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Students lead a strike against war at Wayne State University in Michigan.

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Americans and the Holocaust

American College Students and the Nazi Threat

This collection shows some of the ways American college and university students reacted to the Nazi regime, World War II, and the Holocaust. These diverse voices point to a wide range of responses on US campuses, including active opposition to Nazism, disinterest, and even sympathy for certain aspects of the Nazi program.

American College Students and the Nazi Threat

Already in the middle of an economic disaster at home during the Great Depression, the United States confronted a new threat with the Nazi Party's rise to power in Germany in early 1933.1 While some Americans recognized the Third Reich as a danger to peace, democracy, and Europe's Jewish community, others did not see the emergence of Nazi Germany as cause for concern. For American college and university students, news of German military aggression and anti-Jewish violence competed for attention with classes, sports, and campus events. Students across the country debated how to respond as fascism spread across Europe, World War II broke out, and European Jews and other groups deemed "racial enemies" were persecuted by the Nazi regime.

During this era, higher education was an important space for political engagement. Coming of age during the Great Depression and the aftermath of World War I, many American students experienced economic instability at home and worried about the human cost of US involvement in European affairs. Relatively few Americans were able to seek higher education. Many people throughout the country were excluded on the basis of race or gender. The majority of students at the time were young white men, many of whom came from wealthy backgrounds. Most students attended state-funded public colleges and universities, many of which were led by conservative administrators.2 

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Students in this period held diverse political and ideological views. Some embraced socialism and communism, while many were conservative and deeply religious. A small number sympathized with radical right-wing movements, including some pro-Nazi groups like the Silver Legion or the German American Bund. Like many Germans attending universities,3 some American students found that aspects of Nazi ideology matched their political opinions or racial prejudices.4 For others, the Nazi regime's racism and antisemitism provoked outrage and loud opposition.

For those students who actively opposed Nazism, political affiliations, cultural traditions, and personal experiences helped to shape their responses. For instance, students at institutions with religious ties were often guided by faith in their reactions. Noah Golinkin, a Jewish student studying theology at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City, composed this poem to mourn the mass murder of Jews in Europe. It was later adopted as a prayer in synagogues around the country. Pennsylvania's Swarthmore College was founded by the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers)—a group instrumental in assisting European Jews during the Holocaust.This survey from the Swarthmore campus newspaper shows that students supported a plan to bring Jewish refugee students to the US as early as 1938. Students at Muhlenberg College, a Lutheran school in nearby Allentown, Pennsylvania, may have found inspiration in their professors' strong denunciations of anti-Jewish Nazi violence

Personal experiences with racism shaped some students' opposition to Nazi policies. At Morehouse College, a historically Black college in Atlanta, Georgia, second-year student Henry E. Banks wrote an opinion article in the campus newspaper drawing comparisons between racial oppression in America's Jim Crow South and Nazi Germany. Drexel Sprecher, a young student at the University of Wisconsin who went on to serve as a prosecutor at the postwar Nuremberg Trials, organized activities designed to combat Nazism abroad—as well as the antisemitic attitudes he observed on campus. Esther Priwer, a Jewish student at the University of Missouri, reacted to the arrival of a Nazi exchange student at her school6 in 1938 by penning a report about this outpoken antisemite and advocate of so-called "Aryan" racial superiority.

Politically-oriented student clubs and organizations also shaped anti-Nazi activism. Partnering with a national association known as the American Student Union, student groups in New York City and Detroit led demonstrations against fascism and the threat of another war in Europe.  For these and other students focused on international politics, campus newspapers provided a space to discuss the impact of Nazi policies. In the run-up to the Berlin Olympic Games in 1936, student newspapers nationwide published debates over the moral and political implications of America's participation in games hosted by Nazi Germany.7 This student survey from the University of Pennsylvania's student newspaper illustrates the wide range of student opinions on a potential US boycott of the Berlin games. 

