Prof. Winfried Nerdinger on the exhibition presenting TUM’s history under the National Socialism

“THM supported the Nazi regime”

THM Rector Lutz Pistor at the Dies academicus, the annual academic celebration, 1940.
THM Rector Lutz Pistor at the Dies academicus, the annual academic celebration, 1940. (Image: TUM.Archiv)

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Today marks the launch of a special exhibition at Munich’s Documentation Centre for the History of National Socialism presenting the history of the Technische Hochschule München (THM), which is now TUM, during the Nazi era. Prof. Winfried Nerdinger, founding director of the center and TUM Emeritus of Excellence, explains in this interview how students took action against Jewish professors, why THM was honored as an “exemplary war company” and why even scientists who were not National Socialists were willing to perform research for the regime.

As soon as the National Socialists seized power in 1933, THM students started organizing campaigns against Jewish professors and political opponents of the regime. Were there many supporters of the National Socialist German Workers' Party at the university?

From 1930, the National Socialist German Students’ League was the most powerful group in student council elections. In 1933, these students wasted no time in helping to accelerate “Nazification” of the university. They exerted enormous pressure on individual professors by staging poster rallies and disrupting lectures. Christian Prinz, who was targeted due to his work during the republic of soviets period (“Räterepublik“), could not endure the psychological stress. He developed a stomach ulcer and died during an emergency operation – making him the first victim as it were.

The government itself took action against university lecturers in the first year of gaining power.

As at all state institutions, Jewish officials and all those, who were deemed unsuitable by the Nazi regime, were either dismissed or forced into early retirement at THM. The first wave of dismissals included six Jewish and four politically “unreliable” university lecturers. Two members of the Department of Architecture whose artistic vision ran counter to National Socialism principles were also shown the door. Five other scientists were subsequently told to leave. Some of them found new positions abroad but others became hopelessly impoverished and some were driven to an early death.

From October 1933, the “leader principle” was applied at THM. What did that mean exactly?

The rector was no longer elected but instead appointed directly by the ministry. The selection of the deans was also based on party-political considerations. These “leaders” were vested with far-reaching powers to enforce the desired ideological objectives.

How did the professors react to this?

The degree of ideologization varied greatly from one department to another and depended on the viewpoint of prominent professors. For example, Chemistry and Mechanical Engineering had strong, internationally renowned personalities like Nobel Prize winner Hans Fischer and Ludwig Föppl, who refused to be ideologized. They maintained a comparatively open atmosphere and took a steadfast position – also when it came to tasks like filling chair vacancies. In the Department of Architecture on the other hand, where German Bestelmeyer was the prominent figure, only party loyalists were appointed, which meant that the entire department soon embraced a traditional and conservative style of architecture.

Was any resistance evident at THM, similar to the White Rose at Ludwig Maximilian University?

We have discovered very few examples of resistance. Open, politically motivated campaigns like the White Rose did not exist at THM. There was resistance in the form of refusal to be ideologized and some spontaneous protests, however. One example: In 1943, Paul Giesler, head of the administrative district (“Gauleiter”), held a speech attended by representatives of Munich’s universities and Nazi functionaries in which he criticized the high number of female students. He accused them of only undertaking a course of study to avoid work or find a husband. Murmurs of dissent rippled throughout the room. The female students in the hall were clearly not in agreement. This led to them being briefly detained and interrogated by the Gestapo. This shows the heavy-handed treatment meted out in response to even the smallest displays of criticism.

How did the ideology influence research and teaching?

There were efforts by National Socialist scientists to ground even the natural sciences and mathematics in racial and ethnic ideologies. For example, the advocates of “German Physics” rejected modern theoretical physics, which they characterized as being Jewish-dominated, in particular the theory of relativity and quantum mechanics. This line of thinking was not very influential at THM, however.

One area where blood-and-soil ideas and Germanness did hold sway, however, was in agricultural research and teaching at Weihenstephan, with particularly horrendous consequences. Botanists collaborated with Dachau concentration camp regarding the herb garden located there; most of the THM’s forced laborers were deployed on the Weihenstephan grounds; a colonial sciences course was established to train specialists who would then focus on the settlement of the conquered regions of Eastern Europe – which fed into the horrifying and murderous “Master Plan for the East”, according to which sections of the population were to be killed or resettled. Professors communicated directly with the SS leader, Heinrich Himmler, who had studied in Weihenstephan.

All departments were involved in research to prepare for and engage in war.

For objectives essential to the war effort, such as the development of the air force, the Nazi government has provided enormous research funds. All the technical universities were involved in centrally controlled programs, and the Wehrmacht placed most of the individual orders. Industry also provided large sums of money – the military, the economy and science were all closely interconnected.

Several new institutes were established at THM for these purposes, for example in the areas of aviation, road building and fuels. Research became thoroughly militarized, a phenomenon which became even more pronounced during the war. The universities, including THM, were quite content to accept this role. A total of 26 THM institutes were classified as armaments company during the war, while the university as a whole was given the dubious honorary title of “exemplary war company” (“Kriegsmusterbetrieb”), which was awarded for exceptional output.

Even scientists who were not National Socialists were willing to work for the armament effort. Hans Fischer established a laboratory for poison gas research.

During the Weimar Republic, German professors had a very national-conservative mindset. Even scientists who had little or no affinity with Nazi ideology saw it as their patriotic duty to serve the state with their knowledge and expertise, Fischer among them. This willingness to self-mobilize is an important aspect. After all, it is not possible to achieve good results by pressurizing a researcher. If they do not want to do the work, they are unlikely to accomplish anything.

When everything is considered, did THM actually support the Nazi regime?

The technical universities were a constitutive part of the Nazi system, and they subscribed to the same objectives. This is something we have to face. For decades there had been the conception that science and technology do not subscribe to any particular value code and so research conducted during the Nazi era was neutral. Science was viewed isolated from its function and its purpose. There is no such thing as impartial research, however, because it never takes place in a vacuum – it is always shaped by the society of the time. This makes it all the more important to embed today’s research and teaching at technical universities in an ethical context and democratic values.

Exhibition:

Munich Documentation Centre for the History of National Socialism
Max-Mannheimer-Platz 1 (former Brienner Straße 34)
80333 Munich

Opening times:

May 18 to August 26, 2018
Tuesdays to Sundays
10 a.m. to 7 p.m.

Exhibition catalogue:
Wolfgang A. Herrmann, Winfried Nerdinger (ed.): Die Technische Hochschule München im Nationalsozialismus. TUM.University Press, Munich 2018

Winfried Nerdinger:

Prof. Dr.-Ing. Winfried Nerdinger was the founding director of the Munich Documentation Centre for the History of National Socialism, the foremost place of education and remembrance documenting the National Socialism period in the Bavarian capital, a position he held from 2012 to April 2018. Before that, he spent 16 years as the director of TUM’s Architecture Museum.  There, he created the largest specialist and research archive for architecture in Germany, which was granted a dedicated exhibition space at the Pinakothek der Moderne museum in 2002. During this period, Nerdinger was the first Professor for the History of Architecture at TUM. His research focused on architecture from the 18th through to the 21st centuries, the history of architecture and art in the city of Munich, and the history of architectural rendering. achieving emeritus status, Nerdinger was named a TUM Emeritus of Excellence.

More Information:

Prof. Winfried Nerdinger, founding director of the Munich Documentation Centre for the History of National Socialism.
Prof. Winfried Nerdinger, founding director of the Munich Documentation Centre for the History of National Socialism. (Image: Orla Connolly)