Revolution #81, March 11, 2007
Hitler's Nazification of the Academy
There is a disturbing parallel between what is happening in academia today and the experience of Germany during the Nazi build-up and consolidation of power.
The Nazi movement organized among youth and students; and by the late 1920s, the Nazis had fortified a substantial following among students. At leading universities, these reactionaries were harassing and boycotting progressive and Jewish professors.
After Hitler came to power in 1933, he set out to restructure the governing apparatus, to reshape the institutions of civil society, and to propagate an ethos of German ethnic solidarity and racial superiority. Political resistance was crushed. Dissent was to be silenced; professions like law and institutions that might challenge the new regime were to be subdued and recast. German society was being reorganized and tightly coordinated to serve a project of social control and imperial conquest.
The educational system was a particular target of nazification. Many university professors were ousted from their posts for political and intellectual reasons, and many more simply for being Jewish. Intellectual diversity was criticized and libraries “cleansed.” Right-wing and Nazi student groups, who had abused professors in the late 1920s, were now unleashed to carry out book-burnings and thuggish attacks on unwelcome professors.
But few administrators and non-Jewish professors took a public stand, or resigned, in response to what was going on. It is a sobering fact: not one of Germany’s 23 universities, 11 academies of science, or 10 technical colleges became a center of protest or resistance.
The Hitler regime was able to forge a new academic “normalcy.” Nazi-led “research institutes” based on bogus social and medical science were established, curricula in various disciplines revamped and perverted, and a corps of intellectuals cultivated to serve and legitimize the Nazi project. For other faculties, a kind of devil’s bargain was offered: keep quiet and you can retain some semblance of academic independence. The great majority of academia complied. Higher education was effectively shackled.
In the 1920s, many dismissed the Hitler phenomenon. But this movement went “from the margins to the mainstream.”
The intensifying attacks on radical thinkers and critical thinking in today’s universities and colleges should be a wake-up call. WHEN is the time to act and change the course of things? In Germany, was it the early '30s, before "Hitler was Hitler" in the fullest and most consolidated and horrific forms, or AFTER? Is it "sober and wise" to dismiss these historical lessons, in this context—or to learn from this bitter experience and act before, not after, it's too late? We should recognize danger signs and act accordingly. The Nazis first went after the Jews and communists, and widened and widened their target. Today we must stand with those who are being singled out—and mobilize to stop a dangerous trajectory.
- Arno J. Mayer, Why Did the Heavens Not Darken? The “Final Solution” in History (New York: Pantheon, 1988).
- Claudia Koonz, The Nazi Conscience (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 2003).
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