University News

Professorship name stirs polarizing views

Cited by one researcher as a Hitler supporter, Rothfels’ political beliefs are not so clear

By
Senior Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Researchers claim the namesake of a professorship — Hans Rothfels — was an early Hitler supporter. Rothfels worked as a substitute lecturer in Brown’s history department during and after World War II.

Student activists at Princeton have called for the reconsideration of the name of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs in light of Wilson’s anti-civil rights, pro-segregation and racist views. Brown, too, has honored complicated figures through endowed positions — one of which has recently garnered attention over accusations that the namesake of the professorship was a Hitler supporter.

The endowed history assistant professorship is named after Hans Rothfels, who served as a substitute lecturer at Brown during and after World War II. In August, the Chronicle of Higher Education published a piece on the research by John L. Harvey, a professor of history at St. Cloud State University, which paints Rothfels as an “early supporter of Hitler.”

Harvey first encountered Rothfels in writing his dissertation on modern European historians; Harvey’s work focuses on “transatlantic intellectual history,” or the study of scholars and ideas, he said.

Conversation over Rothfels’ legacy built during the early 2000s as part of a “wider international discussion” about German scholars and nationalism, Harvey said. The reason it has been inaccessible to and largely ignored by American audiences is because Rothfels’ work is mostly in German, and the issue of his scholarship is tied to German nationalism, Harvey added.

In October, Harvey authored another piece in Perspectives on History, the online news magazine of the American Historical Association, with Georg Iggers, a professor at the State University of New York, Buffalo and a German refugee. Iggers knew Rothfels personally during his time as a doctoral student at the University of Chicago and wrote “The German Conception of History,” a critical analysis of historism, a type of historiographical theory.

Both pieces call on the University to acknowledge the controversy of the naming and criticize the administration for accepting money with the contingency that the endowment honor a polarizing figure with radical perspectives.

Rothfels’ research

Rothfels was born Jewish in 1891 and converted to Lutheranism at age 19. In the years between World War I and World War II, he became a loud supporter of German nationalism: He despised the Weimar Republic and “espoused nationalist and radical views,” said Adam Teller, associate professor of history and Judaic studies. Rothfels also envisioned using the ethnic Slavs as slaves, he added.

As a highly regarded historian and professor at the University of Königsberg, Rothfels’ philosophy developed and gained traction during a difficult time in Germany — his “teachings overlapped very much” with what would become Nazi ideology, Teller said.

“Rothfels was a representative of the nationalist right that made the accommodation of National Socialism possible,” Harvey said. He voted for Hitler in the 1932 election and made it “no secret” that he supported Nazi stances, trying twice to become an honorary Aryan, he added.

During his time at Königsberg, Rothfels became “the center of a group of young historians who … later on played a very important role in the Nazi period,” Iggers added.

But Teller said Rothfels wasn’t a Nazi. Though an ultra-right-wing conservative and an “unsavory character,” Rothfels was abhorred by the Nazis for his Jewish ancestry. In the 1930s, as Hitler turned on conservative elites, Rothfels, too, was attacked, his home was ransacked, and he was forced to flee the country as a refugee.

Rothfels taught at multiple universities during and after the war: St. John’s College at Oxford, Brown for six years from 1940 to 1946 and the University of Chicago.

Though Rothfels was a good and interesting teacher, Iggers recalls a very “awkward” yet “open” discussion with Rothfels about the professor’s ideology. As a man claiming to be a refugee in a democratic country where many refugees were persecuted for their religions and political ideologies, Rothfels continued to purport nationalistic socialistic beliefs. Rothfels subsequently discouraged Iggers from pursuing his PhD, Iggers said.

But Rothfels was in good company among American historians, “a large number” of whom “had ties to the far right in the 1930s and 1940s,” Harvey said.

“Rothfels slipped in with the ethno-ideological view of the time. A lot of people ignored it or turned their nose up to it or even agreed with it.” Harvey added.

Following the war, Rothfels returned to his homeland, and, with the help of his students, began to “reconstruct historical research in Germany,” Teller said.

Still a deep-rooted German nationalist, Rothfels proceeded to “glorify the right-wing opposition to Hitler” in attempts to distance his type of nationalism from Nazism, Teller added. His book, “The German Opposition To Hitler,” focused on the 1944 assassination attempt on Hitler. Surrounded by colleagues who actively avoided in-depth study of the Second World War, Rothfels was “key” in developing a “new type of history research — (German) contemporary history,” Teller said.

But Harvey argues that “every single German after World War II wanted to say” they abhorred Nazism and Hitler. But given his prominence in the intellectual spheres, criticizing Rothfels implicitly criticized all German academia, Harvey said.