While many American students embraced anti-Nazi activism at their colleges and universities, other sources in this collection illustrate that some responded to the threats posed by Nazi Germany with disinterest and—in some cases—even sympathy. This photograph captures members of one fraternity at the University of Illinois using the annual homecoming celebration to make light of the outbreak of war in Europe. A letter from a group of Yale University students to famous aviator and isolationist political figure Charles Lindbergh shortly after the outbreak of World War II reveals the students' opposition to conflict with Nazi Germany and their desire to keep the US out of another war in Europe.8 Anti-interventionist and even pro-Nazi attitudes found support from professors and officials who pursued warm relations with universities in Nazi Germany—particularly at elite institutions. In some cases, antisemitism at the highest levels of university administrations encouraged the marginalization of Jews on American campuses.9

Like most US citizens, American college students' reactions to the rise of the Nazi regime shifted with events abroad and the United States’ position on the international stage. During the 1930s, students reacted to  the emergence of the Nazi regime in European politics, as well as a refugee crisis created by the persecution of Jews in Germany and the prospect of another world war sparked by Nazi aggression. Strong support for US involvement in the conflict emerged among almost all segments of American society in the 1940s—particularly after the US entered World War II following the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941. American colleges and universities directly contributed to the war effort, and many young men and women left their schools to serve in the military.11 Reacting to news of the war's devastation and growing awareness of Nazi crimes, student groups such as the University of Michigan's Committee for Displaced Students organized efforts to aid the wave of Displaced Persons fleeing postwar Europe.

Young people at US colleges and universities in this era pursued their education amid unprecedented conflict and destruction. Reeling from the Great Depression, the American public remained skeptical of US involvement in foreign affairs and was resistant to admitting immigrants to the United States. Beginning in the early 1930s, American college and university students began examining the moral and political questions raised by the rise of Nazism, the threat of another world war, and the persecution and murder of European Jews. Many students took action by joining demonstrations, organizing on campus, or writing in their schools' newspapers. Some students simply believed that the Nazi program did not pose an immediate threat to the United States. The sources featured in this collection capture the diversity of these responses and reflect the traditions and experiences that helped to shape them.

The US Holocaust Memorial Museum's Americans and the Holocaust online exhibition explores the driving factors in the United States' responses to Nazism, war, and genocide.

According to one study, roughly 9 out of every 100 Americans between the ages of 18 and 24 was enrolled in a college or university in 1940. Roughly 40 percent were women. Of an estimated 130 million Americans in 1940, about 1.5 million (about 1 percent) were enrolled in college or university. That percentage had increased more than five-fold by the 2010s. For more, see 120 Years of American Education: A Statistical Portrait, Thomas D. Snyder, ed., (US Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, 1993), 64–66.


For more on the Nazi Party’s transformation of higher education in Germany, see the Experiencing History collection, Higher Education in Nazi Germany.

To learn more about reactions to Nazism among the broader American public, see the related Experiencing History collection, Nazi Ideals and American Society.

For more on the Quakers' involvement in efforts to rescue European Jews during the Holocaust, see the related Experiencing History items, "Report on the Work of the Refugee Committee," Letter from William Dickman to Charlotte Salmon, American Friends Service Committee, and Correspondence between Franz Blumenstein and the American Friends Service Committee.

Hundreds of German exchange students arrived in the US in 1938 as part of a Nazi propaganda effort to influence American attitudes toward the regime. For more on the effects of Nazi propaganda in the US, see the Experiencing History collection, Propaganda and the American Public. For more on German exchange students spreading Nazi propaganda on American campuses, see Stephen H. Norwood, The Third Reich in the Ivory Tower: Complicity and Conflict on American Campuses (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009).

To learn more about the 1936 Olympics, see Susan Bachrach, The Nazi Olympics: Berlin 1936 (Boston: Little, Brown, 2000).

For more on the political debate over the United States' intervention in the war in Europe, see Lynne Olsen, Those Angry Days: Roosevelt, Lindbergh, and America's Fight Over World War II, 1939–1941 (New York: Random House, 2014).

According to one scholar, anti-Nazi protest movements and other student efforts to oppose Nazism on US campuses were in many cases curtailed by college and university officials who were sympathetic to the Nazi cause or sought to preserve relationships with professors and administrators in Nazi Germany. See Stephen H. Norwood, The Third Reich in the Ivory Tower: Complicity and Conflict on American Campuses (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009). See also the related item in this collection, Letter from James Conant to Charles Singer.

A draft was introduced in the United States in 1940, though in many cases university students were eligible for deferments; large numbers volunteered. The number of men enrolled in US colleges and universities from 1943 to 1944 declined by roughly 30 percent. See 120 Years of American Education: A Statistical Portrait, Thomas D. Snyder, ed. (US Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, 1993), 64–66. See also George Q. Flynn, The Draft, 1940–1973 (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1993). For more on the American war effort at home, see Allan M. Winkler, Homefront U.S.A: America During World War II (John Wiley & Sons, 2014).

All 13 Items in the American College Students and the Nazi Threat Collection

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