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by Rafael Medoff


Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad concluded his speech at Columbia University last year by inviting the students and faculty to visit Iran. Some critics responded by comparing the idea of visiting Iran to the carefully-choreographed visits of Americans to Nazi Germany in the 1930's. But it now appears that memories of those ill-fated journeys seven decades ago may not suffice to prevent Columbia faculty members from accepting Ahmadinejad's invitation.

Iran's MEHR News Agency reported recently that "a delegation of Columbia University professors and deans of faculties" plans to visit Tehran to apologize to Ahmadinejad for critical remarks made by Columbia president Lee Bollinger in his introduction of the Iranian leader's speech. The report did not name members of the delegation, but it quoted an anonymous member of the group as saying they intend to visit the city of Qom (the site of Muslim religious shrines) and Iranian universities and possibly "sign memoranda of understanding" with some of them.

The Columbia administration released a statement saying it "has no knowledge" of plans for such a trip. The student newspaper, The Spectator, was unable to find any professors who would confirm the visit, but one prominent history professor, Victoria de Grazia, did comment that the trip "promises to be a fine adventure." Bollinger himself has been less than unequivocal on the subject. He told the Washington Post in December, "I have an interest in going, but I decided that it's just not appropriate to send anyone now."

A substantial number of Columbia faculty members have chastised Bollinger for criticizing Ahmadinejad and would no doubt support visits to Iran. Columbia's Faculty Action Committee issued a statement by more than one hundred professors denouncing Bollinger's remarks to Ahmadinejad as "strident" and "incendiary." Even John Coatsworth, dean of Columbia's School of International and Public Affairs, who originally defended Bollinger, said recently he now believes Bollinger's comments "were perhaps more protective than they needed to be, both of the audience and the institution."

Coatsworth himself has figured in the controversy. In the debate preceding Ahmadinejad's visit, he said he would "certainly" have invited Adolf Hitler to speak at Columbia in 1939, since "in 1939, he had not started the war and the Holocaust hadn't begun." So the "bad Hitler" of the 1940's, the one responsible for World War II and Auschwitz, would not have been welcome at Columbia –– but the not-so-bad Hitler of the 1930's would have made an acceptable guest speaker.

It was surprising that a dean at Columbia, himself a historian and even a former president of the American Historical Association, should appear so unfamiliar with the basic facts about Nazi Germany. Yet evidently Coatsworth needed to be reminded that Hitler's 1930's included, among other things, the wide scale imprisonment and murder of dissidents; the banning of opposition newspapers and political parties; mass burnings of books by Jews and other "subversive" authors; the Nuremberg Laws that stripped Jews of their rights; the Kristallnacht pogrom that devastated German Jewry; the annexation of Austria; and the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia.

Coatsworth was speaking about what he thought was a hypothetical invitation to Hitler, but research by Prof. Stephen Norwood of the University of Oklahoma has exposed the fact that Columbia did invite Hitler's ambassador, Hans Luther, to speak on campus in 1933. Despite vigorous protests by students, Columbia president Nicholas Murray Butler refused to rescind the invitation. The ambassador spoke about what he called the Fuhrer's "peaceful intentions." The Luther episode features prominently in Norwood's forthcoming book on the American academic community's response to Nazism in the 1930's.

According to Norwood, Columbia was among the U.S. universities that sought to forge warm relations with Nazi-controlled German universities. Columbia continued its program of student exchanges with Germany even after the Nazis came to power. A Nazi official at the time described German exchange students as "political soldiers of the Reich" who were doing Hitler's work abroad. Yet only Williams College terminated the exchanges.

In 1936, President Butler sent a delegate to take part in anniversary celebrations at the Nazi-controlled University of Heidelberg. He did so even though the university had already fired all of its Jewish instructors, implemented a curriculum based on Nazi ideology, and even was host to a mass book-burning. When students picketed Butler's mansion, he responded by engineering the expulsion of protest leader Robert Burke.

Columbia Circles the Wagons

When Prof. Norwood published some of his findings in the Spectator and elsewhere, Columbia's top brass responded by circling the wagons. Associate dean Michael Rosenthal, author of a Butler biography called Nicholas Miraculous, told the online journal Inside Higher Ed that Burke was expelled "not for the anti-Nazi substance of his protest, but for the fact of the disturbance."

