Humboldt University of Berlin

Last updated on 12 October 2017

The Humboldt University of Berlin (German: Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, abbreviated HU Berlin) is one of Berlin's oldest universities, founded on 15 October 1811 as the University of Berlin (Berliner Universität) by Frederick William III of Prussia, on the initiative of the liberal Prussian educational reformer and linguist Wilhelm von Humboldt. The university is known worldwide for pioneering the Humboldtian model of higher education, which has strongly influenced other European and Western universities, and the university has been widely called "the mother of all modern universities."[4] The university has been associated with 41 Nobel Prize winners and is considered one of the best universities in Europe as well as one of the most prestigious universities in the world for arts and humanities.[5][6] It was widely regarded as the world's preeminent university for the natural sciences during the 19th and early 20th century, and is linked to major breakthroughs in physics and other sciences by its professors such as Albert Einstein.[7]

From 1828 until its closure in 1945 it was known as the Frederick William University (Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität) and also (unofficially) as the Universität unter den Linden after its location in the former palace of Prince Henry of Prussia which his brother, King Frederick II, had built for him between 1748 and 1753 on the avenue Unter den Linden.

During the Cold War, the old university buildings were located in East Berlin. The university reopened in 1946, but due to communist repression, including the Soviet execution of liberal and social democrat students who fought for democracy, the Free University of Berlin was established as a de facto western successor in West Berlin in 1948, with support from the United States, and retaining traditions and faculty members of the old Frederick William University; the name of the Free University refers to West Berlin's status as part of the Western "free world," in contrast to the "unfree" Communist world in general and the "unfree" communist-controlled university in East Berlin in particular. In 1949, the university in East Berlin was renamed Humboldt University in honour of both its original founder Wilhelm and his brother, geographer Alexander von Humboldt. Due to the uncontroversial nature of this name and because it had been chosen by the university itself as an act of resistance against naming the university after a communist leader, it was retained after the fall of communism. However the fall of the communist regime led to a total reform of the university from 1990, including the dissolution of many departments regarded as politicized, and the termination of all employees, who were largely replaced by western academics untainted by communism when the positions were readvertised. The decommunization was carried out more vigorously at the Humboldt University than any other university in the former GDR, and as a result, the Humboldt University after German reunification is firmly rooted in the West German academic tradition with little continuity from the communist-era university.

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Early history

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Monument to Wilhelm von Humboldt in front of the main building. Artist: Paul Otto

The first semester at the newly founded Berlin university occurred in 1810 with 256 students and 52 lecturers in faculties of law, medicine, theology and philosophy under rector Theodor Schmalz. The university has been home to many of Germany's greatest thinkers of the past two centuries, among them the subjective idealist philosopher Johann Gottlieb Fichte, the theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher, the absolute idealist philosopher G.W.F. Hegel, the Romantic legal theorist Friedrich Carl von Savigny, the pessimist philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, the objective idealist philosopher Friedrich Schelling, cultural critic Walter Benjamin, and famous physicists Albert Einstein and Max Planck.

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The Berlin University in 1850

The founders of Marxist theory Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels attended the university, as did poet Heinrich Heine, novelist Alfred Döblin, founder of structuralism Ferdinand de Saussure, German unifier Otto von Bismarck, Communist Party of Germany founder Karl Liebknecht, African American Pan Africanist W. E. B. Du Bois and European unifier Robert Schuman, as well as the influential surgeon Johann Friedrich Dieffenbach in the early half of the 1800s.

The structure of German research-intensive universities, such as Humboldt, served as a model for institutions like Johns Hopkins University. Further, it has been claimed that "the 'Humboldtian' university became a model for the rest of Europe [...] with its central principle being the union of teaching and research in the work of the individual scholar or scientist."[8]


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Statue of Alexander von Humboldt outside Humboldt University, from 1883 by artist Reinhold Begas.

In addition to the strong anchoring of traditional subjects, such as science, law, philosophy, history, theology and medicine, Berlin University developed to encompass numerous new scientific disciplines. Alexander von Humboldt, brother of the founder William, promoted the new learning. With the construction of modern research facilities in the second half of the 19th Century teaching of the natural sciences began. Famous researchers, such as the chemist August Wilhelm Hofmann, the physicist Hermann von Helmholtz, the mathematicians Ernst Eduard Kummer, Leopold Kronecker, Karl Weierstrass, the physicians Johannes Peter Müller, Albrecht von Graefe, Rudolf Virchow and Robert Koch, contributed to Berlin University's scientific fame.

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Humboldt University became an emulated model of a modern university in the 19th century (photochrom from 1900).[9]

During this period of enlargement, Berlin University gradually expanded to incorporate other previously separate colleges in Berlin. An example would be the Charité, the Pépinière and the Collegium Medico-chirurgicum. In 1717, King Friedrich I had built a quarantine house for Plague at the city gates, which in 1727 was rechristened by the "soldier king" Friedrich Wilhelm: "Es soll das Haus die Charité heißen" (It will be called Charité [French for charity]). By 1829 the site became Berlin University's medical campus and remained so until 1927 when the more modern University Hospital was constructed.

