History of the University
The first democratic foundation of a German university
Universität Hamburg celebrated its one hundredth anniversary in 2019. One century ago, it was born of the spirit of democracy that swept Germany as the Weimar Republic was founded. On 28 March 1919, the new Hamburg Parliament passed a resolution to establish a university. It was the first parliament chosen by the citizens of Hamburg in a free and fair election, making Universität Hamburg the first democratically founded university in Germany. It opened on 10 May 1919, and a concert in the music hall marked the occasion.
Roots in the early seventeenth century
The origins of the University date back 400 years to the Akademisches Gymnasium, which operated between 1613 and 1833. By 1895, a “general lecture series” had remained, which gave interested citizens of Hamburg an opportunity to further their knowledge with public lectures on a wide range of topics. The merchant Edmund Siemers donated a lecture building for that purpose in 1911, located on the street which was later named after him. Above the entrance of the lecture hall, you can still read its early motto: DER FORSCHUNG, DER LEHRE, DER BILDUNG (“To research, to teach, to educate and form”).
The establishment of the Hamburg scientific foundation Hamburgische Wissenschaftliche Stiftung (HWS) in 1907 and the Colonial Institute in 1908 further paved the way for the eventual formation of the University. The HWS recruited scholars and supported research excursions and academic publications to prepare new colonial officers for their work abroad.
During the nineteenth century, several academic institutes developed in addition to the Akademisches Gymnasium: the Botanical Garden (1821), the Hamburg Observatory (1833), the state chemistry laboratory (Chemisches Staatslaboratorium, 1878), the state physics laboratory (Physikalisches Staatslaboratorium, 1885), the laboratory for commodity science (Laboratorium für Warenkunde, 1885) and the institute for seaborne and tropical diseases (Institut für Schiffs- und Tropenkrankheiten, 1900).
Rise in the Weimar Republic, downfall under National Socialism
The young university’s early days in the 1920s were marked by success. Thanks to its outstanding scholars, it soon rose to international fame during the era of the Weimar Republic: as shown by such luminaries as Ernst Cassirer (philosophy), Albrecht Mendelssohn Bartholdy (law), Erwin Panofsky (art history), Otto Stern (physical chemistry), and William Stern (psychology). After the National Socialists seized power, many of these scholars were expelled on account of being Jewish. The dismissals hit the University hard. Today, they are immortalized in the names of lecture halls, sculptures and commemorative plaques alongside the students who joined the Hamburg branch of the “Weiße Rose” (white roses) and sacrificed their lives resisting the cruel regime.
After re-opening in 1945: growth and reforms
The University closed after the fall of the “Third Reich”, but it had already re-opened by November 1945. The 4 faculties that had existed since 1919 (Law and Public Administration, Medicine, Philosophy, Natural Sciences) became 6 in 1954, as the Faculty of Protestant Theology was established, and the Faculty of Law and Public Administration was split into a Faculty of Law and a Faculty of Business, Economics and Social Sciences. More and more students enrolled, and the student body grew from 3,000 in 1949 to 17,000 in 1964. The Von-Melle-Park Campus was built during that period.
In 1969, the Hamburg Parliament decided on fundamental reforms to the University. It gave participation rights to all members of the University and expanded academic self-governance. The 6 faculties were separated into 15 departments; by the early 2000s, their number increased to 19. A full-time university president overseeing a central administration was appointed to replace the rector. Following a later reform of the framework act for higher education (Hochschulrahmengesetz, HRG) in 2003, the president is now elected by the University Senate and confirmed by the University Council. In 2005, the University’s faculties were re-organized, and as of 2014, it has 8: Law, Economics and Social Sciences, Medicine, Education, the Humanities, Mathematics, Informatics and Natural Sciences, Psychology and Human Movement, and Business Administration. More than 40,000 students are enrolled in these faculties.
An urban university
Following the expansion of the Von-Melle-Park Campus in the mid-1960s, the university quarter grew towards the Bundesstrasse, where the 22-floor Geomatikum was built in the 1970s. With its several campuses, the University is present across the entire Hamburg metropolitan area. This includes the central Von-Melle-Park campus, the climate and geosciences precinct on the Bundesstrasse campus, the Eppendorf campus dedicated to medical training, the Bahrenfeld campus housing the physics institutes, and the Klein Flottbek campus with the Institute of Plant Science and Microbiology and the Botanical Garden. Further academic institutions at Universität Hamburg include, for example, the Observatory in Bergedorf and the Institute of Wood Science in Lohbrügge.
Since 2019: Universität Hamburg—University of Excellence
Universität Hamburg has achieved extraordinary success in the Excellence Strategy of the Federal and State Governments, a competition for top-level university research funding in Germany. As of 2019, the German Research Foundation (Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft, DFG) funds 4 clusters of excellence: CUI: Advanced Imaging of Matter (photon and nanosciences), Climate, Climatic Change, and Society (CLICCS) (climate research), Understanding Written Artefacts (manuscript cultures) and Quantum Universe (mathematics, particle physics, astrophysics, and cosmology). In July 2019, Universität Hamburg was granted the status of “University of Excellence” for its “Flagship University” concept.
The University Museum
Established in 2019 to mark the one hundredth anniversary of Universität Hamburg, the University Museum takes its visitors on a tour of the places, people, and processes that have shaped the University’s 100 years. Some of its stories from its 100 years of research, teaching, and shaping the minds of the past and present are well known, some less so. The permanent exhibition “100!” on the history and present of Universität Hamburg is centered around a themed historical timeline. It details the University’s trajectory from its foundation to the upheaval of Nazi Germany, the university-based protests movements and structural reforms of the past and present.