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Interview with Hildegard Hamm-Brücher

“Freedom is something precious”

Munich, 07/27/2012

At the age of 91, Hildegard Hamm-Brücher, LMU graduate and Grande Dame of liberalism in Germany, remains committed to advancing democracy. Indeed, she played an active role in much of what today’s students of modern history find in their textbooks. She recently took the time to talk to the Munich UniMagazine about her student years, her contacts with the Scholls during the war, postwar attitudes to the Third Reich, and the qualities that she feels students need to have in today’s world.

Hildegard Hamm-Brücher served as Minister of State in the Foreign Ministry and was a candidate for the office of President of the Federal Republic in 1994 (Photo: Paul Swiridoff, Copyright by Archiv/Museum Wirth, Künzelsau; Grafik: HAAK & NAKAT; Bearbeitung: thp)

MUM: Frau Hamm-Brücher, your description of how to get to your house here in Harlaching by public transport was better than any bus conductor could have given me.

Hamm-Brücher: (laughs) Many thanks for the compliment. You see, I studied science, and I know how to explain things clearly.

When you recall your student days in the 1940s, what is the first thing that comes to mind?

Above all, I remember the gulf that existed between student and professor. Today it is impossible to convey the degree of respect on the one side and the level of authority on the other that prevailed in those days. This had many negative aspects, but, on the positive side, one felt challenged to give of one’s best. To be accepted as a student by a Nobel Prize winner was something I had never even dreamed of.

Because one of your grandmothers had been classified as Jewish, you were officially banned from attending university under the Nuremberg Race Laws. How then did you manage to get a place at LMU?

Walther Wüst, who was Dean at the time, was an awful Nazi. He later turned members of the White Rose over to the Gestapo. And yet, he had some sympathy for me as an unhappy and disappointed young person, and he said: “If the Director of the Institute of Chemistry agrees to accept you, you can be enrolled as a student.” Two weeks later, the very helpful and understanding Secretary of the Institute let me know that Geheimrat Heinrich Wieland was “not averse” to the idea – after all, I had earned the top grade in chemistry in my Abitur. When I entered the innermost sanctum my heart was in my mouth, and then I heard him say: “If you do well in the Vordiplom, I will take you on.” After that I raced through the Vordiplom.

How did your university experience differ from that of the present generation of students?

First of all, I had to do labor service in the Reichsarbeitsdienst. That was a compulsory precondition for women who wanted to study. During term time, students had few opportunities to relax and, when there no lectures, I had to work for the war effort. First I was assigned to help harvest the hops in Lower Bavaria, and that was terribly exhausting. Then I was sent to the Metzler Rubber Factory, where I worked on the nightshift with Ukrainian women who had been recruited for forced labor. We were forbidden to speak to them, but we were nevertheless able to make ourselves understood, and shared cigarettes with them. After I had been elected to the Bundestag, I very often thought of those women, and this explains why I began to fight for compensation for forced laborers in the 1970s. Because these efforts were so often rejected by the Government, the fate of these people was always close to my heart. My third assignment during the war was with AGFA Laboratories, and that at least was a very useful experience.

How did you come to make contact with the White Rose resistance group and with Hans and Sophie Scholl?

I didn’t want to get caught up in any political intrigues or risk being reported for my outspokenness. So I avoided student circles and concentrated on getting my coursework done. My only closer contact was a young man I had fallen in love with, and he was involved with the White Rose. We would meet for lunch, and go for bicycle trips in the country, and of course we began to talk more about ourselves. I was also in the Bach Choir, and almost all of those who were later members of the White Rose were also in the choir.

What political complexion did the other students at LMU then have?

The majority of the students were Nazis - like many of those who join traditional student guilds nowadays, I’m sorry to say. You could count the members of the White Rose on the fingers of two hands. And even those students who were not Nazis behaved as if they were. Students generally formed a vanguard for the Nazis, and professors who were known to be opposed to the movement were subjected to what would now be called mobbing. Wieland’s Jewish predecessor, the chemist Richard Willstätter, had already been victimized in this way in 1925, and he was so scarred by the experience that he emigrated to Switzerland, where he later committed suicide. Students then certainly did not provide an example of anti-racist sentiment. Even Hans and Sophie Scholl were members of the Hitlerjugend before they took the conscious decision to reject intolerance and make their stand for freedom of expression. Their significance lies in their function as a shining example. Their personal sacrifice was the culmination of lives bravely lived.

In 1945 the Second World War finally ended. What was the most important change for you personally?

Freedom from fear - that was the greatest gift. That one no longer had to think twice about what one said or when one should act a part, or worry that one might be punished. The freedom from anxiety was like heaven on earth.

Should students today be more cognizant of the fact that they have grown up in a much more peaceful environment?

In those days, we were under unrelenting pressure. But when contemporary students complain, I would never retort that it was worse for us – that would be pointless. For instance, we had to do night duty in the Institute, be on hand to protect the building in case of bombing raids. That sort of thing was enormously wearing. I was always terribly on edge, but somehow things always worked out. I was one of the lucky ones.

What qualities do you think today’s students – of any and all fields – should bring with them when they come to university?

They should be interested in all the sources they can draw on to learn about the world. Not just specialized knowledge of their chosen discipline, but knowledge of life – otherwise one has no business being at university. Students should also realize that this is the last phase of their lives that they can shape for themselves. I also think that plain curiosity is important. I find the idea that “Now I am an academic and, therefore, better than the rest,” quite dreadful. Unfortunately, it is an attitude that is very common. The kind of deference and respect there used to be is now passé, but I do think that professors should be seen as role models, especially when they take their function as mentors seriously.

The complete version of the original interview appeared in German under the title “Freiheit ist was kostbares” appeared in the “Münchner UniMagazin”.

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