In the Face of Fascists
By Kim Clarke
Perhaps we are wrong, but, up to this point, I cannot believe it. If so, we are innocent offenders.– President Alexander G. Ruthven
Chapter 1 Caps, Gowns and Nazi Flags
In the summer of 1936, a procession of scholars in academic robes crossed the main plaza of the University of Heidelberg. Here came professors from Peru and South Africa, Portugal and Argentina, and nearly 25 other nations to celebrate the 550th anniversary of one of the great universities of Europe.
But this was no ordinary academic gala.
The scholars emerged from under a giant golden swastika and a bronze statue of a Nazi eagle. Cauldrons of flame and smoke towered over them. Students in brown shirt uniforms lined the processional alongside soldiers wearing black. Nazi flags decorated the city’s streets.
In the greatest numbers of all, scholars from American universities crossed the campus. Men from Harvard, Cornell, Illinois, Vassar, Yale and Columbia walked with their international colleagues. So, too, did a junior professor from Michigan.
His involvement in a Nazi-orchestrated event, and the fact he represented the University of Michigan, was the culmination of an intense debate 4,200 miles away in Ann Arbor:
Does a university promote academic freedom by representing itself in the face of tyranny, or does it condone that tyranny by participating in an obvious charade?
Chapter 2 “Intellectualism At An End”
It was no secret what the Nazis were doing to the University of Heidelberg. Germany’s great university, declared The Jewish Exponent, had become “Hitlerized Heidelberg.”
Since 1933, Adolf Hitler and his National Socialist Party had emptied Germany’s universities of any scholar not committed to “blood and race” teaching and research advocating the superiority of the Aryan race. Hundreds of Jewish faculty and students were purged, followed by anyone with Communist or Socialist leanings. Nazis or Nazi sympathizers were elevated to leadership positions at universities across the country. Professors were beginning and ending lectures with “Heil Hitler.”
Nazi students led book burnings in several university towns, with bonfires consuming works deemed “un-German.” Fiction, poetry, political theory, art and “corrupting foreign influences” were torched.
“The era of extreme Jewish intellectualism is now at an end. The breakthrough of the German revolution has again cleared the way on the German path,” declared Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s minister of propaganda. “The future German man will not just be a man of books, but a man of character. It is to this end that we want to educate you.”
Academic freedom and intellectual inquiry were dead, and no more so than at Heidelberg. The university’s acclaimed physics institute was renamed to honor anti-Semitic physicist Philipp Lenard, a Nobel laureate who dismissed the work of Einstein as “Jewish physics.” Heidelberg’s new rector was Wilhelm Groh, a legal scholar who wanted his faculty to fully support pro-German thinking; he removed any recalcitrant professors, particularly “the Jews and those married to Jews.”
It was Groh who invited the University of Michigan, and other universities, to come to Germany for an international celebration of Heidelberg’s anniversary in 1936.
Chapter 3 “No Political Significance”
When the Heidelberg invitation arrived at the office of U-M President Alexander G. Ruthven in February 1936, the response was quick and positive. Professor Aloysius J. Gaiss would represent Michigan and “bring felicitations of this institution to the University of Heidelberg upon occasion of this anniversary.”
The confirmation came from Frank E. Robbins, the longtime assistant to the president. Robbins typically handled Ruthven’s correspondence, but undoubtedly was being pressed into extra duties as 1936 unfolded. On New Year’s Day, Ruthven had slipped on an icy porch step at the President’s House and fractured his leg. He spent weeks in the hospital and at home, in traction and, in his words, “trussed up like a fowl prepared for the oven.”
When Robbins considered an additional faculty delegate for Germany, he confided to that professor “that there has been some criticism of the fact that we accepted the invitation. However, the President decided that our participation should be regarded as having absolutely no political significance.”
