The Harvard Reform Minyan’s Yom Kippur services were held, as usual, in Memorial Church. I was a bit early, and started perusing the southern wall, which is tiled with 697 names of Harvard men who were killed in World War II. Most sound like the names you would expect of Harvard men in 1940. Statistically many might have been famous, but none lived long enough to get the chance. One alumnus stands out from the others. His name is listed as “Adolf Sannwald (enemy combatant)”. I carried his name with me on the walk home, and looked him up.
As it turns out, Sannwald’s name has been creating controversy from the very beginning. A Crimson article from 1951, 10 days after the memorial was completed, complains
why did the Corporation approve the inclusion of the name of Adolf Sannwald, a chaplain killed in the service of the German Army? Whatever were Sannwald’s motives for fighting in the Nazi cause, it is obvious that he was not defending in any way the principles of freedom that have so nourished Harvard.
An article from the same student paper in 1995, finds a surprising answer with the benefit of historical perspective
…closer inspection shows that the German whose name appears on the Church wall, Adolf Sannwald, was drafted against his will into the Nazi forces. He was a minister who opposed the Nazis and helped to shelter Jews. He tried to serve as a chaplain but was forced to carry out non-combatant jobs such as janitor and clerk.
Sannwald was a special case…
Sannwald, according to this account, was a “righteous gentile” in the Jewish terminology of the Holocaust. To me that makes his inclusion in a memorial plaque wholly appropriate. The picture, however, is not quite so clear. A 2003 Crimson article notes that
In January of 1952, the Alumni Bulletin published an article that quoted the Corporation, one of Harvard’s two governing boards, as releasing the following statement: “The inclusion of the name of an alumnus who served in the German Army was an error and will be corrected.”
It seems, then, that the compilers of the plaque included his name without knowing much about him. If he was indeed “righteous”, then it seems his name was added in a sort of lucky coincidence, by people who put him on the list despite their assessment of his allegiance. In fact, the article argues further that his biography was not so saintly after all.
Early letters indeed indicate that he was flatly opposed to the Nazi regime. But there is no conclusive evidence that this was why he died.
Prompted by this writer’s curiosity, a recent investigation into Sannwald’s archived file by The Crimson complicates Sannwald’s presumed blamelessness. In a letter dated July 1946, Dean Sperry wrote to Grabau that he had heard from Sannwald in either 1936 or 1937. He wrote that Sannwald invited him to Germany to see “the wonderful rebirth the nation was having under Hitler.”
This is second-hand, of course, and the “invitation” has never been found. The article also argues that Sannwald “would not have been drafted as a common soldier, but most likely as a pastor”, indicating a greater level of support for Nazism than a forcibly conscripted foot soldier.
Some of these details are contradicted by a 2008 newspaper column in support of Sannwald:
When Hitler sought control of the Protestant churches through his German Christian Movement, which forced Protestant churches to merge and support Nazi ideology, Sannwald joined the confessing church, an underground Christian resistance movement that opposed the German leader.
In 1934 he wrote in a pamphlet, “God did not choose his children on the basis of race. We may not and will not confuse faith in Jesus Christ with some other faith in a religious or political world view.”
Warned that the Gestapo had ordered his arrest, Sannwald accepted a call to a tiny church in the Black Mountains where he felt his family would be safe. He protected local Jews by sheltering them in the church rectory.
By 1942 the government had located him. In January he was drafted as a common soldier, and three days later he was on a train to the Russian front. He was never allowed to serve as a chaplain because he refused to join the Nazi Party and was permitted to preach only once to his fellow soldiers. After earning a medal for rescuing a fellow soldier, being slightly wounded and badly frostbitten, he was killed in an air raid.
A book referencing a 1995 article on Sannwald in Harvard Magazine adds a few choice details that, on top of all the other claims, are enough to convince me that Sannwald deserved his (qualified) place on the memorial.
Banished to an obscure village, in the late 1930s Sannwald and his family sheltered fugitive Jews. But this Christian rescuer never became a military chaplain. In fact, Sannwald had only one opportunity to preach to his fellow soldiers, at an Easter service in 1943. He chose as his topic “the Resurrection and collective guilt.” No existing records suggest that any “real” chaplain dared preach on such a provocative theme.
EDIT: I found at least one famous name amidst the men killed in their youth: Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Harvard class of 1904.