Thomas Klikauer and Norman Simms – German Universities and their Nazi Past

Over 75 years later and Germany is still entangled in its fascist past.

Thomas Klikauer is the author of 560 publications and writes on Managerialism.

Norman Simms is a retired academic who lives in New Zealand and continues to write articles and books, as well as editing an online journal.

The poster of Germany’s Nazi student organisation reads:
Students! Be propagandists for the Führer.

There is a good reason why drug corporations cannot approve their own drugs. There is also a good reason why you cannot issue yourself a drivers licence. Yet, the university in the north-German port city of Hamburg has done just that. It has asked one of its own – Rainer Nicolaysen – to write a celebratory report on the history of the university. It was for the University of Hamburg’s one-hundred year anniversary celebrated in 2019 and is now published. After 75 years of post-Nazi Germany and in the full knowledge that most ex-Nazis are dead and buried by now, Germany has recently experienced a new wave of historical studies on Nazism – too little, too late. Unlike their victims, too many ex-Nazis – among them many professors at esteemed universities – returned to their jobs after 1945, eventually retired on comfortable state pensions, and died of old age.

Just like almost all German universities, the University of Hamburg too was defined by elitism, hierarchy, and a staunchly anti-democratic ethos in the years before Nazism appeared on the scene. More often than not, the time of German Nazism is commonly belittled as being no more than just “the dark side” of an otherwise fine history. Seventy-five years on, this “dark side” is studied, examined and widely written about.

Denying and belittling Nazism had set much of the tone during Germany’s immediate post-Nazi years. Today, young German history professors suddenly find it truly shocking to uncover how their institutional forefathers, i.e. the professors of Nazi-Germany accepted and often welcomed the summary dismissal of their progressive and Jewish colleagues. Jewish, professors rejecting the Nazi Volksgemeinschaft as we well as democratic and progressive professors were persecuted.

Meanwhile, Nazis, sympathisers, opportunists, and careerists did what they always do, get on with their careers. Quite regularly, they moved into positions and office formerly occupied by those more clever then them. It came with a marked decline not only of Germany’s academic standing but also with a declining in the number of students. When Hitler came to power in 1933, there were 127,820 students. By 1939 this had fallen to 58,325.

Super-Nazi Heidegger was all but one of them. Today still adored, Heidegger once wrote, I demand Opfermut [the courage to sacrifice yourself] and exemplary behaviour towards all German Volksgenossen [members of the Nazi’s race community]. Heil Hitler. Those were the words of the supposedly “great” philosopher, Martin Heidegger.

In many of today’s writings about Heidegger, the word “great” is consistently linked to Heidegger. Perhaps to assure that Heidegger (Nazi membership number 312589) remains to be seen as “great”. Yet, some have rather correctly suggested that Heidegger’s books should be placed in a library section labelled Nazism – not philosophy. Heidegger actively sought the elimination of Jews from universities much in line with his beloved Führer’s 1939 speech. Yet, Nazi philosopher Heidegger even dreamed of becoming the philosophical Führer of the Führer – an idiotic idea that even the real Führer rejected never granting Heidegger an audience to the great sadness of Heidegger who adored the Führer Principle so much.

In Hamburg meanwhile, one-fifth of the entire faculty was dismissed. Just as in many other German universities, there was no protest. Instead, many academics looked the other way when their colleagues disappeared. To celebrate (sic) its history, the University of Hamburg has added a museum to its main building at Hamburg’s Dammtorbahnhof. Now, the university follows this up with a series of essays on the history of the university.

The university’s museum also shows the infamous Talar. This is the academic gown or robe worn as a sign of unquestioned professorial authority. Much of this only ended when two young students carried a sign with the rather rhythmic slogan, Unter den Talaren – Muff von 1000 Jahren! – beneath your robe– there is the stench of thousand years of authoritarianism. Fittingly, the sign was carried the 9th November 1967 at the University of Hamburg. More than 22 years into post-Nazi Germany, students began to challenge the authority of the Herr Professor.

Until the year 1967, the professorial dress was frequently depicted at German universities. Its history dates back to a century old tradition of conservatism, authoritarianism, and reactionary thinking. In Hamburg on that day, this anti-democratic, authoritarian, and elitist tradition was mocked by a rising student movement. Shortly thereafter, the authority indicating regalia was abolished. Nonetheless and at least in parts, the stench of Nazism remained.

With the lightening speed of an oil tanker and with the ex-Nazi elite slowly retiring and dying, the university sluggishly began to changed its course mid-way through its history. This history dates back to the university’s foundation in the year 1919. Throughout the 1920s, the University of Hamburg remained a medium-sized university with about 3,000 students. It was an elitist institution to which only a small and male section of Hamburg’s population had access.

The university’s equally small circle of all-male professors remained an elite as well. Today, the University of Hamburg is bigger and more diversified. It has about 44,000 students and more than 13,000 employees – the size of a sizable town. Unlike its Weimar past (1919-1933) and even more so during its Nazi past (1933-1945), today the University of Hamburg is dedicated to the idea that an education is civil right and that universities are elementary parts of a democratic society.

Following the neoliberal l’idée fixe of competitive markets, the University of Hamburg’s Public Relations department likes to present the university a city of knowledge. Unlike Germany’s more known universities – now framed as competitors – the University of Hamburg is still rather young. The University of Heidelberg, for example, was founded in 1386, the University of Leipzig in 1409 and Rostock’s university is five-hundred years older than Hamburg university.

