2005-02-18 / Columnists

From the Editor’s Desk

By Howard Schwach

When I was young and naive, I believed unequivocally in such things as academic freedom and the absolute freedom of speech.

Then, I met a man whose last name was Sittler. I think that his first name was George, but it might have been something else. We are talking about 1959 – 46 years ago when I was less than 20 years old.

That was a different time – Happy Days time. The problems of the sixties were still years away. The Police Action in Korea had ended a few years before and many of the students at the then-new C.W. Post were veterans who had served at the Chosin Reservoir and were now getting an education under the GI Bill.

World War II was not yet a distant memory, having ended only 14 years before. A good number of professors in the school (and some of the older students as well) fought in that war and the memory was fresh enough to still cause nightmares.

In any case, Sittler was a professor of World History at the school, a discipline that happened to be my major at a school that was only two years old and had few classroom buildings, so I ran into him often.

There was something off-center about his lectures on the 1930’s and 1940’s. He seemed to revere Adolph Hitler and he spoke about his defeat in World War II not as a victory for democracy, but as a victory for the spread of World Communism, including in the United States.

I was the editor of the newly-formed Post Pioneer at the time, and one day a man with curious credentials from an obscure office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation came to visit.

Without being too forthcoming, he asked lots of questions about Sittler and his interaction with students.

We talked around the topic for a while, discussing in generalities Sittler’s theories on the war and the world at large.

There was no Internet at the time, no way to research a person’s life as there is today.

In fact, I remember asking him why the FBI would be interested in him and he laughed.

“The government is always trying to stifle dissent,” he said.

A week later, Newsday and the New York Times both released stories on the same day naming Sittler as a kind of “Tokyo Rose” who broadcasted Nazi propaganda from South America to the American southwest during World War II.

In his broadcasts, Sittler urged Hispanic Americans to rise up and destroy America’s infrastructure to help Germany in its war.

He also broadcasted messages to Irish-Americans, urging them to fight against the Americans, who were allied with the British – the enemy of all Irish people.

Some of the transcripts of his broadcasts were published along with the stories. They were anti-American, Anti-Semitic, vitriolic calls to treason in time of war.

Being young and unworldly, most of us supported Sittler’s right to make those broadcasts against this own nation and to continue his vitriol in his classrooms at Post. After all, we believed, how could anybody be against academic freedom, against his right to speak his mind and to spur debate?

Surprisingly enough, just about the only people on campus who did not support Sittler were those who fought in either WW II or Korea. While most of them would not speak about their wartime experiences to ‘youngsters” like us, they did write letters to the school paper calling for his termination, arguing that they had fought people like him and that his ideas had no place in an academic institution.

I disagreed and decided to write an editorial supporting him. To get ammunition for my editorial, I made an appointment to talk with him at length.

We talked for several hours in the school’s new cafeteria, tucked away at a rear table so that nobosy would bother us while we talked.

Our interview turned into a debate when Sittler argued that Hitler was right about the Jews and their drive to control the world.

He argued that the idea of a university supported his right to state that “fact” even though it was an unpopular one simply because people did not understand the truth about the Jews.

I came away from our discussion with an understanding of his love for fascism and his disdain of America and Americans. I came away with the understanding that academic freedom did not include the right to vilify and demean people who he still thought of as “untermenshen,” an underclass that included communists, Jews, blacks and just about anybody else who was different from him.

I came away understanding that he would have loved to serve Hitler at one of his concentration camps where those people were exterminated.

I came away determined to write an editorial that called for his dismissal – and I did.

It was an ugly scene for a short time. There were demonstrations on Northern Boulevard, outside the school’s gate. There were editorials in the daily papers. There was lots of name-calling in the school itself.

Finally, the FBI came along and took him away. While we never found out what happened to him (I suspect that he was quietly tried for treason by some military tribunal), most of us were glad that he was gone.

I haven’t thought of Sittler in more than 30 years.

What brought the whole scenario to mind was the recent case of Professor Ward Churchill from the University of Colorado, who reportedly said after the September 11 attacks that the World Trade Center victims “were all little Eichmanns (if you don’t know who Eichmann was, you probably should not be reading this column in the first place)” who deserved to die and that those who crashed the planes in the trade center made “gallant sacrifices.”

Churchill was to speak at Hamilton College until his remarks, made in writing, came to light.

The college cancelled his appearance, but all of those unworldly students supported his academic freedom and he was allowed to speak after all.

In his speech, he was unrepentant. Should public money be used to support a person such as Sittler or one such as Churchill?

You’ll have to make your own decision on that. I am in favor of academic freedom and of freedom of speech. I just wish those freedoms would be utilized at times by people who weren’t such jerks and I wish that the young today would understand just what tens of thousands of Americans, those who died to keep those freedoms alive, have done for them.

Many schools across the nation are challenged by that conundrum.

Most recently, the mighty Columbia University has been laid low by a Middle Eastern Studies Department that hates Israel and wants it to go away.

When I think of Columbia, when I think of Churchill, I also think of Sittler.

What fools we are when we are young!

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