Students and National Socialism in Germany

Students and National Socialism in Germany

by Geoffrey J. Giles


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Students and National Socialism in Germany by Geoffrey J. Giles

This study explains the rise and evaluates the strength of the National Socialist Students' Association (NSDStB) during the whole period of its existence from 1926 to 1945.

Originally published in 1985.

The Princeton Legacy Library uses the latest print-on-demand technology to again make available previously out-of-print books from the distinguished backlist of Princeton University Press. These editions preserve the original texts of these important books while presenting them in durable paperback and hardcover editions. The goal of the Princeton Legacy Library is to vastly increase access to the rich scholarly heritage found in the thousands of books published by Princeton University Press since its founding in 1905.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691611297
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 07/14/2014
Series: Princeton Legacy Library Series
Pages: 382
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 9.20(h) x 1.00(d)

Read an Excerpt

Students and National Socialism in Germany

By Geoffrey J. Giles


Copyright © 1985 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-05453-7


A Political Fringe Group

Prior to the twentieth century, there was no such thing as student government as we understand it today. Although students in medieval universities had been able to dismiss their teachers, such power had long vanished. The modern European university saw its students as apprentices to their masters, the professors, who often laid down regulations for their private as well as their academic lives. Students did indeed form clubs and associations, where they could let off steam, but these rarely aspired to influence the internal workings of the university. That changed in Germany and elsewhere between the two World Wars. It is the purpose of this chapter to examine the increasing politicization of the German student body and to show how this new climate provided enough support to allow the most radical of rightwing groups, the Nazi Party, to gain a foothold in the universities.

Postwar Student Politics and the University of Hamburg

As soldiers streamed home at the end of the First World War, many thousands were eager to begin or resume their higher education. Despite the worldwide prestige of higher education in Germany throughout the nineteenth century, Hamburg, its second largest city, did not have a university. Only in 1908 had the municipal government been persuaded to support the foundation of a small college, the Colonial Institute. Though modest in scale it was well endowed and attracted a handful of distinguished academics, like the young Carl Heinrich Becker (later Prussian education minister).

German universities were hard pressed by the large, post war influx of matriculants, and the Hamburg parliament agreed that the Colonial Institute should help to ease overcrowding by accommodating the considerable numbers of would-be students who were residents of Hamburg. The grateful Prussian education ministry, whose lead the other states generally followed, consented to recognize these courses during the spring of 1919 for credit toward its own degrees while stressing that Prussia was not conceding permanent university status to the Colonial Institute. The number of students at the Institute grew rapidly from seventy to 2,000. Financial problems alone meant that most could not leave their homes so soon after the war in order to study at universities elsewhere in Germany. Following German tradition, they would want to attend other universities at a later stage and were perturbed to think that their studies in Hamburg would count for nothing if they registered for their final examinations in another state. The shrewd Senator von Melle therefore advised the students to call together a general meeting and to pass a motion calling on the legislature to undertake the formal foundation of a university in Hamburg. Knowing that this alone would not impress the city fathers, he recommended that the students collect as many signatures as possible for a petition. Von Melle's hopes were realized when the students' campaign led to the passing of a provisional bill setting up the University of Hamburg on 28 March 1919. Student numbers rose again to almost 3,000 within a year, continuing to a peak of 4,500 in the summer of 1923.

Ninety percent of the immediate postwar generation of students had participated in the First World War, and they claimed the right to express their opinions on political matters concerning the country that they had helped to defend. More than this, many of them played an active political role by joining the armed bands of the Free Corps and Student Companies. Their occasional, fanatical excesses prompted professors to stress anew the incompatibility of politics and scholarship. The so-called Mechterstadt Workers' Slaughter, in which fifteen Communist workers were shot by members of the Marburg Students' Company, deservedly attracted adverse publicity. When students' unions were set up, they usually had to promise the university authorities that they would not engage in political activities. The Hamburg University Law of 1921 explicitly forbade party-political aims. Despite countless reaffirmations of this, a concern with politics grew to become the principal occupation of student groups, and student welfare slipped into the background.

Anti-Semitism among students was not a peculiarly German phenomenon. It was widespread among American colleges in the 1920s, not least at the Ivy League institutions. President Lowell of Harvard proposed a quota limiting the enrollment of Jewish students in 1922, on the dubious grounds that this would prevent the growth of the anti-Semitism already evident in the student body. It is no coincidence that anti-Semitism in the United States was most prevalent in the more socially exclusive student bodies. In German universities the social elite tended to congregate in student fraternities, and it was here that anti-Semitism was at its most virulent. Konrad Jarausch has described with convincing clarity the decline of the initial liberalism of the fraternities after 1848 and their rightward drift, until at the end of the Wilhelmine period a large number of them were actively engaged in nationalist and imperialist causes, which turned the most extreme groups into protofascist associations. There were so many different types of fraternity that it is almost impossible to characterize them in brief. Not all were anti-Semitic; indeed, there were Jewish fraternities. Yet the overwhelming majority of fraternities did band together at the beginning of the Weimar Republic in an organization that openly espoused the völkisch movement's Greater German and anti-Semitic aims. This was the German University Ring (Deutscher Hochschulring), which quickly became the controlling force of student politics.

