A dark history whitewashed

The Heidelberg Myth
September 5, 2003

Ever since 1945 critics have been in two minds about Martin Heidegger's legacy and his standing as a leading 20th-century philosopher due to his advocacy of Nazism. The former rector of Freiburg University from 1933-34 is undoubtedly the most notorious example of an eminent German academic lending public support to the Nazis. Of course, Heidegger was only one (albeit possibly the most prominent) example of a German academic compromised through his collaboration with the Nazi regime. For many of my generation, reared in the post-1968 "reformed" German university system with its then liberal to leftwing intellectual climate, it was surprising to see the outcast return to prominence - promoted, for example, by French thinkers who, more than their historically more fixated German counterparts, seemed willing to excuse Heidegger for his supposedly short-lived infatuation with fascism. Of course, the question remains: is Heidegger disqualified as a philosopher by the fact that he, if only initially as some claim, colluded with the Nazis in transforming the German universities into Jew and Marxist-free factories of National Socialist and racist indoctrination? Must one not keep ideology separated from science, personal politics from objective scholarly achievement? The answer to such questions still eludes us.

Heidegger's case is, of course, merely the tip of the iceberg. He was not alone in providing succour to the Nazi movement at a time when it was poised to transmute German academia, and German society overall, into a smithy of the new "German spirit". Like other German institutions, Heidelberg University, the country's oldest and, as many saw it, most eminent institution of higher learning, was promptly drawn into the vortex.

How did the university fare? Was it able to withstand the National Socialist volkisch redefinition of research and teaching? How many researchers made themselves complicit? And what happened to them after the war? These are just some of the questions that American historian Steven Remy addresses in his book, which will interest not only historians, but anyone interested in 20th-century German intellectual history.

The title, The Heidelberg Myth , refers to the fact that after the war and not unlike the professoriate at virtually every university in Hitler's former Reich, the faculty of Heidelberg University tried to absolve itself from responsibility for the atrocities committed by Hitler and his henchmen. According to the myth, until 1933 Heidelberg was a bastion of pro-Republic liberal (and racial) tolerance. But through their laws of Gleichschaltung , and against the opposition of liberal-minded professors, the National Socialists quickly rid the universities of politically and racially undesirable elements (Marxists and Jews), did away with the university's autonomy, filled vacant positions with Nazi ideologues and bureaucrats, and forced the remaining academics, the majority of the university's staff, to acquiesce into paying lip service to the Nazi ideologies of racial purity and German expansionism. In this narrative, Heidelberg was the first of German Nazism's many victims. After the war, all that was required was to root out the handful of genuine Nazi ideologues appointed after 1933, and the university could return to its core values of political neutrality and scholarly objectivity.

But as Remy shows in this well-researched and generally engaging study, the "Heidelberg myth" reveals itself as nothing more than that: the reality of the years between 1933 and 1945 tells a very different story than the one the myth wants us to believe.

Not only had some professors already joined the Nazi Party or one of its affiliated organisations long before their takeover in 1933, most others were quick to fall in line, sympathetic to the message of völkisch renewal and German superiority (what Remy subsumes under the heading of "German spirit"). Even before the government-imposed dismissal of Jewish civil servants in the wake of the Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service, passed in April 1933, radical student leaders and sympathisers among the professoriate had begun to harass and boycott their Marxist and "non-Aryan" colleagues. Between 1933 and 1938, Heidelberg was purged of 28 per cent of its instructors, the overwhelming majority of whom were fired on "racial" grounds. Those opponents of Nazism who were not thrown out of office on racial or political grounds or who could not be forced into early retirement fled into an uneasy "inner immigration" of self-inflicted silence, while many younger scholars, often already sympathetic to the Nazis, took the opportunity to advance into the newly vacated positions. By the end of 1935, says Remy, Heidelberg was on its way to becoming the National Socialist university par excellence.

In the first of seven chapters, Remy relates how readily the majority of the university's highest-ranking professors aligned themselves with the new regime. Paul Schmitthenner, Philipp Lenard, Friedrich Endemann, Eugen Fehrle, Hans Nieland and others who had been members of the German National People's Party or the National Socialist Party before 1933 made the transition to Hitler's NSDAP without a second thought. Willy Andreas, Heidelberg University's rector in 1933-34, pronounced in his May 1933 graduation address that National Socialism had "become Germany's destiny". Professors of law such as Walter Jellinek, Reinhard Höhn, Heinz Hildebrandt and Georg Dahm were quick to defend the Enabling Act; sociologists such as Carl Brinkmann and Arnold Bergsträsser sought to justify the shift from "private interest" to the "common good" of the Volk ; Germanists such as Hermann Guntert and Paul Bockmann heralded the advent of a "new national Germany"; while historians such as Kurt von Raumer celebrated the "German revolution" that was being realised "from the grounds of our traditions and from the powers of our race". The common theme to emerge was that all research and teaching must serve the Volksgemeinschaft , the community of the German people.

