Conference Report: Betrayal of the Humanities: The University during the Third Reich, University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, April 15-16, 2012

ACCH Quarterly Vol. 18, No. 2, June 2012

Conference Report: Betrayal of the Humanities: The University during the Third Reich, University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, April 15-16, 2012.

By Bernard M. Levinson, University of Minnesota, and Melissa Kelley, University of Minnesota

On April 15-16, 2012, the University of Minnesota hosted “Betrayal of the Humanities: The University during the Third Reich,” a multi-discipline symposium organized by Bernard M. Levinson, Berman Family Chair of Jewish Studies and Hebrew Bible, and Bruno Chaouat, Director of the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies. The symposium examined transformations in the academy and disciplines of the humanities during and after the Third Reich inGermany,ItalyandNorth America. The symposium consisted of three main sessions, “Nazi Germany and the Humanities in International Perspective,” “Disciplinary History,” and “Broader Implications.”

Alan Steinweis, Professor of History and Director of the Center for Holocaust Studies at the University of Vermont, opened the symposium with a talk entitled “New Perspectives on the Third Reich and Its Impact on the Humanities.” Steinweis provided a chronological overview of scholarly attempts to investigate the relationship between faculties within the arts and humanities and the Nazi regime. Steinweis also posed questions that proved key throughout the symposium: was there a fundamental incompatibility between the largely conservative professoriate and the Nazi state in 1933? What were “academic values” in the early 20th century, and were those values “betrayed”?

Stephen H. Norwood, Professor of History at Louisiana State University, then turned attention to the United States with “Appeasing Nazis: American Universities and the Hitler Regime, 1933-1939.” Detailing examples of tacit and direct support of Nazi policies and officials at elite academic institutions in theU.S.(including the Seven Sisters andColumbiaUniversity),Norwoodemphasized the often-sharp distinction between what might be deemed the more “grassroots” elements of the university community and administrations. Many students and community members protested the invitation of Nazi officials and sympathizers to campus.

Anti-Nazi demonstrations outside the academy, too, suggested a high level of knowledge about the extent of anti-Semitic measures in the Third Reich within and around university settings. Bringing the focus back to Germany, Robert Ericksen, the Kurt Meyer Chair of Holocaust Studies at Pacific Lutheran University, provided a case study of a specific university: “Göttingen: A ‘Political University’ in the Mirror of Denazification.” Ericksen demonstrated that, while the process of Entnazifierung [denazification] at Göttingen failed to rid the university of Nazi collaborators, it nonetheless provided later scholars with essential documentation on the politicization of the university during and after the Nazi regime. Professors claiming to take on the appearance of being a Nazi or a Nazi collaborator in order to “work from the inside” is one dynamic Ericksen has found in his work.

The next session on “Disciplinary History” examined individual fields of study and emphasized again the international context of the academy under National Socialism. Johannes Renger, Professor Emeritus of Ancient Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at the Freie Universität Berlin, in “German Assyriology 1933-1945: A Discipline in Troubled Waters between Emigration and Compliance with the Regime,” discussed the effects of the Nazi regime on the field of Assyriology, focusing on the loss of scholars due to Nazi pressures. The following talk from Anders Germar, Associate Professor of Theology at Uppsala University, entited “Theology in German Academia under the Swastika – the Case of Tübingen” showed how the confluence of a particular social milieu, the cultural and political environment, and an established research tradition made Tübingen’s theology faculty the site of a scholarly justification of antisemitism. Fascination with the ancient world was the subject of Suzanne L. Marchand’s talk, entitled “On Nazism and the Ancient World.” Professor of History at LouisianaStateUniversity, Marchand argued that scholars have underestimated how important the classical and biblical worlds were to historical and self-understandings in the 1920s and 1930s. Notions of the “ancient” were bound up in debates about what and who was “German.” Despite Nazi interest in so-called “German antiquity,” however, the field of German Altertumswisschenschaft did not make much headway within the academy. Eric Weitz, Arsham and Charlotte Ohanessian Chair in the College of Liberal Arts at the University of Minnesota, in “The Complicity of the Academic Professions with the Third Reich,” emphasized the atmosphere of “crisis” within the universities preceding the Nazi seizure of power. A lack of jobs and mobility for those trained for the academic professions made Nazi supported programs such as Ostforschung compelling to those in the “crisis generation.” The session concluded with Franklin Adler, G. Theodore Mitau Professor of Political Science at Macalester College, who presented “The Italian Fascist Racial Laws of 1938 and the Expulsion of Jewish Professors,” an examination of the treatment of Jewish scholars in fascist Italy. The day closed with a public lecture given by Alvin Rosenfeld, Professor of Jewish Studies and English and Director of the Institute for the Study of Contemporary Antisemitism at Indiana University, entitled “Is There an Anti-Jewish Bias in Today’s University?”

The second day of the symposium was devoted to a session on “Broader Implications.” It opened with Michael Cherlin, Professor of Music at theUniversityofMinnesota, speaking on “Schoenberg, Creation and Catastrophe.” Cherlin presented Schoenberg’s distinctive musical creativity as drawing extensively upon the significance of catastrophe and exile in the Jewish mystical tradition of Kabbalah. Emmanuel Faye, Associate Professor of Philosophy at theUniversityofRouen, in “National Socialism and Totalitarianism in the Interpretations of Hannah Arendt and Aurel Kolnai,” connected Hannah Arendt’s defense of Martin Heidegger’s Nazism to her similar use of Nazi thinkers, such as Carl Schmitt, in her approach to totalitarianism. Faye maintained that Arendt whitewashed Schmitt and others by using them as sources rather than objects of critique. In the final presentation, “Hitler’s Willing Lawyers,” Oren Gross, Irving Younger Professor of Law at the University of Minnesota, examined the “philosophical cloak for the Nazis’ arbitrary acts and crimes” provided by Carl Schmitt.

A session with all the participants closed the symposium. The discussion highlighted the benefits of interdisciplinary inquiry on the concepts of “betrayal,” “the humanities,” the Humboldtian Bildung ideal of the university, and “academic freedom.” An edited volume is in preparation to continue this exploration of the mutation of academic disciplines under National Socialism. Further information on the symposium is available at the website: