Modern history



While the Nazis concentrated a great deal of effort on turning the school system to their own purposes after 1933, they were somewhat less vigorous in imposing their views on Germany’s universities. Only in 1934, with the founding of the Reich Education Ministry, did the regime really began to get a grip on higher education from the centre. Even then, the grip was but a feeble one. Not only was the Education Minister Bernhard Rust weak and indecisive, he was also fundamentally uninterested in universities. His incurable tendency to vacillation soon became the butt of mocking humour amongst university professors, who joked that a new minimum unit of measurement had been introduced by the government: ‘One Rust’, the time that elapsed between the promulgation of a decree and its cancellation. Nor were the other Nazi leaders particularly concerned about higher education. When Hitler spoke to a student audience on the tenth anniversary of the founding of the Nazi Students’ League in January 1936, he barely mentioned student affairs; he never addressed a student audience again. In a fashion only too typical of the Third Reich, higher education became the focus of intra-Party rivalries, as the Office of the Leader’s Deputy, nominally under Rudolf Hess but in reality spurred on by his ambitious chief of staff, Martin Bormann, began to take an interest in academic appointments. Research funding fell under the aegis of the Interior Ministry. Regional Leaders interfered in university affairs too. The SA tried to enlist students. And the Nazi Students’ League took the lead in the Nazification of university life. The Ministry took the view that the main function of the Students’ League should be to further the political indoctrination of the undergraduates and graduates; but running the university was the job of the Rector, whom the guidelines issued by the Education Ministry on 1 April 1935 defined as the leader of an institution; the duty of the rest of the staff and students was to follow him and obey his commands.252

In practice, however, the weakness of the Education Ministry made it impossible for this principle to be applied with any consistency. Academic appointments became the object of struggles between the Ministry, the Rector, the Nazi Students’ League, the professors and the local Nazi Party bosses, all of whom continued to claim the right of political control within the universities. Like the Hitler Youth in the schools, the Nazi Students’ League and its members did not fight shy of naming and shaming the teachers they thought were not toeing the Nazi line. In 1937 a Hamburg professor complained that no student meeting had been held in the previous few years ‘in which the professoriate has not been dismissed in contemptuous terms as an “ossified” society that is not fit to educate or lead young people in the universities’.253 From 1936 the Students’ League had a new leader, Gustav Adolf Scheel. As a student before 1933 he had led a successful campaign of harassment and intimidation against the pacifist professor Emil Julius Gumbel at Heidelberg University. He strengthened the League’s position with the incorporation of all student unions and the formal recognition of its right to appoint its own leaders and run its own affairs. Scheel cultivated excellent relations with Hess’s office and was thereby able to ward off all attempts by the Education Ministry to curb his growing influence. With a seat on the academic senate of every university, the student organization was now able to gain access to confidential information about prospective appointments. It did not hesitate to make its wishes and objections known. Since it was clear that if the students did not like a new Rector they could - and would - make life very difficult for him, from 1937 onwards the Education Ministry felt obliged to consult the students’ representatives in advance, giving Scheel and his organization yet more say in how the universities were run.254

Yet in the end, the influence of the Nazi Students’ League was limited. Although it had swept the board in student union elections all over Germany well before 1933, it was in fact a comparatively small organization, with a membership that fell just short of 9,000 on the eve of Hitler’s appointment as Reich Chancellor. Since many of these belonged to the League’s female affiliate or studied in non-university higher education institutions, and others were located in German-speaking universities outside the Reich, the number of male students in German universities who were members actually fell just short of 5,000, or less than 5 per cent of German university students as a whole.255 During and after the seizure of power, this figure grew rapidly, helped by the mixture of terror and opportunism characteristic of the process of social and institutional co-ordination in 1933. Beyond this, the overwhelmingly nationalist German student body was swept by enthusiasm for the spirit of 1914 unleashed by the new regime in the initial period of its power. Yet the Nazi Students’ League was not without competition in the student world at this time. Many students joined the stormtroopers in the spring of 1933, and following Hitler’s instruction in September 1933 that the task of politicizing the student body was to be undertaken by the SA, the brownshirts set up their own centres in the universities and put pressure on students to join. By the end of the year, over half the students at Heidelberg university, for example, had enrolled as stormtroopers. Early in 1934 the Interior Ministry made military training organized by the brownshirts compulsory for male students. Soon they were spending long hours training with the SA. This had a serious effect on their studies. University authorities began to note a drastic fall in academic standards as students spent days or even weeks away from their studies, or appeared at lectures in a state of exhaustion after training all night. Nor was that all. As the Rector of Kiel University complained to the Education Ministry on 15 June 1934:

There is now a danger that under the title ‘struggle against the intellect’, a struggle against the intelligentsia is being waged by the SA University Office. There is further the danger that under the motto ‘rough soldierly tone’ students in the first three semesters adopt a tone that must frequently be labelled no longer rough but positively coarse.

Some brownshirt leaders even told their student members that their first duty was to the stormtroopers: their academic studies were leisure pursuits, to be conducted in their spare time. Such claims encountered rapidly rising resistance amongst the majority of students. In June 1934 the national student leader Wolfgang Donat encountered ‘howling, trampling and whistling’ when he tried to address a meeting at Munich University, while some university teachers who dared to include a pinch of criticism of the regime in their lectures met with outbreaks of wild applause. Open fights broke out in some universities between Nazi activists and other students.256

That these events coincided with the first great crisis of the regime in June 1934 was not coincidental. The decapitation of the SA leadership in the ‘Night of the Long Knives’ at the end of the month opened the way for a thoroughgoing reform of the Nazi presence in the student body. The Office of the Deputy Leader, Rudolf Hess, took over the running of the Nazi Students’ League and reshaped its leadership, while at the end of October the SA was effectively removed from the universities, and training with the brownshirts replaced with less demanding sports education. Membership in the Nazi Students’ League began to rise sharply, reaching 51 per cent of male university students by 1939, and 71 per cent of female.257 By this time, the League had managed to overcome the stubborn resistance of the traditional student fraternities, which in 1933 had encompassed more than half the entire male student body. Like other conservative institutions, the fraternities had vehemently opposed the Weimar Republic and gone along with the Nazi seizure of power; most of their members had probably joined the Party by the summer of 1933. At the same time, however, they had been obliged to introduce the leadership principle in their previously collective management, to appoint Nazis to top posts, and to expel any even remotely Jewish members and Jewish ‘old gentlemen’, the ex-members whose financial clout gave them a major say in how the fraternities were run. The aristocratic tone and traditional independence of the fraternities were still not to the liking of Nazi leaders, however, and when members of one of the most exclusive Heidelberg duelling fraternities were seen interrupting one of Hitler’s radio broadcasts in a drunken state and, a few days later, loudly speculating during a riotously bibulous meal at an inn on whether the Leader ate asparagus ‘with his knife, his fork or his paw’, Hitler Youth leader Baldur von Shirach unfolded a massive press campaign against them and ordered that no Hitler Youth member was to join such a disgracefully reactionary organization in future. Since this went against the known views of the head civil servant of the Reich Chancellery, Hans Heinrich Lammers, himself a prominent and influential ‘old gentleman’, the matter landed with Hitler. In a two-hour monologue before assembled Nazi dignitaries on 15 June 1935 the Leader made it clear that he expected the fraternities to wither away in the Nazi state as remnants of a bygone aristocratic age. In May 1936 Hitler and Hess openly condemned the fraternities and barred Party members from belonging to them. Seeing the writing on the wall, Lammers had already abandoned his defence of the fraternities, and by the end of the academic year the fraternities had either dissolved themselves or merged into the Nazi Students’ League.258


