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Culture

Berlin's oldest university faces new challenges as it turns 200

Berlin's Humboldt University is best known for having an education model unifying research and teaching and its slew of Nobel Prize-winning alumni. These days, the institution is fighting for funds and recognition.

A statute of Wilhelm von Humboldt at the entrance to Berlin's Humboldt University

Wilhelm von Humboldt greets students at the entrance to the university

The imposing facade of the Humboldt University is located in the heart of Berlin's historic Mitte district - within a stone's throw of the German Historical Museum and the State Opera on the Unter den Linden boulevard.

A statue of founder Wilhelm von Humboldt looms high at the main entrance. It shows the Prussian education reformer and statesman sitting in an armchair, proudly gazing down at the students milling around. His expression seems to demand respect for his achievements.

And Wilhelm von Humboldt had every reason to be proud of the institution established in 1810. Known then as the Berlin University, it aimed for the first time to unify instruction with research. Humboldt maintained that universities shouldn't just teach but also be centers of cutting-edge research.

It was a radically new idea in Germany's education landscape at the time and the Humboldt University became a model for European and western universities, earning it the informal title "the Mother of all Modern Universities."

Students in the library at the Humboldt University

The Humboldt University has more than 34,000 students

'Humboldt legend' draws thousands

That founding spirit still holds true until today, according to the current president of the university, Christoph Markschies.

"In 1809, the university had neither tables nor chairs and the walls were full of mould. The city of Berlin didn't have much money. Now we have a bit more - at least we have tables and chairs and we've managed to renovate the building," Markschies said. "But this founding spirit - attempting things against all odds - still prevails."

Despite near-empty state coffers in 1810, Wilhelm von Humboldt managed to get the first semester at the university going - with 256 students and 52 lecturers.

From the outset, the university featured the four classical faculties of law, medicine, philosophy and theology. Partly under the influence of famous naturalist Alexander von Humboldt, a brother of founder Wilhelm, the university later pioneered the introduction of several new disciplines.

Today, it offers more than 240 programs ranging from African studies to dentistry. Some 13 percent of the university's 34,000 students come from more than 100 nations.

Uwe-Jens Nagel, the university's vice president, said the "legendary reputation" of the Humboldt University still draws thousands around the world.

"The university has translated Wilhelm von Humboldt's ideal of education into the 21st century," Nagel said. "It means that at our university there is no research without teaching and the other way around."

The university has produced 29 Nobel Prize laureates since its founding 200 years ago. They include Albert Einstein, Max Planck and Fritz Haber, who did some of their scientific work at the university. Other illustrious figures such as statesman Otto von Bismarck, poet Heinrich Heine, political theorist Karl Marx and writer Kurt Tucholsky, also enrolled as students at the university.

The Nazi book burnings at Berlin's Opernplatz, now Babelplatz

The book burnings near the Humboldt University were a low-point in the institution's history

Dark and shameful chapter

Until 1933, the Humboldt University was one of the leading universities in Germany. But things began to change under what was becoming an atmosphere of repression and brutality.

Under the Nazis, Jewish and communist students were kicked out of the university. The infamous Nazi-organized book burnings on May 10, 1933 at the nearby Opernplatz square (now known as Babelplatz) further plunged the university into a dark abyss.

This is how German author Erich Kaestner later remembered the incident.

"I stood in front of the university, wedged between students in SA uniforms, the torch-bearers of the nation. I saw our books being flung into the roaring flames and heard the corny tirades of the wily liar [Propaganda Minister] Josef Goebbels. An atmosphere of mourning hung over the city," Kaestner wrote.

The shameful period came to an end with the conclusion of World War Two in 1945, but the university then lurched into a new crisis. The Cold War led to a growing communist influence at the university. Between 1945 and 1948, students who demanded a free university in the spirit of Wilhelm von Humboldt were arrested, deported and even executed.

In West Berlin, students finally set up the Free University with help from the United States. Communist East Germany officially renamed its Berlin University in 1949 as the Humboldt University - but without the ideals championed by Wilhelm von Humboldt.

New challenges

Students attending a lecture at Berlin's Humboldt University

The Humboldt University is struggling to attract funds and talent

Since German reunification in 1990, Humboldt's founding philosophy is once again at the forefront of the university's agenda. But at the same time, new pressures are making it difficult for the university to live up to the ideals of giving equal importance to teaching and research.

New higher education reforms in Germany aimed at encouraging students to get into universities and out into the job market at an earlier age have overstretched the university's resources.

"We need more staff but that's not going to happen any time soon in a poor city-state like Berlin," Nagel said. He added that the university was now thinking of a new mentoring concept to improve teaching. "Students would be trained in such a way that they could work as tutors. They wouldn't get paid but would instead receive study points."

The Humboldt University also hopes to get millions in state funds by vying for the German government's "excellence initiative" aimed at improving and encouraging high-level research and competition at the country's higher-education institutions. In 2007, however, the Humboldt University failed to earn the title of "elite university."

If it fails yet again to secure those much-needed funds, the university could lose out in the global race to attract and nurture top talent.

Author: Sabine Damaschke (sp)
Editor: Kate Bowen

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