This year, Harvard unveiled a report on the university’s history of profiting from slavery. “I believe we bear a moral responsibility to do what we can to address the persistent corrosive effects of those historical practices on individuals, on Harvard and on our society,” Lawrence Bacow, the university president, wrote in an open letter to the community. The study was heralded as a long overdue reckoning by an elite institution with its dark past.
But tackling its role in the American slave trade only addresses one aspect of the school’s past. Harvard still boasts a fellowship and a professorship named for Alfried Krupp, a Nazi war criminal whose industrial empire used around 100,000 forced laborers.
Harvard is not alone: From NASA to Stanford to the United States Army, American institutions continue to acknowledge — and sometimes even celebrate — high-profile former Nazis.
The individuals honored aren’t obscure Holocaust guards who managed to skulk past immigration officers — some of them are historical figures whose relationship with America has been extensively chronicled, including in well-researched tomes by Eric Lichtblau and Annie Jacobsen.
The institutions that whitewash the Nazi past of men whose names grace Harvard and Stanford programs, part of NASA’s Kennedy Space Center and locations in Huntsville, Ala., typically do so via deception by omission — erasing history by leaving out or sidelining inconvenient facts.
How did the United States go from fighting the evil of Nazism to lauding ex-Nazis? It began with the end of the wartime honeymoon between Moscow and the West. With Germany divided and defeated, Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union quickly became America’s biggest enemy. Washington needed technology to compete with the Kremlin and a solvent West Germany to serve as a bulwark against Communism spreading through Europe. The ex-Nazis offered tantalizing expertise. So while a handful of prominent Third Reich figures were hanged in Nuremberg, many others saw their noxious pasts wiped clean as they became partners and allies in the Cold War.
By the 1960s, with the space race well underway, the former SS officer Wernher von Braun found himself meeting with U.S. presidents and being presented by the media as a math wizard working to get America to the moon. In other words: We didn’t just hire him; we made him a hero.