Berlin University started a natural history collection in 1810, which, by 1889 required a separate building and became the Museum für Naturkunde. The preexisting Tierarznei School, founded in 1790 and absorbed by the university, in 1934 formed the basis of the Veterinary Medicine Facility (Grundstock der Veterinärmedizinischen Fakultät). Also the Landwirtschaftliche Hochschule Berlin (Agricultural University of Berlin), founded in 1881 was affiliated with the Agricultural Faculties of the University.

Third Reich

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The University in 1938

After 1933, like all German universities, it was affected by the Nazi regime. The rector during this period was Eugen Fischer. It was from the university's library that some 20,000 books by "degenerates" and opponents of the regime were taken to be burned on May 10 of that year in the Opernplatz (now the Bebelplatz) for a demonstration protected by the SA that also featured a speech by Joseph Goebbels. A monument to this can now be found in the center of the square, consisting of a glass panel opening onto an underground white room with empty shelf space for 20,000 volumes and a plaque, bearing an epigraph from an 1820 work by Heinrich Heine: "Das war ein Vorspiel nur, dort wo man Bücher verbrennt, verbrennt man am Ende auch Menschen" ("This was but a prelude; where they burn books, they ultimately burn people").

The Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service (German "Gesetz zur Wiederherstellung des Berufsbeamtentums") resulted in 250 Jewish professors and employees being fired during 1933/1934 and numerous doctorates being withdrawn. Students and scholars and political opponents of Nazis were ejected from the university and often deported. During this time nearly one third of all of the staff were fired by the Nazis.

Cold War

The Soviet Military Administration in Germany (SMAD) ordered the re-opening of the university in January 1946. The SMAD wanted a redesigned Berlin University based on the Soviet model, however they insisted on the phrasing "newly opened" and not "re-opened" for political reasons.

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Berlin University, 1950

Almost immediately, the Soviet occupiers started persecuting non-communists and suppressing academic freedom at the university. This led to strong protests within the student body and faculty. Soviet NKVD secret police arrested a number of students in March 1947 as a response. The Soviet Military Tribunal in Berlin-Lichtenberg ruled the students were involved in the formation of a "resistance movement at the University of Berlin", as well as espionage, and were sentenced to 25 years of forced labor. From 1945 to 1948, 18 other students and teachers were arrested or abducted, many gone for weeks, and some taken to the Soviet Union and executed. Many of the students targeted by Soviet persecution were active in the liberal or social democratic resistance against the Soviet-imposed communist dictatorship; the German communist party had regarded the social democrats as their main enemies since the early days of the Weimar Republic.

The communist takeover of the old university led to calls for a "free" university in West Berlin. Students and scholars, with support from especially the Americans, the newspaper Der Tagesspiegel, and the governing Mayor Ernst Reuter founded the Free University of Berlin in Dahlem, located in the American-controlled part of West Berlin. The Free University became a de facto successor institution of the Frederick William University, retaining many of its traditions and faculty. The decades-long division of the city into East and West Berlin finally cemented the division into two independent universities permanently.

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Humboldt University in 1964

Since the old name of the university had some monarchic origins the university was renamed. Although the Soviets and the communist government of East Berlin preferred a naming after some communist leader, university leaders successfully resisted this and were able to name it after the two Humboldt brothers, a name that was uncontroversial also in the west and capitalized on the fame of the Humboldt name, which is associated with the Humboldtian model of higher education.[10] After 1990 the name was retained due to its uncontroversial and non-communist nature, and because it had been chosen by the university itself as an act of resistance against naming the university after a communist leader.[11]

Modern Germany

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The main building of Humboldt University, located in Berlin's "Mitte" district (Unter den Linden boulevard)

After the German reunification, the university was radically restructured and all employees were terminated and their positions readvertised. The reasons for the termination were both that the activities at the university under the communist regime had been highly politicized and that membership in the communist party had been the main criterion for employment under the communist regime, while non-communists were systematically discriminated against. The professors were almost entirely replaced with West German professors, several of them from the Free University of Berlin, with no links to communism. Many of the departments, which were considered particularly politicized and tainted by communism, e.g. law, history, philosophy and economics, were entirely dissolved, and new departments with no continuity from the communist-era departments were established. As a result of this "purification", the university essentially became a new institution in the West German tradition with little continuity from the institution that existed in East Germany. The decommunization was carried out more vigorously at the Humboldt University than any other university in the former GDR, and the university has continued to take disciplinary action against employees discovered to have links to the East German communist regime in the 25 years that followed; in 2017 a research assistant was dismissed over his past as a Stasi cadet, although the disciplinary action was later reduced to a warning and suspension. The Humboldt University has become a leading institution in the research on the crimes of communism in the GDR and other parts of Central and Eastern Europe, with prominent academics such as Jörg Baberowski, an expert on Stalinist violence, genocide and terror against the peoples of Eastern and Central Europe.

