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April 1945

A New Beginning

München, 05/12/2020

American troops closed LMU 75 years ago – as most of its faculty members had supported the Nazis. Pragmatism later won the day, when it became clear that, without teachers, universities could scarcely inculcate democratic values.


When (in normal times) residents of Munich stroll through the Olympia Park on the north side of the city, enjoying the sunshine and a beer on the grassy slopes and in the nearby meadows, few of them realize that they are relaxing on ruins. Under their feet lies the debris of countless buildings that destroyed or damaged by Allied bombers during World War II. Some of it is rubble from LMU, which was carted here over 70 years ago by young people like Wilhelm Killermann, who is now 90. “For one whole semester, we worked – often for more than 8 hours a day – shoveling up the debris and transporting it to the northern outskirts of Munich,” he recalls. “It was very hard work. The LMU was a rubble heap, and every so often we would come across the decayed remains of victims of the bombing raids.” Before his retirement, Killermann served as Professor of the Didactics of Biology at his alma mater, and in 1945 he was a member of the student building brigade that had been set up by the Egyptologist Hans Wolfgang Müller, which helped to restore the LMU campus to a state in which it could once again function. Killermann worked alongside Guido Hartmann, another future professor at LMU. Immediately after the end of the war, it consisted entirely of volunteers. But by 1948, when Wilhelm Killermann began studying Biology, Chemistry and Geography, participation in the brigade had become a prerequisite for admission to the University.

Dismissal of incriminated academic staff

American troops had occupied Munich at the end of April 1945, and the Military Administration formally closed the University in the following month as part of their campaign of denazification. However, universities, together with radio stations, newspapers and cultural institutions, were indispensable for the planned re-education program, which was intended to enable Germans to rediscover the basic elements of democracy. “In practice, the reconstruction and re-education programs envisaged by the Administration soon came into conflict with its efforts to remove Nazi supporters from positions of influence,” says PD Dr. Nicolai Hannig (Chair of Modern and Contemporary History at LMU). It was a classical dilemma, which was perhaps nowhere more acute than in the case of LMU. Owing to their close ties with the Nazi regime, 80% of the academic staff was dismissed – including no less than 86 of the 96 members of the Faculty of Philosophy. The Faculties of Medicine and Law were also severely affected. The first challenge for the new administration was to define the criteria under which individuals could be removed from their posts. Even membership of the Nazi Party was not always a clear-cut criterion, unless the person concerned had joined the NSDAP prior to 1933. For example, since May 1937, all civil servants were required to join the Party if they wanted to retain their jobs, and young people could be conscripted into the Waffen-SS against their will. Conversely, there were university teachers who never been members of the Party, but whose research explicitly promoted Nazi ideology.

Hannig cites another complicating example from the University of Freiburg. “In Freiburg, there was a ‘Students’ SA (Sturm Abteilung), membership of which was compulsory for admission to the university. This explains why records of temporary membership of the SA can be found among the files examined by the arbitration courts.” Officeholders were required to fill out questionnaires detailing whether, when and how they became directly involved with the regime and its aims. In addition to biographical data, they were obliged to list all memberships of Nazi organizations, employment relationships and texts they had written in support of the Party’s goals. “One couldn’t put down the first thing that came into one’s head, because much – though of course not all – of the information supplied could be checked,” says Hannig. Thanks to the forced exodus of many academics, the American forces knew a great deal about how German universities worked under the Nazi regime and the links between members of the cultural elite. The denazification of LMU was led by an officer named Hans Loeser. Born in Kassel, Loeser was Jewish and had emigrated to America. He spoke fluent German and had an intimate knowledge of the culture of his former homeland. The thing that most surprised him in the course of his inquiries in Munich was the extraordinary tenacity with which professors sought to minimize their roles in the university system under the Nazis. Indeed, Karl Alexander von Müller, a historian who was highly esteemed by the Nazi leadership, was the only one who was willing to acknowledge his guilt and formally disavow his earlier allegiance to the Party. He also resigned from his position as President of the Bavarian Academy of Sciences, an office he had assumed in 1944. All the others consistently downplayed their roles, arguing that they had quickly withdrawn into the ‘apolitical’ sphere of academic research – and very often maintaining that they had opposed the regime. But Loeser and his staff – which included true opponents of the Nazis, former inmates of concentration camps, untainted members of the churches, and victims of political persecution – followed up all the leads available to them. As well as examining Party files and the records of other Nazi organizations, they pored over the details of research projects and academic publications, looking for anti-Semitic statements and indications of support for Nazi ideology. The evidence was dispiriting. The overwhelming majority of professors had been, in one way or another, servants of the Nazi regime.