Historically, the city of Hamburg was a free port existing somewhat independent of feudal Germany’s miniature states. Historically, founding a university was the privilege of monarchs. The ability of set up a university was something not granted to Hamburg. Yet, shortly before World War I, Hamburg became a city of a million people (1912). Recovering from WWI, it passed the million margin again in 1919.

Disillusioned with Kaiser, war and capitalism and preventing an imminent workers’ revolution in 1918/19, a party more compliant to capitalism was installed in many parts of Germany. In Hamburg, the social-democratic SPD won an absolute majority in local elections. It secured parliamentarian democracy for the people and profits for capitalism. With the SPD in power, the party decided to establish the Hamburg University. At the newly established University of Hamburg meanwhile, the majority of newly appointed professors rejected the democratic values of the Weimar Republic – the years between World War I and Nazism.

With the revolutionary workers’ councils isolated and marginalised, the social-democrats proclaimed a democratic citizenship based on parliamentarianism – not on workers councils. To support parliamentarian rule and to secure capitalism’s existence, the SPD announced, we are founding the first democratic reform university in Germany in Hamburg. It wasn’t a workers university but an elite institution.

A working class university was not something the majority of university teachers, professors and students wanted. To pretend to service its worker clientele, social democrat’s plan also featured an university with professors offering adult education classes. The idea was to give workers access to a kind of community college associated with the University of Hamburg. However, these requirements were simply ignored by the majority of professors throughout the 1920s.

Only a very small minority of professor were prepared to offer such community college like courses. Among them were some of the most outstanding representatives and defenders of democracy. As Nazism rose, these democratic professor were intimidated and harassed. Eventually, they began to lose out. Among them was great Kantian and Hegelian philosopher Ernst Cassirer. Ernst Cassirer can be seen as the very opposite of Heidegger. Already in 1929, the lifelong Nazi, Heidegger complained against Germany’ s surrender to a growing Judaisation advocating a race-based fight against a mythical Jewish influence seen as Verjudung. Today, and unlike the Nazi Heidegger of Freiburg University, one of Germany’s foremost Kant experts – Cassirer – is largely forgotten.

Like Cassirer, the psychologist William Stern and the legal scholar Albrecht Mendelssohn Bartholdygrandson of the composer Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy – were also dismissed and expelled from the University of Hamburg in 1933. Yet, even before making Germany’s universities Judenrein – the elimination of Jews – virtually at all German universities and by far the majority of professors rejected the democratic Weimar Republic preferring instead authoritarianism. Anything that looked like democracy was seen as bringing ruin to their l’idée fixe of German science. Yet, in 1927 the University of Hamburg received the status of a full university cementing professorial authority.

Despite the fact that a social-democratic party made them professors, the majority of the professorial body at the University of Hamburg opposed the modern project of a democratic society. They denounced the plan for a democratic university as an interference in “their” sphere of science. Simultaneously, the deeply reactionary, nationalist, anti-Semitic and even semi-fascist clan of professors at the University of Hamburg claimed that their nationalistic and deeply ideological position on science was not political at all. The reactionaries simply announced it as a German position and therefore legitimate.

Given all this, there was a rather rapid transition of the University of Hamburg into Hitler’s Third Reich. Yet, the professorial body did not convert to National Socialism in a one-step process. They move gradually. Nonetheless, the majority supported and welcomed the change of power towards Hitler’s Nazism. Like Heidegger, they too welcomed the Nazis’ ultra-nationalistic politics of the Volksgemeinschaft. To them, everything was better than the hated democratic republic of the Weimar years. This “everything”, of course, including the Nazis.

What isn’t shocking at all is how easily professors accepted and welcomed the dismissal of their Jewish colleagues. After all, it gave jobs to the second tear of inferior semi-scholars faithful to Nazism. After the allied victory over Nazism, the university rather quickly reopened its doors in November 1945. While everything went rather fast, Nazism wasn’t completely finished its ideology lingered on.

Of course the former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright was correct when saying, it is easier to remove tyrants and destroy concentration camps than to kill the ideas that gave them birth. Although, many professors were “checked” (!) as part of Denazification and some professors were temporarily suspended, by the beginning of the fifties the majority of ex-Nazi professors had returned to the university pretending business as usual – let’s pretend Neuengamme, Fühlsbüttel Concentration Camp, etc. didn’t exist.

Similar to Germany’s legal, political and economic system as a whole, there was a continuity in personnel, structure, and ideology in German universities. There was no dealing with one’s own Nazi past. Instead, there was denial and lies masking Nazism and one’s guilt. As a consequence of this continuity, the University of Hamburg remained deeply conservative, authoritarian, and rigidly organized well into the late 1960s. Only with the student revolt of the late 1960s did West German society gradually liberalize.

By that time, universities like the University of Hamburg were still not democratically structured. Their conservative professorial body assured that Nazism wasn’t on the agenda. At the University of Hamburg, professors remained an elite group which in the case of Hamburg consisted exclusively of men until 1962.

Even the former army officer and city councillor Gert Hinnerk Behlmer who was a student during the sixties noted that there was no institution so hierarchical and authoritarian as the University of Hamburg. Even one-hundred years after its foundation and 75 years after Nazism, there is room for improvement at the University of Hamburg. As is the case at virtually all other German universities with an unexamined Nazi past, the University of Hamburg is but one – and by far not the worst example of Nazism and German universities.

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