Days before 85-year-old Paul Henss, facing deportation for his alleged past as a member of Hitler Youth and attack dog trainer for the Nazis, addressed reporters gathered around his suburban Atlanta home, nineteen-year-olds at one of our most prestigious schools applauded a dictator who has recently hosted an international conference of Holocaust deniers and has vowed to wipe Israel off the map. Paul Henss was quoted in the October 1 Atlanta Journal-Constitution as saying, “’I was 19 years old. Everybody was with the Hitler youth.’”
The students applauding Iranian President Ahmadinejad at Columbia University on September 24 will not be charged for war crimes for this behavior, even though their applause fuels the propaganda of a regime that kills our soldiers. Indeed, Columbia president Lee Bollinger’s condemnatory introduction to Ahmadinejad has reportedly spurred a backlash among many of the university’s faculty and students.
Let us look at Paul Henss’s situation as a nineteen-year-old and compare it to the nineteen-year-old student at a place like Columbia. Henss was living under the reign of a dictator at a time when to not join the Hitler youth or support the regime invited suspicion and possible repercussions.
Though repercussions cannot be compared, a situation of intimidation occurs in many college classrooms. To be a conservative student on a college campus these days requires intellectual vigor and fortitude beyond the capabilities of the average 19-year-old, who is more often concerned with being popular and getting good grades.
Furthermore, the student today finds himself in an institution where the standards of logical thought and accepted historical fact have been eliminated by the tenured radicals and replaced by their own interpretations of history, emotional spins, and pressure to adhere to the group-think of sensitivity that includes respect for all kinds of behavior no matter how revolting or harmful. One can read in the scholarly literature the calls for abolishing the values of the West, for eliminating philosophy, for replacing historical fact with “perspectives,” and for replacing universals with social advocacy. Upon entering graduate school in the 1990s, I was shocked to learn that for decades academics have been publishing papers on this agenda and sharing them at conferences.
Fifty years from now will our grandchildren be pointing to the shameful behavior of students and professors applauding Ahmadinejad? Whom to blame? The professor or the nineteen-year-old?
It is easy to cast judgment upon those like Henss from our breakfast tables as we read the newspaper. It is even easier for those who are privileged enough to teach or study at Columbia and who have been isolated from the challenges of poverty and war. I doubt there were many, if any, in that college audience who had faced the “choice” of joining an evil regime with the end of a gun. But that is what many were faced with, especially in countries that the Nazis occupied. It’s what happened in my native Slovenia. One of my uncles in his last years was fond of recounting his years in the “vojna,” the war, fighting on both sides, once with the French and another time with the Hungarians. As an uneducated peasant, he did not have the luxury of weighing various arguments and deciding as a matter of principle which ideology was best.
The late novelist and Catholic convert Walker Percy, on whom I wrote my dissertation, too was attracted to Nazism in the 1930s while on a college trip to Germany. It’s during late adolescence that people are most drawn to “causes”—especially if their upbringing is dysfunctional, as Percy’s certainly was. But they lack the experience and knowledge to distinguish between the good and the bad. It wasn’t until after the war, after the horrors of the concentration camps had been exposed, that Percy was able to discern the evil behind the Nazi regime and to see its presence in the twentieth-century.
We forget, as Richard Weaver remarked in the years following World War II, that ideas have consequences. One of the ideas that the Nazis promoted was the same one popular with “progressives” of the time: euthanasia and eugenics. Unrestrained by religious imperatives or fear of God, the Nazis dared to implement the ideas that were being discussed in university conference rooms and academic journals. They began by gassing the most vulnerable: the “impaired” children in hospitals. Seeing the efficiency of this killing technique they expanded it en masse to others whose lives they deemed “devoid of value.” An influential work, The Release of Life Devoid of Value, was penned in 1920 by a professor and a psychiatrist and later referred to as philosophical justification for the extermination of millions. The Nazis, furthermore, worked hard to undermine traditional values. According to Robert Jay Lifton, “[They] mounted a consistent attack upon what they viewed as exaggerated Christian compassion for the weak individual instead of tending to the health of the group, the Volk.”
Percy, like many other intellectuals, was inspired by the horrors of World War II to convert to Catholicism; he devoted much of fiction and nonfiction to exploring the dangers of secularism and moral relativism.
But the investigation of such moral and philosophical issues is rarely undertaken. If Christian writers are taught these days, the focus is on race, gender, and class—with critical analyses often going against the grain of authors’ intended moral meanings. I’ve seen it in the slanted prefatory and explanatory material of textbooks, especially when it comes to “Christianity,” which with everything else associated with the West, has been blamed for the ills of the world. Indeed, the version of history students might receive, especially under the tutelage of Columbia’s Eric Foner, is more in line with Ahmadinejad’s.
What was frightening to me as I listened to Ahmadinejad give his speech at Columbia was how skillfully he used the language of the progressive classroom. He invoked the currently sacrosanct notion of “tolerance” by appearing insulted by Bollinger’s buffoonish condemnation. He invoked the shibboleth of “open-mindedness” by calling for more “study” in a “scientific” manner of the historical event of the Holocaust. But in expertly playing the ignorant masses, Ahmadinejad did what every professor who questions the validity of Western history does.
How culpable those applauding students are will be told by history, perhaps when they are 85 years old. Eli Rosenbaum, head of the Justice Department’s Office of Special Investigations, whose story about uncovering Henss’s past made the top of the front page of the Atlanta newspaper on October 8, 2007, perhaps should direct some of his efforts at the nineteen-year-old Nazis in the making at our most prestigious universities.