Control of Universities in Nazi Germany

Controlling the Universities

Learn how the Nazis pushed their ideology onto German universities, and how academics like Heidegger and Einstein responded.    
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At a Glance

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English — US


  • History
  • The Holocaust
  • Human & Civil Rights

Germany’s 1933 civil service law applied to university professors as well as elementary and secondary-school teachers. It was not difficult for the Nazis to win the support of many university professors, administrators, and students. At the time, a majority of them backed conservative political parties that were hostile to the Weimar Republic. Many university professors immediately welcomed the Nazi-led government in 1933. Many student fraternities and other student groups already banned Jews and regularly protested against professors they believed did not support supposed traditional German values. 1 Scholars who were Jewish or supported left-leaning parties struggled to find research and teaching positions in public, government-supported German universities and often worked in private ones instead. With the passage of the new law, the Nazis attempted to root out any dissent to their policies and ideology that remained in German higher education.

Peter Drucker, an Austrian economist, was then a lecturer at Frankfurt University. Fearful of Hitler’s plans for Germany, he was prepared to leave the country but hoped that it would not be necessary to do so. The first Nazi-led faculty meeting at the university convinced him otherwise.

Frankfurt was the first university the Nazis tackled, precisely because it was the most self-confidently liberal of major German universities, with a faculty that prided itself on its allegiance to scholarship, freedom of conscience, and democracy. The Nazis knew that control of Frankfurt University would mean control of German academia. And so did everyone at the university.

Above all, Frankfurt had a science faculty distinguished both by its scholarship and by its liberal convictions; and outstanding among the Frankfurt scientists was a biochemist-physiologist of Nobel-Prize caliber and impeccable liberal credentials. When the appointment of a Nazi commissar was announced . . . and every teacher and graduate assistant at the university was summoned to a faculty meeting to hear this new master, everybody knew that a trial of strength was at hand. I had never before attended a faculty meeting, but I did attend this one.

The new Nazi commissar wasted no time on the amenities. He immediately announced that Jews would be forbidden to enter university premises and would be dismissed without salary on March 15; this was something that no one had thought possible despite the Nazis’ loud antisemitism. Then he launched into a tirade of abuse, filth, and four-letter words such as had been heard rarely even in the barracks and never before in academia. . . . [He] pointed his finger at one department chairman after another and said, “You either do what I tell you or we’ll put you into a concentration camp.” There was silence when he finished; everybody waited for the distinguished biochemist-physiologist. The great liberal got up, cleared his throat, and said, “Very interesting, Mr. Commissar, and in some respects very illuminating: but one point I didn’t get too clearly. Will there be more money for research in physiology?"

The meeting broke up shortly thereafter with the commissar assuring the scholars that indeed there would be plenty of money for “racially pure science.” A few of the professors had the courage to walk out with their Jewish colleagues, but most kept a safe distance from these who only a few hours earlier had been their close friends. I went out sick unto death—and I knew that I was going to leave Germany within forty-eight hours. 2

Other professors chose a different course. Martin Heidegger, an influential philosopher, told his students and colleagues that Germany’s soul needed fresh air to breathe and National Socialism would provide it. As the Nazis came to power, he argued that freedom of inquiry and free expression were negative and selfish ideas. Instead, he encouraged his students to live up to their obligations to the national community in both “thought and deed.” Heidegger’s fellow professors at Freiburg University voted him head of the university in April 1933. In May, he officially joined the Nazi Party, and he told his students: “The Führer himself and he alone is the German reality, present and future, and its law. Study to know; from now on, all things demand decision, and all action responsibility. Hail Hitler!” 3

According to historian Richard Evans, 15% of university teachers had lost their jobs by fall 1933. Most were fired because of their political beliefs, while a third of those fired were dismissed because they were Jewish. Several world-famous German scientists were fired or left their positions at universities and research institutions across the country. Most notable among them was Albert Einstein. He had revolutionized modern physics while working in Berlin for 20 years, but he left Germany in 1933 and spent the rest of his career at Princeton University in the United States. 4

Connection Questions

  1. What choices were available to the non-Jewish members of the Frankfurt University faculty who disapproved of the new civil service law? How did they choose to respond? How do you explain their choice?
  2. When is it risky to intervene on behalf of others? Under what conditions might you be willing to take that risk?
  3. What are freedom of inquiry and freedom of expression? Why do you think Martin Heidegger and the Nazis would call them negative and selfish ideas? How do you think eliminating freedom of inquiry and expression would change education?
  • 1Richard J. Evans, The Coming of the Third Reich (New York: Penguin, 2003), 422–28.
  • 2Peter F. Drucker, Adventures of a Bystander (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 1994), 161–62.
  • 3Richard J. Evans, The Coming of the Third Reich (New York: Penguin, 2003), 421.
  • 4Richard J. Evans, The Coming of the Third Reich (New York: Penguin, 2003), 422–23.

How to Cite This Reading

Facing History & Ourselves, "Controlling the Universities," last updated August 2, 2016.

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