The Nazi in the Classroom

The Nazi in the Classroom

Gary Ostrower

(Reprinted with permission from History News Network)

Three days after World War II began, as Nazi troops stormed into Poland, Ohio-born Edward Vieth Sittler (1916-1975), a 23-year-old study-abroad student in Germany, applied for German citizenship. Not only did he become a German citizen; he renounced his American citizenship, became a member of the Nazi Party, and then broadcasted Hitler’s propaganda to American troops in Europe. 

What kind of propaganda? Among other things, he had denounced FDR as a traitor, called for his impeachment, denounced Jews as war profiteers, and predicted that the US would suffer defeat and partition unless it surrendered. Sittler had company. A number of other Americans also served Hitler, including the notorious Axis Sally. After VE-Day, they were arrested by the American military. The Department of Justice charged all but one with treason; the one was Edward Sittler.

Why not Sittler? Because he was no longer a U.S. citizen and only citizens can commit treason.

Sittler soon returned to the United States. Odd that he would be invited back, but the Department of Justice wanted him to testify against the others. He did, sort of. He testified for both the prosecution and the defense. He also used the technicalities of American immigration law to remain in the U.S., perhaps aided by his anti-communism during the 1950s. During that decade, he taught at a number of small colleges including Shurtleff College in Illinois, Thiel in Pennsylvania, Alfred University in western NY, and in 1959, C.W. Post College on Long Island (part of Long Island University today). 

In December 1959 an enterprising reporter for the Long Island Daily Press discovered that he had a Nazi past, the story went national. Protests from veterans’ groups and Jewish organizations flooded into the CW Post president’s office. The college allowed him to “resign.” But Sittler wasn’t about to fade away. He initiated efforts to regain his American citizenship. The Immigration and Naturalization Service investigated him. It recommended against granting him citizenship. Was this proper? Immigration law states that citizenship shall be conferred if an applicant has shown “good moral character” and attachment “to the principles of the Constitution” and has been “well disposed to the good order and happiness of the United States” for five years preceding his or her application. Sittler argued that he met this requirement, and nothing suggests otherwise. But when Sittler went to Federal Court to reverse the verdict of the Immigration Service, the highly respected Judge Lloyd McMahon of the US District Court in New York rejected his petition. The judge wrote in a blistering opinion that Sittler’s testimony to the Immigration Service was riddled with “distortions, half-truths, incomplete answers, misleading responses, evasion, [and] concealment” so that “the court can give it no credence whatever.” 

In fact, Sittler claimed that he had simultaneously been loyal to both U.S. constitutional principles and to Nazi Germany. What the judge understood, but Sittler did not, is that he could indeed be loyal to the Constitution or to Nazi ideology, but not to both at the same time. Sittler then appealed to the second highest court in the land, the U.S. Court of Appeals. Same result. He didn’t help himself by asserting that that he had believed stories about Nazi persecution of Jews were just communist propaganda.

One other corner of this story bears mention. Sittler had told C.W. Post’s Dean L. Gordon Hoxie before he was hired about his Nazi past. Then why hire him in the first place? The college president, “The Admiral” Richard L. Conolly, later explained that everyone has the right to “repent [and] mend his ways.” Only after publicity about Sittler threatened to embarrass the college — and President Conolly – did CW Post demand his resignation. 

And then we have the matter of academic freedom. The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) strongly criticized CW Post because Sittler had not been granted a hearing before the college cut ties with him. The fact that Sittler had agreed in advance to resign if his Nazi background became a problem was considered irrelevant. To the AAUP, the college had violated his “due process” rights. The AAUP viewed this as abridging the principle of academic freedom.

