A speech yesterday detailing new research on Harvard University's relationship with Nazi Germany during the 1930s prompted one prominent scholar to call for the university to apologize for its stance in that era, even as he and other historians noted that people at Harvard were not exceptional for exhibiting ''genteel anti-Semitism" before and during World War II.
Speaking at a conference on the Holocaust at Boston University yesterday, historian Stephen H. Norwood argued that Harvard officials maintained a friendly relationship with Nazi officials and Nazi institutions in the mid-1930s, even though Adolf Hitler's persecution of the Jews was known in the United States.
After Norwood's talk, retired University of Massachusetts professor David S. Wyman, who is considered the leading scholar of America's response to the Holocaust, said in an interview: ''Harvard should issue an apology without excuses and say, 'We as an institution would never conduct ourselves like that again.' "
Harvard officials categorically reject Norwood's findings. ''If there are new facts, they should be added to the archives of history and the dialogue of those times," spokesman Joe Wrinn said in a prepared statement yesterday. But he added: ''Harvard University and President [James Bryant] Conant did not support the Nazis."
As reported in yesterday's Globe, Norwood, a professor at the University of Oklahoma, criticizes Harvard for welcoming a prominent Hitler deputy to his reunion in 1934, for sending a delegate to celebrate the anniversary of the Nazi-controlled University of Heidelberg in 1936, and for failing to help Jewish refugee scholars.
He also argues that Conant, remembered by the university as ''an outspoken critic of Nazi Germany," expressed anti-Semitism in his private correspondence.
Conference organizers were critical of Harvard's failure to send a representative to participate. They said they had offered three dates for the conference to allow president Lawrence H. Summers to attend or send someone in his place. He declined the invitation, and no Harvard official participated. A spokesman said Summers had a scheduling conflict.
''It's a sad irony that the Harvard University administration sent a representative to a Nazi university's celebration in 1936, at the University of Heidelberg, and yet is unwilling to send a representative to our conference to discuss these issues," said Rafael Medoff, director of the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies in Pennsylvania, which sponsored yesterday's conference.
In contrast, Wyman praised the editor of the Crimson, Harvard's student newspaper, for participating in a panel discussion to respond to Norwood's claim that the Crimson was anti-Semitic during the 1930s. For example, the Crimson called on Harvard to present an honorary degree to Ernst Hanfstaengl, Hitler's foreign press secretary, when he attended his 25th reunion in 1934.
''Obviously positions taken by the Crimson in the 1930s are pretty regrettable," Crimson managing editor Elisabeth S. Theodore said yesterday. ''I'm confident that everyone involved in the Crimson today would find them abhorrent." She noted in an interview later that the Crimson did editorialize against the Nazis in the mid-1930s. A 1937 editorial spoke of the difficulty of honoring the anniversary of another school, the University of Goettingen, ''despite its Nazi taint."
Some scholars said that Norwood's findings were not particularly surprising. Wyman said that when anti-Semitism peaked, in 1944, about a third of the US public was anti-Semitic. ''I'm not actually surprised" by Harvard's record, said Wyman, who has a Harvard doctorate, ''but I'm glad he has pulled it all together, which no one else has done."
Norwood, who is writing a book about American higher education and the Nazis, argued that many universities had shameful dealings with Germany during the mid-1930s, but he said Harvard's record is particularly bad.
Harvard officials strongly disagree. In some cases they are unfamiliar with documents Norwood unearthed. In others, they agree with his facts but disagree with his interpretations, and they say it is unfair to blame the institution for actions of individual professors and students. They countered Norwood's findings with quotes from history books, archives, and Conant's autobiography.
''At the time, Harvard and its president publicly acknowledged the potential for misinterpretation of traditional Harvard events and took action to show they did not support the Nazis," Wrinn said in a statement yesterday. ''Harvard actively and publicly refused to take contributions from Hanfstaengl."
Marcella Bombardieri can be reached at email@example.com.