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Courtesy of Spectator Archives /

A petition to have a fascist speaker banned from campus circulates to no effect. Increasingly confrontational student activists promise to take matters into their own hands. The American Civil Liberties Union calls for restraint and respect. Eventually, tensions boil over and a violent street battle erupts between protesters and the police.

While this scene has all the hallmarks of recent U.S. campus clashes between left-wing students and right-wing speakers, it actually happened on December 12, 1933, when an emissary from Nazi Germany spoke at Columbia University.

Despite the recent rise in high-profile “antifa” actions, especially in light of the violence in Charlottesville, anti-fascist organizing has existed for a long time. As in cases today, a common goal of this organization was the restriction of fascist political speech. But unlike today, anti-fascists at Columbia in the ’30s had to contend with direct institutional support for fascist governments.

“National in spirit”

Columbia’s relationship with the future Axis Powers—Germany, Japan, and Italy—begins as early as 1926. Casa Italiana, now the home of the relatively uncontroversial Italian Academy for Advanced Studies, was originally the fruit of a collaboration between the University and Italian dictator Benito Mussolini.

Frank Rosengarten’s book, Through Partisan Eyes, notes that Casa Italiana was funded by businessmen who “were sympathetic to fascism.” The building was often used to promote the fascist government, such as when its grand opening was a fascist propaganda bonanza attended by the Fascisti League of North America. Here, the Italian ambassador praised Italy’s “spiritual, political, and economic” rebirth under fascist rule.

According to Professor Robert McCaughey, historian and author of the book Stand, Columbia, the notoriously egotistical University president (and library namesake) Nicholas Murray Butler “had a personal stake in seeing Columbia—and himself—as an international figure.” This led to the University seeking ties with rising fascist leaders.

McCaughey speculates that Butler’s support for fascism also stemmed in part from his negative views of Italians. Although the Italian community in New York was “divided” on fascism at the time, Butler saw Italians as a people who needed the “heavy hand” that only Mussolini could provide.

Even after its opening, Casa Italiana often functioned as an outpost for fascist propaganda. Prince Ludovico Spada Potenziani, “one of the strongest leaders in Fascist [sic] Italy” at the time and Ambassador Franco Ciarlantini came to speak at the center in 1928. Giuseppe Prezzolini, director of Casa Italiana itself, praised fascist education policies as “national in spirit” in a 1932 speech.

According to a journal article by Stephen H. Norwood, Butler thanked Dr. Prezzolini for translating a “charming” letter from Mussolini, writing that “[i]t is pleasant, indeed, to know that he is following our work and appreciates it.”

Morningside resistance

The University’s long relationship with fascism also provided ample opportunities for activists to fight against it. According to a 1931 Spectator article, Lauro De Bosis, “regarded as an ardent Fascist,” performed research on literature at the Casa Italiana for two years on the Italian government’s dime. At the same time, however, he secretly led an underground anti-fascist organization called the National Alliance for Liberty and smuggled anti-Mussolini propaganda into Italy. (De Bosis later died in a plane crash while dropping anti-fascist leaflets on Rome.)

Casa Italiana officials, “whose policy it has always been to try to keep political agitators out of the Italian house,” refused to believe the stories about their former resident’s activities.

De Bosis was not the only Morningside Heights resident to resist fascist rule. Franz Boas, a Columbia professor, was well-known for his harsh criticisms of racism and what he called the “Nordic Nonsense” of Nazi eugenic theory.

This outspokenness (along with his Jewish heritage) earned Boas condemnation and book burnings in Germany, which the professor dismissed in stride. But he took the growing fascist threat in America seriously. He revealed a decree ordering German students in American universities to participate in Nazi propaganda efforts in an October 1933 letter to Congress.

But while these students and faculty members pushed back against fascism, Butler cozied up to fascist dignitaries. On November 25, 1931, he and his wife held a reception at Casa Italiana for Italian foreign minister Dino Grandi. Guarded by legions of policemen, the high-ranking fascist official “was greeted by guests with shouts of ‘Hail,’ [sic] and the Fascist salute.