Thus the Nazi Students’ League had achieved supremacy in the student body by the mid-1930s, effectively pushing other institutions of student representation aside. But it had done so in the context of a rapid decline in student numbers overall. One of the many factors that had fuelled student dissatisfaction with the Weimar Republic had been the drastic overcrowding that the universities had experienced as a result of the large birth-cohorts of the pre-1914 years entering the higher education system. Under the Third Reich, however, the number of students in universities plummeted, from a high of almost 104,000 in 1931 to a low of just under 41,000 in 1939. In the Technical Universities, numbers underwent a similar if slightly less precipitous decline, from just over 22,000 in 1931 to slightly more than 12,000 eight years later.259 Within this overall decline, some subjects fared worse than others. Law was particularly badly affected. Law students, making up 19 per cent of the total student body in 1932, only constituted 11 per cent by 1939. A similar decline was experienced by the humanities, where 19 per cent of students were enrolled in 1932 but only 11 per cent seven years later. The natural sciences suffered a decline too, though of less dramatic proportions, from 12 per cent to 8 per cent of the student body over the same period. Theology, perhaps surprisingly, held its own in proportional terms, at around 8 to 10 per cent, and economics even experienced a modest rise, from 6 to 8 per cent. But the real winner was medicine, which already accounted for a third of the student body in 1932 and reached nearly half, at 49 per cent, by 1939. The true dimensions of these changes become apparent when it is recalled that the total numbers of university students fell by more than half during these years, so that it is reasonable to speak of a genuine crisis above all in the humanities and law by the eve of the Second World War. There were a number of reasons for this. Both the humanities and the law were the object of continual criticism by the regime, reducing their attractiveness to applicants. Similarly, the civil service, a traditional destination of law graduates, was under heavy fire from 1933 onwards, and its influence and prestige sharply declined as those of the Party grew. Teaching, the main source of employment for humanities graduates, similarly declined in attractiveness in the mid-1930s, as we have seen. By contrast, the social and political standing of the medical profession rocketed during these years, as the regime placed racial hygiene at the centre of its domestic policy, and the removal of Jewish doctors from the profession created a large number of vacancies for Aryan graduates to fill.260

Map 8. The Decline of German Universities, 1930-39

The decline of the humanities, by far the most popular choice of female students, was in part a consequence of the restrictions placed on women entering university by the regime in these years. Hitler took the view that the main purpose of educating girls should be to train them to be mothers. On 12 January 1934, the Interior Ministry under Wilhelm Frick ordered on the basis of the Law against the Overcrowding of German Higher Education Institutions and Schools (25 April 1933) that the proportion of female grammar school graduates allowed to proceed to university should be no more than 10 per cent of that of the male graduates. In Easter the same year, roughly 10,000 female grammar-school students passed the university entrance examination; as a result of this directive, only 1,500 were allowed to go on to university, and by 1936 the number of female university students had been halved as a consequence. The Nazi elite educational institutions, the Adolf Hitler Schools and the Order Castles, did not admit female students, though a small number of the state elite schools, the Napolas, did. Moreover, the reorganization of German secondary schools ordered in 1937 abolished grammar-school education for girls altogether. Girls were banned from learning Latin, a requirement for university entrance, and the Education Ministry did its best instead to steer them into domestic education, for which a whole type of girls’ school existed; the only other secondary education available to girls was a language-based girls’ school, where domestic science was also now compulsory. From April 1938, all girls who still managed to graduate with the university entrance examination despite all these obstacles were obliged to have a ‘domestic year’; only after this would they be given the school-leaving certificate and allowed to proceed to university, provided the quota had not already been exceeded.261 The number of female students in higher education fell from just over 17,000 in 1932-3 to well under 6,000 in 1939, faster than that of male students: the proportion of female students fell from just under 16 per cent to just over 11 per cent over the same period. Attempts to reverse this trend in order to satisfy growing demand for skilled and qualified female professionals as rearmament took a grip on the economy had no discernible effect, since they ran counter to all the other measures taken to push women out of the universities since 1933.262

The Law against the Overcrowding of German Higher Education Institutions and Schools of 25 April 1933 affected only Jewish students at first, but in December 1933 the Reich Interior Ministry announced that only 15,000 of the 40,000 grammar-school students who were expected to pass the school graduation examination in 1934 would find places at Germany’s universities. Unemployment was still at seriously high levels, and it would be wrong for students to go to university if they had no prospect of a job at the end. However, this measure only lasted for two semesters, since the Reich Interior Ministry lost its competence over universities when the Education Ministry was founded in May 1934, and the new Ministry quickly abandoned the restrictions, even allowing those denied entry in that year to reapply, provided that they were unemployed and counted as politically reliable.263 More influential than such measures was perhaps the oft-expressed contempt of the Nazi leadership for the universities and those who taught and studied in them. In November 1938 Hitler launched a furious attack on intellectuals, amongst whom there was little doubt that he included university teachers and professors. He declared that intellectuals were fundamentally unreliable, useless and even dangerous, and contrasted their irreducible individualism and their constant critical carping with the instinctive and unquestioning solidarity of the masses. ‘When I take a look at the intellectual classes we have - unfortunately, I suppose, they are necessary; otherwise one could one day, I don’t know, exterminate them or something - but unfortunately they’re necessary.’264 How long for, he did not say. Anyone who had read My Struggle would be aware of his contempt for intellectuals, whom he blamed in large part for the disaster of 1918. This inevitably had the effect of producing disillusion amongst academics and a reluctance to enrol amongst potential students. In Germany before 1933, a university degree had been the way to social prestige and professional success. Now, for many, it was no longer. Under the Third Reich, there could be no doubt that Germany’s universities were in decline. Student numbers were falling, leading scientists and scholars had been dismissed and in many cases replaced by the second-rate. Chairs and teaching positions remained unfilled.265

The decline had already begun before Hitler came to power, as mass unemployment had deterred young people and especially young women from entering university when the prospects of obtaining a job afterwards were minimal. In addition to this, the very small birth-cohort of the First World War years, when the birth rate had plunged to half its prewar level, began in 1934 to reach the age at which university entrance was an option. Far from acting to counter the effects of this demographic decline on student numbers, the regime did everything to magnify them. Finally, the huge expansion of the professional army with the introduction of conscription in 1935 opened up a very large number of prestigious and well-paid posts in the officer corps, so that while fewer than 2 per cent of male high-school graduates joined the army in 1933, no fewer than 20 per cent did in 1935, and 28 per cent in 1937. By this time, too, prospective students were having to wait for two years and more after graduating from high school before they could enter university, since much of the intervening time was now taken up with obligatory military service. By their mid-twenties, many young men had no stomach for yet more years without a job. The banning of Jews from universities, it has been calculated, reduced student numbers by another 3 to 4 per cent, while, as we have been, Nazi measures against women students also had the effect of reducing numbers overall.266

The attractiveness of university study was further undermined by the decision of the Nazi Students’ League that all high-school graduates should carry out a period of labour service for the Reich before being allowed to begin their studies at university. From Easter 1934, six months’ labour service was obligatory for all successful university applicants, while first- and second-year students already at university were forced to serve a ten-week period in a labour camp. The purpose was to instil into university students the kind of character-building was also becoming so important in the schools: as Bernhard Rust told Berlin students in June 1933: ‘Anyone who fails in labour camp has forfeited the right to seek to lead Germany as a university graduate.’ Students were the first in the Third Reich to be subjected to these measures. Not only were they intended to give practical expression to their commitment to building the new Germany, they were also meant to help overcome the class snobbery and intellectual arrogance of the highly educated; in order to bring this about, the organizers of the Labour Service made sure that students did not make up more than 20 per cent of the inmate population of any labour camp into which they were drafted.267

Yet the policy signally failed to achieve its aim of helping to build a new, classless racial community. The vast majority of students who served in the camps hated the way in which, as a memorandum of the student organization itself complained in November 1933, ‘the bawling NCO type’ of the old army, ‘always putting on airs’, who ran the camps offloaded their social resentments on the young inmates. Strict military discipline, verbal abuse and bullying were common tactics employed by the uneducated camp leaders to humiliate the students. One inmate later remembered of these men that

They get bored, drink themselves silly every evening and then play tricks on us ... We were hauled out of bed three, four hours after the Last Post, and had to parade outside in our night-clothes, then run round the barracks, and back in the barracks crawl under our beds and then climb up onto the cupboards and sing ditties that seemed appropriate to our actions.268

Long hours of unskilled physical labour, building roads or draining marshes, carried out on meagre rations, exhausted many of the largely middle-class students. They were also the butt of continual practical jokes, tricks and verbal abuse from the majority of camp inmates, who were mainly from a rural or working-class background and were far more accustomed to tough and unskilled manual work than they were. For the students this was a world turned upside down, which created not solidarity with other social classes but hatred, bitterness and resentment towards them.269

Nor was pre-university labour service the end of such activities for students. Once they had entered university, they came under increasing pressure to spend several weeks every year, in the vacation, working without pay in a factory or on the land. This was not popular with university students, and participation rates remained low - only 5 per cent of the student body in 1936. Himmler also ordered that 25,000 students should help with the harvest in 1939, because the tense international situation at the time meant that the Polish seasonal labourers who usually performed this function were unavailable. This measure caused widespread unrest and open protests at several universities. The Gestapo were called in and a number of students were arrested. All the same, only 12,000 students actually materialized for the harvest; the others had found one way or another of avoiding it. Other attempts to carry the spirit of the labour camp life into the universities were equally unsuccessful. The Nazified student unions wanted to establish ‘comradeship houses’ in which students would live collectively instead of lodging in private accommodation as they had done up to 1933. This was intended not least as a takeover bid for the duelling and other fraternities, whose premises were to be used for the comradeship houses. The fraternities used their influence in the Ministries, many of whose senior civil servants were old members, to block this initiative, and the Nazi Students’ League also opposed the move. Finally, Hitler himself also intervened, declaring in November 1934 that the comradeship houses would encourage homosexuality.270 The collapse of the fraternities in 1936 gave the idea a second chance, however, this time under the aegis of the Nazi Students’ League, and by 1939 there were no fewer than 232 comradeship houses, which made themselves more attractive to students by abandoning their earlier insistence on waking their inmates at 6.15 a.m. for a vigorous bout of gymnastics. At the same time, however, the equally unpopular institution of three evenings a week spent on political indoctrination had not been abolished. Many students had been pressured to join a comradeship house in one way or another, and saw them mainly as social institutions. After going through years of incessantly repeated and intellectually vapid indoctrination at school and in the Hitler Youth, the last thing they wanted when they got to university was more of the same. Those responsible for the comradeship houses in Hamburg, for instance, complained in 1937 of ‘fatigue with every kind of political education’, while a keen Nazi student in Marburg declared his disappointment in 1939 ‘that in the comradeship houses of the

National Socialist German Students’ League, basically it is only the way of life of the former student fraternities that continues to be cultivated’. ‘Nowadays,’ concluded the Nazi student leader in Würzburg in 1938, ‘there are very few politically fanatical people in the university. They are either hardened or satiated.’271


The Nazi Students’ League was not content with attempting to change the student experience through the institution of compulsory work camps, labour service and comradeship houses. It also tried to influence what was taught in the universities themselves. It made clear in 1936 that we . . . will intervene where the National Socialist view of the world is not made into the basis and the starting-point of scientific and scholarly research and the professor does not of his own initiative lead his students to these ideological points of departure within his scientific or scholarly material.272

Nazi Party bosses never tired of repeating this view with varying degrees of emphasis - brutally open in the speeches of a rhetorical thug like Hans Frank, seemingly moderate and flexible in the addresses of a vacillating character like Bernhard Rust. The universities, it was clear, had to pursue the same aims as the schools and put Nazi ideology at the centre of their teaching and research. New chairs and institutes were founded at a number of universities in racial studies and racial hygiene, military history and prehistory, while additional chairs in German Folklore were founded at half of all German universities between 1933 and 1945. Most of these new positions were the result of initiatives from the university rectors rather than the Education Ministry. In 1939, Institutes for Racial Studies existed at twelve out of the twenty-three universities of Germany (in its boundaries of 1937). The new foundations involved a considerable investment of money and prestige in subjects that had not been well represented at the top level in German universities before 1933.273

These new areas of teaching and research were backed up in many universities by special lecture courses in these subjects, and in the political ideas of National Socialism, which in some universities were made compulsory for all students before they took their exams. In Heidelberg, the leading Nazi professor, Ernst Krieck, who became Rector in 1937, lectured on the National Socialist world-view. Similar lectures were held elsewhere. After the first flush of enthusiasm, however, most of the special lecture courses on Nazi ideology were dropped from university teaching, and by the mid-1930s, fewer than 5 per cent of lectures at German universities were overtly Nazi in their title and contents. Most professors and lecturers who had not been purged in 1933 - the great majority - continued to teach their subjects as before, with only marginal concessions to Nazi ideology, leading to repeated complaints by the Nazi students. These were echoed on many occasions by Nazi Party officials: the accusation levelled in 1936 by Walter Gross, head of the Racial Policy Office of the Nazi Party, of the ‘often extremely embarrassing efforts of notable scientists and scholars to play at National Socialism’, was far from untypical. After 1945, many former students of this period recalled that their teachers had overwhelmingly been professors of the old school, who had adapted to Nazi ideology only superficially.274 The Nazi Students’ League had attempted to force changes by creating an alternative to the existing teaching syllabus in the form of student-run, subject-specific groups (Fachschaften) that would provide a thoroughly Nazi education outside regular academic lectures and classes. But these had not been popular with students, not least since they could not really afford to miss regular classes and so had to work twice as hard as before if they went along. They aroused the antagonism of lecturers and had been largely neutralized by the need to incorporate the teaching staff into their work, since the students mostly lacked the necessary knowledge. 275 In many regular classes, too, relatively open discussion was still possible, and the lecturers were able to avoid Nazi ideology easily enough when they dealt with highly technical subjects, even in subjects like philosophy, where discussion of Aristotle or Plato allowed basic questions of morality and existence to be debated without recourse to the concepts and terminology of National Socialism.276

The success of the Nazis in turning the universities to their own ideological purposes was thus surprisingly limited.277 Teaching continued with only relatively superficial changes in most areas. Studies of doctoral dissertations completed during the Nazi era have shown that no more than 15 per cent of them could be said to be Nazi in their language and approach.278 Snobbish and elitist professors of the traditional sort openly despised the carpetbaggers brought into the universities by the regime, while most of the latter were so taken up with university administration that they had little time for the propagation of their own ideas to the students. On the other hand, the anti-intellectualism of the Nazi movement made sure that many senior figures in the Party, from Hitler down, ridiculed many of these ideas and thought them too abstruse to have any real political relevance. Neither Bernhard Rust nor Alfred Rosenberg, the two leading senior Nazis in the field of education and ideology, was politically skilled or determined enough to outmanoeuvre wily professors whose abilities to intrigue and dissemble had been honed in decades of in-fighting on university committees. The foundation of a new institute dedicated to the pursuit of a favourite obsession of the Nazis could be welcomed by conservative professors as a way of shunting off an unpopular colleague into an academic byway, as it was for example when the cantankerous far-right historian Martin Spahn was given his own Institute for Spatial Politics at the University of Cologne in 1934. This killed two birds with one stone, since it got Spahn out of the History Department, where he was deeply unpopular, into an area where he did not have to come into contact with his colleagues, and demonstrated at the same time the university’s commitment to the geopolitical ideas of the new regime.279

In general, however, Nazi ideology itself was too meagre, too crude, too self-contradictory and in the end too irrational to have any real impact on teaching and research at the sophisticated level at which they were pursued in higher education. Attempts to corral university teaching staff into a National Socialist German Lecturers’ Association in December 1934 - very late, compared to similar organizations in other professions - failed not least because of the ineptitude of its leader, Walter ‘Bubi’ Schultze, who had earned Hitler’s gratitude by fixing the shoulder the Leader had dislocated during the failed putsch of 1923. Schultze made enemies everywhere by ill-concealed intrigues. He rubbed the Education Ministry up the wrong way. His organization was also regarded by the professors as constituting an unwarranted interference with their power over the profession at large. Its parent body, the Higher Education Commission of the Nazi Party, founded in July 1934, fared no better, since it was led by men who had no standing in the academic community. There could be no question of requiring German professors to go on indoctrination courses in labour camps like their schoolteacher colleagues. Secure within their own bailiwick, they took a dim view of the anti-intellectualism of the Nazis. The initial enthusiasm of nationalist academics like the philosopher Martin Heidegger for the Nazi cultural revolution soon faded as it became clear that the new regime had no interest in the renewal of German science and scholarship as an end in itself. By 1939 even a convinced and determined Nazi academic like Ernst Krieck was asking: ‘Has the professor changed? No! The spirit of 1933 has departed from him once more, or at least from his scholarship, even if he is otherwise at least partially well-disposed.’280

Such a sweeping generalization needs to be qualified, of course; in some universities, Nazism made greater inroads among the professoriate than in others. Jena, Kiel or Königsberg, for example, counted as relatively strong centres of Nazi teaching and research, while universities in Catholic regions remained less strongly affected; Bonn University, indeed, became something of a dumping-ground for unwanted professors compulsorily relocated from other centres of higher education, while the student body here remained dominated by Catholic and conservative groupings until their dissolution by the Nazis in the mid-1930s. In Bonn, only a minority of posts - about 5 per cent in this case - was ever occupied by fanatical Nazis, another 10 per cent by committed supporters of the Party, and the rest by either superficial sympathizers, by the indifferent, or by academics who were opposed to the regime; the fact that nearly a quarter of Bonn’s 380 professors were hostile to Nazism was unusual, but the dominance of scholarly and scientific criteria in the majority of faculty appointments even after 1933 was not, nor was it in most other German universities either.281 Surveying the field in 1938, the Security Service of the SS drew understandably gloomy conclusions. ‘In almost all universities’, it complained, ‘there are complaints about the passive attitude of the lecturers, who reject any political or ideological work that breaks the narrow bounds of their specialisms.’282


The difficulties experienced by the Nazis in turning traditional academic subjects into expressions of their political ideology were nowhere clearer than in physics. Here there was a thoroughgoing attempt to Nazify the discipline, led by the physicist Philipp Lenard, an elder statesman of German science who had retired from his Chair in Heidelberg in 1931. Born in 1862, the son of a wine merchant, Lenard had studied with Heinrich Hertz, the discoverer of radio waves, and been awarded the Nobel Prize himself for path-breaking experiments on cathode rays in 1905. Despite his Nobel Prize, Lenard was full of bitterness and resentment at being pipped to the post by his pupil Wilhelm Röntgen in the discovery of x-rays, and accused the British physicist J. J. Thomson, who established the nature of cathode rays, of stealing and then suppressing his own later work in the field. A charismatic and popular lecturer who achieved widespread fame in Germany through his work, Lenard emphasized careful and precise experimentation and had no time for theory. His hatred of Thomson intensified into a general dislike of the British, while the German nationalism he had imbibed in his birthplace, in Bratislava, in the multinational Habsburg monarchy, spilled over into chauvinism in 1914, and into antisemitism at the end of the First World War. All of this caused him to act with undisguised fury when the general theory of relativity was empirically validated in May, 1919, bringing Albert Einstein worldwide fame.283

A pacifist, a Jew, a theoretician and a supporter of the Weimar Republic, Einstein represented everything Lenard hated most. Moreover, the scientists who had validated his theory were British. In the ensuing debate over relativity, Lenard took the lead in rejecting Einstein’s theory as a ‘Jewish fraud’ and in mobilizing the physics community against it. He was driven into the arms of the Nazis when his refusal to join in official mourning for the murdered Foreign Minister Rathenau - whose assassination he himself had openly advocated not long before - sparked trade union demonstrations against him in 1922, in which he had to be taken into police custody for his own protection. Banned from returning to work by his own university, Lenard was reinstated as a result of pressure from right-wing students, into whose orbit he now gravitated.

