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6 May 2003

University of Heidelberg: 200 Years in Baden

On Saturday (10 May) the University of Heidelberg commemorates an historic date - Prof. Dr. Eike Wolgast fills in the details

With the end of the Palatine Electorate in the Napoleonic wars and the Treaty of Lunéville (1801), which ceded the territories on the left bank of the Rhine to France, the University of Heidelberg lapsed into a crisis that threatened its very existence. Funded very largely up to that point by financial resources of its own, it lost all the revenues and property west of the Rhine and with them its main source of income.

Though the last Palatine elector Maximilian Joseph had materially supported the university and put an end to the preferential treatment of Catholics for professorial posts, the university was now both materially destitute and in a dangerous state of intellectual dereliction, as is borne out by the following memorandum by Savigny on the University of Heidelberg (1804): "The first things that strikes the observer is the large number of completely unknown teachers left over from the helpless condition of the University."

The new sovereign of Baden's most important decision was to allow the University to continue as such. Thus Heidelberg was spared the fate of many other universities that simply ceased to exist (Mainz, Cologne, Erfurt, Helmstedt, Wittenberg).

The 13th organisation edict of 13 May 1803, penned by Baden's state councillor Friedrich Bauer, established the University as a state-funded institution of higher education with assured and regular financial support from the government of Baden. The office of Rector was taken over by the sovereign (then elector, as of 1806 grand-duke Karl Friedrich), who thus identified himself openly with the University. He bore the title rector magnificentissimus. For the conduct of university of affairs the Senate elected a new vice-rector every year, a practice that was maintained up to the revolution of 1918.

The ensuing reorientation and modernisation was undertaken in the spirit of neo-humanism. The spiritus rector of this process was statesman Sigismund von Reitzenstein, who temporarily held the office of "curator". He proclaimed for Heidelberg "…the free, independent spirit…without which nothing noble can ever be achieved", and was as convinced of the power of reason as he was of the need for a profound reversion to the values of antiquity and the harmonious principles of higher education that he found rooted there. The University was geared to this conception of general education, as opposed to specialised preparation for a vocation or profession. With this conviction Reitzenstein was very close to the ideas on scholarship and higher education advocated by Humboldt. "Modern" branches of learning were to be the main concern of the University - philology and jurisprudence.

Prominent older and promising younger scholars were appointed as professors to the revitalised University, among them the Protestant theologian Friedrich Heinrich Christian Schwarz (in Heidelberg 1804-1837), the classical philologist Friedrich Creuzer (1804-1845), the lawyer Anton Friedrich Justus Thibaut (1805-1840), the anatomist Jacob Fidelis Ackermann, the philosopher Jakob Friedrich Fries (1805-1816), the technologist and mathematician Carl Christian Langsdorf (1806-1834), and the historian Friedrich Wilken (1805-1817). Another major figure persuaded by Karl Friedrich to lend his name to the University was the poet and translator of Homer Johann Heinrich Voß from Jena, summoned for "unspecified cooperation in the renewal of the University", in other words as a prominent figurehead enhancing the significance of Heidelberg. In the subsequent years, personal connections, systematic advertising and the growing renown of Heidelberg as a forward-looking and stimulating intellectual environment attracted a number of other prominent scientists and scholars. Thus, in many subjects, the ground was prepared for the blossoming and high repute of the University of Heidelberg in the further course of the 19th century.

Eike Wolgast

Please address any inquiries to
Prof. Dr. Eike Wolgast
Department of History
University of Heidelberg
Grabengasse 3-5
D-69117 Heidelberg
phone: 06221/542271, fax: 542267

More general inquiries (journalists) can also be addressed to
Dr. Michael Schwarz
Press Officer of the University of Heidelberg
phone: 06221/542310, fax: 54317

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Updated: 09.05.2003


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