Unlike in the case of fascist Italy, Butler never publicly condoned Nazi Germany, which he saw as an “aberration.” But he was very slow to condemn its crimes.

McCaughey emphasizes that “Butler was not the most anti-Semitic of New Yorkers during his period,” but does concede that “he was impressively tolerant of other anti-Semites and suspicious of the motives of people who were saying that Hitler was doing all these dastardly things.”

It’s not surprising, then, that Butler hosted a warm welcome for Nazi German ambassador Hans Luther two years later.

“A man or woman of high intelligence and good manners”

For obvious reasons, Jewish students at Columbia were highly uncomfortable with the rise of fascism. What was less obvious was the role of Jewish students in creating the activist infrastructure that opposed these officials.

Twenty blocks north of Columbia, something was brewing at the “Harvard of the proletariat.” Tuition-free at the time, the City College of New York attracted many first-generation Jewish immigrants involved with organized labor. These were the same kind of students who, according to Norwood, Butler attempted to keep out of Columbia with discriminatory measures.

According to When the Old Left Was Young by Robert Cohen, these Jewish activists formed the early core of the National Student League, which soon grew beyond its roots to represent students of many different backgrounds. Its Columbia chapter, the Social Problems Club, had achieved nationwide fame for its combined labor and press freedom campaign in spring 1932.

Ambassador Luther was originally invited to Columbia on November 15, 1934. When Luther’s speech was postponed by a few weeks, ostensibly due to an illness, the student and faculty opposition to Ambassador Luther snowballed out of control. The left-wing activist Social Problems Club, which had planned to picket the original event, began organizing a publicity campaign urging Butler to cancel the event.

Other groups joined the campaign, including the Socialist Club and even a Jewish group at New York University. Several faculty members formed their own committee urging Butler to disinvite Ambassador Luther. Outcry over his speech grew to the point that Columbia moved the venue to a much more “intimate” auditorium a little over a week before the event.

However, not everyone was on board with the Social Problems Club campaign. Just as the American Civil Liberties Union today defends white nationalist groups’ right to assembly, the head of Columbia’s Civil Liberties Union endorsed “the right of the Nazis to make public fools of themselves.

But the strongest opposition to the anti-fascist campaign came from Butler himself. He criticized the protesters for advocating “illiberal theories,” arguing in the vein of academic freedom that “there is no subject which a company of scholars, such as that assembled on Morningside Heights, is not prepared to have presented to it by a man or woman of high intelligence and good manners.”

Even the Civil Liberties Union, in its push to allow Ambassador Luther to speak, conceded that “it would be difficult to have an opposition speaker on the same program”—probably because the Nazis had passed the Enabling Act to stamp out political dissent that year.

As some modern anti-fascists have argued, debates about “free speech” should take into account which opinions are backed by state power. A faculty committee to support exiled German academics in the 1930s echoed this argument: “Inviting the Nazi envoy to lecture on the foreign policy of his government and giving him an official reception means not only failing in our duty to defend our German colleagues,” but also equivocating on “those fundamental concepts of civilized humanity about which there can be no two sides.”

Butler disagreed. Despite the violence happening in Germany at the time, Columbia’s president asserted thatthe official diplomatic representative to the Government of the United States on the part of a friendly people … is entitled to be received throughout our country with the greatest courtesy and respect.”

Norwood describes Butler as uncomfortable with the vocal Jewish opposition to Hitler and “strongly committed to upper-class formality and decorum, and repression of emotion in public.” Butler’s courtesy and decorum would soon clash with a mobilized mass of students, Jewish and non-Jewish alike. Because the Social Problems Club was already experienced with mobilizing students across New York, it was able to muster a large presence in opposition to Ambassador Luther’s speech.

