Well-Spoken Dictators

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Hoover research fellow Arnold Beichman was present for a 1933 foreshadowing of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s 2007 visit to Columbia University. Last September, Ahmadinejad, who refuses to acknowledge the Holocaust, was invited to speak at Columbia, an offer bitterly opposed by many. In 1933, German Ambassador to the United States Hans Luther, representative of the government that would carry out the Holocaust, also was Columbia’s guest—and also was greeted with protests. In both cases, many people accused the university of furthering the aims of antidemocratic governments.

Yet in contrast to Ahmadinejad’s blunt reception by Columbia’s President Lee C. Bollinger (“you exhibit all the signs of a petty and cruel dictator”), Luther was welcomed by then-president Nicholas Murray Butler as the representative of “the government of a friendly people.” Throughout the 1930s, Butler strove to maintain cordial relations with German universities even as they purged Jewish faculty, burned books, and instituted a Nazi curriculum. In 1936, Butler expelled a student who had led a rally in front of his mansion protesting Columbia’s cordial ties with Nazi Germany.

Beichman describes the ironic confrontation in which he was involved:

The big fuss last fall at Columbia University over the invitation to and the appearance of Iranian President Ahmadinejad brought back memories of seven decades ago, when I was a senior at Columbia and editor in chief of the Columbia Daily Spectator, the student daily. The recent campus protests once more proved the French maxim plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose—the more things change, the more they remain the same.

My experience in 1933 had to do with Adolf Hitler, who had just come to power. Hitler represented the voice of fascism, introduced in Italy in 1922 by Benito Mussolini. Yet Hitler, an enemy of the Jews, went far beyond Mussolini, who was no anti-Semite.

The Hitler problem hit the Columbia campus with a bang when it was announced that Hans Luther, the German ambassador to the United States, would deliver a lecture at a campus auditorium. A delegation from the Columbia Social Problems Club (also known as the Young Communist League) came to my office and urged me to publish an editorial demanding that Luther be barred from speaking at Columbia. Their slogan was “no freedom of speech for fascists.”

I asked the delegation to explain how it was that Columbia had invited Soviet Ambassador Maxim Litvinov to give a lecture and that no one had protested. Came the answer from the YCL spokesman: there could be no such analogy. Luther represented a “gangster” government. Well, I asked, was there any freedom of speech or press in the USSR, or were there any independent trade unions that could go on strike? The YCL response: why should the Soviet workers strike when they owned the means of production?

Many years later I came across this riveting passage in an essay by George Orwell: “The sin of nearly all left-wingers from 1933 onwards is that they have wanted to be anti-fascist without being anti-totalitarian.”

As editor of the Spectator I opposed those who wanted Luther barred from speaking. Let him speak and let those who want to protest, protest. The German ambassador spoke, the protesters got somewhat rowdy, a few arrests were made, and we prepared for the next battle. And on August 19, 1939, with the proclamation of the Nazi-Soviet nonaggression pact, Communists the world over—young and otherwise—were shocked to learn that they and that “gangster” government were now the best of friends.

This essay appeared in the Weekly Standard on October 15, 2007.