Universities in Nazi Germany were strictly controlled by the authorities. Senior university professors were hand-picked Nazis. The subjects that were taught in universities had to fit in to Nazi ideology and few in the universities were prepared to openly defy the regime.
Historically, universities in Germany had been held in very high regard for their reputation for teaching students to think outside of the norm. University teachers and students were generally well thought of within German society and the standards set were copied throughout the world. Academic freedom was taken for granted and senior figures within German universities were quick to make comments when it was required. In 1837, seven professors at the University of Gőttingen were sacked because they spoke out against the suspension of the state constitution in Hanover. They felt that the rights of Hanoverians were at risk and made their views known. Their dismissal caused a lot of anger among the state’s population.
But German universities also developed a reputation for something else other than academic excellence. They were frequently breeding grounds for nationalism. In 1915, despite the slaughter that was occurring on the Western Front, 450 university professors signed a statement applauding Germany’s war aims. Many refused to either accept or believe that Germany had surrendered in November 1918 and few publicly expressed their support for Ebert’s Weimar government.
Adolf Hitler distrusted university professors and lecturers as he knew that by the very nature of their academic excellence that they could resist Gleichshaltung ( the coordination of the German population to do as the government wished so that they all thought in the same way). With a history of challenging accepted academic notions, professors were in Hitler’s mind a potential enemy. He determined to eradicate any form of Humanistic thinking in universities and replace it with the next stage of educational thinking that had been seen in schools etc. He wanted universities to teach in a Nazi way and for subjects to have a Nazi slant to them. They were to become political and racial institutions that would push the Nazi beliefs to the nation’s academic elite.
Hitler’s attack on the universities started shortly after he was appointed Chancellor on January 30th 1933. Any lecturers who were Jewish, known liberals and Social Democrats were dismissed – around 1,200 people or 10% of the total. Reputation counted for nothing. The University of Gőttingen had a worldwide reputation for the work its scientists were doing on quantum physics. But they were dismissed. One university lecturer, Paul Kahle, was found helping out a Jewish friend in her shop. The harassment he suffered after this was so great that he emigrated to Great Britain. Hermann Oncken, a historian, was dismissed after he published a less than complimentary book about Robespierre. In this case, the Nazi government believed that he was openly criticising a regime where one man held great power within a country. Ironically, Oncken had been a frequent critic of the Weimar government. While 1,200 were dismissed, other lecturers believed that worse was to come and resigned before fleeing the country.
However, there were many within universities that openly supported the Nazis and Hitler. The economic collapse in Germany after the 1929 Wall Street Crash had hit universities hard. Many simply could not afford to be a student and money for research was hard to come by. The order and restoration of German greatness as promised by Hitler appealed to many. James Frank won a Nobel Prize for academic excellence. He was offered a university chair in recognition of his achievement but turned it down in protest of the government’s anti-Jewish stance. Frank was a Jew. Rather than support someone who had achieved such academic excellence, 33 professors from the University of Gőttingen signed a letter of protest and claimed that Frank was engaged in nothing less than academic sabotage. The rector of Freiburg University, Martin Heidegger, wrote that:
“The duty of students as well as professors is to serve the people under the triple form of labour service, military service and scientific service.”
Under the Nazi government, the university rector had total power within his university – all part of the leadership principle supported by the Nazis. Therefore, all university rectors were reliable Nazis who were empowered to do as they wished (as long as it fitted in with Nazi ideology) at their university. The new rector at the University of Berlin, Eugen Fischer, had been a member of the Brownshirts (SA) who had a veterinary background. He immediately introduced 25 new courses to do with ‘racial science’. There was no one within the university who could stop him. Nor would such a move anger the government.
Anyone appointed to a university post had to be effectively approved by the government. While a rector had full power within his university, he could only appoint someone who had successfully completed a six-week training course at a National Socialist Lecturers Alliance camp. Such camps required someone to complete fitness courses and learn rudimentary military drill.
University curriculums were strictly controlled so that they fitted in with Nazi beliefs. There was a great emphasis placed on German achievements and any achievement made by a Jew was either ignored or derided. The Theory of Relativity was described as a Jewish plot to achieve world domination and reduce Germans to the level of slaves. Very few were prepared to speak out against such an approach as most, if not all, would have known what the consequences were. The first concentration camp at Dachau was quickly followed by others built throughout Nazi Germany and some of the inmates of these camps were university intellectuals who had dared to speak out.
Some of the greatest academics in Nazi Germany fled, the most famous being Albert Einstein. He, along with another academic refugee Lise Meitner, would play a major role in the development of the atomic bomb. The number of university students also drastically fell from 1933 on. When Hitler came to power in 1933, there were 127,820 students. By 1939 this had fallen to 58,325. To what extent this hindered Nazi Germany can only be speculated. To get a place at university required a young male to have done military service and a young female to have completed labour service. Members of the White Rose resistance movement believed that the students at universities would rise up against Hitler once the truth about how the war was going came out. They were wrong and they paid the price.