Nicholas Murray Butler served as president of Columbia University from 1902 to 1945. During that time, as Matthew Wills writes, he also acquired national fame as a scholar and political figure; among other things, he ran for vice-president on the Republican ticket in 1912, and in 1931 he won a Nobel Prize—shared with Jane Addams—for helping to negotiate the Kellogg-Briand Pact, in which France, the U.S., and Germany renounced war. But as Wills points out, Butler’s attitude toward Nazism has left a shadow over his legacy.
In May 1933, the Nazis burned tens of thousands books at universities across Germany. Works by Einstein, Freud, Heine, Mann, Remarque, London, and Zola, among many others, were consigned to the fires. One of the authors whose books were burned was Franz Boas, the famed Columbia University anthropologist, who had long waged a campaign against racist pseudo-science and “Nordic nonsense.”
[Butler] did not rise to the occasion of speaking out in support of Boas, or academic freedom in Germany. When the Nazis expelled Jewish faculty members and students from universities, Butler stayed silent, continued sending Columbia students to Germany, and welcomed Nazi-approved students in exchange.
Meanwhile, students on campus who protested Nazi barbarism were met with a heavy hand. Faculty members who recognized the necessity of public protest against Nazis were punished as well—Butler ended the careers of two of them. Columbia’s student newspaper noted that the school’s reputation suffered because of “the remarkable silence of its president” about the “Hitler government.”