Woman With a Past | Media | Chicago Reader

News & Politics » Media

Woman With a Past

by

comment

Visiting professor Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann flew home to Germany last Monday, a few days earlier than she originally intended to. She's not sure she wants to come back to Chicago. A frequent guest at the University of Chicago since 1978, she had never spent a quarter quite like this last one--which was largely devoted to defending herself against charges that half a century ago she colluded with the Nazis and practiced anti-Semitism in Hitler's Germany.

Will Chicago see you again? we asked Noelle-Neumann. "I have to make up my mind," said the professor, who certainly can't count on being invited. "I'm a very independent person. That's my goal--to be a very independent person."

While she was here, Noelle-Neumann labored over an opus, a 16-page self-justifying letter to Commentary magazine, where an article appeared in July that raked up the professor's past and led to her difficult autumn. It is not a humble letter, but it does make certain concessions. While insisting that she kept her distance from the Nazis half a century ago, she acknowledges, "I still harbored a lot of illusions about them. I certainly misgauged their true evilness in those early years. . . . I realize that I was young and somewhat naive."

But she writes, "If I had been an anti-Semite, then I probably would have joined the Nazis. Until 1940, I was convinced that there was a strong Jewish influence on the economy and the media; this belief was widespread in Germany and also in America in the 30's." Nevertheless, she tells Commentary, a 1941 article on American media that she wrote for the German newspaper Das Reich contained an anti-Semitic passage only because Goebbels's Ministry of Propaganda demanded it. "I would certainly have preferred not to have written these sentences at all, since I was not anti-Semitic at the time and am not an anti-Semite today," she writes. "I am terribly sorry if any hurt was caused by what I wrote fifty years ago. I certainly can say that when I wrote the passage at that time, I had no intention of doing any harm to the Jews."

At the time she wrote the Das Reich article, great harm was already being done the Jews of Germany and Europe, and far worse was to come. Isn't it fair to say that any anti-Semitic expression enriched the soil that nourished the Holocaust? Noelle-Neumann might quickly have resolved her predicament this autumn by writing "for the hurt caused," by stating that in those distant, blighted days she'd meant what she said, and by straightforwardly apologizing. She was told as much by John Mearsheimer, chair of the political science department.

But after hours of conversations with Mearsheimer, after hours spent composing as many as ten drafts of a reply to Commentary, drafts that were circulated around the department and debated and contributed to for her benefit, "if any hurt was caused" was as much of an apology as Noelle-Neumann could bring herself to make.

One Sunday night, October 6, just after dinner, a colleague called Mearsheimer at his home in Hyde Park. The colleague, Nathan Tarcov, asked if Mearsheimer had seen the August Commentary. Tarcov had just heard about it from a student. Mearsheimer grabbed his son and they set off for the library. "It took me about two minutes to thumb through it," Mearsheimer told us, "and I immediately knew I had a major problem on my hands. It was difficult to know what was and what was not true, but it was quite clear the anti-Semitic quotes were real quotes. You could see the smoking gun sitting on the page."

Such is the latency of the written word. The Commentary article had created no stir for two and a half months. Now it detonated. "Why pieces sometimes take a long time to cause a stir is one of those mysteries of journalism," mused Marion Magid, managing editor of Commentary, when we discussed this matter with her. Indeed. Noelle-Neumann has just been haunted by articles written as long ago as 1937.

The night Mearsheimer heard from Nathan Tarcov, Noelle-Neumann had been on campus about a week. When she arrived, she paid Mearsheimer a courtesy call. She asked him if he'd seen the August Commentary (a friend had sent it to her in Germany), told him she was preparing a reply to something in it, and said she'd like him to see that article when he could also read her response. Noelle-Neumann, who is 75, is a significant figure in German politics, the principal adviser to Chancellor Helmut Kohl on public-opinion matters; Mearsheimer assumed the Commentary piece dealt with contemporary German politics.

