Until the advent of Anglo-American campus illiberalism, the collapse of academic resistance to Hitler in the 1930s appeared almost incomprehensible. It is only now, when the universities of our own time seem sometimes to be intent upon destroying their own raison d’être, that we can begin to understand how the intellectual elites of Germany, the cultural vanguard of the era, could have succumbed to the most monstrous doctrine of modern times. The story of this self-immolation is salutary for us because, though we know how the story of the German university ended, we do not know how far the betrayal of science and the humanities with which we are now confronted almost daily in our own academic institutions may yet have to go. Perhaps only the prospect of the catastrophe that a century ago befell some of the world’s greatest centers of learning—a catastrophe from which they have even now not fully recovered—will bring today’s intelligentsia to its senses.

The origins of the German universities, like others in medieval Christendom, lie in the requirement for a literate elite, initially clerical and imperial, but increasingly tailored to the administrative needs of the autonomous kingdoms and principalities that arose on the ruins of the Holy Roman Empire. Because these states were numerous, the distinctively pluralistic and localized German pattern of academic life diverged from the centralized institutions of France or England. The Reformation and the Westphalian settlement, based on the idea that each state should follow the faith of its ruler, gave an additional momentum to this decentralization of higher education.

Universities seem to be intent upon destroying their own raison d’être.

By the late eighteenth century, many European universities had extended their purposes beyond the theological training of the clergy and the legal training of the civil service to embrace a wider range of intellectual inquiry. In England, the Anglican monopoly of Oxford and Cambridge obliged nonconformist Protestants, Catholics, Jews, and agnostics to pursue their studies outside academia. As in Enlightenment Scotland, German universities had no more liberty but rather more variety. German academics lived under absolutist regimes that knew nothing of Lockean ideas of toleration, but in practice permitted a wide degree of theological latitude within their universities. Competition was not only a spur to excellence, but gave those who taught there a much wider choice than in England. Professors occasionally strayed beyond the bounds of religious orthodoxy or fell foul of political authority, yet they managed to hold onto their chairs either by making limited concessions, or by moving elsewhere. Those who could not stomach such compromises—such as Schopenhauer or Marx—gave universities a wide berth. Even such a radical thinker (and human misfit) as Nietzsche, however, could count on a lifelong professorial pension to support him in his endeavor to pull down the pillars of the temple.

For all their provincialism and bigotry, dozens of tiny German universities, most of them smaller and poorer than an Oxbridge college, sheltered many a physically frail, morally questionable, or intellectually eccentric genius who might not have survived outside the ivory tower, from the rigid visionary Immanuel Kant to the waspish satirist Georg Christoph Lichtenberg (to whose under-age mistress the local enlightened despot turned a blind eye). The power of the state was palpable, but not ubiquitous: the professor who adhered to Wissenschaft, to science or scholarship, was generally left to his own devices. This was still more the case with the Privatdozent, the private scholar who received no salary but made a precarious living by charging fees for his lectures. Students, likewise, prided themselves on being wanderers: they were not obliged to take any degree and followed their heroes from one university to another.

In this story, as in so many others, the French Revolution and above all Napoleon changed everything. The “world spirit riding on horseback,” as an awestruck Hegel described the emperor after the Battle of Jena, had brought Weltgeschichte (world history) to the professor’s doorstep, reminded him and his colleagues that their homeland was at best Europe’s backwater, at worst its killing field. Some abandoned academic neutrality and used their positions either to call for revolutionary utopias or to stir up patriotic resistance to the invaders. Another Jena philosopher, Johann Gottlieb Fichte, did both—while incidentally demanding that all Jews have their heads cut off to be replaced by Christian ones.

Yet the crushing of Prussia inspired a more enduring academic revolution, too, led not by a professor but by an urbane private scholar and diplomat. Wilhelm von Humboldt is today remembered for his youthful manifesto of limited government, and also for the pioneering treatises he produced in retirement, with which he laid the foundations of modern linguistics. It was Humboldt who conceived, planned, and persuaded a philistine Prussian king to embrace the idea of the modern research university. Inspired by such polymathic examples as his own brother, the great scientist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt, and of course Goethe, neither of whom ever fitted into a university environment, Wilhelm von Humboldt sought to establish in Berlin a new kind of university that would be open to all, a place of truly universal freedom of inquiry, ranging right across the natural, human, and applied sciences. Humboldt believed in academic independence, or “freedom to teach and to learn”; he wanted students to enjoy “solitude and freedom.” But he warned that the state “is always a hindrance as soon as it interferes [in the university], indeed matters would go infinitely better without it.”

