About Adolf Sannwald
August 25, 1995
President Timothy J. Sullivan
We meet only a few days more than three hundred years since our founding generation gathered here to lay the cornerstone of this great building. We cannot know what was in their minds--or what touched their hearts on that special day--but we may be certain that among their strongest feelings were pride and hope--a pride which inspired and a hope which fortified their determination to build here "a place of universal learning"--a place that would shape the minds and steady the souls of a posterity whose future they could not know but whose interests they were determined to protect. We are that posterity--and we owe them a debt that we may honorably repay only by leaving to those who follow us a college more distinguished and more humane than that which we were privileged to inherit.
It was a wise man who wrote "the past is another country; they do things differently there." Try as we might--and we do try mightily sometimes--we cannot quite capture that lost world of the late 17th century--or the values, the virtues, the ambitions of those who made it. But we do share with them the glory of this building. We know the Great Hall, the Chapel, the long corridor upstairs lined with portraits of prior presidents—some indifferent, some distinguished--I do mean the portraits, not the presidents. And I know that when the women and men of William and Mary leave here to live their lives in distant places--I know that when they remember the College--strong and affecting images of the Wren are never—never--far from mind,
There is a part of this building that we too often neglect--that our memories summon too rarely. As we rush to meetings--or dinners--or services in the Great Hall or the Chapel--or to classes in the rooms upstairs--we rarely stop to study the marble tablets which line either side of the entrance corridor. Each bears the names of those who were part of us once and who lost their lives in any of six American wars. Oh--I know that occasionally we give them a quick glance as we hurry along—but how often do we stop--to study and reflect--to wonder as we must about the stories of the lives that lie behind the names carved in cold marble--to cherish the legacy of liberty which was bought at the cost of those lives--to imagine the anguish in the hearts of families--of friends--of lovers when the final facts of their deaths were known.
America is full of sacred spaces like the Wren corridor. You will find another if you chance to wander in Harvard Yard and then into the Memorial Chapel in Cambridge. On the chapel walls are inscribed the names or 697 sons of Harvard who died in World War II. The name of one--Adolph Sannwald--is cause for shock. Above his name are carved the words--'enemy casualty."
The typical visitor must wonder—even perhaps feel the flush of momentary anger—at Harvard’s presumption at its decision to include in its memorial for its war dead the name of a soldier in Hitler’s army. That wonder—that anger—is the echo of a truly bitter controversy that erupted in 1951, when the decision to include Adolph Sannwald’s name became public. Alumni were outraged, veterans groups appalled and the Harvard student newspaper opined “whatever Sannwald’s motives for fighting in the Nazi cause, it is obvious he was not defending in any way the principles that had nourished Harvard.” Even the New York Times took up the story—and the University’s governing board was compelled to confess error and to promise that Adolph Sannwald’s name would be expunged—but it never has been.
Who was Adolph Sannwald? Recent research by Joyce Palmer Ralph, published in “Harvard Magazine”, tells his story. A fellow in the Harvard Divinity School in 1924-25, Sannwald became a pastor in the Lutheran church, and was inducted into the German army on June 3, 1943. He died on the Russian front, leaving a wife and five children.
He despised Hitler, the Nazi’s, and all their works. As early as 1931, he angered the National Socialists with his sermons. He used his rectory in the Black Mountains as a haven for fugitive Jews. He published a pamphlet in which he wrote, “God does not choose his children on the basis of race.” He ignored consistent warnings to stop—and his punishment was to be drafted—over age—into the Germany Army, as a common soldier. He was sent to the Russian front within three days of his induction. Asked once—and only once—by his commander to conduct services for his fellow soldiers, he chose as the theme for his sermon the resurrection and collective guilt. Just one month later, he died in an air raid. To quote Ms. Ralph, “Sannwald died a soldier in the army of a regime he despised; he was indeed an enemy casualty.” Why tell Adolph Sannwald’s story here and now?
It is never wrong to honor the triumph of conscience over evil: to celebrate a quiet, shining courage that would not yield to the barbarous demands of a savage state. Adolph Sannwald’s life was defined by consistent virtue and driven by persistent faith. Yet for us today, for Americans of our time, remembering the storm that swirled in the wake of Harvard’s decision to honor him—may regrettably be more useful than recounting the story of his tragic life.
The indignant letters condemning Harvard were written without benefit of facts; the self-righteous student editorial depended for its persuasive force on a highly refined moral indignation unsullied by and knowledge of the man whose life the writer condemned. Anger before understanding; feeling thought; judgment before reflection. These were early warning signs of our long descent into what I believe is a new dark age of American unreason.
The evidence is abundant and all around us.
We have spawned a popular culture that should shame a civilized people. Its avidity for violence—its exaltation of vulgarity and selfishness reflect a sickness of spirit which we must quickly cure or face the fatal consequences.
Our public discourse has likewise been coarsened and corrupted. Political debate—debate is too kind a word—is dominated by noisy, self-certain partisans at either end of the philosophical spectrum. The sensible center has fallen largely silent while the true believers of the right and of the left conduct a rhetorical war which consists largely of exchanging angry shouts. Backing up both sides are masters of the blackest political arts—skilled manipulators whose most distinctive quality is their cynicism and whose greatest talent is for clever character assassination.
What, if anything, can we do to restore civility and reason—honor and compassion—as compelling qualities in the conduct of our national life—and the governance of our great public institutions?
May I suggest that the answer lies not in an effusion of new prescriptions from crackpot ideologues safely cocooned in their Washington think tanks. More helpful by far would be the fresh recollection of old virtues which were so clearly controlling in the lives of those who built this College and watched this building rise—brick by brick.
What were those virtues?
The first was selflessness—a dominant conviction that the surest road to self-fulfillment was in service to others and in a cause larger than oneself.
The second virtue—and one closely aligned to the first—was a sense of beckoning destiny—our founders’ idea—their faith, if you will—that by constructive collaborative work sustained over time, they would leave to their children the proud inheritance of a better and more just society.
Today we celebrate the tercentenary of a magnificent building, the physical symbol of this college’s greatness. I know that, at times, we feel helpless—we believe we lack the power to change the course of this country—the power to transform its culture, or to elevate its government.
Imagine how Sannwald must have felt in the face of the Nazi machine. But he defied authority at the cost of his life. His reward was to be maligned by those in this country who saw him as a symbol rather than a man. But, because there were some who later sought the truth—who themselves resisted easy assumptions and the politically safe course—Sannwald’s name remains inscribed in the Memorial Chapel, a testament to the power of individual conscience.
And then imagine how much more powerless Sannwald would have felt had he not defied the regime, had he retreated—had he, through silence, made himself complicit in the evil that engulfed his country. His life—and sadly enough, his death—remind us that we must not give in to despair—itself a kind of complicity—no matter how formidable the opposition. So let us—here today—remember the virtues that inspired our founders. Let us reaffirm our commitment to reason, to wisdom, to the welfare of the community—not the comfort of the individual. Let us make those virtues work for good in our lives and in our community. By so doing—we shall raise a standard of civility and honor—of faith and decency—which is our best—perhaps our last hope—to preserve in the national context the integrity of the dream that was born here more than 300 years ago. That dream built the college we know; let us use that now to help save the country we love.
About Adolf Sannwald