Opinion

What We Can Learn From Heidelberg University's Descent Into Nazism

The tale of an academic elite's surrender to the mob, on and off campus

Heidelberg University, 1896.
Karl Lange

Heidelberg University, one of Germany’s most famous universities, stands at the heart of a town with breathtaking scenery. But dramatic events that plunged the town and the ivory tower at its core toward the Nazi seizure of power (Machtergreifung) stained this great edifice.

Heidelberg was the flagship of the progressive political spirit in Germany for decade, but this spirit began declining in the early days of the Weimar Republic. At first the progressive professors remained prominent, but the influence of their right-wing colleagues steadily strengthened. Philipp Lenard, head of Heidelberg’s physics institute and Nobel laureate, called in 1922 to ignore the Baden government’s decision to fly the flag at half-mast for the murder of Walter Rathenau, the foreign minister. He later called Einstein’s achievements “Jewish physics” and urged his Nobel Prize be revoked. After the Nazis rose to power in 1933, he was appointed the Third Reich’s “Chief of Aryan Physics.”

The political atmosphere in Heidelberg, then numbering tens of thousands of residents, was influenced by the steadily increasing nationalist spirit. The local press, mainly the Heidelberger Tagblatt newspaper, stressed the yearning for a “Greater Germany” and repeatedly highlighted Germany’s historical right to claim German-speaking lands like Austria and the Sudetenland. The ethos of sacrifice in the battlefields for the sake of the German nation was the basis for patriotism from which nationalist voices emerged. Against this background, anti-republican voices strengthened, some with a shade of violence, directed against anyone not “one of us,” first and foremost Jews, and political opponents dubbed without distinction “left.”

During this period, the gap between the ivory tower and the cultural-political façade became clearer. The university’s faculty and student body, which together numbered a few thousand, was nourished at the beginning of the period by the inscription “The living spirit” above the university’s main entrance (which was changed to “The German spirit” after the Nazis rose to power). The tale of the decline of higher education in Germany into the Nazi era is illustrated by the case of Emil Julius Gumbel, a Jewish, leftist and pacifist “political activist” who taught mathematical statistics at Heidelberg. He and the principle of academic freedom were caught in the slingshot that propelled the politicization of academia.

Gumbel published in 1922 the results of his research on political violence and murder in Germany dating back to 1918 called “Four Years of Political Murder.” His book analyzed the sources of the political right’s rise and the weakness of the political system that allowed this.

Albert Einstein in 1947.
Orren Jack Turner, Library of Congress

On July 26, 1924, at a conference of pacifist groups in Heidelberg, he asked participants to stand for two minutes in silence in memory of the fallen in war, about whom he said, “I won’t say they fell in the battlefields of dishonor, rather that they were killed in the worst possible way.” The sentence about the soldiers who fell in the fields of dishonor ignited the first stage of the so-called Gumbel affair (1924-25). The phrase “fields of honor” of the fallen in battle was a central motif in the German ethos and particularly in the national narrative. The sharp reaction was an attempt to expel him from the university. Nevertheless, a special commission headed by Karl Jaspers was set up under the pressure of the Baden education minister. The commission concluded, “Gumbel’s statement was hurtful but insufficient to justify dismissal.”

In the summer of 1930, the Baden education minister sought to promote Gumbel as part of a group of academics. The university approved his appointment, opening the second stage of the Gumbel affair (1930-32).

In 1930, the Nazi student group NSDStB took control of the Heidelberg student union. They began a fight against the Baden government and the university’s liberal reputation. When the winter semester commenced in November 1930, the Nazi students launched a campaign to dismiss Gumbel at a conference in a packed town auditorium. That same month, they distributed fliers calling to dismiss “the dirty Jews.” The pressure on the university authorities gathered momentum and the rector at the time, Prof. Meister, who was apolitical, chose not to confront the aggressiveness of the students.

The three players formally tied to the incident and its developments – Gumbel, the university and the minister – were perceived as ill prepared for the deterioration of events as a result of pressure from the Nazi student league and political forces outside the university. The flaccid rector wrote an article in the local Nazi mouthpiece, in which he expressed understanding for the students’ discontent. The response of the liberal professors was feeble. Only three of them condemned the coarse interference of students in academic affairs. They protested especially against the call “for a struggle to clean the university” of Jews, socialists and pacifists.

It was clear to the gatekeepers of the school’s reputation that the faculty’s silence would only heighten the threats against the institution. Albert Einstein reacted publicly in November 1930 to events at Heidelberg, praising Gumbel’s bravery and condemning the students. Nevertheless, a few days later, after the rector made unsuccessful reconciliation efforts, the senate announced that it did not approve awarding the official title of professor to Dr. Gumbel.

Nazis marching in Munich, 1938.
AP

‘Purifying ranks’

During the affair, the national student union called upon the association of higher education in Germany to back the fight against Gumbel with the purpose of “purifying the ranks of professors,” and to declare that the association supported the students’ position that they should choose the lecturers. The association’s chairman, Fritz Tillmann, a theologian from Bonn, responded that the professors’ organization “warmly welcomes every patriotic expression by the students [The organization] assumes that the appointment of Gumbel elicits strong opposition by the students. The majority in the faculty council and the senate in Heidelberg had their say about Gumbel’s personality, and the association’s committee supports all these.”

The affair was settled in June 1932. The Nazi students attended a meeting of socialist students in Heidelberg where Gumbel spoke. He said of the Berlin Victory Column, Siegessaule, “The memorial for the German soldier cannot, in my opinion, be the image of a clad virgin bride with a palm branch [the branch of victory] in her hand, but rather a large turnip.” A few weeks later, the university fired Gumbel. An announcement by the students preceded his dismissal: “The German people will take control of the country soon, and then the ‘German Student League of Heidelberg,’ so we hope, will be able to stand as plaintiff in the state’s court. Then, it will be possible to show that guy Gumbel in a barred cage in Bismarck Square [in the center of town] as the ‘Disgrace Column.’ We suggest his food be – turnip.”

Both the philosophy faculty council and the university’s small senate decided unanimously on the dismissal. The Baden education minister postponed his decision, which was made on January 31, 1933 (a day after Hitler was appointed German chancellor).

Within less than a year after Gumbel became the first educator expelled from university because of political pressure by Nazi organizations within and outside university, a quarter of the professors in Heidelberg, the third-highest rate after Berlin and Breslau, were fired for “racial” or political reasons. (The average university dismissal rate was 14.3 percent). By 1938, half of Heidelberg’s faculty from the early 1930s had been fired.

The Gumbel affair exposed the consequences of the silence of most German academics, even before the Nazi seizure of power. They showed a growing anxiety about the impact their opinions elicited in an increasingly nationalist atmosphere in Germany. Instead of continuing their traditional role as a responsible elite that directs the students and society in general, the professors were dragged down and surrendered to student and mob pressure. The academic elite didn’t withstand the revolutionary cultural pressure the Nazis stirred. It was too violent and too vulgar for them. Thus, the Gumbel affair became an important step in paving the way for Nazifying the university.

The writer founded the Israel Democracy Institute and chairs the Ghetto Fighters’ House Museum.