Today, Humboldt University is a state university with a large number of students (36,986 in 2014, among them more than 4,662 foreign students) after the model of West German universities, and like its counterpart the Free University of Berlin.

The university consists of three different campuses namely Campus Mitte, Campus Nord and Campus Adlershof. Its main building is located in the centre of Berlin at the boulevard Unter den Linden and is the heart of Campus Mitte. The building was erected on order by King Frederick II for his younger brother Prince Henry of Prussia. All the institutes of humanities are located around the main building together with the Department of Law and the Department of Business and Economics. Campus Nord is located north of the main building close to Berlin Hauptbahnhof and is the home of the life science departments including the university medical center Charité. The natural science together with computer science and mathematics are located at Campus Adlershof in the south-east of Berlin. Furthermore, the university continues its tradition of a book sale at the university gates facing Bebelplatz.


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The Humboldt Museum is one of the largest natural history museums in the world.

These are the nine faculties into which the university is divided:[12]

Furthermore, there are two independent institutes (Zentralinstitute) that are part of the university:


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The former Royal Library, now seat of the Faculty of Law

When the Royal Library proved insufficient, a new library was founded in 1831, first located in several temporary sites. In 1871–1874 a library building was constructed, following the design of architect Paul Emanuel Spieker. In 1910 the collection was relocated to the building of the Berlin State Library.

During the Weimar Period the library contained 831,934 volumes (1930) and was thus one of the leading university libraries in Germany at that time.

During the Nazi book burnings in 1933, no volumes from the university library were destroyed. Also, the loss through World War II was comparatively small. In 2003, natural science related books were outhoused to the newly founded library at the Adlershof campus, which is dedicated solely to the natural sciences.

Since the premises of the State Library had to be cleared in 2005, a new library building is about to be erected close to the main building in the center of Berlin. The "Jacob und Wilhelm Grimm-Zentrum" (Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm Centre, Grimm Zentrum or GZ as it is can be referred to by students) opened in 2009.

In total, the university library contains about 6.5 million volumes and 9000 held magazines and journals and is one of the biggest university libraries in Germany.

The books of the Institut für Sexualwissenschaft were destroyed during the Nazi book burnings and the institute destroyed. Under the terms of the Magnus Hirschfeld Foundation, the government had undertaken to continue the work of the institute at the university after its founder's death. However these terms were ignored. In 2001 however the university acquired the Archive for Sexology from the Robert Koch Institute, which was founded on a large private library donated by Erwin J. Haeberle. This has now been housed at the new Magnus Hirschfeld Center.[13]

Distinguished academics and alumni

Nobel Prize laureates

There are 40 Nobel Prize winners affiliated with the Humboldt University:


In 2016 the British QS World University Rankings[15] ranked Humboldt University 126th overall in the world. Its subject rankings were: 27th in Arts & Humanities and 14th in Philosophy.

The British Times Higher Education World University Ranking 2016 listed Humboldt-University as the 49th best university in the world and 3rd best in Germany.[16]

See also

Notes and references

  1. ^ a b c d "Facts and Figures". Humboldt University of Berlin. Retrieved 15 June 2017.
  2. ^ a b c "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2013-12-03. Retrieved 2013-12-02.
  3. ^ "Nobelpreisträger — Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin". (in German). Retrieved 2016-08-28.
  4. ^ Connell Helen, University Research Management Meeting the Institutional Challenge: Meeting the Institutional Challenge, p. 137, OECD, 2005, ISBN 9789264017450
  5. ^ "QS World University Rankings by Faculty 2014 - Arts and Humanities". Top Universities. Retrieved 29 June 2015.
  6. ^ "Subject Ranking 2014-15: Arts & Humanities". Times Higher Education. Retrieved 29 June 2015.
  7. ^ Hans C. Ohanian, Einstein's Mistakes: The Human Failings of Genius, p. 156, W. W. Norton & Company, 2009, ISBN 9780393070422
  8. ^ Anderson, Robert (March 2010). "The 'Idea of a University' today". History & Policy. United Kingdom: History & Policy. Retrieved 9 December 2010.
  9. ^ Rüegg 2004, pp. 4–6
  10. ^ "Die Umbenennung zur "Humboldt-Universität" — Presseportal". (in German). Retrieved 2016-08-28.
  11. ^ "Short History — Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin". Retrieved 2016-08-28.
  12. ^ "Faculties and Departments". Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin. Retrieved 22 August 2015.
  13. ^ Erwin J Haeberle". "Berlin and its Sexological Heritage". Magnus Hirschfeld Archive for Sexology. Archived from the original on 2009-08-30.
  14. ^ QS World University Rankings 2018
  15. ^ "Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin". 16 July 2015. Retrieved 2016-08-28.
  16. ^ "Humboldt University of Berlin". Retrieved 2016-08-28.

External links

Coordinates: 52°31′05″N 13°23′36″E / 52.51806°N 13.39333°E / 52.51806; 13.39333

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