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Germany

Cologne University Grapples With its Nazi Past

Sixty years after the end of the Nazi regime, Cologne University organized a ceremonial act to rehabilitate the academics whose doctoral titles were revoked between 1933 and 1945.

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Documented injustice: Doctoral title revoked on Jan. 12, 1939, it reads

They were Jews, homosexuals, abortion doctors or regime opponents. During the oppressive Nazi regime in Germany, they lost their academic titles, jobs, sources of income and their professional dignity.

Sixty years later, Professor Margit Szöllösi-Janze asked 25 students a chance to research the individual destinies of some 70 Cologne University professors who were victims of Nazi vilification, including Jewish philosopher Hans Mazer, Russian-born political scientist Ossip K. Flechtheim, and politician Walter Auerbach.

The students examined more than 1,000 documents from the university archives.

"I was looking for a topic that could be researched at our university archive and that our students would find interesting," said Szöllösi-Janze. "I received assistance from our university archivist, who was very engaged and who drew our attention to these holdings."

Tragic destinies

Jahresrückblick 2005 Januar Auschwitz Jahrestag

Today, rehabilitation of victims can only be symbolical

Over the course of one semester, the students explored the archive and encountered many interesting but also tragic and disconcerting stories. Two professors from Cologne University died in concentration camps. After 1945, some of the academics tried to regain their titles, but without success. The university never fully dealt with this topic until Professor Szöllösi-Janze's seminar.

"It is surely an oversight that the topic is being picked up this late," said Axel Freimuth, dean at Cologne University.

"Now that the topic has emerged out of this research project, we have taken it upon ourselves to follow up the matter. We on the administration side of things are willing to support such activities so that further research projects can be carried out," said Freimuth.

Symbolic apology

Bücherverbrennung in Deutschland mit Hitler-Gruß

Eradication of ideas deemed dangerous was an essential mechanism of the Nazi regime

During the rehabilitation ceremony on Monday night, Freimuth said that the university admitted it was guilty, even as the injustice could not be rectified in retrospect.

Irene Auerbach, daughter of the late politician Walter Auerbach, brought her father's doctoral diploma to the university archive. She came from the UK specifically for the occasion.

"I honor the university that it is now trying to rectify this matter. I think it was worth it," said Auerbach.

"The fact that our citizenship was revoked had practical consequences. My sister was stateless until she was almost 14. I was stateless until I was almost eight. Not having a passport could not to be ignored. But my father kept using his doctoral title," said Auerbach.

For the university, the formal ceremonial act is a gesture of atonement. For the victims, all of whom have already passed away, the admission of guilt comes too late and is therefore only symbolic.

Similar acts of rehabilitation have taken place at other German universities, including those in Tübingen, Münster, Marburg, Göttingen and Freiburg.

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