In 1924 he openly praised Hitler’s beer-hall putsch of the previous year, and although he did not formally join the Nazi Party until 1937, he was now to all intents and purposes a follower of the movement and participated actively in the work of groups such as Rosenberg’s Fighting League for German Culture. He greeted the coming of the Third Reich with unbridled enthusiasm, celebrated the removal of Jewish professors from the universities, and published a four-volume textbook on German Physics in 1936-7 which he clearly hoped would provide the foundation for a new, racially based ‘Aryan physics’ that would eliminate the Jewish doctrine of relativity from German science altogether.284

Lenard’s relatively advanced age by this time, however, prevented him from taking the lead in the struggle for an Aryan physics. This role fell to his friend and close associate Johannes Stark, another gifted but extremely quarrelsome experimentalist whose discoveries included the splitting of spectral lines in an electric field, a phenomenon that became known as the Stark effect. Like Lenard, he was a German nationalist and he was driven into opposition to Einstein not least by the latter’s pacifism and internationalism in 1914-18. His growing hostility to modern physics, and particularly to the predominance achieved in Einstein’s wake by theoretical physics, hampered the advancement of his career in the 1920s; his failure to find a job led him to blame the Weimar Republic for his misfortunes and to form close connections with leading Nazi ideologues like Hans Schemm and Alfred Rosenberg. As a result, the Minister of the Interior, Wilhelm Frick, appointed Stark as President of the Imperial Institute of Physics and Technology on 1 May 1933, and a year later he was given the post of President of the Emergency Association of German Science (later the German Research Community), in charge of disbursing large sums of government research money. From these positions of power, Stark launched a concerted campaign to position the supporters of Aryan physics in academic posts, and to reshape the funding and management of research in the field in such a way as to cut off support from the proponents of modern theories such as relativity and quantum mechanics.285

But Stark was too effective at making enemies for his own good. Before long he had aroused the hostility of leading civil servants within the Education Ministry, of the SS (whose own racial and genealogical research he had brusquely dismissed as unscientific) and of the Party Regional Leader of Bavaria, Adolf Wagner. Moreover, the ‘German physicists’ themselves were divided, with Lenard championing pure research while Stark embraced the application of physics to technology. Above all, however, when the political polemics and antisemitic diatribes were taken out, there was not much of use left in Aryan physics, whose ideas were muddled, confused and contradictory. Quantum mechanics and relativity were just too useful to be ignored, and other physicists got round Lenard’s criticisms by arguing that such theories embodied key Nordic concepts, and constituted a rejection of Jewish materialism. The majority of physicists therefore repudiated Lenard and Stark’s ideas, and the Aryan physicists’ progress was slow. By 1939 they had only managed to fill six out of the eighty-one physics chairs in Germany, and these mainly with their own students. Nevertheless, their influence did not disappear. A characteristic triumph was the campaign they mounted against Werner Heisenberg, who had won a Nobel Prize for his pioneering of quantum mechanics in 1932. Born in 1901, Heisenberg had studied with such luminaries of modern physics as Niels Bohr and Max Born, and had been appointed Professor of Theoretical Physics at Leipzig in 1927. A conservative nationalist, though not politically active, Heisenberg like many of his colleagues felt strongly that the damage done to German science by the dismissal of Jewish researchers could only be repaired if men like himself stayed in Germany.286

But the Aryan physicists had other ideas. They mobilized a vigorous campaign against his appointment to a prestigious Chair of Theoretical Physics at Munich in 1937. Stark’s open attack on Heisenberg in the Nazi press as a follower of the detested Einstein was pure polemic: in fact, Einstein rejected quantum mechanics altogether. The attack, however, clearly threatened mainstream physics as a whole. It called forth a public response drafted by Heisenberg and signed by seventy-five leading physicists, an almost unprecedented public intervention under the circumstances of the Third Reich. The physicists reaffirmed the principle that no progress in experimentation was possible without the theoretical elucidation of the laws of nature. The actions of the Aryan physicists, they declared, were damaging the subject and putting students off. There were already too few physicists of the younger generation in Germany. After this, open attacks ceased, but behind the scenes, the Aryan physicists enlisted the support of Reinhard Heydrich’s SS Security Service and of the Munich branch of the National Socialist German University Teachers’ League to block Heisenberg’s appointment. To counter this, Heisenberg capitalized on his family’s acquaintance with the family of Heinrich Himmler, whose father had been a schoolteacher in Munich at the same time as his own. He sent his mother to intercede with Himmler’s mother, with the gratifying result that the head of the SS cleared his name in July 1938. Yet in the end the outcome was still a victory for Stark and his supporters. With effect from 1 December 1939, the Munich chair was filled not by Heisenberg but by Wilhelm Müller, who was not even a physicist, but an aerodynamics expert whose main recommendation was the fact that he had published a small book entitledJews and Science in 1936, attacking relativity as a Jewish con-trick. After this, the teaching of theoretical physics at Munich University ceased altogether, a result wholly congenial to the Aryan physicists, whose greatest triumph this represented so far.287

Apart from physics, no other traditional scientific subject was quite so convulsed by an attempt by some of its most eminent practitioners to turn it into a specifically Nazi form of knowledge, with the possible exception of biology. There was a rather feeble attempt to create a ‘German mathematics’, stressing geometry rather than algebra because it was supposedly more closely related to the ideal human form as expressed in the Aryan racial type, but it was ignored by most mathematicians as abstruse and irrelevant, and came to nothing.288 In a similar way, the attempt to create a ‘German chemistry’, which, like its parallels in other disciplines, was launched by scientists themselves rather than emanating from the regime or the Nazi authorities, was too vague and diffuse to have any real impact. Less antisemitic than Aryan physics, it preferred to direct its attacks against ‘Western’ rationalism and to base its theories on a recovery of the organic concepts of nature favoured by the German Romantics; but the results were even less impressive, not least because the Aryan chemists could boast nobody among their ranks of the stature of Lenard or Stark.289 What united all these attempts to Nazify science was a characteristically National Socialist suspicion of abstraction and formalism, comparable to that demonstrated so graphically in official diatribes against ‘degenerate art’. But ‘degenerate science’ was both less easy to identify and less obviously connected to liberal and leftist trends in cultural politics.290 In the end, it survived, but not unscathed. The Third Reich saw a marked decline in the standard of scientific teaching and research in German universities between 1933 and 1939. This was not just because of the enforced emigration of so many distinguished Jewish scientists, but also because German science gradually became cut off from the international conferences, visiting professorships, research exchanges and other contacts with the worldwide scientific community that have always played such a vital role in stimulating new developments. Numbers of scientists from leading countries in the international research community visiting German universities fell sharply after 1933. Already in 1936, Heisenberg was complaining to his Danish colleague Niels Bohr of his growing isolation. Foreign academics and institutions began to reduce their contacts with German colleagues in protest against the dismissal of Jewish scientists, foreign travel was increasingly restricted or turned to political purposes, and university library subscriptions to leading international journals were cancelled if - like the British periodical Nature, for example - they contained any hint of criticism of the Third Reich.291

