. Friedman - 9/27/2007


No. I was not referring to Bush. He is a different issue.

kim carsons - 9/27/2007

I assume you are talking about george w. bush and the united states of america. except when you shun the united states usually their first ressponse is to hire someone to get rid of you, then gradually drain the investment out of your country under the guise of democacracy

"The fact is that he is not an ordinary KKK'er with a hateful message. He is a major figure in a country ruled by a delusion religio/political ideology. Such ideology can only grow, not decline, in power by receiving respect and support from people in the West or anywhere else. What ought be done is that he be treated as a bête noire and shunned"

Louis Nelson Proyect - 9/25/2007


N. Friedman - 9/25/2007


There are parallels. There are also differences.

One central difference I see is that, so far at least, Iran is comparatively weak. Of course, were it to have nuclear weapons, Iran would be rather strong, comparatively speaking, and its influence would be more difficult to contain and, if its ideology is as insane as, for example, Bernard Lewis, among other well known scholars, claims, then it is a real danger which the world ignores at its peril.

Also, it is to be appreciated that Iran's ideology, as with the other radical Islamist ideologies, is not only Antisemitic but eliminationist in character.

Also, there is the widespread view expressed by Islamists, including those in Iran, that they have been wronged by the outside world and by Jews. In fact, there is the theory that there is a conspiracy against Islam, designed to destroy Islam. These are theories of resentment.

One might also add. The reaction of Europeans to this matter, as with some of the psuedo-educated university set and those on the very far left of the political spectrum, is to take the view that the way to assuage the resentment expressed by Islamists is to appease their anger.

Normally, it is this last point that most who see parallels point to. Such people note, following Ariel Sharon's comment that Israel would not play the role of Czechoslovakia, that the view of the appeasers is that by forcing a settlement that is harsh to Israel, the Islamist resentment will subside, akin to the theory that by addressing Germany's legitimate concerns about the Versailles Treaty, Hitler could be appeased. Those who see a parallel note that addressing the Versailles Treaty did not appease Hitler. And, regarding the Islamists, such people note that the Islamists say flat out that even Israel's disappearance would be insufficient.

In this regard, consider this comment about the theory propounded by W & M in The New York Times.

They also seem to feel that, with Israel and its lobby pushed to the side, the desert will bloom with flowers. A peace deal with Syria would surely follow, with a resultant end to hostile activity by Hezbollah and Hamas. Next would come a Palestinian state, depriving Al Qaeda of its principal recruiting tool. (The authors wave away the idea that Islamic terrorism thrives for other reasons.) Well, yes, Iran does seem to be a problem, but the authors argue that no one should be particularly bothered by an Iran with nuclear weapons. And on and on.

Such is the appeaser theory.

Now, there are certainly many differences.

The dominance of the West, especially the US, does, in fact, appear to be overwhelming. And, the notion that the US can be conquered seems far fetched. And, the notion that the US can even by dominated seems far fetched.

The last sentence's point, however, is not so obviously the case with respect to Europe, where, with nearly no doubt, the face of Europe will be unrecognizable within the next generation or two - or, at least so says super historian Walter Laqueur in his recent book The Last Days of Europe: Epitaph for an Old Continent. A determined Islamic world could, in fact, dominate the sort of Europe which Laqueur says will come. Such, of course, would be a very different scenario than the 1930's but it would not be a very good one.

Then again, if the leadership of Iran is as crazy as its leader and chief spokesman sounds, a lot of people could die needlessly due to Iran's miscalculation of what it can do to expand Iran and Islam's rule.

Edwin Moise - 9/24/2007

Allowing Hitler to speak would have made it more difficult to identify him as a threat? I don't quite see the logic in that one.

I recall in 1966, the SDS chapter at Harvard University circulated a petition, which got about 1,800 signatures, asking that Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara speak publicly on campus at Harvard, and defend his Vietnam War policies if he thought he could. Harvard's SDS chapter believed that a public speech by McNamara would be very useful to SDS, in undermining public support for McNamara's policies. MeNamara rejected the petition, probably because he also thought that for him to speak publicly would be useful to the anti-war movement.

I wish those who dislike Ahmadinejad would show the same faith that Harvard SDS did, that a public dialog, in which both sides got to speak, would serve their cause.

Edwin Moise - 9/23/2007

I doubt such an invitation would have been issued. But I don't think one would have been grossly inappropriate. And I think having a representative of apartheid speak at Columbia would have been seriously desirable if the overall climate of opinion toward South Africa in the 1980s had been as hostile as the climate of opinion toward Iran is today.

In 1989, Robert Wedgeworth, Dean of the School of Library Service at Columbia, visited South Africa. After his return, he appealed on the Op-Ed pages of the New York Times, December 24, 1989, for a relaxation of the American embargo against South Africa, as it applied to books. I am unable to imagine a Columbia dean visiting Iran today.