Was Sittler still a Nazi at heart after he returned to the US in 1946? The answer remains murky. Apparently, nothing he did at any of the colleges where he taught revealed Nazi sympathies. Even Jewish students found him unobjectionable. Did he lie when he applied for naturalization? Sure, for he undoubtedly knew that telling “the whole truth, and nothing but the truth” would doom his application. Today, his case is forgotten. It shouldn’t be. It raises questions that are still relevant about the law of treason, of citizenship, and about the meaning and limits of academic freedom.[1]

Twists and Turns in the Sittler Saga as Reported in the New York Times

Questions to Consider

  1. Why was Sittler originally permitted to return to the United States?
  2. Why wasn’t Sittler prosecuted for treason?
  3. Should Sittler have been allowed to teach in the United States?
  4. Should Sittler’s United States citizenship have been restored?
  5. Did U.S. officials act responsibly in their treatment of Sittler?
Treason Case Jury to Hear 3 Germans, Will Testify in Capital as U.S. Moves to Reindict Chandler, Best for Nazi Broadcasts New York Times, October 19, 1946    Three Germans will arrive in about a week to testify before a Federal Grand Jury in the cases of Robert Best and Douglas Chandler, American citizens who are charged with broadcasting Nazi propaganda directed against this country from a Berlin radio station. The Justice Department also stated today that new indictments would be sought against the two men, who with six other persons were indicted three years ago for treason in their broadcasts. Under present plans, the Department expects to bring Best and Chandler to trial sometime in November. They will be flown to this country from an Army prison camp at Obresul, Germany. The Germans are Karl Linnard Schotte, an actor and employee of the German broadcasting system in the American Occupation Zone; Edward Vieth Sittler, a singer born in this country, but who has renounced his citizenship, and Margaret Eggers of Hamburg, now an employee of the British Military Government. They will presumably testify to having seen or known that the broadcasts were made by the prisoners. In treason cases, the Government must present two witnesses to an overt act.
Chandler Accused by ‘Best Friend,’ He Testifies that he Watched U.S. Writer Broadcast Propaganda for Nazis New York Times, June 14, 1947          That he had seen Douglas Chandler, American writer on trial here in Federal Court here on charges of treason, speaking into the microphone of the German Broadcasting Corporation was testified today by Edward Veith Sittler, American-born German naturalized Nazi. By his and Chandler’s own statements, Sittler was Chandler’s best friend in Berlin. This did not keep Sittler, born in Baltimore and initiated as a member of Hitler’s party in 1940, from testifying against Chandler on fifteen counts which the Government contends were “overt.” Two persons must provide direct testimony against any person charged with treason if he is to be sentenced to the ultimate penalty – death – or for imprisonment for treason. This was repeatedly emphasized to the jury by the presiding judge as phonograph records bearing what was testified to be Chandler’s voice condemning “the Jews” and warning of the “menace of communism” were played in court. Sittler testified today that his wife, Margaret, was with him on most of the occasions when he observed Chandler’s activities directly. It was thought, therefore, that she would be the second eyewitness. The Sittlers have four children who were brought to this country with him for the trial.
Hopes to Fight Deportation New York Times, February 16, 1950 Edward V. Sittler, former college professor, and admitted wartime Nazi, said today he would fight deportation to Germany if he could raise the money. Told that the Government had ordered him deported, the former professor at Michigan College of Mining and Technology said he would appeal “if at all possible.”
Sittler Appeals Deportation New York Times, December 22, 1950 Edward V. Sittler, former Michigan college teacher who worked for the Nazis in World War II, today appealed from a Nov. 29 deportation order. Mr. Sittler, a native American, went to Germany in 1939, became a German citizen and worked for the Nazi radio. He was brought to tis country by the Justice Department in 1946 to testify in treason trials. He got teaching jobs at Northwestern University and the Michigan College he of Mining and technology.
