West Germany's University of Heidelberg builds on 600 years of history

The days of student princes and fencing duels have long since yielded to those of the microscope and computer. But this year's 600th birthday party for the University of Heidelberg is still being celebrated by song as well as scholarship. This past weekend packed in both, a concert by the Stanford University choir and some six hours of solemnities honoring German-American academic cooperation and its 1920s champion -- educator and diplomat Jacob Gould Schurman.

It was part of the year-long festivities marking the 600th anniversary since Pope Urban VI granted a charter to found the university in October 1385 and the opening of classes in October 1386.

``From tradition to the future'' is the anniversary theme. The celebration will recall the noble and sometimes ignoble history of the first university ever established in what is now Germany and will include inauguration of programs and institutions like the new Schurman Library of American history, that was launched February 8.

And, rather less officially, it will entail some nods from the annual summer production of Sigmund Romberg's ``The Student Prince'' at the castle high above the scenic Neckar River Valley.

It all began six centruies ago on Oct. 19, 1386, when the Ruprecht-Karl University here became only the third university in the German-speaking world. Together with its counterparts in Prague and Vienna, Heidelberg struggled to win intellectual independence from the great Italian and French universities.

In time, the Germans succeeded. By the 16th century, when Martin Luther broke with the Roman Catholic Church, the score of universities that had sprung up in Germanic lands had already assumed the major role in preparing clergy and scholars for church and state. Law and humanism rivaled theology in university studies; the university became a place for talented young men to advance themselves, regardless of class.

Heidelberg became the center of German Calvinism, and university theologians wrote the Heidelberg Catechism of 1563, the main creed of the German Reformed Churches.

The ravages of the fratricidal Thirty Years' War took their toll in Heidelberg as elsewhere, however. After the Spanish siege of 1622 the Protestants were thrown out. For two centuries, the university declined, wracked by religious strife.

At the beginning of the 19th century it revived handsomely, as reform and secularization swept German universities. Heidelberg became a center of philosophy, of liberalism, and of nationalism. Historiography, the natural sciences, and medicine flourished.

Then as nationalism swamped Germany at the end of the century, Max Weber, the father of modern sociology, resisted the trend and developed at Heidelberg his defense of rationalism, moral autonomy, and pluralism. His student Karl Jaspers evolved a seminal existentialism to cope with breakdown of traditional values. And it was here that Hannah Stern (later Arendt), began her inquiry into the nature of totalitarianism.

With the dark years of Nazism, Heidelberg lost not only Hannah Arendt, but also a quarter of its faculty through firing, emigration, or other persecution. The curriculum was reduced to Aryan ``German'' science and anti-Semitic diatribes.

After World War II, it was the United States that helped Heidelberg become the first German university to reopen -- in the spirit of Schurman, farm boy turned philosopher, one-time Heidelberg student, one-time president of Cornell University, and US Ambassador to Germany in the '20s.

In his address Saturday, a Heidelberg graduate, US Ambassador Richard Burt lauded Schurman's raising of $500,000 for a new university building here half a century ago.

As it now begins its seventh century, the new-old university again builds on a reputation for distinguished scholarship in such fields as theoretical physics, molecular biology, medicine, medieval history, art history, theology, and ecumenism.

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