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Letter from James Conant to Charles Singer

Conant to Springer
Wiener Holocaust Library

Large-scale public events played an important role in Nazi propaganda. In 1936, the Nazi Propaganda Ministry planned to use two occasions to publicize the supposed achievements of Nazism for an international audience—the 1936 Olympics and the 550th anniversary of the prestigious University of Heidelberg. Representatives of 31 nations attended the three-day-long event in Heidelberg, which was intended to "honor German science and research in front of the world."1

The featured source documents the controversy surrounding the celebrations in Heidelberg. Only days before the event, James Conant, the President of Harvard University, wrote to Professor Charles Singer of University College London to justify Harvard's participation in the events. Throughout 1936, Singer had been part of an international effort to boycott the celebrations in Heidelberg. Singer urged Conant to reject the German authorites' invitation—as had the entire Dutch university system, multiple French universities, Oslo University, Stockholm University, and some American universities. The New York Times reported on universities' responses, while the London Times hosted a public debate after publishing an open letter of protest.2

Conant's response was typical of the American invitees, who overwhelmingly accepted the invitation to Heidelberg despite international protests. This decision was in line with Harvard's reputation in the 1930s as a campus where Nazis regularly received a warm welcome.3 Antisemitism also had firm roots at Harvard—under Conant's leadership,  the university refused to host any German Jewish scholars who were seeking to enter the United States as refugees. To justify this refusal, Conant noted: "I have not seen many men on the list of displaced scholars whom I thought we could use at Harvard."4

Otto Wacker, Minister of Culture in the state of Baden, quoted in Frank Engehausen, "Akademische Feiern an der nationalsozialistischen Universität," in Die Universität Heidelberg im Nationalsozialismus, ed. Wolfgang Eckart, Volker Sellin, and Eike Wolgast (Heidelberg: Springer Verlag, 2006): 123–146, 133.

The New York Times published no less than 15 reports and letters in the months prior to the event, documenting the decisions of individual universities. Columbia University was conspicuous for strong student protest against the university’s decision to attend. In the London Times, a letter from Herbert Dunelm, the Bishop of Durham, is reprinted, along with a collection of protest letters received by the London Times. See C.C. Burlingham, James Byrne, Samuel Seabury and Henry L. Stimson, Heidelberg and the Universities of America (New York: Viking Press, 1936).

On Conant and Harvard in the Nazi era, see Stephen H. Norwood, The Third Reich in the Ivory Tower: Complicity and Conflict on American Campuses (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 36–74. See also Stephen H. Norwood, "Legitimating Nazism: Harvard University and the Hitler Regime, 1933–1937" in American Jewish History, vol. 92, no. 2 (June 2004): 189–223.

Quoted in William M. Tuttle, "American Higher Education and the Nazis: The Case of James B. Conant and Harvard University's 'Diplomatic Relations' with Germany," in American Studies, vol. 20, no. 1 (Spring 1979): 49–70, 53. 

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Archival Information for This Item

Source (Credit)
Wiener Holocaust Library
Accession Number Wiener Holocaust Library, Doc 599c/1, frame 602-603
Date Created
June 23, 1936
Author / Creator
James Conant
Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA
Document Type Letter
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