Fired Professor Doesn't Expect Change Of Heart
Mar. 24, 1986
PORT WASHINGTON, N.Y. (AP) _ When a colleague at Rutgers University praised Adolf Hitler during a 1935 debate as a ''German Roosevelt,'' Lienhard Bergel took exception.
The incident exacerbated tensions within the German department and before the end of the year Bergel was fired, allegedly for incompetence. He believes it was really for his criticizing his colleagues' view of the Nazis.
Bergel went on to a distinguished career at the City University of New York and three times was awarded Fulbright scholarships. Now 80 and retired here, he says he gave the incident little thought over the years.
A Rutgers alumnus, however, has persuaded the New Brunswick, N.J., school to investigate the firing. A committee formed in September to assess the case is scheduled to announce its findings in June, said Morris Roth, a Rutgers spokesman.
Professor David Oshinsky, who heads the investigation, said the committee has interviewed many people, looked through FBI files and examined university records.
''We're not writing this report to please the university president. We're not writing it to please Dr. Bergel. We're writing it to get at the truth,'' Oshinsky said.
In a recent interview, Bergel said that although he did not start the inquiry, when others did ''I felt I owed it to members of my profession that people see what was possible then and might be possible in the future.''
One result of the inquiry has been the discovery of an FBI file on Friederich J. Hauptmann, the department head who fired Bergel. The file says Hauptmann ''made suspicious contacts with German vessels in 1934, 1935 and 1936.''
One document says, ''In the summer of 1934, while the U.S. Army was engaged in extensive maneuvers at Sandy Hook, Hauptmann and an unidentified woman doctor from New York City rented a cottage there and spent many hours observing and studying the details of these maneuvers. When the maneuvers were completed, Hauptmann very suddenly gave up the cottage and returned to New Brunswick.''
The file characterizes the case as espionage and contains a letter from then-FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover ordering an investigation.
Bergel remembers an FBI agent at his front door the day after a panel appointed by the university upheld his firing.
''He said, 'We have been surveying him (Hauptmann) since 1933 and he is under suspicion of spying for the Nazis,''' Bergel recalled.
Bergel, who retired in 1975 as a professor of comparative literature at CUNY, was born in Germany.
He was disturbed by the rise of the Nazis, whom he remembers as ''superpatriotic soldiers from World War I eager for a war of revenge.'' When the Rutgers job became available, he decided to leave Germany.
At Rutgers' New Jersey College for Women, now Douglass College, he wanted to talk with his colleagues about German literature.
''What they really wanted to talk about were the Nazis,'' he said. ''It inevitably led to an argument. They insisted Germany needed a strong man and Hitler was the man.''
A major turning point came at a League of Women Voters' debate where a member of the German department described Hitler as a German Roosevelt, Bergel said.
When Bergel attacked that comparison he was criticized by his colleagues and tensions intensified, he recalled.
His firing was upheld by the trustees when he appealed it.
In November 1940, Hauptmann sent a letter to Rutgers' president asking for a year's leave of absence with pay, according to the FBI files. Hauptmann apparently had left the country the day before, the files show.
The files contain a letter from Berlin to the German consulate in New York approving an expenditure by Germany for some of the costs ''involving the repatriation of professor Hauptmann.''
The letter said the costs were warranted ''in consideration of the peculiar circumstances of the case.''
Hauptmann later worked for Joseph Goebbels in the Nazi propaganda ministry. After the war, he was arrested and briefly imprisoned, according to U.S. Army records.
The 141-page FBI file was sent to Bergel by Alan Silver, a Highland Park, N.J., management consultant and member of Rutger's Class of 1935 who led the effort for reconsideration of Bergel's case. Silver said he was inspired by Rutgers students' anti-apartheid rallies last year.
Hauptmann eventually departed from his pro-Nazi stand, taught in Austria, and is believed dead, according to Silver.
Bergel, who has never met Silver, said he's not optimistic that the school will alter its official position that the firing was justified.
''I have no confidence in any official connected with Rutgers University,'' Bergel said. ''What I believe will happen, they will say it was a case of incompatibility, that I couldn't get along with them.''