Yet despite these developments, scientific research did not atrophy or collapse altogether in Nazi Germany. While standards in the universities might have fallen, the universities had never enjoyed a monopoly over research in Germany. Ever since the nineteenth century, large, modern companies in areas like the electrical, engineering and chemical industries had depended heavily on their own research and development sections, staffed by highly trained and well-paid scientists, for the technological innovations on which they relied to keep at the forefront of world markets. Even more importantly, perhaps, the state itself had instituted massive investment in scientific research institutes not only inside but, more importantly, outside the universities through a variety of bodies, notably the German Research Community and the Kaiser Wilhelm Society. Not surprisingly, the Third Reich directed its funding heavily towards investment in military or war-relevant technology, from new weaponry to synthetic fuels. Medicine and biology benefited from the Nazis’ encouragement in areas such as the improvement of crop yields, chemical fertilizers and synthetic fibres. As the drive to rearm and prepare for war became more urgent, so those parts of the scientific community that contributed to it were able to direct increasing amounts of funding towards themselves. It was symptomatic of this development that Heisenberg and his colleagues were able not only to secure the acceptance of their argument that theoretical physics was necessary for the development of sophisticated military technology, but also to secure the removal of Johannes Stark from the Presidency of the German Research Community in 1936 because his obdurate hostility to theoretical physics was hampering the funding of war-relevant research.292

The government sharply increased the funding of the German Research Community and the Kaiser Wilhelm Society, making its grants conditional on the ability of the recipients to demonstrate the relevance of their work to the preparation of Germany for war. Other governments in other states and at other times, of course, have directed their research support towards what they have considered useful to the state, a tendency that has seldom been of much comfort to the arts and humanities. But the scale, intensity and single-mindedness of the Third Reich in this respect far outdid most parallels elsewhere. The scientific research community in Germany was immensely strong; measured by the country’s overall population, it was probably the strongest in the world in 1933. Especially in government-funded research institutes and company research and development departments, it continued to pioneer many scientific and technological innovations under the Third Reich. These included the discovery of nuclear fission by Otto Hahn and Lise Meitner in 1938, the creation of important drugs such as methadone and Demerol, and the nerve gas sarin, technological developments like the jet propulsion engine, electron microscopes and the electronic computer, and major inventions such as cold-steel extrusion, aerial infrared photography, power circuit breakers, tape recorders, x-ray tubes, colour film processing, diesel motors and intercontinental ballistic missiles. It has even been claimed that the first television broadcast strong enough to reach out beyond the planet Earth was of a speech by Hitler, delivered at the opening of the 1936 Olympic Games. Thus while the Third Reich tended to prioritize military training in the schools and the universities, to the detriment of other kinds of learning, it fully backed the most modern, most advanced scientific and technological research elsewhere if it could be shown to have even the remotest possibility of relevance to the war the regime was preparing to launch on Europe in the medium-term future.293


Traditional approaches to academic subjects survived in German universities not least because their complexity and sophistication defied easy assimilation into the crude categories of Nazi ideology.294 In history, for example, established professors obdurately resisted attempts by the Nazis to introduce a new, racial, ‘blood-and-soil’ approach to the past in the first years of the regime. In the universities, as in the schools, ideologues like Alfred Rosenberg demanded that history should become a form of political propaganda and indoctrination, abandoning traditional ideas of objectivity based on scholarly research. Since the middle of the nineteenth century, German academic historians had been accustomed to try and view the past in its own terms and consider the state as the driving force in history. Now they were being told that Charlemagne, for example, was a German, in an era when many historians believed that it was anachronistic to think that Germans existed at all, and asked to affirm that race was the foundation of historical change and development. Some went along willingly with the idea of Charlemagne’s Germanness. In the case of the Eastern European specialist Albert Brackmann, this even included the attempt to minimize the extent to which Charlemagne had been motivated by Christian belief. But traditionalists such as Hermann Oncken insisted that history was in the first place a search for the truth, irrespective of its ideological implications. Another historian, Johannes Haller, who had publicly supported the Nazis in the elections of July 1932, declared in November 1934 that historians who adopted a ‘mythical view of the past’ were committing ‘hara-kiri’: ‘For’, he proclaimed, ‘where myth had the word, history has nothing more to say.’ Thus many university historians resisted the regime’s attempt to revolutionize their subject through new foundations like the Reich Institute for the History of the New Germany, led by the Nazi Walter Frank. The new institute was not a success. It largely failed to produce any research, except from its section for the Jewish question, led by Karl Alexander von Müller, whose association with Hitler went back to his time in Munich at the end of the First World War.295

Müller took over the editorship of the profession’s flagship periodical, the Historical Journal (Historische Zeitschrift), from the liberal Friedrich Meinecke in 1935. But apart from a few brief articles and reports on the ‘Jewish question’, the history of Germans abroad, and one or two other political topics, the journal continued as before to publish specialized articles on academic themes based on detailed archival research.296 The leadership principle was introduced into historical organizations and research institutes, but this made little difference in reality; the profession was already extremely hierarchical, with enormous power resting in the hands of the senior professors. The national organization of historians first incorporated a couple of prominent Nazis onto its executive committee in 1933, then was itself taken under the control of the Education Ministry in 1936. This led to a more politically motivated selection of German delegates to international historical conferences, and to the domination of the organization’s annual congresses by Nazi historians from Walter Frank’s Reich Institute. The main consequence of this, however, was that university-based historians did not bother to go any more, and the apathy of the majority was now such that the 1937 national congress proved to be the last.297 As the Security Service of the SS noted the following year, historians were mostly content ‘to carry on compiling old scholarly encyclopedias and to deliver new scholarly contributions to the illumination of individual epochs’. There was not much sign of any advance of National Socialist concepts and methods to record.298 It seemed, therefore, that the historical profession was relatively unaffected by the Nazi regime and successfully preserved its custodianship of the legacy of the great German historians of the past against the onslaught of the new anti-intellectualism.