The Heidelberg invitation was not, on its face, out of the ordinary. Throughout the decades, universities have invited other institutions to send scholars as delegates to notable occasions, such as the installation of a new president or an anniversary celebration. For Ruthven and Robbins, the Heidelberg acceptance was, essentially, a traditional obligation. The University would send a scholar already scheduled to be in Germany – in this case, Professor Gaiss, a junior professor of German who was studying regional dialects.
Weeks before the invitations arrived at American universities, Yale President James Rowland Angell – a Michigan graduate who grew up in Ann Arbor as the son of U-M President James B. Angell – said German universities “have been so emasculated as to be little more than the passive tools of a sinister dictatorship.” Still, his university would send a delegate to Heidelberg. Other U.S. universities did the same. At Columbia, President Nicholas Murray Butler called his acceptance of the invitation “a matter of administrative routine.”
In Europe, however, the response was far sharper. The first and loudest objection came from England and the Right Rev. Herbert Hensley Henson, the bishop of Durham. In a letter to the Times of London, the bishop warned that Jewish professors at German universities were being persecuted because of “racial fanaticism” sweeping the country.
“In this evil process Heidelberg stands in the forefront,” he wrote. “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 avowed and shameless enemies of both.”
The bishop’s letter prompted universities throughout England to openly refuse to attend the June celebration. It reached the point where the Nazi government withdrew its invitations to British institutions. But the damage was done. The University of Stockholm refused to attend, as did the University of Oslo and Basel University. No Belgian university would take part. Canada’s McGill University declined. The Heidelberg program, in the eyes of many, was no more than an attempt by Hitler to legitimize “German science” and a growing totalitarian regime.
Chapter 4 Clasping Hands with a Dictator?
For Alexander Ruthven, deciding to participate had been perfunctory, but explaining it was more complicated. Cutting off ties with German universities would be shortsighted, he believed, particularly given that the U.S. government still maintained diplomatic relations with the country. He abhorred Hitler (“No one deplores the activities of the Nazi government more than I do”) yet also detested “mixing politics and education” in the very way Germany was with its universities.
“For years it has been the practice of the University, as it is at many other institutions, to give members of the staff who are traveling or studying in foreign countries certificates which will admit them to meetings in which they may be interested or to libraries, museum, and so forth, for the purpose of study,” Ruthven explained in a letter. “It has never been our thought that such procedure could be construed as having anything whatsoever to do with the political or social beliefs or practices in any country.”
While his public comments on the controversy were limited, his letters to critics were forthright.
“I think it is a stretch of the imagination to interpret the naming of delegates to the celebration as approval of the Hitler regime,” Ruthven told Louis C. Karpinski, a professor of mathematics who questioned U-M’s participation. Karpinski, who earned his doctorate in Germany, warned Ruthven of “a national madness in Germany – those who retain their sanity dare not express their views because of the reign of terror with concentration camps for all who protest.”
Rabbi Leon Fram of Detroit’s Congregation Beth El pushed back on Ruthven after the president had brushed off criticism of U-M’s involvement as anything more than academic collegiality. The rabbi accused U-M of both giving “aid and comfort to the Nazi government” and taking “the first step toward its own demoralization.”
Ruthven dismissed Fram’s repeated concerns.
“We know that the splendid institutions which we have looked up to for years have been badly crippled. At the same time, we are allowing our men to go to Germany to study, using the facilities of German universities, and we do not feel that we are either contaminating our men or placing the stamp of approval on the German government when we continue these relations with the German institutions.
“If nothing else comes out of the contact of our men with German schools, they and we will at least have a better knowledge of the conditions than we can gain by newspaper accounts.”
Ruthven did little to dissuade detractors. In fact, he hurt himself by arguing that a U-M delegate had participated in 1935 ceremonies inaugurating a new University of Rome, just weeks after Italy’s bloody invasion of Ethiopia.
“No one accused us of commending the Italian government even though the education exercises were dominated not only by the Fascist educators but also by Mussolini himself,” he told Rabbi Fram. “Certainly what the Germans have done to the Jews and the Catholics pales into insignificance when we view the wholesale murder in Ethiopia.”