Contrarily, Rothfels’ contributions to historical research “are not inconsiderable,” Teller said, “which means the question of naming the chair is complicated.”

Endowing a professorship

After Harvey learned of the Rothfels chair, he contacted the University about the process of establishing the chair and was disturbed that the history department was not consulted, he said.

But contact with the department is not usually part of the University’s establishment process.

Donors “interested in recognizing faculty scholarship through the establishment of a chair” work with staff in the Office of Advancement, “sometimes over many years,” wrote Elizabeth Doherty, senior associate dean, in an email to The Herald.

The process culminates in a legally binding gift agreement between the University and the donor after consultation with a senior administrator “to ensure that the terms of the gift align with and support Brown’s academic priorities,” Doherty wrote.

“Gift agreements are typically not public” in the case that philanthropic donors prefer to maintain anonymity, wrote Cass Cliatt, vice president for communications, in an email to The Herald. But after Harvey published the articles about the chair over the summer, the University released “non-confidential excerpts” of the gift agreement, she wrote.

The donation of the Rothfels chair was made in 2005, indicating that it was made during the last capital campaign, Cliatt wrote.

Brown’s last capital campaign was “Boldly Brown” under former President Ruth Simmons.

The gift numbered among nearly 60 other endowed professorship chairs that were funded through that campaign, Cliatt added.

The anonymous donor of the endowment “recalls fondly Professor Rothfels’ excellent teaching and scholarship, his accessibility to students, his good advising and his sense of humor,” according to the gift agreement.

The Rothfels chair was not established until 2009, after the release of the Slavery and Justice Report in 2007. In the report, the University vowed to uphold “high ethical standards” in considering donations.

“As an observer, the values and the heritage of the legacy of Hans Rothfels is not consistent with the liberal basic core values of Brown University in higher education today,” Harvey said.

“On the one hand, this man has appalling racist views that clearly facilitated Nazis taking power,” Teller said. “On the other hand, he paid a price for that. He lost everything.”

Rothfels’ legacy

“From time to time we have changed the names or terms of an endowment,” Doherty wrote in her email. “But doing so requires either working with a living donor to seek approval for the change or seeking a change to the terms of the endowment through legal action.”

Harvey said it was “not his place” to make any recommendations to the University about how to approach the controversy of the chair. “We wanted to just make sure that people were aware of it,” he said.

Iggers said that he and Harvey were “surprised” that no one at Brown investigated the namesake of the chair, adding that, “We felt that it wasn’t right for an honorary chair to be established for someone who was so involved with the Nazis.”

Further, Harvey found that the University had not listed the position under Rothfels’ name, meaning that scholars applying for the position would not know the chair was in Rothfels’ name, Harvey said.

The Herald could not independently verify this allegation.

Jason Nadboy ’17, a former senior staff writer for The Herald and a leader in the Holocaust Initiative at Brown University, found it “a little strange” that a professor who served for only a few years would receive “such an honor as getting a chair named after him.”

If the University decides to reevaluate the name of the chair, communities of all backgrounds, including Hillel, should be included in that decision, he said.

But Ben Gladstone ’18 said that the University community has decided that “we do care about people after whom professorships are named.” He pointed to the renaming of Fall Weekend to Indigenous People’s Day as a primary example, noting that it “made a tremendous and very important statement about the values of this University.”

In general, the efficacy of renaming any chair begs the question of whether it creates a more just campus atmosphere, Teller said.

Naming a chair is indicative of two things: It honors the namesake, but it also encourages new research and allows progress to be made, Teller said.

The University could acknowledge that “this is a complicated endowment,” Teller said. “One thing we could do is ensure the chair is used to right some of the wrongs he did.”

Jo Guldi, assistant professor of history, who has held the Rothfels chair since 2012, is a historian focusing on “capitalism, land use and the design of computational tools for visualizing large numbers of texts,” according to her website.

Guldi’s work is interesting and forward-thinking, Teller said.

The study of history can help “create a different society,” he said, adding that the Rothfels issue will not be resolved simply by siphoning his legacy into the good and the bad.

“If we start reducing the past to black and white then we’ll never understand the present,” Teller said.

Guldi is currently on leave from the University and did not respond to requests for comment.

Correction: A previous version of this article stated that gift agreements are not usually public because donors prefer to maintain anonymity. In fact, gift agreements are not usually made public in the case that donors are anonymous. The Herald regrets the error.

Also, a previous version of this article stated that the American Historical Association found that the professorship was listed without its namesake. In fact, Harvey found this. The Herald regrets the error. 

Clarification: A previous version of this article stated that Cass Cliatt, vice president for communications, wrote in an email to The Herald that the endowment for the chair was donated during former President Ruth Simmons’ capital campaign. In fact, she wrote that it was during Brown’s previous capital campaign.