Free University of Berlin
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
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 -