U-M’s decision to join the Heidelberg festivities was rebuked not only by a handful of faculty and alumni concerned about Michigan’s reputation, but by national organizations protesting the involvement of any American university. Ruthven heard from Detroit businessmen, New York alumni, the Non-Sectarian Anti-Nazi League, and the 3,000 dentists who comprised the Allied Dental Council. Michigan Hillel called for all American universities to boycott the event.
Helen I. Davis, who attended U-M during the First World War, made it abundantly clear she was unhappy with her alma mater.
“The sending of a delegate from Michigan at such a time and under such hideous and unholy circumstances as the Nazi regime in Germany presents before a world aghast at such cruelty, such a crushing of human rights and freedom of citizenry as daily characterize this government, can mean only one thing to liberty-loving Americans and Englishmen: The University of Michigan approves of a Fascist State! The University of Michigan would clasp academic hands with Hitlerian Dictatorships!”
Among the most prominent critics of Michigan’s decision was philosopher John Dewey, a former member of the faculty who also taught at the University of Chicago and Columbia. The Nazi government, he said during a visit to Ann Arbor, would use the American participation as an endorsement of its policies. “I regret deeply that Columbia accepted,” he said, “and I think it is too bad the University of Michigan did.”
Chapter 5 “I Do Not Sympathize”
Nonsense, said Aloysius Gaiss, U-M’s faculty delegate to Heidelberg. The participation of academics from around the world had the potential to strengthen ties between Germany and other nations.
“I do not sympathize completely with the Hitler government, for there are plenty of things that I don’t agree with in the Nazi government,” he told the Michigan Daily. “But I fail to understand why our sending of representatives condones Hitlerism or his government.”
Gaiss knew the German people and language. The only child of German immigrants, he first visited Germany in 1922, and spent four months traveling and studying throughout Europe. During that visit, Gaiss was 27 and single. For the Heidelberg trip, he was 41 and married with two young children; his wife, Katherine, was born in Germany and emigrated as an adult. The Gaiss family would board a steamer for Germany two weeks before the Heidelberg celebration; for Gaiss, it would be the start of an eight-month sabbatical at the university.
(The family crossed the Atlantic on the German ship Hansa, so christened a year earlier after the Nazi government stripped the ocean liner of its original name – the Albert Ballin – because Ballin was Jewish.)
Gaiss had been at U-M for 17 years, first teaching Spanish and French in the College of Engineering’s modern languages program. He also studied German, earning a master’s degree in 1921 and Ph.D. in 1929. When Engineering merged its language program with the College of Literature, Science and the Arts, Gaiss joined the faculty of LSA’s German Department.
The quashing of free speech and purging of Jewish faculty at Heidelberg and other German universities did not seem to fluster Gaiss as he prepared for Europe. “Often in this country, during a war for example, we do not teach exactly what we please. Why should we condemn those professors and the university for not saying what they want to and perhaps lose their jobs and be forced into starvation?”
Gaiss conceded he was being cautious with his remarks because he had family in Germany. And Ruthven, whose letters began to carry a tone of exasperation in the face of criticism, refused to bend.
“Perhaps we are wrong, but, up to this point, I cannot believe it,” he said. “If so, we are innocent offenders.”
Chapter 6 The “New Science” of Germany
The Heidelberg celebration lasted three days, with Nazi leaders from both the university and the government advocating the role of science in advancing the Third Reich. Where a statue of Athena, goddess of wisdom, once adorned a campus building proclaiming, “To the Eternal Spirit,” visitors now saw a Nazi eagle mounted above the words, “To the German Spirit.”
“This celebration,” said Chancellor Groh, “is a demonstration to the world of Heidelberg University’s will to be German. The great scientific achievements of the past have lost nothing of their value, but in many cases they can no longer be regarded as guideposts for the future or as clues to future events.”
Adolf Hitler was scheduled to attend, but instead sent a telegram at the last minute. Propaganda czar Joseph Goebbels made brief remarks. Bernhard Rust, minister of science, education and culture for the Nazi government, used his time to drive a stake through the heart of scientific inquiry.
