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Between Makeshift and Avant-garde

Freie Universität Berlin was founded in 1948 / Commitment to academic freedom and democracy

Mar 07, 2018

Salvation from the air: Children wave to one of the “candy bombers” in July 1948. The Berlin Airlift organized by the western Allies supplied the people of Berlin with food and essentials such as fuel during the Berlin Blockade.

Salvation from the air: Children wave to one of the “candy bombers” in July 1948. The Berlin Airlift organized by the western Allies supplied the people of Berlin with food and essentials such as fuel during the Berlin Blockade.
Image Credit: AKG Images 

All of a sudden, Berlin’s tranquil Dahlem district became a hive of activity. The year was 1948, and thousands of young people from all parts of the occupied city, which lay in ruins from the war, descended on an inconspicuous building on Boltzmannstraße. Starting on September 10, they were invited to go there to pick up a questionnaire. Filling it out was a prerequisite to study – at a university that did not yet exist.

The short form contained questions on the prospective student’s background and education and on possible participation in the Nazi regime. It was given out not by professors, civil servants, or soldiers of the occupying forces, but rather by students from the old university, Unter den Linden, including Karol Kubicki – who would later become the first student to enroll at Freie Universität – and Helmut Coper. It became apparent that not everyone understood what was going on: “If, for example, an applicant also submits proof of Aryan ancestry,” Coper noted ironically in Colloquium, a student newspaper published in Berlin, “that doesn’t exactly testify to tremendous intelligence.”

But that didn’t dim his enthusiasm, nor that of his fellow students, for the ambitious project. As Coper went on to note, “That’s the tenor of the work being done to build Freie Universität: improvisation, activity, boundless activism, and as little bureaucracy as possible.” Nothing is finished yet, but “things will get under way shortly.”

Indeed, lectures started just two months later, in mid-November 1948. There were some 2,000 students who attended classes in three academic departments in very cramped quarters and under conditions that were meager in every respect. So what was the motivation for starting a makeshift university on the outskirts of town, when the long-standing, time-honored Universität Unter den Linden – no longer called Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität – already served as a shining beacon of academic life in Berlin for miles around, even worldwide?

That very academic life was under increasing threat there, not due to external restrictions of the postwar period, but because of increasing political constriction and regulation. The university, founded at the beginning of the 19th century during the Humboldtian education reforms, was located in the old monarchic center of the Prussian city, which had also been the capital of the German Reich – and since the summer of 1945, in the Soviet-occupied sector. Instead of keeping to the agreement that all four of the Allies would be responsible for the university, the Soviet occupying forces took control of it themselves, giving their German allies – communists loyal to Moscow and Stalin – free rein in reshaping it as an ideological training center on a Marxist-Leninist basis.

While many professors adapted and kept quiet in the meantime, there was growing unrest in the student body. When three students were arrested by the Soviet secret service on charges of espionage in March 1947 and sentenced in secret trials to 25 years of forced labor, the uncertainty grew. Sporadic public calls for a new university, this one in the west of the city – which was occupied by the United Kingdom, the United States, and France – grew louder, including in Berlin’s Tagesspiegel newspaper.

The situation came to a head in April 1948, when three students who worked as editors of Colloquium and did not mince words had their permission to study revoked. Two thousand students protested in front of Hotel Esplanade, in the ruins of Potsdamer Platz. The western Allies hesitated, especially the British and French, who did not wish to start a conflict with the Soviets. But the public and the political sphere seized on the idea. On June 19, a preparatory committee met in Berlin-Wannsee to start laying concrete plans for a free university.

Ernst Reuter played an important role. A charismatic local politician affiliated with the SPD, Reuter had been elected Mayor of Berlin, but a veto by the Soviets kept him from taking office. He was represented on the committee by Edwin Redslob, an art historian who had served as an art official in the Weimar Republic and been deposed by the Nazis and was now co-editor of the Tagesspiegel.

To Reuter and Redslob – and even more so for students like Karol Kubicki and Helmut Coper – founding a new university was more than a makeshift solution. The present and past came together in a plan for the future. “Particularly because we hold the universities responsible to a significant extent for the rise of Nazism,” Redslob stated on June 19, 1948, “we are interested in the question of to what extent the entire operation of a university can be organized and modernized.”

No small number of communists – and even more former social democrats, who had bowed to pressure to unite and form the SED, the unified East German communist-socialist party, in April 1946 – were serious about the “antifascist, democratic overthrow.” But either they did not realize or they accepted that they were moving not only toward a new form of lack of freedom within a rigid ideological construct, but also toward the ruthless exercise of power under Stalinism. This lack of clarity repelled many people, young people not least among them. Horst Rögner-Francke, a student of dentistry, spoke of the “natural skepticism of the new student body” in remarks made as a student representative at the celebration marking the foundation of Freie Universität, on December 4, 1948. Several years later, the sociologist Helmut Schelsky coined the term “skeptical generation.”

And so Freie Universität was many things at once right from its founding. It was unmistakably a makeshift university: born of necessity, improvised, uncertain in its financing. That same summer, five days after the committee’s constitutive meeting – on June 24, 1948– the Soviet blockade of West Berlin began. The western Allies, led by the United States, responded with the Berlin Airlift. Electricity, heating, food, and the mobility that is vital to a university became even more precarious than they had already been before. The division of Germany and Berlin was taking shape, but at the time, most people could not have imagined that it would last until 1989.

The most important cause of the division, the Stalinist transformation of the Soviet zone, also brought a new urgency and weight to the founding of the new university: a political university, as yet unproven academically. It was not exactly “political” in the sense of having a certain ideology, but rather for its clear commitment to academic freedom on the basis of a democratic society and social order. Or was that commitment itself ideological, a mix of capitalism and American imperialism during the Cold War? The conflict surrounding the university’s self-image as a political university came up time and again in the years after the institution’s founding in Dahlem and in the decades that followed.

The university was in no small measure a student-driven one. If not for the protest by students at Linden-Universität, which would soon be renamed for the Humboldt brothers, a university in West Berlin would not have been founded until later on, and the circumstances would have been very different. Perhaps Technische Universität, in Charlottenburg, would have been expanded. Or perhaps Dahlem would have been chosen after all, since the research landscape built up there by the Kaiser Wilhelm Society in the early 20th century was perfect for these kinds of purposes.

But in either case, it would certainly not have been via the institutional route reflected in the bylaws of Freie Universität, in place starting in November 1948: with student representation in all bodies, including the Academic Senate – at the time, an unheard-of break with the traditional German “Ordinarienuniversität,” a model of a university run exclusively by professors.

The founding students, such as Klaus Heinrich, who went on to become a professor of religion at Freie Universität and a magnet for those seeking intellectual meaning in Berlin and beyond, wanted to create something new, to be avant-garde. On December 4, 1948, during the official celebration marking the university’s foundation, they sat at the podium at Titania-Palast in Steglitz, the largest venue the American zone of the city had to offer – but only after they had protested plans to banish them to the back seats.

Further Information

The Anniversary Year: Events for All Generations

December 4 marks the 70th anniversary of the founding of Freie Universität. The anniversary will be commemorated over the course of the year with events and projects dealing with the past, present, and future of Freie Universität. The celebration on December 4, 2018, will be the highlight.

This anniversary is intended as an opportunity to bring members of the university from all generations together to share their experiences. It all starts with the “Faces of Freie Universität” campaign, which gives voice to students, instructors, employees, and alumni. Do you have something to tell about your time at Freie Universität? Let us know at www.fu-berlin.de/70jahre!