Yet when historians, particularly of the older generation, protested that history was an unpolitical subject, they meant, as so many conservatives had done under the Weimar Republic, that it should not be tied to party politics, not that it was devoid of any political content. From their point of view, patriotism was unpolitical, a belief in the historical rightness and inevitability of the Bismarckian unification of Germany in 1871 was unpolitical, the assertion that Germany had not been responsible for the outbreak of war in 1914 was unpolitical. A scholarly, objective approach to the past dovetailed miraculously with the nationalist prejudices and preconceptions of the educated German bourgeoisie in the present. For almost all, for example, it was axiomatic that the eastward Germanic migration in the Middle Ages had brought civilization to the Slavs. The German right to conquer Slavic nations like Poland and Czechoslovakia in the present grew in this way of seeing things out of the objective facts of Germany’s historic mission to civilize this part of Europe. Nobody gave a thought to the possibility that they were reading history backwards rather than forwards.299 Thus although no full professor of history had been a member of the Nazi Party before 1933, hardly any resigned his chair on grounds of political belief or conscience when the Nazis took over the universities, because hardly any saw the need to.300

The traditional Rankean concept of objectivity was not shared by all historians, particularly in the younger generation. One of them, Hans Rothfels, openly rejected what he called the ‘tendentious misconception of objectivity without a standpoint’ in favour of a conscious ‘unification of scholarship and life’ in the present.301 Even younger scholars who rejected the notion of objectivity in such terms, however, still insisted on the need for scholarly standards of research to be maintained and the open conversion of history into propaganda to be resisted. Hard-line ideologues like Rosenberg and Himmler thus met with considerable opposition when they attempted to foist racial interpretations of history, ‘blood-and-soil’, paganist anti-Christian views and the like onto the historians. Hitler himself preferred to praise German military prowess and great national heroes in the past. This point of view was far more congenial to the professors. Despite the interest of some younger historians in a populist-oriented history of the common people, under Nazi or quasi-Nazi ideological auspices, diplomatic and military history were still dominant in Germany, as in many other European countries, at this time, and writing biographies of great men was widely thought of as central to the historian’s business.302

A not untypical example of the academic historian in this respect was the Freiburg professor Gerhard Ritter, who became during the 1930s one of the most prominent representatives of the profession. Born in 1888 into an educated middle-class family, Ritter had been marked for life by his experience as an army officer in the Battle of the Somme in 1916. His patriotism gained a strong dose of sober realism in these circumstances, and though he never ceased to argue for the revision of the Treaty of Versailles and against the thesis of German war guilt in 1914, he also warned repeatedly against irresponsible warmongering and empty patriotic rhetoric. Unusually, perhaps, Ritter never had any truck with antisemitism and he mistrusted the populism of the Nazis, preferring an elitist conception of politics that excluded the irresponsible and uneducated masses from full political participation. After Hitler came to power, Ritter’s attitude towards the regime fluctuated ambivalently between conditional support and limited opposition. Combative and courageous, he did not hesitate to support Jewish pupils and colleagues dismissed or persecuted by the regime. On the other hand, he vigorously supported a whole variety of Hitler’s policies at home and abroad, while at the same time hoping continuously for the reform of the regime in a less radical direction. As he wrote in his biography of Frederick the Great in 1936, the Germans had rightly learned ‘to make sacrifices of political freedom’ for the ‘advantage of belonging to a leading nation-state’. In private, he was critical of many aspects of the Nazi regime, but in public, his books and articles served its educational purposes in broad terms by emphasizing the historians’ usual themes of German nationhood and the lives of great Germans of the past, even if some of the standpoints they took were not wholly shared by the Nazi leadership.303

In a similar fashion, other disciplines too found little difficulty in fitting in with the regime’s broader requirements while preserving at least some of their scholarly or scientific autonomy. At Heidelberg University, for example, the Social and Economic Sciences Faculty focused its research on population, agricultural economics and the vaguely named ‘spatial research’ which in fact was focused on accumulating knowledge relevant to the proposed future expansion of the Reich in the pursuit of ‘livingspace’. The sociologists put their faith in detailed empirical work and cold-shouldered the rabid Nazi ideologues who tried to use their own fanaticism to gain promotion. A similar development could be observed in other universities too.304 In university-level teaching and research on German language and literature, professors and lecturers in the Nazi period focused on literary and linguistic history as a field in which the German spirit and expressions of German racial identity could be traced back through the ages. They contrasted this tradition with the threat posed by foreign influences such as Romance literature and American popular culture. This seemed a Nazi view, but it had been held by the great majority of scholars in this area since even before the First World War.305

Theology faculties, divided institutionally between Protestant and Catholic institutions, were in a more difficult position. Protestant theology faculties became the sites of bitter quarrels between supporters of the German Christians and the Confessing Church. At Bonn University, for instance, where Karl Barth, the chief theologian of the Confessing Church, was the guiding spirit, a new dean, the German Christian Emil Pfennigsdorf, was elected in April 1933. Within three years he had fired or transferred ten out of the faculty’s fourteen members and replaced them with his own supporters, with the result that before long the faculty was virtually without any students. The hostility of the Nazi Party to the Catholic Church found its expression in the refusal of the state authorities to sanction the filling of posts in Bonn’s Catholic theology faculty made vacant by retirements. Eight out of the faculty’s twelve chairs were unfilled in 1939; only the forcible transfer of two professors from the faculty in Munich, which the Nazis had closed down altogether, allowed teaching to continue. Similar upheavals occurred in other universities too.306

The contrast with what rapidly became the most important of all university faculties under Nazism, medicine, could not have been more stark. Teachers of medicine made up roughly a third of all university faculty members by 1935, and the absolutely dominant position of medicine in universities was reflected in the fact that, from 1933 to 1945, 59 per cent of university rectors were drawn from the medical profession. The close interest of the regime in the teaching of medicine was signalled right away in 1933, as Hitler appointed Fritz Lenz to the first full Chair in racial hygiene at any German university, in Berlin; this was quickly followed by chairs in the subject in other universities or, where this did not happen, in the institution of regular lecture courses in the subject. Unfortunately, not only was the subject itself poorly developed in intellectual terms, but those who rushed to teach it were often more noted for their ideological fanaticism than for their scientific competence. The abler students mocked such teachers behind their backs, but even they were often unable to pass the simplest tests in the subject, identifying as Aryan, for example, Nordic-looking individuals who were in fact Jews. The absurdity of such tests did not deter Nazi professors from investing a good deal of time and energy into racial studies. At the University of Giessen, for instance, an Institute for Hereditary Health and Race Preservation, partly sponsored by the Nazi Party in 1933, became a full university department in 1938 under its founder, the ‘old fighter’ Heinrich Wilhelm Kranz, who as a medical student had taken part in the cold-blooded shooting of fifteen workers by a Free Corps Unit in Thuringia in the wake of the Kapp putsch in 1920. Kranz was actually an ophthalmologist, with no scientific expertise in physical anthropology at all, but this did not prevent him using his connections in the Party to further his own empire-building in the field of racial research.307