School to Review Hiring of Ex-Nazi, Post College staff Meets Today on Case of Teacher Who Broadcast in War By Roy R Silver, New York Times, December 15, 1959 Officials of C.W. Post College will meet with the faculty here tomorrow to review the college’s appointment of a former Nazi-party member. Admiral Richard L. Coolly, retired, president of Long Island University, Post College’s parent school, said today that the meeting would cover particulars on the appointment of Dr. Edward V. Sittler as Associate Professor of English and Modern Languages. Dr. Sittler, a 43-year-old native of Delaware, Ohio, has been attacked as having renounced his American citizenship in 1939 propaganda during World War II. The attacks, made in anonymous letters to the college, also said Dr. Sittler has been dismissed from two teaching positions because of his past activities. Dr. Sittler said he had been a news commentator and not a political analyst. He said he had “tried to be as factual as I could.” “I don’t think I ever broadcast deliberately and false information,” Dr. Sittler said. Dean R. Gordon Hoxie of Post College and Admiral Conolly said that Dr. Sittler’s background had been thoroughly investigated before he had been named to the faculty in September. Dr. Sittler said that he had gone to Germany to study in 1937. Two years later he renounced his American citizenship and became a citizen of Germany, where he became a civilian employee of the radio office. He was returned to this country in 1946 as a German national to testify in the treason trial of two Americans who had broadcast for the Nazis. No charge was made against Dr. Sittler. Dr. Sittler was dismissed from Northwestern University, from which he had received his Ph.D., and the Michigan Institute of Mining and Technology. Since then, he said, he has worked at odd jobs and taught at four small colleges. His last employment before Post was at Alfred College, Alfred, N.Y.
Post Faculty Backs Hiring of an Ex-Nazi New York Times, December 16, 1959 The faculty of C. W. Post College in Brookville, L. I. endorsed yesterday the college’s hiring of Dr. Edward V. Sittler, a former Nazi party member. Meanwhile Senator Jacob K. Javits, Assemblyman Alfred Lerner of Jamaica, Queens, and six veterans’ organizations demanded a Federal investigation of the appointment. Admiral Richard L. Connolly, retired, the president of Long Island University, Post College’s parent school, said in a statement that “there was no evidence of sedition or sub version against the United States involved.” Senator Javits has requested details from the Immigration and Naturalization Service on Dr. Sittler’s entry into this country as an immigrant from Cuba in 1954. Meanwhile, the Civil Liberties Union said a teacher should be judged on his competence, not on his political associations.
Former Nazi Voluntarily Quits as a Professor at College on L. I., Dr. Sittler Resigns to Avoid Embarrassing C. W. Post, L. I. U. Chief Says New York Times, December 17, 1959 Dr. Edward V. Sittler, a former Nazi party member, resigned from the faculty of C. W. Post College here today. In announcing the resignation, which had not been requested, Admiral Richard L. Conolly, retired, the president of Long Island University, said: “In order to relieve the college and the university of embarrassment incidental to the recent publicity concerning his case, Dr. Sittler has tendered his resignation as a member of the faculty of the college. “This action came at a time when I was engaged in restudying his suitability as a faculty member. I have accepted his resignation. “I want to make it perfectly clear that in defending Dr. Sittler the university in no sense had any sympathy for his former Nazi viewpoint, but was concerned only for his rights as an individual and member of an academic faculty.” Dr. Sittler had been hired in September by C. W. Post College, a branch of Long Island University, for a one-year term as associate professor of English and modern languages.
Ohioan Explains Work for Nazis, Ex-Professor, in Citizenship Bid, Says He Was Misled on Trip to Germany New York Times, March 30, 1960 An Ohio-born broadcaster for Nazi Germany who is seeking to recover his American citizenship offered his explanation yesterday for renouncing it in Berlin in the spring of 1940. Dr. Edward V. Sittler, the appellant, resigned from the faculty of C. W. Post College of Long Island University last December when his past came under attack. He testified at a hearing on his petition at the Immigration and Naturalization Service, 20 West Broadway. He said he applied for German citizenship in the fall of 1939 because he thought Germany was “up against a crucial test” with enemies in Europe and “needed a helping hand.” He said that on receiving his certificate of German nationality he notified the American Embassy in Berlin that he was giving up American citizenship. He said he had scarcely imagined that Germany might later be at war with the United States. Dr. Sittler said he was drafted briefly into the German army, but was deferred against his wishes and returned to his former duties. He was a translator and later an announcer and commentator for the “U.S.A. Zone” of the Reichsrundfunkgesellschaft, the German state broadcasting corporation in Berlin. He emphasized the immaturity and the superficiality of his political understanding when he went to Germany at the age of 21 in 1937 to study German with a view to teaching comparative literature. He acknowledged joining the Nazi party in 1942 or 1943. His present view, he said, is that “the only genuine security lies in a constitution and a legal system.”