Humboldt wanted students to enjoy “solitude and freedom.”

The flaw in Humboldt’s reform, however, was that the Prussian state, which he envisaged as a benign nightwatchman, kept a tight grip on the appointment of faculties. Then and now, German professors have the legal status of civil servants, who may be hired and fired at the whim of their bureaucratic masters. As Max Weber observed, what this meant in practice was that criticism of church and state was limited: “ ‘Freedom of scholarship’ exists in Germany within the limits of political and ecclesiastical acceptability. Outside these limits there is none.”

Humboldt’s ideas came to fruition in 1810, with the erection of the Friedrich Wilhelm University on Berlin’s grandest thoroughfare, Unter den Linden. Today it rightly bears Humboldt’s name, for it is his legacy, not only to Germany but also to the world. Combined with the existing academies of the arts and sciences, and based on the research seminar, Berlin became the model for all the new universities that sprang up everywhere in the nineteenth century. America, in particular, adopted the Berlin rather than the Oxbridge model, after so many German liberals sought asylum across the Atlantic after the failed 1848 revolution. By 1900, Germany had established its pre-eminence in many fields, from mathematics to chemistry, from history to social sciences. The range and rigor of examinations, together with the prerequisite for academic teaching of a doctoral dissertation followed by a second book-length Habilitation, made German Wissenschaft the envy of the world. As international comparisons became easier, it soon became clear that German professors were winning more Nobel and other academic prizes than any other country.

Yet the global prestige of the German university bred a particular kind of hubris that afflicted the newly united, Prussian-dominated Germany that emerged under Bismarck. Under enlightened despotism, Humboldt’s humanistic ethos had prevailed, but under the new imperial dispensation—which in fact imposed democracy and Jewish emancipation with blood and iron—the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake gave way to a closing of the German mind. This closure emanated from Berlin throughout the universities. Classical liberalism degenerated into an illiberalism that gradually turned against democracy and the rule of law (der Rechtsstaat). Instead of the disinterested research and dispassionate criticism that had made German thought the global gold standard, a new tone entered academic discourse: a specifically German ideology.

We owe the phrase to Marx, of course, who borrowed the concept of “ideology” from Condorcet but, unlike the Frenchman, gave it a pejorative and polemical twist. Still, the manuscript of The German Ideology was not published until the 1920s, and by then Marx’s analysis of Hegel and the various schools of his disciples was hopelessly out of date. In any case, Marx’s own claim to have created a “scientific socialism” was more than dubious. Indeed, it was largely the fear of Marxism—the ideology of the rising working class and its party, the Social Democrats—that provoked the backlash against Western ideas among students and professors. The new German ideology, before, during, and after the First World War, was based not on the theory of class, but of race—and in practice on anti-Semitism. The matrix of the German mind, which had conceived everything from the historical-critical method of analyzing texts and sources to quantum mechanics and relativity, now gave birth to monsters of hatred and intolerance. Student fraternities had long preferred duelling to studying, and had always enjoyed excluding and occasionally beating up Jews; they had, however, usually been kept in check by their teachers. Now this burgeoning German ideology took root in, was nurtured by, and ultimately corrupted the very institutions that ought to have resisted it.

A new tone entered academic discourse: a specifically German ideology.

It is difficult to identify the turning point. But the “Anti-Semitism Dispute” of the 1880s, which was fought out between two leading Berlin academics, is as good a place as any. On one side was the leading historian of early nineteenth-century Germany, Heinrich von Treitschke, whose political lurch to the Right mirrored that of the National Liberals to whose ranks he belonged. On the other side was another liberal, the great historian of the ancient Roman republic, Theodor Mommsen, who mounted a solitary defense of German Jewry—the most robust from a prominent gentile before 1914. Yet it was Treitschke’s phrase “the Jews are our misfortune” that gained resonance: this marked the moment when anti-Semitism began to gain academic respectability in Germany, and Treitschke’s politics left a deeper mark among the German mandarins than Mommsen’s.

Jews had never found it easy to be fully accepted in Germany; after anti-Semitism became a political force in the 1880s, the unofficial discrimination that deprived even the most extraordinary Jewish scholars of the coveted title of Ordinarius became more entrenched. Baptized Jews were an exception to this exclusion, but even they were not above suspicion. Gradually, the “Althoff system” of academic appointments (so-called after Friedrich Althoff, the key man at the Prussian ministry of culture between the 1880s and the 1900s) relaxed sufficiently to allow a few unbaptized Jews to rise in the profession, but it was not until the Weimar Republic that such appointments became normal—and then only for a few years.

