Foundation and History

Blick auf den Henry-Ford-Bau von der Boltzmannstrasse aus. Um 1959.
View of the Henry Ford Building from Boltzmann Street, around 1959.
Image Credit: Reinhard Friedrich / Universitätsarchiv der Freien Universität

Dedicated to Freedom

Freie Universität Berlin was founded on December 4, 1948, by students, scholars, and scientists with the support of the American allied forces and politicians in Berlin. The move was sparked by the persecution faced by students who took a critical eye of the system at the former Universität Unter den Linden, at that time located in the Soviet sector of the divided city. Students and academics wanted to be free to pursue their learning, teaching, and research activities at Freie Universität, without being subject to political influence.

Generous donations from the United States enabled Freie Universität to build some of its central facilities, including the Benjamin Franklin University Hospital and the Henry Ford Building. In a nod to the history surrounding the university’s founding, the seal of Freie Universität still features the words truth, justice, and freedom. In 2007, the university dedicated a memorial to the founding students, who were killed by the Soviet secret service. The university also presents its Freedom Award to individuals who have made outstanding contributions to freedom.

International from the Very Beginning

To remain relevant and to compete academically and intellectually from its isolated position in West Berlin, Freie Universität made connections with academic institutions and leading academic figures in Germany, elsewhere in Europe, and all over the world. What started out of necessity, soon became a success strategy: Freie Universität currently maintains more than 105 partnerships at the university-wide level, along with 339 university partnerships within the Erasmus academic exchange network and 45 institute partnerships.

A Young University Steeped in Tradition

Freie Universität is located in the southwest of Berlin, in the garden district of Dahlem, which had already become a top-ranked location for research and study in the early 20th century. Academic activity in Dahlem was supported by Friedrich Althoff, Ministerial Director at the Prussian Ministry of Culture, who proposed the founding of “a German Oxford” at that time.

The first new buildings housed government academic and scientific agencies and new institutes of the former University of Berlin. In addition, the Kaiser Wilhelm Society – the precursor of the Max Planck Society – maintained various institutes in Dahlem from the time it was founded, in 1911, onward. A dynamic group of scientists, including Albert Einstein, Werner Heisenberg, and Max Planck, performed pioneering research at the new site, earning multiple Nobel Prizes. In 1938, in what is now the Hahn-Meitner Building nuclear fission occurred. Otto Hahn and Lise Meitner had spent more than two decades working together there toward that aim.

Since it was first founded, Freie Universität Berlin has used former buildings of the Kaiser Wilhelm Society as well as bringing a number of architecturally innovative buildings of its own to the area. The campus of Freie Universität is made up of groups of buildings all located within walking distance of one another. The campus planners designed it along the lines of an American college campus, a novelty in postwar Germany.