Nazis’ Radio Aide Cites his Naivete, Disbelieved Wartime Report of Death Camps, Sittler Tells Inquiry Here New York Times, March 31, 1960                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             Dr. Edward V. Sittler, who became a German citizen and broadcast over the Nazi radio in World War II, said yesterday that during the war he had heard only one report of extermination camps. “I thought it was incredible,” he told a preliminary hearing at the Immigration and Naturalization Service, 20 West Broadway, on his petition to regain the citizenship he renounced in 1940. He said the report came in 1943 from Gerhardt Wagner, his immediate superior in the Berlin broadcasts beamed to the United States. He said Wagner had heard on a trip to northern Poland and Lithuania that German Jews ostensibly sent there for resettlement were actually being put to death. Dr. Sittler later testified that he had suggested that Wagner be investigated “to see if he was a Communist agent.” He told also of his wartime friendship with and assistance to Douglas Chandler, an American-born broadcaster for the Germans who was sentenced to life imprisonment by the United States. Mitchel Levitas, reporter for The New York Post, testified under subpoena to the accuracy of quotations in an account he and Ted Poston of the same paper published Dec. 15 following an interview with Dr. Sittler. These included statements by Dr. Sittler that Hitler had the good of his country at heart, that Hitler and National Socialism were a tragic and disgraceful chapter in many respects, and that the influence of the Jewish community on President Roosevelt was one of the prime reasons the United States had become involved in World War II. Dr. Sittler, under questioning by his attorney, William Stringfellow, acknowledged “errors” in his past, then said, “I look on America as my home and want to re-establish my citizenship with it.”
Sittler Loses Citizenship Plea; His Activities as Nazi are Cited, Examiner Rules He Does Not Deserve to Regain His Rights as American New York Times, September 2, 1960 Dr. Edward V. Sittler’s plea for the restoration of his United States citizenship should be denied, an examiner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service recommended yesterday. Dr. Sittler, a 44-year old native of Delaware, Ohio, lost his citizenship in 1940 when he became a German citizen. During World War II he was a radio broadcaster for the Nazis. The examiner, William J. Kenville, said the applicant’s wartime conduct, including membership in the Nazi party, “must be regarded as indicative of an utter and complete lack of faith in the democratic way of life under which he had been reared in the United States, and of completely embracing the diametrically opposed totalitarian form of government then existing in Nazi Germany.” Mr. Kenville also reported that Dr. Sittler’s testimony was “not at all convincing that he has changed his mind or altered his philosophy since 1945.”  

Citizenship Plea Lost by Ex-Nazi, Ban on Renaturalization of Sittler is Upheld By Edward Ranzal, New York Times, April 13, 1963. The United States Court of Appeals refused yesterday to restore citizenship to an American who became a Nazi propaganda broadcaster in Germany during World War II. The judges were divided 2 to 1. The 47-year old American, Edward Vieth Sittler, became a German citizen in 1940, but returned here after the war and sought to regain his American citizenship. Since his return he has been a professor or instructor in various colleges and universities in this country. In each instance he lost his position when it was learned that he had been a Nazi. Sittler, who has five children – two born here and three in Germany — is residing with his family in West Germany, according to Roy S. Babitt, assistant United States Attorney.

[1] Note from Gary B. Ostrower: I was a student at Alfred University when Sittler taught here in 1958-59. My roommate, a Jewish student from Yonkers, was a student in a German class that Sittler taught. I know even today a number of people—former colleagues and neighbors—who knew and continue to think highly of Sittler. I think it is fair to say that we all were stunned when news broke in 1959 about Sittler’s Nazi past.

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