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Didactic Play about Freedom

Premiere in a cinema

Premiere in a cinema
Image Credit: Freie Universität Berlin

In 1948 students are protesting against the educational policies of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany. They are demanding a free university. A few months later it is there: Stanislaw Kubicki is the first student to enroll.

by Oliver Trenkamp

It is a story of confusion, adventure, and politics. It can be told using the heavily laden words truth, justice, and freedom. It is the story of an encircled city, cut off from the rest of the world; it is the story of a university that shouldn’t be there. Walter Ulbricht appears in it, along with the American military and Ernst Reuter.

The story can also be told differently, very quietly. This version begins with a medical student tossing a coin.

The student is Stanislaw Karol Kubicki. In 1948 he is 22 years old and has had quite a bit of good luck so far. He has survived the war and life as a Russian prisoner-of-war. He has been accepted to study medicine at Berlin’s Universität Unter den Linden (later re-named in honor of Humboldt). He has no financial worries: His parents’ home with garden, located in Britz in southern Berlin, is still standing after the war.

Kubicki has made friends with other students who write for the student magazine Colloquium, and he is doing well in his medical studies. His interest in the subject took hold when he was 14 and accompanied his brother-in-law to a lecture at the University of Heidelberg during summer vacation. Once he is enrolled to study medicine in Berlin, he does not miss a single lecture. He passes his first exams (Vorphysikum and Physikum) without great effort. His self-discipline is a great asset for his studies. In his words, “Four weeks before an exam, I would withdraw completely from the rest of the world and intensively re-study everything we had covered so far.” To all appearances, there should have been nothing in the way of a splendid career. 

On the other hand, Kubicki had also experienced a certain amount of bad luck and suffering in his life. His father was shot by the Gestapo (German Secret State Police) because he had fought on the side of the Polish Home Army. His mother had also worked in the resistance against Hitler. Thus, at a very early age Kubicki has learned to mistrust any ideology.

In the spring of 1948, when he returns to class after one of his intensive four-week periods of studying alone, he learns that three of his friends have been expelled from the university and are no longer permitted to study. In the magazine Colloquium they had protested against the influence of the Socialist Unity Party on the university and had written about the “ineducability of the gentlemen in the Central Administration for National Education.” According to Kubicki, “In the editorial office, all hell had broken loose. I had gone in there to tell them I had passed a major exam (Physikum), and all of a sudden, the world was upside down. Actually, things had not been that great before either.”

Before the three students were expelled, there had already been repeated bouts of chicanery and arrests in the Soviet Occupation Zone. One could say Walter Ulbricht and his Socialist Unity Party (SED) were trying to turn the switch regulating everyone and everything from right to left. “The SED interference was so similar to that under the National Socialists that we could no longer bear it,” states Kubicki. “On top of that, I was also now counting on being expelled.”

Students like Kubicki, who were not in agreement with the Soviet communist view toward research and teaching, hatched a daring plan: to found a free university in the western part of the city, protected by the Western Allies. “The idea had been around for awhile” says Kubicki. “But now we decided to put it into practice. We were all risking our futures, as we didn’t know, whether we would succeed.”

Many factors speak against the idea. In 1948 West Berlin is facing enough problems without thinking about founding a new university. During the summer the Soviets cut off the city’s source of electricity; during the night of June 23 the lights go out – the Berlin Blockade has begun. The Americans and British fly in coal and potatoes, medications and gasoline – the airlift supplies West Berlin with basic needs. According to the laws of probability, Freie Universität Berlin should never have come into existence.

But the students do not let themselves be put off. “We did not waste any time thinking about a possible withdrawal of the Allies,” says Kubicki. He and his fellow students write proposals, demonstrate with 2000 people in the Esplanade Hotel, protest against the SED, discuss their own plans, meet with researchers and politicians, pay a visit to the Governing Mayor of Berlin, Ernst Reuter. They approach the Americans – and are able to convince them of the soundness of the idea. Later General Clay’s cultural adviser remembers, “They were able to support their conception with great enthusiasm.” The students refuse to give up. “We were not the only ones fighting for a free university,” says Kubicki “but we were probably the most important pressure group.”

The editors of Colloquium become the first members of the Student Body Council (AStA), even before the university is officially founded. Kubicki is made responsible for the enrollment procedure. Disgusted with the questionnaires in the Soviet Occupation Zone, with their many questions about the political attitudes of applicants, and harried by the 131-question-catalog of the Americans, Kubicki drafts a form using only seven questions. The applicants are relieved, the Americans impressed. An American officer notes, “The application procedure has been praised for eliminating the endless questionnaires required in the Eastern Occupation Zone and, as far as this office can determine, the selection procedure is now being handled fairly and efficiently.” Kubicki views the uncomplicated procedure as a “valuable asset.”

Then the day arrives on which Kubicki tosses the coin, a groschen (penny). This is the day that determines that Kubicki will become the first student to enroll in Freie Universität, the student with matriculation number one. He and a fellow student, Helmut Coper, are standing in front of the first two buildings used by Freie Universität, at Boltzmannstrasse 3 and 4 in Dahlem. On the garden gate there is a cardboard sign, already rather battered and curled up from getting wet. On it is written “Freie Universität, Office.” Like Kubicki, Coper also studies medicine, has written for Colloquium, and has worked hard to establish the new university. He would also like to be the first student to enroll. So the two toss a coin, and Kubicki wins.

The first months at Freie Universität are a constant battle against shortages. The students carry their chairs from room to room – there are not enough for each room. None of the furnishings match; some have come from various private donors. The dining hall doesn’t deserve its name: In a badly dilapidated hut on Ihnestrasse, a flavorless milk soup is served. Students who do not have enough money to live on work for one mark per hour moving furniture, pounding rugs, loading cement or, particularly popular since it was not so strenuous, reading aloud to older ladies. This is the start of “ Heinzelmännchen,” the temporary employment agency for students. 

The official founding of Freie Universität takes place in December 1948, with a ceremony in the movie theater, Titania Palast – there is no auditorium yet. The institutes are spread across the entire three western sectors; sometimes lectures are held in movies theaters. Kubicki finds the long travel time from one institute to another particularly nerve wracking and strenuous.

Today Kubicki is still enthusiastic about the “sense of unity between students and professors” at that time. “We all felt like we were working for the same goals,” he says. He has remained loyal to his university all his life. He studied and completed a doctorate here, later becoming a professor of neurology. Finally, as head of the Institute of Clinical Neurophysiology, he studied the secrets of sleep. Now, 60 years after he helped to found Freie Universität, he comes by regularly to attend various events. He is currently working on a book series pertaining to the university’s history – a history in which the words truth, justice, and freedom play an important role: they appear in the seal of Freie Universität.

Translated by Caroline Rued-Engel