Meanwhile, the student bodies had become ever more anti-Semitic, embittered by the war and radicalized by subsequent revolutionary upheavals. In 1927 C. H. Becker, the liberal Prussian Culture Minister, refused to recognize the main student union, the Deutsche Studentenschaft, because it excluded Jews, but he was fighting a losing battle. By 1931 the Deutsche Studentenschaft had been taken over by the Nazi Student League, helped on by nationalist fraternities that it would soon absorb. Student numbers rose during the economic crises of the Weimar Republic to reach double the pre-war total, including many impecunious, angry young men in search of an identity; they thrived on the cult of youth that was so characteristic of the period and especially of the nascent Nazi movement.

Against this background, Max Weber’s celebrated lecture “Science as a Vocation” (Wissenschaft als Beruf), given in Munich in November 1917, assumes the character of an elegy for a lost ideal and a warning of what lay ahead. Weber tells us that he bluntly informs his most able students that academic life is “an utter gamble,” which rewards popularity rather than intellectual integrity. “Of course,” he adds, “if the student is a Jew, you can only say: lasciate ogni speranza.” The intellectual life is not about happiness; it confers meaning solely by accepting “the disenchantment of the world” by excluding “the modern intellectualist romanticism of the irrational.” Weber deals severely with professors who take on the role of the “prophet or the demagogue.” They should speak in public where they can be criticized; in the lecture hall, he says, it is for the listeners to stay silent and for the teacher to speak. For a professor to exploit his status of being above criticism is “irresponsible.” Weber denounces the “professorial prophecy that forgets that the only morality that exists in the lecture room is that of plain intellectual integrity. This integrity enjoins us” to tell “all those multitudes today who are waiting for new prophets and new saviors” that “we must go about our work and meet the ‘challenges of the day’—both in our human relations and in our vocation.”

That this lecture has become so famous is indicative of the fact that so few German academics spoke out openly against the incipient intellectual corruption of the universities. Weber was only able to give this lecture (and its companion piece, “Politics as a Vocation,” two years later) because the Rector of Munich, Immanuel Birnbaum, was a relatively open-minded figure who was evidently worried about the replacement of integrity by ideology. Weber, who died in 1920, never lived to see the prophets and demagogues take over the universities. But in 1927 Martin Heidegger, a young philosopher at Freiburg, published what would become a sacred text of the new “romanticism of the irrational”: Being and Time (Sein und Zeit). Heidegger cultivated an academic style that was the antithesis of Weber’s austere image of “intellectual integrity”: instead of frock coats and stiff collars, he wore outfits more suitable for hiking, not unlike the paramilitary brownshirted SA. Heidegger challenged the established hierarchy based on seniority. If one listens to recordings of his lectures—admittedly made many years later—one immediately understands the mesmerizing effect they must have had on students: the rhetorical stream of consciousness and incantatory delivery are less reminiscent of a philosopher than of a poet. Heidegger, in short, had plenty of what Weber called “charisma,” but his vocation could hardly be described as scholarly or scientific. What Heidegger was offering students was not “intellectual integrity,” but meaning, experience, transcendence, a glimpse of the numinous—in other words, ideology.

Students and faculty members alike embraced the Nazi regime.

As Hitler seized power in 1933, it turned out that this new kind of academic vocation was also what many of his professorial colleagues had been in search of. Students and faculty members alike embraced the Nazi regime and looked forward to the restoration of the true purpose of the university. Heidegger’s inaugural lecture as Rector of Freiburg has gained notoriety for its endorsement of the Third Reich, its use of what Viktor Klemperer later called the lingua tertii imperii, or lti, and its fawning references to Hitler. What is perhaps equally significant, however, is that Heidegger thought he was engaged in the “self-assertion” (Selbstbehauptung) of the German university, when in reality he was abandoning everything that Humboldt and the whole tradition stood for. Heidegger saw himself not as a teacher, but a leader, even a cultural warrior. In one of his proclamations as rector, he ordered his students: “May you ceaselessly grow in the courage to sacrifice yourselves for the salvation of our nation’s essential being and the increase of its innermost strength in its polity. Let not your being be ruled by doctrine or “ideas.” The Führer himself and he alone is the German reality, present and future, and its law. Study to know: from now on all things demand decision, and all action responsibility. Heil Hitler!”

