Seventy years before this week’s invitation to Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Columbia rolled out the red carpet for a senior official of Adolf Hitler’s regime. The invitation to Iran’s leader may seem less surprising, but no less disturbing, when one recalls that in 1933, Columbia president Nicholas Murray Butler invited Nazi Germany’s ambassador to the United States, Hans Luther, to speak on campus, and also hosted a reception for him. Luther represented “the government of a friendly people,” Butler insisted. He was “entitled to be received ... with the greatest courtesy and respect.” Ambassador Luther’s speech focused on what he characterized as Hitler’s peaceful intentions. Students who criticized the Luther invitation were derided as “ill-mannered children” by the director of Columbia’s Institute of Arts and Sciences.
Columbia also insisted on maintaining friendly relations with Nazi-controlled German universities. While Williams College terminated its program of student exchanges with Nazi Germany, Columbia and other universities declined to do likewise. Columbia refused to pull out even after a German official candidly asserted that his country’s students were being sent abroad to serve as “political soldiers of the Reich.”
In 1936, the Columbia administration announced it would send a delegate to Nazi Germany to take part in the 550th anniversary celebration of the University of Heidelberg. This, despite the fact that Heidelberg already had been purged of Jewish faculty members, instituted a Nazi curriculum, and hosted a burning of books by Jewish authors. Prof. Arthur Remy, who served as Columbia’s delegate to the Heidelberg event, later remarked that the reception at which chief book-burner Josef Goebbels presided was “very enjoyable.”
That Ahmadinejad is more welcome at an Ivy League university than the president of the United States speaks volumes about the state of higher education.