Hannes Richter

A Dark History: Anti-Semitism at the University of Vienna

Hannes Richter
A Dark History: Anti-Semitism at the University of Vienna

By Katharina Kniefacz

Anti-Semitism and nationalism were rampant in Austria among members of the University of Vienna before the National Socialists came to power in Austria in March 1938. Today, these aspects of the university’s history remain frequently discussed issues. The early history of academic antiSemitism at the University of Vienna was marked by the so-called “Vienna Gesera,” the systematic destruction of the Jewish communities in the Duchy of Austria in 1421.

Duke Albert V had Jews arrested in 1420 and, over the course of a few months, drove them out of Austria under accusations of collaboration with Hussites, stories of ritual murder and host desecration. All Jews left in Vienna – more than 200 people – were sentenced to death on March 12, 1421, and brutally executed by burning on the same day at the Gänseweide in Erdberg. The University of Vienna built a new faculty building (Nova Structura) from the stones of the destroyed synagogue.

Today, a memorial plaque in Erdberg (at Kegelgasse No. 40) commemorates the Vienna Gesera. In the middle of the 16th century, Antonius Margaritha and later Paulus Weidner were the first to teach Hebrew at the University of Vienna – both having converted from Judaism to Catholicism. They also acted as political advisors to the Monarchy in regard to anti-Jewish measures. Furthermore, Weidner gained influence at court as personal physician to the emperor and at the university as dean and rector. Under Emperor Leopold I, another wave of reprisals against the Viennese Jews took place that ended with their expulsion in 1670.

Vienna University students played a significant role in anti-Jewish riots. AI 19 The Patent of Toleration issued by Emperor Joseph II in 1782 improved Austrian Jews’ legal status and laid the foundation for the admission of Jewish students to the “worldly” faculties of the University of Vienna. Joseph von Sonnenfels, an ennobled Catholic convert, influenced the legislation of Joseph II in general and studies at the University of Vienna in particular as a lawyer, as professor of police science and cameralism (political science), and as rector of the University of Vienna.

After the revolution of 1848/49, during which students demanded a constitution and universal male suffrage, Jews received equal status as citizens and recognition as a religious community with the “Staatsgrundgesetz” (Basic Law) of 1867. The revolution, however, also established the basis for the foundation of numerous fraternities and other student associations, many of which drifted towards German nationalist and anti-Semitic ideologies over the course of the 19th century, leading to lasting politicization at the University of Vienna. Many prominent professors – among them the famous surgeon Theodor Billroth – made anti-Semitic remarks in public.

Employing racist arguments, Billroth called for a “numerus clausus” in medicine to discriminate against Jewish students. On the occasion of the 500th anniversary of the university in 1865, Gerson Wolf, a teacher of Jewish religious education, published his “Jubilee Studies of the University of Vienna in 1865.” He put the relationship between Jews and the university on the agenda and criticized the Catholic character of the institution. During the first decades of the 20th century, German nationalist and Catholic nationalist teachers increasingly organized themselves against their Jewish competition and often prevented them from receiving positions at the university. The “Deutscher Klub” (“German Club”) and the “Bärenhöhle“ (“Bear’s Den”) are examples of organizations that were particularly active in the interwar period as anti-Semitic networks within the university.

university of vienna aula (Universität Wien)

Following World War I, anti-Semitic tendencies intensified. Shortly after the proclamation of the “Republic of German-Austria“ in November 1918, violent attacks by German nationalist and National Socialist students against Jewish, socialist and liberal classmates increased, particularly at the Institute of Anatomy, run by the internationally renowned anatomist and Social Democratic health official Julius Tandler. When the Austrofascists came to power in 1934, anti-Semitism was commonplace at the University of Vienna. This was manifested in several riots by National Socialist students, but in particular in the public discussions following the murder of philosopher Moritz Schlick in the university’s Main Building in 1936.

The assassin claimed that Schlick’s antimetaphysical philosophy, which demanded a separation of science and religion, had “interfered with his moral restraint.“ Several Jewish, liberal, Social Democratic and Communist academics emigrated from Austria prior to the Anschluss in 1938 and went on to have successful careers in the United States, among them philosopher Herbert Feigl, as well as sociologist Paul Lazarsfeld and social psychologist Marie Jahoda, who are well-known for their study of the social impact of unemployment on a small community, “Die Arbeitslosen von Marienthal” (1932).

Finally, the anti-Semitic tendencies culminated in the complete and systematic expulsion of Jewish teachers and students from the University of Vienna after Austria’s “Anschluss” to the National Socialist German Reich in 1938. Over 2,700 university members – most of them classified as “Jewish” through the race laws – were dismissed, removed from the university and subsequently subjected to further persecution, which for some ended with extermination in the system of concentration camps. Romance philologist Elise Richter, for example, who was one of the first female students and doctors and, in 1907, the first woman to receive the teaching license at the University of Vienna, as well as her sister Helene Richter were deported to Theresienstadt in 1942 when they were both in their late 70s and died there only a few months later.