If the quality of its teachers was often poor and the content of what they taught dubious in scientific terms, racial hygiene was at least accepted in principle by most medical faculties in the 1930s. But this was not all that the Nazis tried to foist onto the universities in this field. The head of the Nazi Physicians’ League from before 1933, and from 1936 leader of the Reich Physicians’ Chamber, was Gerhard Wagner, a close associate of Rudolf Hess and an enthusiast for alternative medicine. 308 Wagner backed the Nazi radicals who championed a holistic approach based on herbs and other natural remedies, known as the New German Healing. He did not conceal his disdain for the mechanistic, scientific approach of conventional university medicine, and rejected its dependency on synthetic pharmacology. Wagner set up a teaching hospital in Dresden in June 1934 with the aim of disseminating the naturopathic ideas of the New German Healing. He followed this up with a variety of special training courses. Racial hygiene was an integral part of the teaching of the new academy for state public health officials that Wagner established in Munich in 1933. Soon ‘people’s health’ was a feature of teaching in university medical schools too. Wagner backed this up with persistent and often successful interventions with the Education Ministry in appointments to university medical chairs, many of which had become vacant as a consequence of the dismissal of their Jewish occupants in 1933-4. At Bonn University, for example, twelve out of seventeen chairs in medicine became vacant in the years from 1933 on; ten of the fourteen new professors appointed up to 1945 were active Nazis, who then formed the dominant group within the faculty. Often the new incumbents were not up to their predecessors either as researchers or as practitioners. Even so, by 1938 there was such a shortage of qualified candidates for medical chairs that the Ministry of Education started to ask retiring incumbents to stay in office. In Berlin, for example, the 67-year-old Walter Stoeckel, an eminent gynaecologist, was given another two years in post because no replacement could be found. The fact was that for competent physicians and surgeons there were already greater rewards, and more freedom as researchers, to be had in industry or the armed forces. And the burden of student numbers in areas such as racial hygiene was now so great that non-specialists from other fields were being drafted in to do the teaching.309

Everywhere in the educational system, therefore, the Third Reich had an impact that was ultimately disastrous. ‘Scholarship is no longer essential, ’ noted Victor Klemperer in his diary in October 1933 as he recorded the cancelling of lectures on two afternoons a week in his university to make time for military sports.310 In a regime that was built on contempt for the intellect, this should hardly have been a cause for surprise. The Nazis saw the educational system in the first place as a means for inculcating the young with their own view of the world, still more as a means of training and preparing them for war. Anything that stood in their way, including traditional educational values such as freedom of inquiry, critical intelligence or the ideal of pure research, was to be sidelined or swept aside. As preparations for war became more extensive, so the demands of the armed forces for doctors became more urgent; and in 1939 the course of university study for medical students was shortened. The quality of teaching had already been diluted by a reduction of the time taken up in mainstream medical training to make room for new subjects such as racial hygiene, not to mention the students’ multifarious obligations to the Party, from attendance at labour camps to participation in the activities of the stormtroopers. Already in 1935 the surgeon Ferdinand Sauerbruch was complaining about the poor quality of the new intake of medical students, many of whom had, he claimed, been picked because they or their parents were Party members. There was even some evidence that examination standards were being lowered to enable them to get through. When a dissertation on racial hygiene could serve as the final qualification for medical practice, it was not surprising that traditionalists like Sauerbruch were concerned for the future of the medical profession in Germany.311

Nevertheless, in medicine as in other areas, established professors largely carried on teaching and researching as they had done before. For all his diatribes against academic medicine, Wagner realized that the doctors were essential for the implementation of many of the Nazis’ eugenic plans. He balked at the idea, pushed by the proponents of the New German Healing, of abolishing the medical faculties altogether. Besides, the achievements of German medical research over the previous decades had won worldwide recognition, and there were powerful nationalist arguments for attempting to continue this proud tradition. Serious medical research in a variety of fields had an obvious relevance to the protection of German troops from infectious diseases and the improvement of the health of the German population in general. So it did indeed carry on under the Third Reich. The pathologist Gerhard Domagk even won the Nobel Prize in 1939 for his development of sulfa drugs for combating bacterial infection (he was not allowed by the regime to accept it). In trying to improve the health and fecundity of the racially acceptable part of the German population, the Nazis gave strong support to preventive medicine and research into major killers. It was a Nazi epidemiologist who first established the link between smoking and lung cancer, establishing a government agency to combat tobacco consumption in June 1939. Party and government agencies actively pursued bans on carcinogenic substances like asbestos and dangerous pesticides and food colouring agents. Already in 1938 the air force had banned smoking on its premises, to be followed by other workplace smoking bans imposed by the post office and offices of the Nazi Party itself, in April 1939. Books, pamphlets and posters warned of the dangers of smoking, and pointed out repeatedly that Hitler himself never put a pipe, cigar or cigarette to his lips. Nor did he imbibe alcohol, and the Nazis were equally active in combating excessive consumption of beer, wines and spirits. The fact that tobacco manufacturers, brewers, distillers and wine merchants were more than likely to be members of the Party and give it substantial financial support cut little ice here: the overriding imperative was to improve the health of the Aryan race.312

Such policies helped dull the minds of medical researchers to the negative side of Nazi health policy. Improving the race included not only research and prevention of this kind, but also, as we shall see, eliminating supposed negative influences on the race and its future by forcible sterilization and, eventually, murder, dressed up in the neutral-sounding rhetoric of preventive medicine.313 The intrusion of racial hygiene and eugenics into medical education under the Third Reich had its own influence on medical ethics too, as medical researchers in other fields also succumbed to the idea that racially inferior or subhuman people could legitimately be used as the objects of medical experimentation.314 The immense power and prestige of medicine and allied subjects in the Third Reich gave some medical researchers the belief that anything was justified in the name of the advancement of science, not only if it could be directly linked to the fortunes of the nation in the struggle for power, but even in far-removed realms of pure research. In this belief, they were encouraged by the regime’s contempt for conventional morality. The deep-rooted Christian beliefs that underpinned medical ethics and were held more broadly by many millions of Germans appeared to the Nazis in the end as yet another obstacle to the mobilization of the Aryan racial spirit. Nowhere was there any clear evidence that the Nazis had succeeded in their ambition of sweeping away alternative sources of moral and cultural identity amongst the great mass of Germans and replacing it with unqualified enthusiasm for their own world-view. Yet allegiance to a political system, even one as extreme as that of the Third Reich, never depends wholly on ideological identification. In conventional politics at least, material factors are even more important. The Nazis came to power in the midst of, and in large measure also as a consequence of, the most calamitous economic depression of modern times. If they could manage to pull Germany out of the morass of mass unemployment and economic despair into which it had fallen at the end of the 1920s, that alone might be enough to secure people’s assent to the Third Reich even when they remained indifferent to its more ambitious religious, cultural and educational purposes.

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