Letters to the Editor

On the Hans Rothfels Chair at Brown University

John Harvey and Georg Iggers | Oct 1, 2015

To the editor:

In 2006, the directing board of Brown University accepted a $1 million gift from an "alumnus and parent" to endow an assistant professorship in the history department. Under condition of the donor's strict anonymity, there was no announcement as to whom the honor would be named. The position was advertised that year without mention of the endowment or its name. Three years later, Brown inaugurated the chair as the Hans Rothfels Assistant Professor of History. It has since existed without attention; even the Rothfels family and his students have been unaware of it-despite its Ivy League prominence. But there could not have been a more controversial transatlantic historian for such an honor, due to his association with the far right in interwar Germany and his position in post-Holocaust historiography. 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.

Since the 1990s, Hans Rothfels has been the subject of scholarly debate, arguably more than any other academic historian. A German nationalist who converted to Lutheranism and was badly wounded in World War One, he was forced by Nazi racial laws to emigrate to Oxford in 1939.In 1941 Brown took him as a substitute lecturer. Retirements and the faculty's mobilization after Pearl Harbor led to extensions of his term to 1945, after which the university ended his appointment and all future contact. Under unclear circumstances, in 1946 he gained the revered senior chair in modern European history at the University of Chicago. Rothfels returned to Germany in the 1950s to complete his career at Tübingen University, where he was instrumental in defining contemporary history as a specialized field of study.

Controversy bathes his record. Throughout the 1920s Rothfels shared the views of many veterans who opposed liberal democracy, with ideas that he actualized through ties to dictatorial-minded groups like the Deutscher Herrenklub and the Ring movement. As with other Prussian conservatives, he dreamed of charismatic leadership under a militarized nobility and an authoritarian bureaucracy that could compromise tactically with growing Nazi popularity. With his chair of modern history at Königsberg University, Rothfels instrumentalized his teaching and research to justify German dominance over eastern Europe and undoing the international settlement of 1919.

As the Weimar Republic spiraled into fatal crisis, Rothfels helped to lead his guild in integrating authoritarianism and nationalist propaganda into the practice of contemporary history. His writings about Europe as a region of adversarial cultures were easily shifted to priorities compatible with the Nazis' dedication to biological struggle among incompatible peoples and to the "saving" of kindred Germans lost across new foreign borders. Examples of his propaganda included his key contribution in 1931 to The Rent in the East/Der Riss im Osten (aimed at an Anglo-American audience). He argued that Polish-Lithuanian lands were historically a Germanic "barrier against the eastern barbarians" that the Allies had severed from the nation's "general circulation of life blood," and cruelly "left to rot away under barbarians."

Works such as this 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 of Jews as a precursor to genocide. Others adopted Rothfels's leadership example in Volksgeschichte (racist ethno-history), which brought them appointments to conquered "Reich universities" at Poznan and Strassburg. As his own political views radicalized, Rothfels could even vote for Adolf Hitler in the 1932 presidential election. With the Nazis in power, he sought an "honorary Aryan" status, so he could remain a loyal citizen of the Reich and direct his historiography to a "reborn" national community. But cooperation with Hitler was an illusion, one that ended painfully under Jewish racial laws with arrests and the expulsion of his family.

Once he settled in America, Rothfels deradicalized his conservatism by grounding it in a defense of the "West" that restored Germany's heritage to a rightful place within an anticommunist community. During the Adenauer era his students, tainted by National Socialism, returned to academic power, where they remained loyal to his political image and interests. Although Rothfels was a key transatlantic bridge in the rebuilding of history in the Federal Republic, his efforts at disciplinary and pedagogical reform were ultimately restricted to a consensual defense of international conservative sentiments. This historical context raises fair questions about values that a chair signifies for a principal American institution of research and civic democracy.

John Harvey, St. Cloud State University

Georg Iggers, SUNY-Buffalo

Editor's note: Brown University has declined to respond to this letter.

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