Anti-Semitism only rarely surfaces in Heidegger’s public utterances, but recent scholarship has revealed that he fully shared the regime’s ideology in this respect too—above all in his recently published and hitherto private “Black Notebooks,” with their references to the nefarious influence of “world Jewry” on Western civilization. He even refers to the Holocaust, albeit in an abstract way, and seeks to blame the genocide on the “machinations” (Machenschaft) of the Jews themselves: “When the essentially ‘Jewish,’ in the metaphysical sense, struggles against what is Jewish, the high point of self-annihilation in history is attained.” Heidegger was anything but naïve about the Nazis; indeed, he exults in their capacity for cruelty: “National Socialism is a barbaric principle.”

Soon after the war, the reckoning began: Heidegger’s conduct was subjected to withering scrutiny by a handful of former colleagues such as Karl Jaspers, Jewish former students such as Karl Löwith, and Jewish émigrés such as Eric Weil. But most of the German academic community defended him, as did Hannah Arendt, who promoted him in America as the greatest thinker of the century. The debate has continued ever since. Many still defend him; for example, Slavoj Žižek denounces the “criminalization” of Heidegger, whom he reveres as a “great authentic philosopher” and his works as “a true philosophical classic.” Nevertheless, Heidegger’s conduct still evokes surprise and dismay in many commentators, all the more so in that he never repudiated such sentiments after 1945. Yet how could Heidegger disown something that was much more than a doctrine or a set of ideas? For him, this ideology was a vocation, a vocation that had chosen him rather than the reverse. To renounce this vocation was impossible: his ideology was his destiny.

What lessons can or should we learn from the German universities’ debacle? The content of the ideology is obviously different today, although it is now commonplace to find demands on campus for race to be given a much higher profile, such as the recent Harvard Law School article calling for “race-based mobilizations.” Anti-Semitism is re-emerging, too, with “Zio” now the insult of choice among Oxford students. All this is made possible by the insidious cultural mutation that replicates Germany’s paradigm shift from integrity to ideology. Scholarship requires one to follow the evidence, the logic, and above all one’s conscience. Ideology promises a release from all three, into a gravitas-free zone where all that matters is commitment to a cause. Once a scholar has made ideology rather than integrity his or her vocation, it is almost irrelevant which ideology it is. Two years after the war, Eric Weil wrote an article on “The Case of Heidegger” for Les Temps Modernes, the journal of Jean-Paul Sartre, who made himself the Mephistopheles to Heidegger’s Satan. Weil detected throughout Heidegger’s work “Nazi language, Nazi morality, Nazi thought, Nazi sentiment.” Heidegger’s claim that he had protested against the biological racism of Rosenberg was hardly an extenuation in Weil’s eyes: the philosopher was accused, not of Rosenbergism, but of Hitlerism. A thief might claim that he had not, after all, raped a little girl, wrote Weil. That argument would hardly persuade the court to acquit him.

Heidegger was exceptional only in his celebrity.

We must likewise take care not to let off our own donnish demagogues too lightly. If our universities have opened their doors to ideology, thereby excluding everything that does not conform to ideological norms, it is no use them denying this or that excess. Instead, we should beware of what happens to universities when the free pursuit of knowledge and truth is replaced by the self-imposition, endorsed by students and reinforced by the state, of political or cultural conformity. Heidegger was exceptional only in his celebrity: the great majority of German academics collaborated, many of them enthusiastically. Jews were sooner or later forced out—so were anti-Nazis and indeed any others who refused to conform. The long-term effect on academic life was of course catastrophic. Before 1933, German universities were universally admired and imitated; today, more than seventy years after the war, the best of them ranks around thirtieth in the world. Even worse than the self-inflicted harm to academic prestige is the damage done to society. Nazi professors poisoned entire professions: Carl Schmitt’s influence on lawyers, or Werner Heisenberg’s on physicists, was incalculable.

The SS had a high proportion of members with doctorates. Today, the same is true of terrorists. The Ph.D. is not a passport to civilization; rather, it is civilization alone that confers meaning on academic qualifications. Some of our professorial prophets are wilfully detaching themselves from civilization. If universities renounce integrity in favor of ideology, their degrees lose all value. Where minds are closed, an abyss opens into which even the best of them may fall. Then we may indeed, like Max Weber, echo Dante: Lasciate ogni speranza, voi ch’entrate—“Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.”

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 35 Number 5, on page 40
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