“The old idea of science based on the sovereign right of abstract intellectual activity has gone forever. The new science is entirely different from the idea of knowledge that found its value in an unchecked effort to reach the truth. The true freedom of science is to be an organ of a nation’s living strength and of its historic fate and to present this in obedience to the law of truth.”
He continued: “It is not true that National Socialism has reduced science to the status of handmaiden of political power or robbed it of its freedom and independence. Fears regarding the future of untrammeled investigation in Germany are unfounded. We dismissed political adversaries not because they championed freedom of science, but because they abused science.”
Speakers left no doubt that Hitler’s government would use science and the work of scholars to achieve German supremacy. Scientific research that did not align with Nazi superiority, guests were told, was not good science.
Throughout the speeches, Lindsey Thomas Blayney, a dean of Minnesota’s Carleton College and head of its German Department, represented the American scholars on the Heidelberg rostrum. Unlike many European academics in the platform party, Blayney refused to raise his arm in a Nazi salute.
Some of the most chilling words came from Ernst Krieck, a Nazi who led the University of Frankfort and who would become rector of Heidelberg University a year later.
“We do not know of or recognize truth for truth’s sake or science for science’s sake,” he said. “We now seek a science that forms the whole human character in accordance with the great racial and political task before us.”
He added: “We know we are on a new road in science, provided for us by our character, fate and history. We know that sooner or later all other nations will have to follow us on this road.”
“Never before,” editorialized the New York Times days later, “did a great institution of learning joyously participate in its own degradation.”
Chapter 7 A Nation “On The March”
It took time for any word from Gaiss to make its way to Ann Arbor. Months after the spectacle, a friend shared a letter from Germany in which Gaiss wrote, “The Heidelberg celebration was one of true generosity.” Local people are doing well and overall conditions in Germany are good, he added.
It was only when Gaiss was back at Michigan, in February 1937, that he offered an unvarnished take on Germany under Hitler in interviews with the Daily. “It is not an uncommon occurrence to see uniformed troops, camouflaged, motorized canons, and army kitchens rattling through the main streets at any time of day. Germany is definitely on the march.”
Universities, he said, were propaganda machines for Hitler’s government. Courses were structured to emphasize Germany’s colonizing of other countries. Churches continued to flourish, but with an undercurrent of government control. “By gradually educating the young people,” Gaiss said, “Hitler evidently hopes to establish a state religion in the not-too-distant future.”
He said an Aryan “craze” was “so prevalent that girls dye their hair blond in increase their Aryan appearance.”
Gaiss was most direct about the living conditions of everyday Germans. People were suffering economically and feared speaking out. Eggs and butter were scarce. “The degraded means to which the people have been forced to secure even the commonest luxuries cannot help but attract attention. I often noticed housewives in respectable neighborhoods picking up cigar stubs from the streets to wash and clean them for the husband’s pipes.”
President Ruthven had no direct experience with Germany or the University of Heidelberg. He did not address the controversy once the 1936 celebration passed. But he did witness the reach of Hitler in England during the Blitz, with bombed-out buildings, food shortages and blackouts. He watched as a German fighter was shot down and plunged into a London neighborhood.
“I had a greater realization than ever before of the stupidity and uselessness of war. Why try to educate youth for a better world order if we are not to have one?” he wrote in his memoir. “To the visiting scientist-teacher, the waste, the destruction of young lives, and the sacrifices represented a reversion to a stage of society which ‘civilized’ peoples should have left far behind.”
Sources: Steven P. Remy’s The Heidelberg Myth: The Nazification and Denazification of a German University is an excellent study of the university before and after World War II. Other sources included the Alexander G. Ruthven Papers and the Frank E. Robbins Papers, at the Bentley Historical Library; Ruthven’s memoir, Naturalist in Two Worlds: Random Recollections of a University President; and the Michigan Daily Digital Archives.