Rosenthal told a Columbia students' website that Butler "was in the forefront" of limiting the admission of Jews to Columbia, "but he was doing nothing that the other schools didn't do." He said Butler "was anti-Semitic, but not in a rabid way."

Columbia provost Alan Brinkley told Inside Higher Ed, "If the events that Professor Norwood describes are examples of 'collaboration,' then the collaborators include many thousands of leaders and citizens of the United States, Britain, and many other nations." In other words, everyone was doing it, so it wasn't so bad. Not the kind of message one would expect a prominent university to send its students.

It is true that Columbia's representatives were not the only Americans to visit Nazi Germany in the 1930's. Hitler perceived such visits as an opportunity to soften his regime's image and gain international legitimacy. More than a few Americans fell for this ploy, enjoying the charms of a carefully-choreographed visit and then returning to share with the American public a whitewashed picture of life under the Nazis.

In his forthcoming book, Norwood describes how American University chancellor Joseph Gray returned from a visit to Nazi Germany "full of praise" for the Hitler regime. Gray declared in 1936 that German cities were "amazingly clean" and that "everybody was working in Germany."

That same year, more than twenty U.S. universities joined Columbia in sending delegates to the aforementioned Heidelberg event. Nazi propaganda minister Josef Goebbels presided over one of the receptions for the American delegates. Columbia's representative, Prof. Arthur Remy, reported that the reception was "very enjoyable."

Norwood points out that in 1937, representatives of seven American universities took part in the bicentennial celebrations at the Nazi-controlled University of Goettingen, an event which The New York Times reported took place in "a thoroughly National Socialist atmosphere."

Among the U.S. delegates was the chairman of Cornell University's German Department, Prof. A. B. Faust, who accepted an honorary degree and even gave the Nazi salute during the ceremony.

Reporters Falling for Hitler

Even some seasoned journalists were taken in by Hitler's charms. In Beyond Belief, her study of U.S. press coverage of Nazism and the Holocaust, Prof. Deborah Lipstadt noted that Frederick Birchwell, Berlin bureau chief for The New York Times, delivered a nationally broadcast speech on CBS Radio in 1933 in which he dismissed speculation that the Nazis would engage in "slaughter...or racial oppression in any vital degree." He said Hitler was "a bachelor and a vegetarian and he neither drinks nor smokes," and "has taken upon himself the hardest job that a man could ever undertake."

His colleague, Times columnist Anne O'Hare McCormick, wrote later that year about Hitler's "curiously childlike and candid" eyes, his smile, and his voice. The Fuehrer was "indubitably sincere," McCormick asserted.

Soviet dictator Josef Stalin likewise sought to attract U.S. tourists. American visitors to the Soviet Union numbered less than 1,000 each year in the mid-1920's, but mushroomed to 10,000 annually by the early 1930's, according to Soviet tallies. By using "Potemkin" tactics, the Kremlin ensured that visitors would return to the West with glowing reports.

The concept of a "Potemkin Village" dates to 1787, when Russian government official Grigory Potemkin ordered the construction of fake villages and store fronts to impress the Czarina, Catherine II, on her visit to the Crimea. The phony buildings were quickly taken down when Catherine left, and shipped ahead to the next town on her tour.

Historian Robert Conquest, describing the 1930's Soviet version of Potemkinism, quoted an eyewitness at a farm that was chosen to be shown off to a group of visitors from abroad: Everything was "thoroughly scrubbed and cleaned.... Furniture was brought from the regional theater in [the nearby town of] Brovary.... The regional telephone exchange, and the switchboard operator, were transferred from Brovary to the farm. Some steers and hogs were slaughtered to provide plenty of meat. A supply of beer was also brought in. All the corpses and starving peasants were removed from the highways in the surrounding countryside and the peasants were forbidden to leave their houses."

A prominent Columbia professor took part in one of the earliest delegations to the USSR. Rexford Tugwell, an agricultural economist who later advised President Franklin Roosevelt, was part of a group of labor activists and economists that toured the Soviet Union in 1927 and enjoyed a personal audience with Stalin. "There is a new life beginning there," Tugwell gushed in his report afterward.

He insisted that the Soviets' repressive behavior was justified because "a drastic change" was required in Russia –– "with ruthlessness if need be." But the era of Soviet harshness was over, and "the spirit is now reconstructive," the Columbia professor declared –– just a few years before the Soviet policy of "collectivization" claimed at least several million Ukrainian lives through famine and disease, followed by the Great Terror in which hundreds of thousands of Russian political dissidents and other undesirables were executed or shipped off to Siberia.