Other prominent professors were able to save their lives by leaving – many of them for the United States. These included chemist Hermann Mark, who is regarded as one of the founders of polymer science and managed to emigrate to New York via Switzerland, France, England and Canada. He joined the Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute and established the Polymer Research Institute as well as a curriculum for the field of polymer science. Other expelled teachers who were able to continue their careers at American universities were chemist Zacharias Dische and pharmacologist Ernst Peter Pick (Columbia University), mathematician Kurt Gödel (Princeton University), dentist Bernhard Gottlieb (Baylor College Dallas), law professor Albert Armin Ehrenzweig (University of California, Berkeley) and neurologist Josef Gerstmann (New York).

exiled scientists (Universität Wien)

The radical brain drain had a massive effect on the quality of teaching and research at the University of Vienna. The development of young disciplines in particular, which had begun to evolve in interdisciplinary milieus at the edge of academic structures, was held back in Austria for decades. Psychologists Karl and Charlotte Bühler emigrated to the U.S. and were later promoted to professorships at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles. Likewise, Egon Brunswick became a professor at UC Berkeley.

Prominent pioneers in the economic sciences such as Ludwig von Mises and Oskar Morgenstern stimulated the development of the discipline in the United States, becoming professors at New York University and Princeton University. Those affected made up 45% of all professors and lecturers (about 320 people) and approximately 23% of all students (about 2,230 people). Among those expelled students who had not yet established themselves in academia, some were able to begin a successful academic career after their escape to the U.S., for example linguist Ernst Pulgram (University of Michigan), biochemist Efraim Racker (Cornell University) and Germanist Walter Sokel, who later became a professor of German literature (University of Virginia).

Edith Weisskopf-Joelson, who had studied with the Bühlers in Vienna, arrived in New York in 1939 and successfully resumed her career as a psychologist. Despite the difficult employment situation for refugees, she found a suitable job in the Department of Psychology at Indiana University. She quickly improved her English language skills and attended courses in psychology in order to improve her teaching. She became a professor in the Department of Psychology at Purdue University in 1949. In the 1960s, Weisskopf-Joelson displayed symptoms of schizophrenia and was admitted to a mental hospital for treatment. She kept a diary of her mental illness, which was published posthumously in 1988 by Purdue University (“Father, Have I Kept My Promise? Madness as Seen from Within”). While still at the mental hospital, Edith Weisskopf-Joelson was offered a teaching post at Duke University and continued her academic career. In 1967 she became a professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Georgia, where she retired with emeritus status in 1978.

Furthermore, over 230 alumni were stripped of their academic degrees, among them psychologist Bruno Bettelheim and historian Richard Coudenhove-Kalergi, who later became professors at universities in Chicago and New York.

Reconstruction and restoration after 1945

On April 10, 1945, the first Soviet soldiers reached the Viennese university quarter and used the abandoned Main Building as a dressing station and as stables. On April 25, Ludwig Adamovich sen. was elected as the first post-war rector and on May 29, 1945, lectures were resumed for the summer semester despite the ongoing reconstruction work at the university (the Main Building had been hit by 26 bombs). Students were used as workers for removing debris, for the transport of books and laboratory equipment that had been moved during the war, as well as for the restoration of damaged buildings. Despite the massive destruction in the preceding years, the University of Vienna resumed operations immediately after the war.

Dealing with the university’s involvement in National Socialism and disciplining members who often were still advocates of Nazi ideology was hampered by the efforts of “reconstruction” and “new beginnings” after 1945. National Socialism (and Austrofascism) had left deep marks that continued to resonate within the university and beyond for years to come. The institution’s involvement in National Socialism was essentially not accounted for. Due to efforts to resume normal operations at the University of Vienna swiftly, there was no rigorous “denazification” of teachers and students. The process of denazification dragged on until the late 1950s and about half of the “belastet” (incriminated) National Socialist professors were able to continue their academic careers after just a few years. Even prominent National Socialists were allowed to return to their former positions at the university.

In contrast, only a few of the expelled Jewish scientists who had fled abroad were invited to return to the university and reintegrate. The ministry’s policies instead focused on appointing conservative Catholic teaching staff. Even two decades later, a scandal surrounding openly anti-Semitic statements made by Taras Borodajkewycz, a professor of economic history at the Vienna University of Economics and lecturer at the University of Vienna broke out. In 1965, as the university was celebrating its 600th anniversary, Ernst Kirchweger, a former communist resistance fighter and concentration camp prisoner, was assaulted by a neo-Nazi during a large demonstration against Borodajkewycz and died several days later as a result of his injuries.

With the anniversary celebrations the inadequacy of the debate about the university’s contemporary history became obvious. Only six years earlier, the names of the rectors during the National Socialist period, Fritz Knoll and Eduard Pernkopf – both prominent Nazis –, had been added to the rectors’ memorial plaque in the university’s Main Building. However, the international public attention that Kirchweger’s death attracted and the outrage it sparked in the long term finally led to appropriate scrutiny of the university’s history under National Socialism.