But to get back to something closer to the main point in this discussion: The idea that inviting Ahmadinejad to speak at Columbia is in some way equivalent to, or even remotely close to, "celebrating" him, seems to me bizarre.

Dalek S Wu - 9/23/2007

Mr. Averbach, that would have never happened. In May of 1981, five South African officers illegally entered the US, and were quickly booted out. Also, see Ronald Reagan's recently published diaries. He secretly sympathised with the ANC and loathed Pretoria.

Dalek S Wu - 9/23/2007

I always find it amazing what it takes to get people out and about concerning things like these.

Is the Iranian President a trouble-making anti-Semitic bigot? Yes. But he would not be the first such a character in NYC in recent years.

In the 1990's, there was a CCNY Professor named Lionel-something or other who also made anti-Semitic remarks. I might be wrong, but, if I remember correctly, he was never fired for that.

Also, NYC councilman Charles Barron, a former Black Panther terrorist, accused the NYPD of "police terrorism" earlier this month:


Not to mention that Barron supported the re-naming of a NYC street after the criminal Sonny Carson, who " hailed the Crown Heights lynch mob that killed Hasidic scholar Yankel Rosenbaum, saying he was "very proud" of what had happened. "


And then, there is the notorious defrocked NYPD Captain/recently elected State Senator Eric Adams of the nefarious secret society "100 Blacks In Law Enforcement Who Care," who makes it his business to interfere with police investigations, and spew falsehoods about Officers who are still on the job:


It is strange that all of those who are jumping up and down like organ grinders' monekys over Ahmenajad are willing to be Barron and Adams' willing executioners by saying nothing about them.

art eckstein - 9/23/2007

Dear N.F.,

Here's an example of what goes on at Columbia:

Columbia Dean Admits Taking Saudi Junket
Staff Reporter of the Sun
January 11, 2006

"Months before a Columbia University dean was named to a special committee convened to investigate student complaints about professors' hostility to Israel, the dean took a trip to Saudi Arabia that she acknowledges was "largely" paid for by Saudi Aramco, the kingdom-owned oil company.

The dean, Lisa Anderson of Columbia's School of International and Public Affairs, was one of five members of the committee named in December 2004."

Lisa Anderson later gave a clean bill of health of Joseph Massad, who was accused of screaming at and otherwise abusing students who defended israel one of his classes, because he couldn't remember doing it.

N. Friedman - 9/23/2007

Hi Art,

I think you make a good point. It is not my point but it is equally good. As you say, uUniversities are rather selective in whom they want to listen. In this case, they would never, as a matter of sacred principle, invite a KKK representative to speak. Evidently, it is the messenger, not the message. Pretty disgusting.

I wonder whether there is a question of who gives money to the university. As you certainly know, the vast, vast majority (and, according to Wallid Phares, in the order of 90%) of money going into Middle East studies programs in the US comes from people in the Middle East. So, if the money is right, universities will shill for any message.

My point, of course, is that the goals for those who think that the Shi'a version of the Islamist message is not just foul but dangerously delusional is not to welcome its foul messenger. That only helps the messenger and his message. And, this is a dangerous game of politics, not a mere loonytoon who might bring some money into the university at the price of being given a platform from which to holler and then go back into his foul cave.

art eckstein - 9/23/2007

My own point is merely that the argument of the defenders of Bollinger's decision, that Columbia U is and should be a place completely to many points of view, is self-evidently a lie. It is falsified by what happened to James Gilchrist, and by the fact that no President of Apartheid South Africa was ever invited to have a Columbia University platform, let alone being part of a program on World Leadership, as HIS prestigious platform from which to speak.

My point is not that the President of Apartheid South Africa *should* have been invited, or that this vicious racist monster Ahmedinejad should be uninvited. I'm just pointing out the hypocrisy of the Columbia University administration. As I said, Bollinger, while he was at the University of Michigan, was centrally involved in the creation of one of the most draconian and oppressive speech codes ever devised on a university campus.

N. Friedman - 9/23/2007


If he is not allowed to speak at Columbia, he will, no doubt, take the view that we are afraid. But, that does not serve his long term end, as such would be his message to his own minion of existing true believers. Few others would care.

He appears to want, however, to expand his support and power. And that means being taken seriously on the world stage. Why? Because otherwise his message resonates only with a group of like-minded Shi'a. And, he remains one leader among many Shi'a leaders. But, he has stated (and while it sounds truly delusional to our ears) publicly that he wants to lead the entire Muslim world - Sunni and Shi'a - in a reconquista against Europe. That means he needs to be a world, not just a Shi'a, figure. Otherwise, he cannot be the imam of all Islam.