Now he knew better. The article was written by Leo Bogart, an adjunct professor of marketing at New York University and a former president of the American and world associations for public-opinion research. Long critical of Noelle-Neumann on both professional and personal grounds, Bogart assailed the public-opinion theory identified with her--known as "the spiral of silence"--as the age-old bandwagon effect dressed up with a "memorable label." And though "the most convincing demonstration" of the theory's validity "would appear to be the reaction of Germans to the events that followed the appointment of Adolf Hitler as Chancellor in 1933," Bogart observed that Noelle-Neumann barely mentions the Nazi period in her 1980 textbook The Spiral of Silence: Public Opinion--Our Social Skin (a new English-language edition is scheduled to be published by the University of Chicago Press next spring).

Bogart accused Noelle-Neumann of repressing history and truth. He wrote that her first book, published in 1940, contained this passage: "Since 1933, the Jews, who have monopolized a large part of America's intellectual life, have concentrated their demagogic capacities on anti-German agitation. . . . The treatment of the Jews in Germany is portrayed by the American press in a completely distorted manner."

And in 1941, said Bogart, Noelle-Neumann wrote in Das Reich: "To grasp suddenly in the dark for the Jew who must be hiding himself behind the Chicago Daily News means sticking one's hand into a wasp's nest. When one gets forty stings at the same time, one stops being interested in a single wasp. Jews write in the newspapers, own them, have virtually monopolized the advertising agencies and can therefore open or shut the gates of advertising income to individual papers as they wish. They control the film industry, own the biggest radio stations and all the theaters."

Mearsheimer himself turned up an article written for the University of Missouri campus newspaper in 1937 while she was a visiting graduate student there and presumably felt free to speak her mind. National socialism, according to Elisabeth Noelle, was among other things "the reaction to . . . overruling of the cultural and economical life through extending influence of the Jews," who now dominated medicine, law, the press, the theater, and much of German government. "This situation endangered German cultural life and national unity."

Professor Noelle-Neumann has been coming to the University of Chicago to teach a quarter every two or three years since 1978, and she has known Mearsheimer since 1982, when he arrived on campus. "I've always been on very good terms with her," Mearsheimer told us. Two days after reading Bogart's article he met with her to discuss it, and for the next two weeks they worked closely attempting to craft an adequate response. Reluctantly, Mearsheimer concluded that she would not produce one.

Noelle-Neumann's labors preoccupied the political science department. She discussed her position in the class she taught, "Public Opinion in West and East Germany," and shared the various drafts of her response with students, colleagues, and reporters. Despite the openness, this remarkable situation was ignored by Chicago's daily papers. But the campus paper, the Maroon, carried articles and a flurry of letters, and a long piece ran last month in the Chicago Jewish Star. Julia Angwin, editor of the Maroon and a New York Times stringer, filed a piece that the Times carried in late November.

A letter from Mearsheimer published by the Maroon on November 12 made his ultimate position clear. "I believe Noelle-Neumann was an anti-Semite, and was not forced to write the anti-Semitic words she published," he wrote. "Moreover, I believe that the anti-Semitic writers and publicists of Germany--to include Noelle-Neumann--jointly share some responsibility for the Holocaust. For this she owes an apology."

Packing to leave, Noelle-Neumann could spare very few minutes to talk with us. We said the strain of teaching, given the atmosphere in her department the last several weeks, must have been immense. "I think that I am used to it since I have been a high school girl," she replied. "When I was a high school girl I was the only one not to enter a Nazi organization, and difficulties started. I have had difficulties all my life. I think it is that I don't want to compromise."

She told us it was essential that we read her response to Julia Angwin's New York Times article, and arranged to have it faxed to us. She told the Times: "It is tragic for knowledgeable scholars to forget that texts written under a dictatorship and subjected to scrutiny today, after more than 50 years, cannot be read as they were in 1937, 1939 or 1941. Taken out of context and severed from the time and place where they were written, they are no longer real, for reality is in part based on time and place."

She made a similar point to us. We asked if the differences between her and Mearsheimer (who is 44) were at bottom generational, and she said the essential change was not of generations but of "time and place."

"This has taken place 50 years ago in another continent and under conditions that [Mearsheimer] could not imagine," she asked us to understand. "You see, American political scientists are not interested in doing research on dictatorships. My students were very surprised, when they went to Regenstein Library to find out about public opinion and dictatorships, they didn't find anything. Public opinion and dictatorships is a completely unknown subject for students in Chicago."

Add a comment