With very few exceptions, individual fraternities were affiliated with a national fraternity association (Verband). This provided entrée into similar fraternities when students moved from town to town in the course of their studies, and it often functioned as an employment bureau for graduating members. One can distinguish between three basic types of fraternity associations, according to their stand on the question of dueling. Apart from insisting that affairs of honor be settled with weapons, a large number of fraternity associations required their members to perform a fencing ritual (Mensur) both as a prerequisite of their official induction and thereafter on a regular basis as continued proof of valor. It was on these occasions that the prestigious facial scar was acquired. A second group of fraternity associations did not insist on the Mensur (while often encouraging it) but recognized the duel as the only means of obtaining satisfaction, even after the Weimar government had passed a law banning all dueling. The third group of fraternity associations rejected dueling altogether.

The first group contained the most prestigious associations. The elite of the fraternity world was to be found in the so-called Corps, above all in the Kösener Senioren-Convent Verband (KSCV), which retained an aristocratic air. The Corps based their membership criteria more on social than on racial grounds. Foreigners were occasionally admitted, at least as guest members. There were indeed very few Jewish members, but the Kösener acted entirely in character when it refused categorically (almost alone among fraternity associations) to break its ties with part-Jewish alumni in 1935. The fraternal loyalty of the elite was stronger than what were perceived merely as the political considerations of the moment. The Kösener made its own rules and expected others to follow. Its influence was admittedly extensive: 20 percent of senior civil service positions in Prussia in 1928 were filled by Kosener alumni.

The largest fraternity association in Germany was the Deutsche Burschenschaft (DB), numbering 6,000 undergraduate members by 1919, and like most fraternity associations, more than doubling its membership by 1933. It had been aggressively nationalistic since its birth in 1817, and encouraged the maintenance among its members of the tradition of political activism. This self-assured group drew most of its recruits from the upper middle class. As the Deutsche Burschenschaft leaned toward the radical völkisch movement in the mid-1920s, its members became particularly susceptible to National Socialism, and they are to be found in the very first units of the National Socialist Students' Association.

The second group of fraternity associations, which did not require regular fencing bouts, was nonetheless the ideological bedfellow of the first group. Its most persistent representative in völkischextremism was the Kyffhäuser-Verbandder Vereine Deutscher Studenten (VDSt). It was specifically anti-Semitism that brought together its founding members in the early 1880s. The VDSt was the only fraternity association thought to be so objectionable that the French military authorities banned it in the Rhineland after the war. Gustav Adolf Scheel, the Reich Student Leader after 1936, chose a Kyffhäuser fraternity as an undergraduate.

The nondueling fraternities of the third group were dominated numerically by the confessional, and particularly the Catholic associations. The Cartell-Verband der katholischen deutschen Studentenverbindungen (CV) was second only to the Deutsche Burschenschaft in size, with some 4,400 members in 1919. The Catholic associations were supportive of Weimar democracy as long as other students did not impugn their nationalism. The leading Protestant associations, the Wingolfsbund and the Schwarzburgbund, were less dogmatic on religious matters and less active politically. The Jewish fraternities in the Kartell jüdischer Verbindungen and the Kartell-Convent were all but excluded from student politics.

Immediately after the foundation of the University of Hamburg, student fraternities sprang up there with surprising rapidity, about twenty-five of them in the first year. Not all the fraternities were entirely new foundations: the two most exclusive ones, the Kösener Corps Suevo-Borussia and Franconial had moved en bloc from Berlin's Kaiser Wilhelm Academy for Military Medicine, closed down as a result of the Versailles Treaty. And no less than four Strassburg fraternities had emigrated from the now-French university to Hamburg. In fact, Hamburg had a smaller proportion of fraternity students than did most other universities. This was due not so much to the recent date of foundation as to the fact that an unusually high percentage of Hamburg students had their parental home in the city. The cost of studying in Hamburg at this time was the highest in Germany, for, although the university fees were the lowest, the average rent was five times that of Tübingen, for example. In 1921, a student at Berlin needed roughly 390 marks per month for living expenses; in Hamburg he required 600 marks. Problems of student welfare occupied a central place in the early debates of student governments.