'Totalitarian Tourism'

The Nazis used similar choreographing to help camouflage their mass murder of the Jews. In June 1944 the Nazis permitted a delegation from the International Red Cross to visit the Jewish ghetto they had created in northwestern Czechoslovakia. Theresienstadt (Terezin) was a transit point for Jews being shipped to the gas chambers in Auschwitz; but the Nazis sought to present it as an "Endlager," a final destination camp where Jewish prisoners lived happily.

In Prof. Saul S. Friedman's book The Terezin Diary of Gonda Redlich, a Theresienstadt inmate noted the Nazis' preparations for the Red Cross visit: "They rain down order after order. Kindergarten children are to sing during the visit, the workers are to return home. Plays and cultural events and sporting activities must take place. Even the few lambs left here roam about on the grass around the city. The children, the workers, the sheep –– a perfect idyll."

Another Theresienstadt prisoner recalled: "A playground was laid out with sandboxes and swings, a 'children's pavilion' was built and painted from inside with big wooden animals as toys. Behind a glass veranda you could see a dozen cribs. It was like a story book –– but children were only allowed to enter this little paradise on the day the commission visited Theresienstadt." Houses were freshly painted –– but only those portions that would be visible to the Red Cross inspectors.

During the weeks preceding the visit, the deportations to Auschwitz were increased to temporarily relieve overcrowding in the camp. The Nazis hastily constructed schools, stores, a bank, and a cafe, to give the appearance of a normal village. With Theresienstadt's flower beds neatly trimmed and its orchestra well rehearsed, the Red Cross delegates could see only what the Nazis wanted them to see.

The visitors' subsequent reports to Red Cross headquarters were critical of some aspects of Theresienstadt, but also described conditions there as "relatively good." They agreed with the Germans' contention that it was a final-destination camp –– even though the Red Cross knew that the population of Theresienstadt at the time of the visit was 30,000 less than it had been shortly before.

The visit went so well from the Germans' perspective that they later prepared a movie depicting the Jews' pleasant life in Theresienstadt. After the filming, the cast was shipped to Auschwitz.

Apparently not learning very much from the experience of "totalitarian tourism" in the 1930's, The New York Times last month published a lengthy feature story about the allegedly warm reception that Americans now receive in "once hostile Tehran."

"Generally speaking, Iranians like Americans," the Times reported. Iranians have "changed their tone" about America, it claimed, citing as an example Masoumeh Ebtekar, who was part of the group that took 66 Americans hostage in 1979 and is today a Tehran city council member. The Times quoted Ebtekar as saying, "I think the problem we have with the Americans is the way Americans perceive Iran as a threat, as a rogue state. This perception has to change. I believe if they understand who we really are, the basis for reconciliation will be based on respect and equality."

As further evidence of the alleged change in Iran, the Times pointed to a Tehran gift shop selling "Rugrats" DVDs, an ice cream shop that mimics the 31 flavors of Baskin-Robbins, and "sound-alike shops" such as "Starcups" and "Kabooky Fried Chicken."

Tours organized by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's choreographers would no doubt make sure that visitors from Columbia enjoyed plenty of Kabooky Fried Chicken and visited only those campuses where students and faculty could be relied upon to make the regime look best. Given the atmosphere of repression at Iranian universities, they should be in ample supply.

According to the State Department's last report on human rights in Iran, college campuses are virtual hostages of the regime. To gain admission to an Iranian university, an applicant must "pass 'character tests' in which officials eliminate applicants critical of the government's ideology."

Students who dare to become politically active are "banned from university or prevented from registering for upcoming terms," and informers are "common on university campuses" to keep things in line.

Faculty are likewise handcuffed: "To obtain tenure professors had to refrain from criticism of the authorities." To make sure no dissidents slip by, Ahmadinejad in 2005 "called for the removal of secular and liberal professors from universities," and as a result "dozens of university professors were dismissed or forced to retire."

Whether or not visiting such a university would indeed constitute a "fine adventure," as Columbia professor De Grazia put it, remains to be seen.

Dr. Rafael Medoff is director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies ( This article was published March 26, 2008 in the Jewish Press ( a§ionid=14&contentname=Columbia%2C_Ahmadinejad%2C_and_Nazi_Germany% 3A_Round_Two&recnum=1).


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