- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 16, 2003

By Steven P. Remy,
Harvard University Press, $30, 329 pages

Of all the German universities Heidelberg, founded in the 14th century, has been the most famous. Perhaps it was the best known university worldwide even Harvard, Oxford and Cambridge never generated such a multitude of romantic songs and musicals on the pattern of the Student Prince. It is indeed a very attractive place, the Neckar compares favorably with the Charles river and the Isis; in the 19th and early-20th century Heidelberg was home to some of the world's leading thinkers. But all things considered, Berlin was the better university and the Nazi rise to power caused Heidelberg damage from which it has not fully recovered to this day and perhaps never will.
In his fascinating book "The Heidelberg Myth," Steven Remy deals with two purges the one in 1933 when Hitler came to power and many of those not in line with the "new spirit" were removed, and the second 1945-48 when the American authorities (Heidelberg being located in the U.S. zone of occupation) tried to undo the damage. It is microhistory, dealing with a relatively small group of people, but the group was important and the story is of much wider significance. For what took place in Heidelberg happened one way or another in all German universities and many other institutions as well.
Mr. Remy dismantles the (postwar) Heidelberg myth according to which the university was and remained throughout the Nazi era a staunchly unpolitical place, that, a few fanatics aside, the professors who continued to serve never liked the Nazi regime and perhaps even constituted something like an "inner emigration."
This is a barefaced lie which can easily be refuted by referring to the lectures given after 1933 by Heidelberg professors and the articles and books published. Even the professors who never became members of the Nazi party (probably the majority) were, broadly speaking, in sympathy and made concessions to Nazi ideology such as race doctrine and other new disciplines without being threatened with the firing squad in the case of refusal.
It is one of the weaknesses of this excellent and reliable book that the author hardly deals with the student body either before, during or after the war. True, students come and go whereas the professors and the administrators remain, but the spirit of a university is shaped not only by those who teach. And it ought to have been pointed out more strongly that the students were far more deeply infected by the spirit of Nazism than their elders.
Long before the Nazis attracted a plurality of German voters, they were the strongest faction in university elections. There is but little doubt in retrospect that the professors were influenced, albeit indirectly, by the enthusiasm of those who came to their seminars and lectures.
All that Mr. Remy says about Heidelberg in the 1930s is true; to note, as he does, that most other German universities were even more sympathetic to Nazism and less tolerant is no more than a backhanded compliment. He is certainly not too harsh dealing with the scandal of de Nazification after 1945. For decades German universities have refused to confront their record during the Third Reich and never was the resistance stronger than in the early postwar years.
Even those with an unblemished past (and there were such people, like the philosopher Karl Jaspers) were standing up for their colleagues who had collaborated with the Nazis over and above the call of duty. Not a few pointed to the fact that their spouses had a Jewish grandmother, or at least a great-grandmother and that for this reason they should be considered victims of the Nazi regime. They refused to help and often sabotaged the efforts of the American military government, which tried to remove at least those who had been most deeply involved in Nazi activities.
They were particularly angry with German emigre officials who came to visit them because they knew the language , were too well informed about past events and took the trouble to dig deeply into the records, which was about the last thing these mandarins of the old school wanted. As a result by 1950 a few scapegoats had been sacrificed, but by and large Heidelberg and the other German universities were again staffed by the same people who had been in key positions 15 years earlier.
Of the professors and lecturers who had been thrown out for political or racial reasons in 1933 (up to a third of the total) only a very few were invited back; some had died in the meantime, others refused to return to a place which had been the place of humiliation, persecution and suffering. Could it have been any different? The state of affairs in German higher education was after all not different from the situation prevailing in other fields in the civil administration, even the courts and the police.
The only qualified people were those who had been active throughout the Nazi era. And it could be argued that it did not greatly matter whether former members of the Nazi party continued to teach in the departments of veterinary medicine or forestry. But there were also the humanities and the social sciences and theology and many other disciplines which should not have been left in the hands of those closely identified with the regime which had brought about the German disaster.
All this is now past history, the academic generation of 1933 has disappeared long ago and today's professors are all good democrats. Their political orientation is towards the left rather than the right and there are certainly no neo-Nazis among them. But the confrontation with the Nazi past has still not taken place except perhaps in a few highly specialized monographs. The present preoccupation in German literature is with the suffering of German civilians during the war, a perfectly legitimate topic. About the Nazi past, it is said, "we have heard more than enough."
In these circumstances, Mr. Remy's book will probably not be a runaway bestseller in Germany not because the story he tells is so well known but because it is not a very pleasant story.

Walter Laqueur holds the Henry A. Kissinger Chair in National Security Policy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

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