The university during the World Wars

How did the university cope with the exceptional situations arising from the two World Wars? No studies have examined this question in depth. The summary provided by Edgar Bonjour in the university history published in 1960, in the chapter “War Measures,” offers a first approach and singles out major areas to be examined.

The foremost question here is how academic operations were able to continue despite military call-ups for both students and faculty. In some cases, this resulted in shorter semesters, tuition wavers, and flexibility in examination regulations. During the First World War, the mobilization of German nationals had a significant impact, with eight professors and even the rector, Otto Eger, heeding the call to arms.


The “call to arms
Eger had been appointed professor of Roman law in 1910 and rector in 1914, having secured a significant salary increase by leveraging an appointment in Prague. As one reads in David Tréfas’s 2010 essay, he continued to hold the status of a professor at the University of Basel, albeit on leave, until taking up a position at his home university in Giessen.


Eger later engaged in problematic activities in Germany, founding a student Freikorps in 1919, becoming a member of the Nazi Party, and supervising doctoral theses with National Socialist content. Correspondence from 1916 sheds light on the difficulties posed to the university’s teaching program by the war. Basel begged, as it were, for Eger to return to the university temporarily: “You are no doubt aware that our Faculty of Law has been in an undesirable situation since the war broke out. Prof. iur. Ruck has gone to the front – we don’t know where he is; Prof. Dr. iur Meister has fallen, so that currently there are only two professors instead of five, as no replacement for Prof. Meyer has yet to be found. We are indeed in a difficult situation and therefore ask whether it is truly impossible for you to take leave for the summer semester and teach.”
A small counterpoint can be found in the reflections of the young theologian Ernst Staehelin, published in 1914.

Political repercussions
We know very little about the political repercussions on the university of the major conflict that erupted across Europe in 1914, at first deeply dividing Switzerland. The academic world passionately took sides, as seen, for instance, during the bombardment of the university library in Leuven. On document that is particularly revealing in this context is the appeal published in September 1914 by German representatives of science and art, disputing Germany’s guilt in the war and its primary responsibility for the violation of Belgian neutrality and for the military excesses in Leuven. The German troops, it claimed, had been “forced to reluctantly take revenge on a frenzied population.” And in reply to laments about the loss of cultural assets, it declared: “But as much as no one can surpass our love for art, we decidedly refuse to purchase the preservation of an artwork with a German defeat.”

In 1939, the political situation was clear: as the speeches given at the inauguration of the new Kollegienhaus in June 1939 unmistakably expressed, the university community understood the conflict as a confrontation between the enemies of freedom and humanity and their defenders. Significantly more than in the First World War, the defense of Switzerland and Swiss values was understood as an essential contribution in this intellectual and spiritual struggle. The student body also became engaged with clearly articulated positions and a strong rejection of even minor sentiments in favor of a Greater German cultural or political vision.

Signs of solidarity: the Oslo rally
At the end of 1943, the university expressed its solidarity with the persecuted members of the University of Oslo by staging a large rally in the auditorium. Over a thousand students – closely packed, some standing – followed the presentations of the rector and a student speaker.

The university was not entirely untouched by Nazi or Frontist machinations, perhaps most prominently represented by the German-Swiss dual citizen Friedrich Vöchting-Oeri, an associate professor of agricultural history. The authorities took action against him even before the major turning point in the fall of 1943. His dismissal in June 1944 was confirmed by the Swiss Federal Court in April 1945. A second case came to light only after the war: in 1947, the geographer Fritz Jeger was dismissed after twenty years of service at the age of sixty-seven because he repeatedly spread Nazi propaganda in his lectures.

University operations faced restrictions due to war-induced scarcity of heating materials. In both wars, there were relief campaigns for needy students from Switzerland itself, and for young people of other nationalities; and in both wars, valuable items of university property (records make specific mention of the sixteenth-century stained-glass windows) as well as the archives were removed to a safe storage site. This was also the case for the old university scepter, which Dean Bonjour personally retrieved every morning from the university safe in the basement before the doctoral exams set for eight o’clock, as the university bedell was serving as a soldier at the border, placing it in the faculty room along with the examination documents.

Absences due to military and agricultural service created significant gaps in studies. For this reason, during the years 1939 to 1945 – with the professors’ consent, as was emphasized – copies of important lecture notes were organized. There was also a shortage of books, particularly because foreign publishers could no longer deliver. A special book collection center was thus established where former students or upperclassmen could donate their textbooks, even if only to be loaned out.

In a certain sense, the postwar period also belongs to the wartime era. In 1945/46, the University of Basel was actively involved in various programs of postwar aid provided by Switzerland. The University of Basel invited teachers and students from the University of Utrecht to Switzerland as part of a partnership program, members of the University of Strasbourg were supplied with clothes and household goods, young university students from the neighboring region of Baden were offered study opportunities in Basel, and some 125 American soldiers were provided certified courses conducted in English, taught by high school teachers.

Three uniformed officials
The image on this page shows Rector Carl Henschen, professor of surgery, at the Dies academicus on 18 November 1944 with the university bedell (left) and General Henri Guisan (right). Previously, on 26 August on the occasion of the 500th anniversary of the Battle of St. Jakob an der Birs, the commander-in-chief of the Swiss Army had been awarded an honorary doctorate from the Faculty of Philosophy and History, on the suggestion of Edgar Bonjour.

The laudation declared that the honor was being given to a commander “who had enlightened the Swiss people with explanations about the nature of modern warfare, firmly consolidated the military efficiency of the army in best Swiss fashion, showed wise insight in protecting the homeland during the current disastrous, globally devastating war, and – with his unyielding courage and outstanding judgment – has kept Switzerland safe from all harm without interruption. He has thus dedicated himself fully to the fatherland of Switzerland and particularly deserves the gratitude of the city of Basel, which devotedly pursues the labor of peace from its location at the outermost border of Switzerland.”

The general returned to Basel for the Dies academicus in 1946. Historian Edgar Bonjour, rector at the time, delivered a banquet speech extending a special welcome to the prominent guest and honorary doctor. Complimenting Guisan on the report he had written for the Swiss Federal Assembly about his period of active military service, Bonjour declared that if Guisan had not yet deserved this honor, surely now it was indisputable. In his 1983 memoirs, Bonjour added that at the time he had not known what one of his doctoral students later discovered: that Guisan had not actually written the report himself and the true author had been Bernard Barbey. Even years later, the snide quip could be heard that one could certainly swear Guisan had read the report himself. Bonjour’s memoirs do not state who proposed Guisan for the honorary doctorate (a look at archival records and newspapers of the day might help), but since Bonjour was the keynote speaker at the St. Jakob's celebration in 1944 (see Historians and the intellectual/spiritual defense of the nation), the occasion at which Guisan was honored, it can be assumed that he was at least involved.