Free University of Berlin




I asked Jim Tent, who has just returned from Germany, to tell us about the rise and fall of the Free University of Berlin. He writes: "The Free University of Berlin (FU) is a unique institution of higher learning in the German-speaking world. Founded in December, 1948 by dissident students who had broken away from the Soviet-SED (East German Communist) controlled "Berlin University," the FU was a small, struggling enterprise at first, one that depended heavily upon the largess of American Military Government in postwar Berlin.

Because of Soviet ideological commitment in the period 1945 to 1948, Berlin's traditional Fredrich-Wilhelms-Universitaet had been run by the Eastern authorities exclusively, despite U.S., British, and French Military Government. protests. The Americans under its saucy City Commandant, General Frank Howley, of Military Government (MG) had even closed institutes and structures of the "Berlin University" because of Soviet intransigence, and German students were, to state the matter frankly, highly suspect in American eyes. This held true until mid-1947 to mid-1948. Several crucial developments changed this bleak picture for higher education in Berlin. Young Americans in official or quasi official capacities made contact with German students, who were seething over brutal Soviet-SED policies, including secret arrest and disappearance of six of their number in 1947. This reminded all of them of Nazi "Night and Fog" actions. Thus, Kendall Foss, a reporter, picked up on German student anger and alerted American MG officers.

Stanford University professor and Slavic historian Fritz Epstein was in Berlin in 1947-48 too, locating German foreign-policy documents for the State Department. Fritz and his brilliant wife, Hertha, also made contact with the angry students and provided entree to MG officials like Frank Howely. The upshot was that when the students broke into open revolt in April, 1948, Military Governor Lucius D. Clay provided crucial funding, and the Free University came into existence on December. 4, 1948. Approximately 3,000 students started their studies at the FU. American authorities provided continuing support. A galaxy of prominent Americans and German-Americans (many of them Jewish-German refugees and exiles) came to the Free University from 1948, throughout the entire Cold War, and even, in old age for the exiles, up into the 1990s. They became a kind of second or reserve faculty to FU students, providing expertise across the entire spectrum of higher learning. American governmental funding also helped, including Fulbright. Private monies flowed in too, e.g. massive support from the Ford Foundation. Life was good for the FU.

From 1948 to ca. 1965, the FU grew slowly, rising from 3,000 students in 1948 to a bit more than 5,000 in the early 1960s. President John F. Kennedy made a memorable speech there in June, 1963 and was made an honorary member of the FU. It was a shining moment. The FU had achieved an enviable reputation as one of Germany's finest universities with brilliant faculty, brilliant students, and tremendous vitality that spilled over into research, teaching, and innovations that affected all of West Berlin and the Federal Republic. Stanford University established a permanent presence in Berlin, closely associated with the FU. Knowing young Americans like Garrick Utley studied there. Even East Germans came in their thousands - until Khruschev and Ulbricht built the Wall on August 13, 1961.

Then came 1968. The German protest movement of the 1960s and 70s was a reaction against the entirety of German social/political development of the decades preceding that watershed year. Understandably, many German university students of the early 1960s were starved of information about recent German history and politics. They rebelled against the conspiracy of silence about 1933-1945 and about a lack of impartial judgments of German history since its unification in 1871 under the reactionary Bismarck. Unfortunately, these powerful counter-currents flowed most directly into Dahlem, i.e. the suburb in which the Free University maintained its once progressive, modernistic campus (its Henry Ford Bau is a handsome centerpiece building, a reminder of the innovative architecture of the 1950s).

From ca. 1967 to the end of the 1970s, the once brave little enterprise that had been the infant FU grown into an academic Cinderella was blown away. Student protests were fueled by anger over the unstated conspiracy to avoid investigation of Germany's past, especially under the Nazis. Just as potent was rising indignation over the war in Vietnam. FU administrators were simply overwhelmed by events. This was hardly surprising since all of German society was affected by the generational conflict engendered by "1968." What affected the Free University at that time and afterwards was and is, however, terribly sad. First, the FU was transformed from a small "elite" university of several thousand able students into a massive "Mammoth-Universitaet" of over 60,000 students within little more than a decade. Student protests degenerated from intellectually precise arguments into rigid, ideologically conditioned exercises as proto-Stalinist, Maoist, or whatever other ideologically motivated movements of that time held sway. The end result was the rapid destruction of the reputation of the Free University of Berlin as one of Germany's great universities.

Slowly, very slowly, starting in the 1970s and into the 1980s, various faculties at the FU were able to rebuild their reputations. Today, the FU (now reduced by more than half to less than 40,000 students) continues its earlier tradition of providing sterling education to Germany's students. However, the politics of the Berlin of 2004 are utterly different from Cold War times. The Communists of 1948 commandeered a new name for the old "Berlin University" that they had utterly transformed in the period 1945 to 1948. Anticipating the creation of a breakaway university in the West, they hurriedly adopted a new name for their pockmarked, rickety, and discredited old building on Unter den Linden in downtown [East] Berlin: "Humboldt Universitaet."

The old university had been named after a feckless monarch, King Friedrich Wilhelm, and so the name had stuck. Einstein had taught there in the 1930s until the Nazis came to power. Everyone knew that the real founder of Berlin's famed university was the great scientist/philosopher Wilhelm von Humboldt. Now, suddenly, in the summer of 1948, the SED-Soviet authorities adopted Humboldt's name in order to preempt the breakway students at the nascent FU. What's in a name? In the game of partisan politics of today's Berlin, that name counts for a great deal. I hope that WAISers will understand what the stakes are and why the "Free University of Berlin" is now an imperiled institution, increasingly overshadowed by the name (quite literally) of the seemingly prestigious "Humbold University" a couple of kilometers to the east".

RH: What Jim says about German history ties in with our "Learning history" project. I visited both the Humboldt University and the Free University in 1970. At the former, faculty members were frightened of being seen talking to an American colleague. My visit to the Free University was very pleasant- German TV ran today a program on German universities. A professor at the Free University was interviewed at length about the victories of the Greens in the EU elections. There was no mention of the state of the university. Also featured was the university town of Tübingen, which has changed greatly since I was there. The Greens did better than the SDP in the elections, and thanks to them the city parks have greatly improved. There was also a long section on La Charité Hospital in Berlin, the largest in Europe. It is attracting large number of wealthy Arabs who no longer come to American hospitals because of visa problems. An ill wind for American hospitals, but a windfall for German ones.

Ronald Hilton -


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