By Grady, Tim
History Today , Vol. 52, No. 7
`I WILL NEVER FORGET THIS University', proclaimed Adolf Hitler, `its youth were the first to declare their support for me'. The Friedrich-Alexander University's declaration of support came in 1929, when it became the first university to elect a National Socialist student council. Some three-and-a-half years before the Nazis came to power, events in Erlangen marked the onset of a new era.
Before 1933, Germany was renowned for its magnificent culture and great science, which were epitomised in its twenty-three universities. These great institutions, which included such historic seats of learning as Heidelberg and Gottingen, led the world in many scientific and humanistic fields. However, following the rise to power of the National Socialists the universities sacrificed, without a fight, their guiding principles of education, scientific research and academic freedom. This was all done in the name of racial purity. In 1933 alone, over 1,200 Jewish academics lost their university posts. By November 1938, all of Germany's universities were `Judenfrei'.
Founded in 1743, the Friedrich-Alexander University was one of three Bavarian universities. With only 2,269 students, it was among the smaller pre-war institutions. Then, as today, it dominated life in the small Middle-Franconian town of Erlangen. Following the National Socialist student victory in 1929, antisemitism became an open, acknowledged facet of university life in Erlangen. We cannot fix a date on the origins of academic antisemitism,' which clearly increased after the First World War. The widely held belief that the Jews had betrayed the country was compounded in the universities, as it was the downtrodden and resentful soldiers who now returned home to continue their academic studies. An anonymous declaration, signed by `Several Erlangen Students', proclaimed that `many Jews during the war' had not carried out `their duty for Germany in a deutschvolkisch sense'. The act of memory, as Germany's universities commemorated their war dead, became almost ritualistic in its nature. In Erlangen, the University erected a magnificent memorial, renamed streets and held remembrance ceremonies. These events helped to make the University a hotbed of nationalistic fervour, keeping to the fore the perceived root of Germany's defeat--the Jews.
In the early 1920s, increased student numbers pushed Germany's university system towards breaking point; students lived and studied in abysmal conditions, and graduates competed for the few available jobs. Right-wing students, who already believed that the Jews had not contributed sufficiently to the war effort, concluded that they were also monopolising university places. They argued that the Jews who constituted only one per cent of the population took four to five per cent of student places.
Defeat in the First World War and the effects of this, lay at the heart of university antisemitism. These attitudes manifested themselves in a student led, right-wing antisemitism that rapidly escalated in popularity. By the late 1920s, Erlangen's `General Student Committee' or AStA (the official student representative body in Germany's universities) was increasingly dominated by right-wing groups. The largest of these was the `National Socialist German Student League' (NSDStB). For the 1929 election, its manifesto pronounced that `the struggle against the Jews is nothing other than self-defence' and proudly proclaimed: `We are antisemites'. The NSDStB won a ruling majority in Erlangen's AStA council and with it their first majority in Germany. At this time, in other universities, the NSDStB felt themselves lucky to even win 10 per cent of the vote. So why did such an early and such an overwhelming National Socialist victory occur at the Friedrich-Alexander University?
Erlangen's position as a Protestant town in predominantly Catholic Southern Germany was one factor--as was its proximity to Nuremberg, where the Nazi Party rallies cannot have failed to influence Erlangen's students. …