Starting in 1933, the era of the Third Reich had a big impact on university life. The Jewish faculty, employees, and students at the university were heavily targeted. Doctorates were revoked and 250 Jewish faculty and staff were fired. Those known to oppose the Nazi regime were also expelled, and many were even deported to camps. In total, one third of university employees lost their jobs under the Nazi regime.
Before the Third Reich, the Humboldt University Library was one of the best of its kind in all of Europe, but on May 10, 1933, over 20,000 books were confiscated and burned in Bebelplatz. Today, there is a monument here consisting of a glass window in the ground through which people can peer into an underground room with empty shelves for the 20,000 books. Next to the memorial is a quote by German poet, Heinrich Heine, which in English means, ‘This was but a prelude; where they burn books, they ultimately burn people.’
The university finally reopened under the Soviet Military Administration in 1946, but things didn’t exactly return to normal. The Soviets regarded the university as a completely new institution, to stress the political and social changes made under the Soviet educational model. This was their way of saying that intellectual dissent to the ways of antebellum Germany would not be tolerated. Despite the Soviets’ optimistic attempts at starting fresh, the reality of the university at the time was undeniably stark. Much of the school’s faculty was dead or missing, and instruction took place in the war-damaged buildings.
Those that opposed the infiltration of such ideas at Humboldt were accused of espionage and insubordination. Many were abducted and others were mercilessly sentenced to 25 years of forced labor. The university remained under tight control within the East and students were admitted based on their loyalty to the Party before their intellectual achievements. In the West, the Free University of Berlin, which still remains Humboldt’s counterpart, was created in opposition to these forms of academic oppression.
After the fall of the Wall, the university was reunified and restructured. All professors had to reapply for their positions in order to weed out any communist sympathizers. Thus, many professors from the East were replaced with West Germans.
The founding and rise of Humboldt-Universität were inspired by the conviction that the pursuit of knowledge engages and forms all human faculties and so contributes greatly to the humanization of society.