Accounting for the university’s role in National Socialism

With Kurt Waldheim’s presidential candidacy in 1986 and the Bedenkjahr of 1988 (the 50th anniversary of the Anschluss to the German Reich), a discourse about the university’s role in National Socialism and anti-Semitism within the institution took up steam: Important initiatives in this context were started by dedicated historians and included the lecture series “Die Universität Wien 1938-1945” (1988) and the commemorative inscription for Moritz Schlick, who was murdered at the The University’s Aula AI 21 university in 1936 (1993).

On the occasion of the university’s 625th anniversary in 1990, an important paper on the expulsion of teachers in 1938 was published, namely the brochure “Vertriebene Intelligenz” (“Displaced Intelligence”). Around the turn of the millennium, the University of Vienna examined its National Socialist past through the project “Untersuchungen zur anatomischen Wissenschaft in Wien 1938-1945” (“Investigations on anatomical science in Vienna”), initiated by the senate. It included the commemorative plaque in the arcaded courtyard dedicated to the teachers and students expelled from the Faculty of Medicine, which explicitly acknowledged the university’s co-responsibility for the first time.

Other activities included several academic symposiums, projects on the expulsion of students and teachers in 1938, provenance research within the university libraries, lectures and publications, as well as the establishment of the Forum “Zeitgeschichte der Universität Wien” (“Contemporary History of the University of Vienna”) as a coordination office for activities dealing with the university’s history in the 20th and 21st centuries (2006–2015). Present projects include the examination of anti-Semitic structures and networks at the university before 1938, or the Catholic-theological faculty’s involvement in the Gesera of 1420/21.

Remembrance and commemoration

National Socialism became the focus of a critical memorial culture at the university. In 1998, for example, all 24 passageways at the University of Vienna’s new campus (the former General Hospital) were dedicated as “Tore der Erinnerung” (“Gates of Remembrance”). Particularly, the names of female scientists and teachers expelled during National Socialism were chosen for the gates. In 2005, the old Jewish prayer house still standing on the grounds of the new campus was inaugurated as a place of remembrance and encounter called DENK-MAL Marpe Lanefesch.

The university’s new, reflective approach towards its involvement in National Socialism found particular expression in regard to the historical and artistic contextualization of the German nationalist monument known as the “Siegfriedskopf ” in 2006 and its relocation from the Main Building’s aula to the arcaded courtyard. The spot vacated by the “Siegfriedskopf ” was used for two commemorative alcoves with statements declaring what the university stands for today: remembrance of the victims of National Socialism, “for the freedom of science and respect of human rights” and “against war and violence.”

In the course of the rearrangement of the aula in 2006, the installation “Nobel prize and university – a group picture with a question mark” was also opened. Among other things, it details the involvement of Julius Wagner-Jauregg and Konrad Lorenz in National Socialism. Aside from these universitywide commemoration and remembrance activities, projects from various disciplines were also conducted, such as the decentralized “Monument for excluded, emigrated and murdered members of the Institute of Art History of the University of Vienna 1933/34 | 1938 | 1945” in 2008.

Innovations in the context of remembrance also include virtual forms, such as the online “Memorial book for the victims of National Socialism at the University of Vienna in 1938” (http://gedenkbuch.univie.ac.at), which was presented in 2009 and is constantly being expanded as a work in progress. It contains the names of expelled students and teachers and of individuals whose academic degrees were rescinded. Whenever available, photographs, documents and mementos are posted online next to a short biography of the victim.

The University of Vienna commemorates the National Socialist injustice and is aware of the shared responsibility it bears for the inconceivable atrocities perpetrated against its members. Widening the scope of commemoration, over recent years the university has honored several scientists who were driven from Vienna as children and later became prominent scientists, including psychologist George Mandler (2009), chemists Carl Djerassi and Alfred Bader, physicist and Nobel laureate Walter Kohn, historian Peter Pulzer (2012) and, more recently, Nobel laureate in chemistry, Martin Karplus, as well as literary scholar Ruth Klüger (2015).

Further reading:

  • Website “650 years – History of the University of Vienna” (http:// geschichte.univie.ac.at/en)
  • Website “Memorial book for the victims of National Socialism at the University of Vienna in 1938” (http://gedenkbuch.univie.ac.at/index. php?L=2)
  • Friedrich Stadler et al (Eds.), 650 Jahre Universität Wien – Aufbruch ins neue Jahrhundert. 4 Volumes, Göttingen: Vienna University Press 2015.
  • Klaus Taschwer, Hochburg des Antisemitismus. Der Niedergang der Universität Wien im 20. Jahrhundert. Wien: Czernin Verlag 2015
  • Oliver Rathkolb (Ed.), Der lange Schatten des Antisemitismus. Kritische Auseinandersetzungen mit der Geschichte der Universität Wien im 19. und 20. Jahrhundert. Göttingen: Vienna University Press 2013.

 Katharina Kniefacz is a historian at the University of Vienna. Since 2009, she is part of the “Forum Zeitgeschichte” at the University’s Department for Contemporary History.