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December 6, 2015 6:03 am

Should a Professorship Be Named After a Hitler-Backer?

avatar by Rafael Medoff /

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Adolf Hitler. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Adolf Hitler. Photo: Wikimedia Commons. – The campus of Princeton University has been engulfed in protests by students who want President Woodrow Wilson’s name removed from one of the university’s schools because of Wilson’s racist views. By contrast, the news media and academic community have largely ignored a challenge by several historians to Brown University over its naming of a professorship after an extreme German nationalist who voted for Adolf Hitler.

Professors John Harvey of Minnesota-based St. Cloud State University and Georg Iggers of State University of New York (SUNY) at Buffalo recently raised the issue recently in the pages of Perspectives on History, the magazine of the American Historical Association.

In 2009, Brown University inaugurated a chair known as the Hans Rothfels Assistant Professor of History, funded by a $1-million gift from an unnamed source. “This public honor raises questions about the nature of endowed chairs, the voice of faculties in their acceptance, and the legacy of Hans Rothfels within the American historical community,” Harvey and Iggers wrote.

Rothfels (1891-1976) was born to German Jewish parents but converted to Christianity at age 19. As chairman of the history department at the University of Konigsberg in the 1920s and early 1930s, Rothfels became known as a rabid German nationalist. He advocated an authoritarian government that would dominate Eastern Europe and subjugate its peoples under the German “master race.” Rothfels even prepared a detailed set of racial criteria for ranking the various European nations.

Rothfels “voted for Adolf Hitler in the 1932 presidential election,” and after the Nazis took power, he sought the status of “honorary Aryan,” Profs. Harvey and Iggers pointed out. Rothfels played an important role in influencing German academics to accept Hitler, according to Harvey and Iggers. His writings “helped to prepare colleagues and students for further radicalization under National Socialism.”

“Around him formed a ‘Rothfels group’ of loyal students, who closely aligned themselves to German policies of conquest, including plans for the ghettoization Jews as a precursor to genocide,” Harvey and Iggers noted.

Rothfels’s attempts to curry favor with the Nazis failed. He was forced out of his university position — as part of the Hitler policy of “Aryanizing” institutions of higher learning—and eventually compelled to leave Germany altogether, in 1938. Rothfels taught at Brown University for a time, and then the University of Chicago, before returning to Germany after the war.

In his postwar teachings and writings, Rothfels backed away from Nazism while embracing German conservatism. He insisted the Soviet Union was just as bad as the Hitler regime, and vigorously denied the idea that there was any unique aspects of German culture which had led to Nazism. He also downplayed the role of German antisemitism in the Holocaust.

“I took two seminars with Rothfels at the University of Chicago in 1948,” Prof. Iggers told me this week. “I was shocked by some of his views.”

Rothfels nonetheless continues to enjoy the admiration of some historians, especially his former students, such as Gerhard Weinberg of the University of North Carolina. After German historian Nicolas Berg (of the Simon Dubnow Institute at the University of Leipzig) criticized Rothfels’s depiction of the Holocaust, Weinberg insisted that the “interest of Rothfels in the subject” was proven by the fact that Rothfels wrote an article in 1959 about the treatment of Jews in German-occupied Poland.

Spokesmen for Brown University have declined to respond to the Harvey-Iggers letter in Perspectives on History about the Rothfels Professorship. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, which first reported on the controversy, “faculty members at Brown, including the chair of the history department and Jo Guldi, the assistant professor who holds the Rothfels position, did not respond to requests for comment.”

The Chronicle did manage to wrangle an emailed comment from senior associate provost Elizabeth Doherty, who wrote that “time and history are obstacles to reconstructing how [the chair] was established and to what extent faculty may have contributed to the process.”

Dr. Rafael Medoff, founding director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, is the author of 16 books about Jewish history and the Holocaust; the latest is “The Anguish of a Jewish Leader: Stephen S. Wise and the Holocaust” (available on Kindle from or as a free downloadable PDF 

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  • Ron Wasserman

    Other than lampooning the Nazis by talented performers like
    Mel Brooks and the late Werner Klemperer e.g., I don’t want
    to hear about Jews possibly identifying with any force seeking
    our demise. Let the prof be forgotten.

  • basha kline

    I am curious to know what happened to Rothfel’s parents, did he drive them himself to the camps?, did they escape? or were they used in Mengela’s experimental hospital? – whatever, this Rothfel obviously overlooked any moral responsibility and turned out a shunda to the Jewish race. Obviously someone wants to have a laugh at our expense by contributing money to honour this capo and we just don’t need the addition of such a sneering back-handed compliment.

  • Michael Carpenter

    From a certain perspective this is understandable, even proper, given the true nature of the curriculum being taught
    For example; in view of the ideology of most of the…professors(?) A Joseph Goebbels School of Journalism, at Columbia University, would at least give an accurate idea of what one might reasonably expect from that course!
    Similarly a Cloward – Piven School of Economics at Yale.
    A Saul Alinsky School of Philosophy at Princeton
    A Joseph Mengele – Ezekiel Emanuel School of Medicine at Harvard
    Our , extremely expensive ….institutions of higher learning (???) have been almost completely corrupted, to the point that these ARE far more accurate than not!

  • Reform School

    Isn’t it bad enough Bernie made off with our life savings?
    Can’t we just ignore the American Hysterical Association?

  • steven L

    Hans Rothfels must have been a companion of sort of Alfred Rosenberg, Nazi ideologue.

  • No, a professorship should not be named after a Hitler-backer. And don’t expect Brown University to start providing answers, as intellectual dishonesty rules academia with few exceptions.

  • Arthur Cohn

    Even worse than the case of Rothfels, has been the honors bestowed on Martin Heidegger.

  • Andria Spindel

    Some scholarship! History profs who don’t know history or just choose to ignore it, or worse– do the folks at Briwn promoting another, more sinister agenda?

  • Yoel Nitzarim

    The high recognition and lofty praise given to an historical figure in commemorating his life by endowing a present-day chair in his honour should never be dependent upon the whims of the powers to be in an institution of high learning, but rather it should be dependent on the legacy of the honouree in terns of his positive moral contribution to society. It appears that the Brown administration has committed an enormous error in selecting a man whose name and reputation is associated with the infamy of the Nazi regime as well as the corrupt contribution of German fascism to world history.

  • Milhouse

    He insisted the Soviet Union was just as bad as the Hitler regime

    It was.