Heidelberg--Past Romantic but School Looks to Modern Studies

Times Staff Writer

For 600 years, Heidelberg has been Germany's leading university, the breeding place of philosophers, physicists and fraternity men given to dueling with sabers.

To many, Heidelberg is associated with carousing undergraduates, as in the Sigmund Romberg operetta "The Student Prince." But as the university observes its sixth centenary this year, its academic leadership is looking not back to the romantic past but ahead to education in the 21st Century.

The faculty treasures its association with the academic giants of the past, but the emphasis today is on advanced areas of knowledge--molecular biology, nuclear physics, medical research. The dueling saber has given way to the laser spectrometer.

Dueling Societies

"Sure, there were student dueling societies here," administrator Michael Schwarz told a recent visitor. "We still have the fraternities, the Burschenschaften, but there are only a small number left, and if the members still occasionally duel, they keep their activities hidden."

Schwarz pointed to an ambitious program of academic events scheduled for the anniversary year, culminating in a Founder's Day ceremony on Oct. 18. There will be congresses, symposiums, concerts, theatrical performances, exhibitions, lectures and sporting events. The theme will be "From Tradition Into the Future."

The university rector, Gisbeit Freiherr zu Putlitz, a renowned solid-state physicist who has worked at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, said: "For 600 years, the university has proved its vitality and its strength to survive. This anniversary should be the propellant for the scientific development in all the fields to meet the challenges of the future."

Toward that end, Putlitz has placed special emphasis on research in such fields as molecular biology and cancer research, and he has tied the university in with innovative private corporations in the economically progressive state of Baden-Wuerttemberg.

"In this way," he said, "the impact of new ideas and methods from the outside is as significant as the traditional continuity of thought and wisdom."

The rector pointed out that Heidelberg has 18 separate faculties with more than 120 institutes and other academic facilities in fields ranging from archeology to zoology, from ancient history to physics, from anesthesiology to Oriental studies and from American studies to mathematics.

There are about 28,000 students at Heidelberg, divided between two campus areas: the humanities, in the handsome, colorful Old Town, and the sciences, across the Neckar River in a postwar complex of modern buildings and laboratories.

The university's motto is Semper apertus, "Always Open," and it has never closed its doors.

It all began on Oct. 23, 1385, when Pope Urban VI signed a papal bull establishing the institution. A year later the first class was held--on Aristotle's writings.

Over the years, Heidelberg has often been a center of political and religious controversy. It was founded during the Great Schism, when the Roman Catholic Church was struggling under two rival popes. Later, at the time of the Reformation, it was contested by Catholics and Protestants. In 1518, Martin Luther read his theses, which were to become the bases of the Reformation, in a square at Heidelberg.

At the time of the Thirty Years' War, in the first half of the 17th Century, some of the university's most precious books were taken from its library and moved to the Vatican. The city was razed by the French armY in 1693, but it was rebuilt, and today the oldest standing building dates from the reconstruction period.

In the late 17th and early 18th centuries the institution flourished. Wolfgang von Goethe took a room here to write poetry; philosopher Georg Hegel, the intellectual stepfather of Marxism and existentialism, was on the faculty; Robert Wilhelm von Bunsen, inventor of the Bunsen burner, taught chemistry here.

And the dueling societies were formed. Their members wore distinctive caps and scarfs--and scars as a badge of their manhood--and they dueled with foil and epee as well as the saber.


By the late 19th Century, Heidelberg's medical faculty had become world-renowned, producing such scholars as Ludolf Krehl; Albrecht Kossel, who won a Nobel Prize in 1910; and Otto Fritz Meyerhof, who won a Nobel in 1922. It was the university's excellence in medicine that led to the establishment of the largest hospital complex in the country and the German Cancer Research Institute.

The university claims five other Nobel laureates: physicists Walther Bothe, J. H. D. Jensen and Philipp von Lenard, and chemists Georg Wittig and Richard Kuhn. In the humanities, sociologist Max Weber and philosopher Karl Jaspers have added to the university's 20th-Century luster.

In the time of Adolf Hitler, the university suffered. Jewish professors were purged. Former U.S. Ambassador Jacob Gould Schurman, who had endowed Heidelberg with $400,000, refused to attend the 550th anniversary celebration, at which he was to have been the guest of honor.

After the fall of Hitler, the philosopher Jaspers urged Heidelberg to undertake a spiritual and intellectual renewal. He said the university's task was "seeking truth in the community of researchers and students."

Graffiti Remains

Relations between the university and the town have often been stormy. Traditionally, the university had its own police force, and in the Old University Building, one can still find the cells where students were confined for various infractions and where they described their exploits in graffiti that is still visible.

"But relations are good today," said Schwarz, the university administrator. "They should be. With all our students, and 10,000 staff, we are the largest employer in Heidelberg, a city of 135,000 people. We don't say that Heidelberg has a university; we say Heidelberg is a university."

One of Heidelberg's proudest possessions is the library, which has 2.2 million volumes and a celebrated collection of medieval manuscripts.

"One of the most interesting exhibitions this year," Schwarz said, "is the return from the Vatican of some of the best volumes that were removed during the Thirty Years' War. Among the 500 volumes will be the Falcon Book of Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II, and the Lorsch Breviary."

Classical Investigation

Although the university is emphasizing research that is at the cutting edge of technology, there is still room for the abstruse classical investigation.

"Take the Papyrology Institute," Schwarz said. "We've been working on some documents for 100 years. We've developed new techniques so that our scholars now can tell us that the papyrus turns out to be a letter an Egyptian priest wrote to a town in Mesopotamia asking about the price of construction materials. I think we should be proud that we can finance such exotic research."

Because the university was set down in the middle of a crowded medieval town, and because German undergraduates do not have to pay tuition, there are only limited dormitory facilities and classrooms are chronically overcrowded.

"The overcrowded classes are a bit chaotic until you get used to them," an American graduate student, Laura Runkel, said over a cup of tea. "There are too many students and not enough classes."

A dark-haired young woman from Eau Claire, Wis., Runkel is working on a doctorate in molecular biology, which she studied at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

"First I had to learn German," she said, "but now that I'm into the work, I'm impressed by the research institutes here. They have been very helpful in organizing the program.

'Tradition Is Strong'

"Good accommodations are hard to find, but I share an apartment with other students. The place is not quite so laid-back as Boulder. But tradition is strong, and I guess if you've been doing something for 600 years, you must be doing something right."

Heidelberg has a student parliament, the majority of the members of which support the political views of the radical Greens party. But only 14% of the students voted in the last election.

The Greens sometimes object to the institute of molecular biology on the grounds that it encourages tampering with human genetics.

"They keep drawing parallels between the atomic bomb and molecular biology," Runkel mused. "The public is afraid of scientific advancement in molecular biology. In some ways, the Greens are very liberal, but when it comes to progress, they think it is bad, so they sound more conservative. They do have some good arguments against genetic manipulation.

"In any event, I find it quite stimulating here, with Heidelberg's tradition of mixing different peoples with different cultures and different ideas."

In this 600th anniversary year, academic visitors will take part in a wide range of heavyweight intellectual pursuits. But for the thousands of tourists who are expected to pass through, the highlight may well be the performance at Heidelberg Castle, which towers over the town, of--what else?--"The Student Prince."

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