Now, he is an important representative of a delusional religio/political ideology. It is as delusional as any that has existed in the course of the last century. Its followers advocate the view that by fomenting death and destruction, such will bring out the occulted imam, who in turn will restore Islam by means a holocaust of violence.

Such ideology is, as I said, delusional but, in fact, it is something believed by millions and millions of people. And, that makes it very, very dangerous, since, as Bernard Lewis has stated, those who believe in this ideology are not by any obvious means deterred - even by nuclear weapons - because such people invite death in the path of their God.

Being taken seriously at Columbia helps that agenda. Being turned down does not. While he can twist a denial of speaking rights as a sign of a fearful West, that is nothing special and he hardly stands out. What he needs for his agenda is recognition, which gives him special stature and adds to his backing.

The fact is that he is not an ordinary KKK'er with a hateful message. He is a major figure in a country ruled by a delusion religio/political ideology. Such ideology can only grow, not decline, in power by receiving respect and support from people in the West or anywhere else. What ought be done is that he be treated as a bête noire and shunned.

Edwin Moise - 9/23/2007

I doubt it is true that the government of Iran has offered sanctuary to top al-Qaeda figures including several of bin Laden's own sons (is there a reliable source for this assertion?). But were it true, I think it would be irrelevant to this discussion.

I think it would be appropriate to have both Gilchrist and Ahmadinejad speak at Columbia. But if I had to choose I would choose Ahmadinejad, precisely because he is enormously more dangerous. The fact that Ahmadinejad is dangerous means that we have a need to find out all we can, in as much detail as possible, about how he thinks. If offered a forum for propaganda, what type of propaganda will he choose to utter from it?

To save trouble in the next round of this discussion: I am not assuming that Ahmadinejad will be candid. If he lies, there will be things we can learn from seeing what kind of lies he tells.

Edwin Moise - 9/23/2007

No, as a matter of fact, I think going home and saying that the Americans were so afraid of what he had to say that they forbade him to speak at Columbia will probably work better for him politically than speaking would have.

Louis Averbach - 9/22/2007

I wonder if in the days of real apartheid in South Africa an affirmed hater of Black Africans; who has called for their death and destruction, would have been invited to Columbia? I wonder if the professors and administration would justify the invitation by the suggestion that free speech and sharing of a reception with racist to be the way to reduce his racism. I wonder if criticism would be muted the same way it is in celebrating this racist tyrant?
As a second thought what reasoning is it that the women's rights people are not being heard from on this situation. For what reason have they chosen to look the other way?

art eckstein - 9/22/2007

ROTC is banned from Columbia; Ahmedinejad is not. A novelist couldn't make this up.

Bollinger is, by the way, not a person of First Amendment absolutist instincts. In the late 1980s he was a central figure in the creation of an "anti-racism" speech code at the University of Michigan that was so draconian that it was declared unconstitutional in a landmark federal court case: Doe v. Michigan (1989). I am therefore deeply suspicious that his stance now has little to do with First Amendment absolutism, and a lot to do with politics.

After all, while inviting Ahmedinejad, Bolllinger has allowed the official WITHDRAWAL of an invitation to James Gilchrist of the Minutemen to speak at Columbia in October, on grounds that he's too controversial. Now, I have zero love of Gilchrist or the Minutemen. But I have zero love of rank hypocrisy, either. The treatment of Gilchrist shows that Columbia doesn't invite EVERYBODY, so why offer the Nazi terrorist Ahmedinejad--whose government has offered sanctuary to top al-Qaeda figures including several of bin Laden's own sons!--a prestigious university platform from which to speak his propaganda?

N. Friedman - 9/22/2007

Edwin Moise,

Why give the likes of Ahmadinejad any respectability? He gets to go home and show that his view are so respectable that he received applause from Columbia. That certainly helps him politically. I have no interest in that.

John Lobenstein - 9/21/2007

Apparently you have very limited knowledge regarding Mr. Ahmadinejad. That could explain your reluctance to prevent his roaming freely around our country preaching his propaganda.

John Lobenstein - 9/21/2007

"... Two, there is no historical context. In 1933, the world hardly knew what Hitler was about, while now, sadly, we do. The Columbia administration in 1933 was not the same as it is today; some of the administrators from that period are, amazingly, no longer with the school. ..."
I would certainly hope that people from the 1933 administration are not part of the current administration. After all that was 73 years ago.

Why do we have to allow Ahmadinejad to speak at any location other than the UN to learn what his view point(s) and policy(ies) is/are?. There are just too many sources of information regarding his postulations to not know who and what he is. If you have not been paying enough attention to recent and current events to know about Mr. Ahmadinejad why would a speech at Columbia make you suddenly all knowing?

Harry Eagar - 9/21/2007

Appeasement worked so well in the '30s that we want to try it again, eh?

