Academic journal article International Social Science Review

Turnips and War Memorials: E.J. Gumbel's Critique of German Militarism, 1919-1932

Academic journal article International Social Science Review

Turnips and War Memorials: E.J. Gumbel's Critique of German Militarism, 1919-1932

Article excerpt

In late summer 1932, University of Heidelberg statistician E.J. Gumbel was dismissed from his academic post and lost his "right to teach" at any German university for "conduct unbefitting his position" as a professor. (1) His offense: suggesting, in a public speech, that the most appropriate symbol for World War I memorials was the turnip, the principal source of nourishment in Germany during the wartime famine of 1917-18. To Gumbel, the turnip evoked the suffering of German civilians and soldiers like no other symbol because it served as a reminder of the horrific famine and poverty of the latter war years. He objected to conventional monuments which routinely displayed neo-classical virginal figures holding victory symbols because these romanticized war and belied the suffering of millions of Germans as a consequence of the Great War. Gumbel's dismissal resulted, in part, from a nationally-orchestrated campaign by fight-wing students to remove him from the Heidelberg faculty. (2) Their success in achieving that objective accelerated the Nazi campaign to purge German universities of all professors deemed incompatible with the goals of the coming National Socialist State.

Historians have treated the witch-hunt against Gumbel as one of the best examples of the politicization of German universities during the 1920s and early 1930s. Gumbel was a radical pacifist, a progressive socialist, and a secular Jew, and as such he became an ideal target for opponents of the Weimar Republic and the democratization of Germany's universities. On four different occasions while he served as a member of Heidelberg's Arts and Humanities Faculty, Gumbel found himself the focal point of external political controversies that resulted in University disciplinary hearings, formal reprimands, and increasing enmity from his colleagues. For nearly a decade, anti-republican student organizations manipulated faculty distrust of Gumbel to fuel their campaign for his removal from the Heidelberg faculty. This campaign enabled student opponents to advance both their own opposition to the Weimar Republic and the anti-republican agenda of parent parties, especially the National Socialist German Workers Party. In this highly charged and politically polarized atmosphere, Gumbel's colleagues concluded that his journalistic work on behalf of the German Peace Cartel and the German League for Human Rights (3) violated the University's long-standing apolitical intellectual traditions and customs. (4) They strongly questioned whether his political activism in support of a pacifist agenda--the democratization of the Weimar Republic, the establishment of social and economic equity, opposition to political violence, and rejection of the military policies of the Weimar Republic--was compatible with the impartiality expected of German scholars. As members of university faculties, such scholars were civil servants employed by the state and subject to state guidelines. Moreover, Gumbel's peers feared that student unrest centering on Gumbel would continually disrupt the University's ability to conduct classes if he were not removed from his academic post.

Was Gumbel acting irresponsibly as a scholar and academic lecturer in his efforts to be a responsible citizen of the new German Republic, as many of his colleagues believed? Did his political writings violate the long-standing, but tacit professional commitment among German professors to serve the interests of the state and the people of Germany by means of impartial scholarship? Was Gumbel's political journalism too provocative and, hence, incompatible with preserving an atmosphere of order and civility within the university? What moved Gumbel, no stranger to academic traditions, to attempt to bridge the gap between elitist scholarship and mass politics after World War I? What moved his political opponents to seek his destruction by campaigning to remove him from the Heidelberg faculty and to revoke his right to teach at any Germany university? …

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