Battle on Broadway

On the night of December 12, 1933, Luther’s rescheduled speech, a crowd of over 1,000 protesters braved the cold while being held back by dozens of police officers stationed on Broadway between 116th and 120th streets. Although the audience for the ambassador’s speech “seemed unperturbed by the noise going on outside,” the speech was interrupted three times by women within the audience shouting anti-fascist slogans.

Russell Potter, director of Columbia’s Institute for Arts and Sciences and host of the event, helped plainclothes police eject each protester, including one who was a German instructor at Columbia. According to Norwood, Potter called the hecklers “ill-mannered children.”

Outside the auditorium, police arrested a woman for handing out pamphlets. Several hundred people disappeared into the subway, gathering on 59th Street and Eighth Avenue to rally outside the courtroom until Judge Thomas Aurelio dismissed the charges.

Although the protesters weren’t allowed to gather outside the auditorium, which was at Horace Mann, every time the police dispersed them they attempted to gather there again. There were fistfights between officers and protesters on the iced-over Broadway, though no serious injuries were reported at the time.

The next day, the ACLU criticized the police for stifling the protesters’ freedom of speech.

When an officer inexplicably drove up to the crowd of protesters in a squad car and pettily demanded they raise the American flag “six inches higher,” the demonstrators shouted him down with quotations from the Gettysburg Address.

Too little, too late

The protests didn’t stop Ambassador Luther from speaking. But the reaction to Ambassador Luther set the stage for a student movement that eventually forced Butler to renounce fascism.

In the wake of the protests, Columbia declined to reappoint Jerome Klein, an art instructor of Jewish heritage who had signed the petition against Ambassador Luther, according to Norwood. Students protested the decision, accusing the administration of anti-Semitism.

In March 1936, the same month that Nazi authorities remilitarized the Rhineland in preparation for war, they announced a massive ceremony planned in June to celebrate the 550th anniversary of the University of Heidelberg. Norwood writes that the Nazi government “believed that by securing the participation of distinguished academics from the United States … it could project an image of being highly civilized.”

Delegates from Columbia were among those invited. Despite the administration’s attempts to keep the whole affair quiet, the student body once again protested against the University’s collaboration with fascism.

Several faculty members, including Boas, signed a petition calling for Columbia to decline the invitation, and the student government passed a resolution condemning the Nazi “violation of those principles of free inquiry and academic freedom.” Butler refused to speak to a committee about the invitation. In response, students staged a mock book-burning and picketed outside of his house.

A few weeks later, according to Norwood, Butler complained that “[w]e may next expect to be told that we must not read Goethe’s Faust, or hear Wagner’s Lohengrin, or visit the great picture galleries at Dresden, or study Kant’s Kritik, because we so heartily disapprove of the present form of government in Germany.”

Administrators also attempted to expel Robert Burke, one of the organizers of the mock book-burning, for leading “a disorderly demonstration in front of the [president’s] house … in which he referred to the President disrespectfully.” Norwood also writes that Columbia administrators were “personally uncomfortable” with Burke’s working-class Irish background and involvement in labor activism.

However, the last straw came in May 1937. Nazi Germany once again invited American academics to the University of Göttingen for the University’s 200th anniversary. Although several American universities had already declined the invitation, Butler ignored several petitions and telegrams. One week later, instead of officially rejecting the invitation, Butler chose to not send a delegate to the celebration—no doubt fearing a repeat of the student unrest that had shaken the University several times during his administration.

According to Norwood, this marked a “turning point” in Butler’s stances, and during the anti-Jewish violence of Kristallnacht in 1938, Butler condemned the Nazi regime in no uncertain terms. But this condemnation, more than 10 years after the beginning of Columbia’s relationship with fascism, came only after a lengthy student campaign that functioned in direct opposition to the administration’s wishes.

“I think it permanently damaged [Butler’s] reputation and constitutes not a very positive story about Columbia,” McCaughey says, ”because [the University] was slow to recognize what everybody knows now was the case, but didn’t at the time.”

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