Actually, there's at least a slim chance that if Columbia U. and a large number of other elites had identified Hitler as a threat early in the '30s, rearmament would have begun earlier, force would have been used earlier and many fewer people would have died.

Anyhow, we don't need to hear any more from Iran. It's at war with us, has been since 1979.

The regime has made it clear that the world is going to have to choose between Iran and Israel. I choose Israel.

art eckstein - 9/21/2007

Ahmedinejad is a Holocaust denier, has threatened to wipe another country off the map (with nuclear weapons) and JUST LAST WEEK instituted yet another major purge of "liberals" from the faculties of universities in Tehran. Should this person really be given the prestige of a Columbia University platform to speak?

It's not like Columbia University is completely open. Columbia just RESCINDED an invitation to the head of the Minutemen, the border-watching group (or, if you wish, vigilante group), to speak on the campus in October. Are you saying that this latter person, whose group has killed no one, is actually worse than Ahmedinejad, whose government has HUNG hundreds of homosexuals, some as young as 16?
THINK of the hypocrisy involved here in refusing to allow the head of the Minutemen to speak on campus because he's too controversial--while inviting this insane Nazi to speak before the President of Columbia himself!

Clare Lois Spark - 9/21/2007

I don't see that Michael Green's family history or self-identification as a Jew gives him any particular authority to make either moral or historical judgments about the Medoff article.
First, it can be argued that the insult to the Jewish dead is in inviting the genocide-preaching Iranian leader to Columbia.
Second, it is not true that Hitler's goals were a mystery to "the world" in 1933. Moreover Medoff traces some repulsive conduct at Columbia until the late 1930s, when, I might add, the West finally turned against Hitler, after earlier applause by numerous intellectuals in favor of the New Germany and its antisemitic policies. (And see Saul Friedlander's tracing of intellectuals and the Holocaust for persistent support of Hitler during the early years of the war.)
Third, it seems to me to be the height of naivete to imagine that we will "learn something" from an avowed enemy, unless Michael Green is suggesting that we will discover, through Ahmadinejad's supposedly instructive candor, that "evil" in ourselves (the jewified U.S.?) is responsible for his violent antisemitism.

Edwin Moise - 9/21/2007

Rafael Medoff argues that Columbia University should not have invited a representative of Nazi Germany to speak in 1933, and should not invite Ahmadinejad of Iran to speak now. He is wrong twice. Universities should not decide whether to allow a person to speak on the basis of whether the person is good and moral. They should base their decision on whether the audience may learn something by listening. There is no way a talk by Ahmadinejad could fail to be informative. He might go into an anti-semitic rant; he might pretend an affection for democracy and religious toleration that I doubt he actually feels; he might say essentially nothing. Any one of these choices (or some fourth alternative they may not have occurred to me) would tell us something important about him.

Medoff quotes a statement that inviting Ahmadinejad to speak is the equivalent of "inviting Hitler to [speak] in the 1930s," because "appeasing fanatics and granting them legitimacy leads to genocide and war." This is not valid.

I can see no possibility that cutting off the sorts of contacts that Columbia University had with Nazi Germany in the 1930s would have had the slightest effect in making World War II, or the Holocaust, less likely. In hindsight, it seems clear that Hitler was going to do what he was going to do; no refusal of contact by Americans was going to stop or slow him, any more than openness to contact did.

But that is hindsight. At the time, in 1933, there were reasonable ground to hope that an openness to contact would moderate Nazi behavior. It was certainly worth trying.

I am convinced that Fidel Castro's dictatorship would have been overthrown years ago, if not for the way it has been propped up by the American embargo that cuts off contact between Cuban and the United States.

Medoff does not like Ahmadinejad's governent. That is reasonable; I don't like it either. But the attitude he is advocating, of cutting off contacts with that government, makes it more likely, not less likely, that Ahmadinejad and people like him will be in power in Iran for a very long time.

Michael Green - 9/21/2007

As a Jew who lost family members in the Holocaust, I am appalled at several things here.

One is equating the Iranian leader with Nazi Germany. Yes, he is anti-semitic and I would expect no more or less from most such leaders. But to equate them is an insult to the memory of those who died at Hitler's hands.

Two, there is no historical context. In 1933, the world hardly knew what Hitler was about, while now, sadly, we do. The Columbia administration in 1933 was not the same as it is today; some of the administrators from that period are, amazingly, no longer with the school.

Finally, we are often reminded, correctly, of the phrase "never again." Well, one of the ways to make sure it never happens again is to know what other people are doing and saying. This is roughly equivalent to saying, why listen to anything Osama Bin Laden says, since he's totally evil. He is indeed totally evil, but we might learn something about what he is up to and maybe even about ourselves.