The first representative body of all students in Hamburg was the general meeting (Vollversammlung). On 27 July 1919 a provisional constitution was passed and a committee elected to draft a definitive version. At the same time the Hamburg city parliament was in the process of placing the provisional University Bill permanently on the statute book. It was a period of much discussion on university reform in Germany, and Hamburg's numerous socialists and liberals saw a great opportunity for the city to lead the way by setting up an institution of exemplary democracy. It was suggested in committee that the university senate should have four seats for student representatives, but this proposal was rejected by the professors and, surprisingly, by the students themselves. Though they were to ask for just such representation after 1933, they now considered that a mere four votes could play no decisive role. The students suggested the formation of consultative committees at Faculty and senate levels, composed of equal numbers of students and professors. This plan gained the support of the faculty, as it left them with complete autonomy in the University senate, and was eventually accepted by the Hamburg city parliament.

By the winter semester 1920-1921 a student parliament had been set up to represent the wishes of the students "with regard to the running of the University, and for the self-government of the student body." It consisted of thirty-six elected members, plus one student delegate from each of the four staff-student Faculty committees. The leadership was vested in a "general student committee," known then as today as the AStA (Allgemeiner Studenten-Ausschuss), which was composed of five members chosen by the student parliament, and committee representatives of the four Faculties. The first AStA had only a short term of office, for all nine members resigned in February 1921 as a result of a conflict over the rights of Jewish students. That anti-Semitism was rife in Hamburg from the very outset is underlined by the fact that the original umbrella association of almost all the fraternities (Vertreterschaft der Hamburger Korporationen), formed in 1919, admitted only those that expressly excluded Jews from membership.

Through its successor, the Germanic University Ring (Hochschulring Deutscher Art), the fraternities in Hamburg (as elsewhere) were able to gain a decisive grip on local student politics from very early on, by dint of being much better organized than the so-called free students (Freistudenten). The fraternity-controlled AStA passed a motion with the intention of depriving Jewish students of full voting rights, declaring that "national minorities at the University of Hamburg may only put forward representatives in proportion to their numbers. ... Jews of Jewish-national persuasion, i.e. Jews for whom a real society of Jews exists or is desirable, have the rights of national minorities." The promulgation of the University Law on 4 February 1921 therefore marked a defeat for the AStA, as it allowed for no such reservations, the city parliament regarding it as self-evident that all students of German nationality should be treated equally. In deference to this, the final version of the student constitution stated that "all students of German citizenship are members of the Students' Union."

These developments were not peculiar to Hamburg. After the war, student parliaments were formed in all universities and came together in July 1919 at Würzburg as a national union, which from 1920 onward was called the German Students' Union (Deutsche Studentenschaft or DSt). At first, most of the effective power lay in the local students' unions. In order to consolidate this (and thus its own control) and to halt the spread of the anti-Jewish tendencies that the Austrian students' unions had already introduced into the DSt, the Prussian Education Ministry officially recognized the local student bodies in September 1920 as unions of "all fully-matriculated students of German citizenship" at a university. The necessity to grant Jews full membership brought no immediate protest from the AstAs, for state recognition brought with it the right to levy compulsory fees from every student. Difficulties occurred only over the question of membership of the DSt. The Prussian students' unions were allowed by the ministerial decree to join together with "corresponding" bodies at other German universities. Those in Austria, however, which the Prussian and other AstAs were anxious to include, differed in one important respect, namely, that of membership. They had effectively renounced the possibility of state recognition by insisting on a restricted membership: not only Jews, but also students "sympathetic towards the Jews or towards Marxism" were excluded. The German students' unions tacitly supported this stipulation and saw no reason in it to prevent their Austrian counterparts from joining them, although a vociferous left-wing minority did seek to uphold the rights of the "non-Aryan," Austrian students. Attempts to write a clear statement of policy into the DSt constitution were glossed over in the final version of 23 July 1922, which permitted DSt membership to all students' unions of the German-language area. Since this apparently extended a hand to Austria, the maintenance of the state recognition of individual AstAs was henceforth dependent on the good will of the various education ministries.


Excerpted from Students and National Socialism in Germany by Geoffrey J. Giles. Copyright © 1985 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents

  • FrontMatter, pg. i
  • CONTENTS, pg. vii
  • TABLES, pg. ix
  • CHAPTER ONE. A Political Fringe Group, pg. 14
  • CHAPTER TWO. The Struggle for Power, pg. 44
  • CHAPTER THREE. The Difficulties of Consolidation, pg. 73
  • CHAPTER FOUR. The Political University, pg. 101
  • CHAPTER FIVE. Gown or Brown Shirt?, pg. 151
  • CHAPTER SIX. The Consolidation of Control, pg. 202
  • CHAPTER SEVEN. The University at War, pg. 266
  • CONCLUSION, pg. 314
  • APPENDIX ONE, pg. 327
  • APPENDIX TWO, pg. 329
  • APPENDIX THREE, pg. 330
  • INDEX, pg. 351

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