OpinionSchools & Higher Education

The Nazis at George Washington University

On the very same campus in Washington, D.C., where a Nazi slogan was invoked last month, actual Nazis were repeatedly welcomed in the years before World War II.

Anti-Israel protesters on the Foggy Bottom campus of George Washington University in downtown Washington, D.C. on April 26, 2024. Photo by Andrew Bernard.
Anti-Israel protesters on the Foggy Bottom campus of George Washington University in downtown Washington, D.C. on April 26, 2024. Photo by Andrew Bernard.
Rafael Medoff
Dr. Rafael Medoff is founding director of the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies.

The recent image of a pro-Hamas student at George Washington University brandishing a poster calling for a “final solution” was horrifying. But it was also deeply ironic. Because on the very same campus in Washington, D.C., where that Nazi slogan was invoked last month, actual Nazis were repeatedly welcomed in the years before World War II.

In October 1933, Gustav Struve, an official of Nazi Germany’s embassy in Washington, spoke on the GW campus under the auspices of  the university’s German Club. In February 1934, Gerrit Von Haeften, Third Secretary of the German Embassy, visited GW to address the German Club’s Valentine party. And in May 1937, two Nazi representatives, the wife and daughter of the German embassy’s Chancellor, Franz Schulz, participated in an event on campus sponsored by GW’s International Studies Society.

Friendly attitudes toward Nazi Germany appear to have permeated the campus. The visits by Nazi officials proceeded without any sign of objection or protest—unlike, for example, at Columbia University, where hundreds of students held multiple protest rallies when the Nazi ambassador, Hans Luther, was invited to that campus in 1933.

Both the German Club and the International Studies Society at GW held screenings of films which were “procured through the German Consul,” according to the student newspaper, The Hatchet. At least one of the events also included displays of foreign flags; the Hatchet’s coverage included a large image of Nazi Germany’s swastika flag.

That was in April 1937—four years after Hitler came to power, after the Nazi regime’s boycott of Jewish businesses, the nationwide book-burnings, the Nazi takeover of German universities, the mass firing of Jews from most professions and the mob violence against Jews in Berlin and elsewhere. It also was after the enactment of the Nuremberg Laws in 1935, which stripped German Jews of their citizenship.

Yet The Hatchet, which was published by the university, continued to run advertisements from the Nazi government’s tourism department, and touted upcoming summer tours by GW students to Europe that included visits to Nazi Germany.

During those years, GW maintained a junior-year student exchange program with the Nazi-controlled University of Munich, despite the purging of Jewish faculty, implementation of a Nazi curriculum and mass book-burning at the Munich school.

The Hitler regime viewed such exchanges with American universities as a way to soften the Nazis’ image abroad. The Nazi official in charge of sending German students to American universities was quoted, in The New York Times, as describing the German students in such exchanges as “political soldiers of the Reich.” But that did not deter GW from participating in the program.

GW was not the only American university to sponsor student exchanges with Nazified German universities, as Stephen Norwood documents in his book, “The Third Reich in the Ivory Tower.” But not every American school with ties to Germany turned a blind eye when the Nazis rose to power and took over the country’s universities. Williams College, for example, terminated its student exchanges with Germany as a protest against Nazi policies. GW did not.

Some GW students who spent a year at the University of Munich returned with upbeat reports about the new Germany. GW student Mary-Anne Greenough, for example, stated in a 1937 university newsletter that during her year in Germany, she attended the Nazis’ celebration of the anniversary of Hitler’s failed 1923 putsch; she said she found the event “worthy of admiration.”

Some GW faculty who visited Germany during the 1930s likewise came back with positive descriptions of the Nazi regime. Assistant professor of philosophy Christopher Garnett, returning from a visit to Germany in 1934, reported to the campus historical society that “[t]he optimism which permeated the Germans, even those who at first opposed the present regime, is almost unbelievable.” Such apologetics whitewashed Nazi outrages and made Hitler more palatable to the American public.

The time has come for the GW administration to acknowledge that it was wrong for GW to invite Nazi representatives to campus and to maintain student exchanges with Nazi-controlled institutions.

But that is not all.

In 1985, GW presented an honorary doctorate to Mircea Eliade, a noted scholar of comparative religion. Before Eliade was a scholar, he was a Nazi collaborator.

During the 1930s, Eliade authored viciously antisemitic articles in the extremist Romanian periodical Cuvantul, raving about the alleged “Jewish onslaught” threatening Romania. He actively supported the fascist paramilitary group known as the Iron Guard, and when the Romanian government cracked down on Iron Guard activists in 1938, Eliade was among those whom it imprisoned.

After the Iron Guard came to power in 1940, Eliade was appointed as one of its diplomats in London. (British officials privately called him “the most Nazi member of the legation.”) The Iron Guard regime actively collaborated in the mass murder of Romania’s Jews. “Particularly gruesome,” the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum notes, “was the [Iron Guard’s] murder of dozens of Jewish civilians in the Bucharest slaughterhouse. After the victims were killed, the perpetrators hung the bodies from meat hooks and mutilated them in a vicious parody of kosher slaughtering practices.”

Eliade continued to defend the Iron Guard after the war, praising it in his 1963 autobiography. For some reason, that didn’t deter GW from giving him an honorary doctorate in 1985. The time has come to revoke that honor.

Two years ago, public concern over racism in the United States prodded the George Washington U. administration to remove the name of its longest-serving president, the late Cloyd Heck Marvin, from the student center because he advocated racial segregation. And last year, the administration changed the school moniker from “Colonials” to “Revolutionaries” because of the many injustices associated with colonialism. GW should now show similar sensitivity to the concerns of its Jewish students and faculty.

Ninety years after actual Nazis were warmly welcomed at GW, extremist students on its campus today are invoking the infamous Nazi phrase “final solution”—meaning mass murder of Jews. That’s a blatant violation of the GW Student Code of Conduct. Section V (F) prohibits “acting in a way that threatens, endangers, or harasses others, including verbal, written, or any other form of communication.” Violators are subject to a range of possible punishments, from a warning to permanent expulsion. It’s time for George Washington University to implement its own rules.

Acknowledging the error of GW’s friendly attitude towards Nazi Germany in the 1930s, revoking Mircea Eliade’s doctorate, and taking meaningful action against today’s violators of the Student Code of Conduct is the path to restoring order and decency at George Washington University.

Originally published by The Jewish Journal.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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