Opportunities for second- and third-rate academics

The physicist Wilhelm Müller was a fairly typical example of the sort of academic who enthusiastically subscribed to the tenets of Nazi science. He had succeeded Arnold Sommerfeld, a pioneer of quantum mechanics, as Professor of Theoretical Physics at LMU. Müller was a devotee of what was known in the Third Reich as ‘German physics’. Its adherents condemned much of modern physics and adopted a professedly racist (i.e. anti-Semitic) view of the field, which was largely based on the rejection of the groundbreaking contributions of Jewish scientists, including Albert Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity. Sommerfeld himself regarded Müller as “by far the least qualified” of potential successors. But the Müller’s long association with the Nazi Party and support for its policies ensured that he was chosen to replace Sommerfeld. These same ‘qualifications’ then led to his dismissal in 1945.

Why did so many researchers and knowledgeable academics, who should have been able to discern the political course to which the regime was committed, so readily allow themselves to be co-opted by it? “The career opportunities it opened up for second- and third-rate academics certainly played a significant role,” Hannig says. “Because many of their Jewish colleagues and other ‘politically unreliable’ faculty members had lost their jobs, positions were now open to individuals who would normally have been unable to aspire to them.” Furthermore, he points out that, particularly in the Humanities, there were academics who had explicitly employed anti-Semitic or other racist paradigms in their work. This was true of the historian Ulrich Crämer – an erstwhile student of Karl Alexander von Müller – who was appointed to a professorship at LMU. Crämer was a member of the SS and directed its Race and Settlement Office (Rasse- und Siedlungsamt), and attempted to develop a philosophy of National Socialism based on ‘the origin of the German people’ that would strengthen its ‘Aryan consciousness’. Crämer‘s goal was to derive this philosophical concept from the study of history. He was among the 86 members of the Faculty of Philosophy dismissed from their posts by the American Military Administration in 1945. Subsequently, in January 1946, Crämer was taken into custody by the American Military Police under an ‘automatic arrest’ ordinance, which targeted former members of the SS as potentially dangerous elements. The relatively late date of his arrest suggests that he may have been denounced. – Denunciations were among the information sources that enabled the American authorities and their local helpers to identify those who willingly collaborated with the Nazis. Upon his release 18 months later, Crämer appeared before a denazification tribunal, and succeeded in arguing that he could only be classified as ‘less culpable’. This however did not improve his prospects and, despite years of effort, he was unable to resume his academic career. Many of those who had received more damning verdicts than Crämer found their professional feet again with far less effort. As the years passed, the process of denazification progressively lost impetus, primarily for pragmatic reasons. “These were people whose professional skills were urgently needed, and it was hoped that they could be re-educated by the institutions in which they had previously worked,” says Hannig. In order to escape the dilemma posed by the opposing goals of re-education and denazification, these institutions had to be urgently re-activated. In addition, the looming conflict that pitted the Soviet Union against the United States and its allies forced the latter to reconsider their approach, and this factor in part explains the growing laxity of the tribunals’ judgments. The upshot of these developments was that many academics who had been deeply incriminated in the Nazi system were able to take up their research careers once more.

The new start

The LMU re-opened in 1946 under the linguist and literary scholar Karl Vossler as Rector. Vossler succeeded Albert Rehm, who had provisionally assumed that office at the end of the war. Rehm represented the University and looked after its interests throughout the period in which it was no longer in operation. He was 74, and he was certainly in an unenviable position. His diary is full of short and sometimes frantic entries that provide insights into the chaotic conditions with which he was confronted. His notes refer to the dismissal of personnel, investigations of faculty members, repossession of books that had been in storage, problems concerning the material entitlements of academics on leave of absence, requests for better accommodation, disputes with the Military Administration and much else. Both Vossler and Rehm had served as Rectors prior to 1933 and were regarded as persons of integrity. Vossler took on the leadership of the post-war University with great reluctance – he was only a year younger than Rehm. He was chosen for the post because he had made no secret of his opposition to the Nazis when they first came to power, and his political unreliability in the eyes of the regime had led to his forced retirement from the University. LMU re-opened in stages – with the Faculty of Theology in the lead, and the formal re-opening took place on July 23, 1946.
In spite of all the burdens and unanswered questions, the occasion marked a new beginning. Prior to its destruction in an American bombing raid, the Main Building – and more specifically the area around the statue depicting Doryphoros the Spear-Bearer (the former “Hall of Honor”) on the first floor – had been virtually cultic sites. The latter space was adorned with war memorials featuring profiles of young men in steel helmets in commemoration of the German soldiers, and other reminders of German valor. Strikingly, during the bombing raid, Doryphoros’ weapon was dislodged from his hand, symbolically converting his warlike pose into that of a naked and defenseless individual. The remains of the war memorials were among the debris that Wilhelm Killermann and his fellow students would later remove and discard. In 1946, during Karl Vossler‘s second tenure as Rector, a new memorial was unveiled in the Main Building. It honors the memory of the members of the White Rose resistance group, who had challenged the Nazi regime and had been executed only three years before. Their courage and dedication are recalled in several locations in the Main Building – and serve as a reminder of the price of freedom and as an inspiring example.