Don’t be surprised: Columbia welcomed Nazi officials more than Jews in the 1930s

Nicholas Murray Butler in 1916. Credit: Bain/Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons.

by Ben Cohen

(JNS) — Ninety years ago, Nazis and their sympathizers were far more welcome on the Columbia University campus on Manhattan’s Upper West Side than were Jews. We can fairly draw the same conclusion today.

On Dec. 12, 1933, Hans Luther, the German Ambassador to the United States, delivered a speech to 1,200 Columbia students and faculty extolling the virtues of the newly installed Nazi regime. Luther spoke at the invitation of Columbia’s then-president, Nicholas Murray Butler. As historians of the Holocaust like Stephen Norwood and Rafael Medoff have carefully and copiously documented, the warm welcome afforded to the Nazi envoy by Butler was part of his broader strategy of legitimizing Hitler’s regime in the eyes of the American public.

Luther the Nazi’s speech came six months after the first mass burnings of books by Jews and other undesirables in German cities, as well as the removal of Jewish faculty from German university posts. But none of this remotely bothered Butler, a well-connected and influential antisemite who sympathized with both Hitler and Mussolini, and who had advocated for and introduced antisemitic quotas to restrict the presence of Jewish students at Columbia and other American elite universities.

In April 2024, Columbia and other institutions of higher learning are following faithfully in Butler’s footsteps. Jewish students there no longer face quotas managed by the administration, but the presence of a viciously antisemitic mob on the campus is leading many of them to avoid attending classes, as well as seriously examining options to continue their studies elsewhere, including at Israel’s fine universities.

In his speech on that December evening in the Horace Mann Auditorium, Luther depicted Germany as a helpless victim, simultaneously bullied by the other European powers and facing a Communist threat on its eastern frontier. These were propagandistic assertions that formed the basis for Hitler’s idea of lebensraum (“living space”) justifying Germany’s forthcoming conquest of neighboring countries so that the Third Reich’s citizens could expand their footprint at the expense of subjugated populations. The Hamas mob screaming antisemitic epithets on the same campus that hosted Luther similarly present the Palestinians as the helpless victims of a genocidal bombing campaign targeting them for no other reason than they fact they are Arabs standing in the way of Zionist colonialism.

One of the many tricks that the Nazi envoy of the last century shared with the Hamas cheerleaders of this one is the transformation of Jews from a vulnerable, exposed minority into oppressors of unparalleled ferocity. For the Nazis, their sympathizers and their fellow travelers, the post-World War I Versailles settlement was imposed to serve the financial and political interests of a global cabal Jewish bankers and business moguls at the expense first of Germany, and then the rest of the world. For Hamas and its supporters in the West, the war in Gaza is the true face of a vengeful, unaccountable Jewish conspiracy whose tentacles stretch from Tel Aviv to the corridors of power in America’s government, its media and its universities.

This is what used to be called the “socialism of fools” — pinning all the world’s ills on the Jews because you are too blinkered or cowardly or intellectually lazy to deal with complexity and its multi-layered explanations.

Some of the more historically literate protesters at Columbia (assuming they exist) would doubtless retort that the proper analogy with Luther is not the Hamas mob, but the State of Israel and its supporters. They might point to the fact that on the night Luther spoke, hundreds of students opposed to his presence gathered on Broadway and the other streets around the campus, at certain points clashing violently with the New York City Police Department officers holding them back — “just like we are now,” they would likely say. And they would happily conclude that the current wave of protest in solidarity with the Palestinians reflects a broader Columbia tradition of standing up to oppression and the seizure of foreign lands by colonists.

To which I would retort, nice try, but that argument really doesn’t wash. The issue isn’t the fact that they are protesting. The issue is the ideology underlying their protests. And what unites National Socialism of Hans Luther with the Islamism of Hamas and other Muslim Brotherhood offshoots is their joint belief in an unceasing war against the Jews, whom they disdain as corrupt financiers, media manipulators and land grabbers.

We need to move beyond superficial impressions (after all, the kids draping themselves in keffiyehs and sipping oat-milk lattes in their state-of-the-art tents on the Columbia lawn in between antisemitic chants don’t really correspond to our mental image of Nazis) to look at the content of these protests. From demanding the bombing of Tel Aviv to praying for Qassam missiles to take out their Jewish fellow students, the parallels are unmistakable. Nicholas Murray Butler’s spirit lives on — in both the approach of Columbia’s current appeasing, spineless and incompetent administration, and in the fetid antisemitic beliefs of the student protesters.

The fact that these students couch their violently antisemitic positions in the language of justice is irrelevant. When Hans Luther came to Columbia, he did exactly the same, as, frankly, did Hitler and the rest of the Nazi top brass. This is, of course, what used to be called the “socialism of fools” — pinning all the world’s ills on the Jews because you are too blinkered or too cowardly or too intellectually lazy to deal with complexity and its multi-layered explanations. As is usually the case with antisemitism, the arguments themselves are pure garbage, but the tactics behind them are shrewd enough to seduce the impressionable — particularly in environments like university campuses, where groupthink and peer pressure are unavoidable hazards.

Thus, do we as a Jewish community find ourselves asking the same questions that our ancestors did: Why do they hate us? Can education inoculate them against this hatred? Is there something we can do now that perhaps we didn’t think of in the past?

As we repeat these questions, we need to heed the lessons of history. We know from bitter experience that Nazism and Nazis could not be reasoned with; they needed to be ridiculed, harried and banned on their way to being irrevocably defeated. The Nazis inheritors at Columbia, Yale, MIT and other elite institutions, who latch on to Arab eliminationist slogans with the same enthusiasm as their forebears did German ones, must confront the same fate. On this one, there is no middle ground.

Ben Cohen writes a weekly column for JNS on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics. His writings have been published in the New York Post, The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, Haaretz and many other publications.