In his next chapters, Remy recounts the all-encompassing Nazification of research institutes and of the teaching curriculum at Heidelberg. Karl Jaspers, one of the few who resisted Nazification, was forced into early retirement in 1937; his chair in the faculty of philosophy tellingly became the professorship for military policy and military sciences - now occupied by the historian Schmitthenner, who created the "seminar for the history of warfare".

Through new political appointments, the natural sciences faculty became the second bastion of "Aryan physics" in Germany next to Munich, while many physicians helped the Nazi Party put its race theories into practice. Carl Schneider, for instance, who had become chairman of the medical faculty and whose interest in sterilisation predated his arrival at Heidelberg, also became the director of the university's psychiatry clinic and head of Baden's Racial Policy Office; these functions allowed him to play a central role in the Nazis' euthanasia programme.

But it is not Remy's sole purpose to investigate the level to which Heidelberg University became a bulwark of Nazism's racist and ideology between 1933 and 1945. His aim is, in the final four chapters, also to explore the continuities between the Nazi era and the postwar period, both in terms of personnel and ideology. How successful was de-Nazification in the American occupation zone? To what extent were former Nazis exposed and replaced at Heidelberg after 1945? Which factors contributed to the derailment of the de-Nazification process? And how did Heidelberg's academic leaders succeed in falsifying their past and exonerating themselves when their cases came to trial?

Besides Lenard and Ernst Krieck, who died before being sentenced, Schmitthenner, Fehrle, Karl Schmidhuber, Johann Duken and Ludwig Wesch were all charged as Hauptschuldige , the worst of the five categories in the de-Nazification process. Proceedings against Schmitthenner were suspended in 1951, the others' convictions were eventually downgraded from the highest category to the second lowest, Mitläufer (fellow traveller). Schneider, who was also charged in the Hauptschuldiger category, committed suicide before coming to trial, while his assistants in the euthanasia programme "all denied knowledge of their mentor's activities, avoided prosecutionI and went on to illustrious careers in the postwar Germanys". In a similar vein, Karl Heinrich Bauer, an outspoken supporter of the Nazis' sterilisation law and advocate of a war of racial expansion, went on after 1945 to become the first postwar rector of Heidelberg, allowing him to protect and reinstate many of his compromised former colleagues. The effect was that, quite contrary to the "Heidelberg myth" as promulgated by Heidelberg's professoriate after the war, the university remained dominated by former Nazis throughout the 1950s. Many a scholar was forced to reinvent himself and obscure his past by concealing or rewriting publications and modifying his CV.

As Remy shows conclusively, Heidelberg was not the passive victim of the totalitarian onslaught that it made itself out to be. Nor was de-Nazification very successful in ridding the university of personnel who had collaborated with the Nazi regime. Most German academics, portraying themselves as essentially unpolitical and uncorrupted objective scholars, were able to return to their old positions virtually unscathed. As eminent a philosopher as Hans-Georg Gadamer, called to Heidelberg in 1949 to fill Jaspers' vacant chair, was forced to revise some of his Nazi-era writings, as Remy notes. He shows how Gadamer, in a 1967 reworked version of a 1940 lecture celebrating Herder's conception of society as grounded in the blood of the Volk , removed all references to völkisch ideology and German superiority.

This leads me to one of the few weaknesses in this otherwise thoroughly readable and illuminating study. Its success in detailing Heidelberg's vacillating history between 1933 and the 1960s notwithstanding, one cannot help but feel that it lacks documentary concreteness. While the footnotes list hundreds of sources, the chapters contain too few citations of original documents to allow the reader to draw an informed conclusion as to how implicated a given academic might have been. In most cases we have to rely on the author's condensed presentation of the historical facts.

It would have been helpful to be able to examine select passages, in original and translation, not just by Gadamer, but also by at least the more notorious Nazi physicians at Heidelberg, including excerpts from their defences in the postwar Spruchkammer (de-Nazification) tribunals, which almost invariably ended in acquittal or, at worst, a reduction of sentence to fellow traveller.

Remy's study is different from earlier work examining Nazi Germany's academic elite during the Third Reich in that it also looks beyond 1945 to focus on the afterlife of Nazism at Heidelberg during the Wirtschaftswunder (economic miracle) years. This allows us to see how, after 1945, the survivors, both followers and opponents of Hitler's regime, attempted to start afresh with a clean slate, devising elaborate self-defence narratives, wittingly or unwittingly whitewashing the past of many a Nazi sycophant in the process. The book thus outlines a cautionary and sobering tale not just of how willingly an intellectual elite was lured into the service of a totalitarian state; it shows, too, how effectively that same intellectual elite later - out of a guilty conscience or due to an unwillingness to mend its ways - successfully rewrote the narrative of its collective memory. While Remy's aim is not to prove the "collective guilt" of the German professoriate, or to unmask the dark pasts of individual professors, there is something distinctly depressing, if not chilling, about this tale of collective failure.

Robert Weninger is chair of German, King's College London.

The Heidelberg Myth: The Nazification and Denazification of a German University

Author - Steven P. Remy
ISBN - 0 674 00933 9
Publisher - Harvard University Press
Price - £26.50
Pages - 329

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