The University of Basel – A nest of demagogues?

Around 1820, political persecution of liberal academics intensified in Germany, many of whom had taken politically exposed positions against the prevailing restoration mentality by advocating for the creation of democratic societies and calling for a fatherland that would be free both domestically and internationally. Some escaped the repressive conditions and ongoing prosecutions by fleeing to Switzerland and in particular to Basel, where they sought – and in some cases found – a new place to work.

The modernization of university practices that began at the beginning of the nineteenth century had two effects that tended to counteract each other. On the one hand, modernization meant imposing state discipline in making professors officials of the state. The abolition in 1818 of the “medieval” privileges still enjoyed by universities, including those granted to Basel, was part of a Europe-wide trend. On the other hand, the same modernization released an energy invoking the right and duty to critically assess social conditions. This dynamic produced a politicized faculty and student body that was subjected, after the Carlsbad Resolutions of 1819, to a massive campaign of repression known as the “persecutions of the demagogues.”

Until 1830, Basel had no liberal party – in fact, it had no political parties at all. It is thus all the more remarkable that after 1820 a considerable number of liberal scholars were appointed from German lands. The decisive factor for appointing professors was academic quality, not political views. It must also be said, however, that these scholars were accepted in Basel despite the political controversy they provoked.

Wilhelm Martin de Wette: a theologian justifies a political murder
The link between the frames of reference that come together in Basel – a local context of the city, vs. an international context of Germany and Europe as a whole – can be seen in the 1822 appointment of the theologian Wilhelm Martin de Wette from Berlin to Basel. In a consoling letter to Karl Ludwig Sand, a theology student who had murdered who had murdered the writer and councillor of state Kotzebue, de Wette had described Sand's act as objectively criminal but subjectively sanctified and justified – prompting his dismissal by the Prussian king. In offering de Wette an appointment at the university, the majority of the Basel Education Council took a public stand for liberalism before it existed as an organized force within a city whose native tendencies were conservative. Taking such a position was no doubt linked with other sociopolitical intentions: the council aimed to push back against religiously orthodox and Pietistic milieus.

De Wette’s move to Switzerland was the most spectacular case of a broader process that in the 1820s provided excellent academic teachers first to Basel, and then also to the newly established universities in Zurich and Bern in 1833/34. Writing about Basel, Eduard His (1941, 406) notes that the demand for faculty that arose following the reform of 1818 could not have been met with local scholars alone. Edgar Bonjour (1960, 354) remarks that in the eighteenth century the city was still proud to be able to make necessary appointments from among its own citizens; the University Act of 1813, by contrast, deliberately decoupled the appointment of professors from citizenship. This pride then lived on in the assertion that the new arrivals tended to assimilate very quickly, so long as one disregarded the issue of language – many of them had quickly become citizens of the city, married into Basel families, and taken on public office. De Wette, who was appointed to Basel in 1822 at the age of forty-two, was granted Basel citizenship after seven years, and three years later he married a wife from Basel, the pastor’s widow Sophie von Mai-Streckeisen (His 1941, 42). A stately school building was later named after him.

Waves of academic emigrants
The wave of German emigrants who came to the University of Basel as part of this movement was significant. Among them: the Latinist Franz Dorotheus Gerlach, born in Gotha and appointed at twenty-six in 1819; in the same year, the Germanist Carl Friedrich Sartorius from Saxony, also twenty-six; Karl Follen, aged twenty-five, who qualified in psychology and logic in 1821; in the same year, the thirty-three-year-old historian Friedrich Kortüm from Mecklenburg; and, after his departure to Bern, his successor, the thirty-two-year-old Friedrich Brömmel from Göttingen, who also offered lectures on contemporary topics (the French Revolution and the Napoleon era) and praised the Basel “Republic” as his new homeland. The natural philosopher Lorenz Oken – at forty-two already well known for having given a sensational speech at the Wartburg Festival – arrived in Zurich in 1822 from Jena, and then moved on to the young University of Zurich shortly afterward. Also in 1822, Carl Gustav Jung from Mannheim, twenty-eight at the time and also a participant in the Wartburg Festival, was appointed to the Faculty of Medicine; just two years later, in 1824, he became a citizen of Basel and, six years after that, in 1828, rector of the university. Several names stand out for political reasons. One is the Italianist Luigi Picchioni, a former member of the secret society of the Carbonari. Others include the Snell brothers from Nassau. The jurist Wilhelm Snell, who came to Basel in 1821 at the age of thirty-two and initially worked as a private lecturer, then as an extraordinarius (a rank just below full professor), served as dean of the Faculty of Law four times between 1825 and 1833 and was even rector of the university in 1830, before moving briefly to Zurich in 1833 and then onward to Bern in 1834, where he became the first rector of the newly founded university. His younger brother, Ludwig Snell, was a lecturer for philology in Basel from 1827 to 1831, after which he moved to Bern via Zurich, where he held a chair for political science. Jakob Stämpfli, one of his students, also became Ludwig Snell’s son-in-law and one of the most influential radicals in Swiss politics.

Not all of those who arrived in Basel had been politically persecuted. The talented chemist Christian Friedrich Schönbein, originally from Baden and won for Basel at the age of twenty-nine in 1828, was a passionate member of the Basel Academic Freikorps, but not a political émigré. Given the turbulent times, it was characteristic that Schönbein arrived in Basel without a formal degree and was awarded an honorary doctorate in 1829, allowing him to hold an academic title. The renowned poet Ludwig Uhland had applied for a professorship in German literature in Basel, albeit unsuccessfully; he was likewise not among those affected by the political turmoil of the time and was later appointed in Tübingen. During the same period, as before and after, many professors were also appointed from Basel families, such as Emanuel Linder, Peter Merian, and Christoph Bernoulli. It would be fascinating to know how members of the faculty from Basel got along with colleagues who came from outside the city. Edgar Bonjour writes of critical voices that had been raised both inside and outside the university against the “foreign masters and journeymen” (1960, 352ff.).

External pressure
The appointments of opposition figures from Germany gave Basel the reputation of being a “nest of demagogues,” and in 1824, Prussia prohibited its subjects from studying in Basel. The appointment of de Wette had already cast suspicion on Basel, and statements compiled from interrogations in Germany particularly incriminated Follen and the elder Snell. The Swiss Confederation came under pressure from the powers of the Holy Alliance and conveyed this to Basel with the warning to suppress the revolutionary activities of the Germans. Even offering courses in natural law appeared revolutionary. Representatives of Prussia and Austria demanded the arrest and extradition of Follen and Snell. Yet in refusing to comply with these requests, national, and especially cantonal authorities in Switzerland, were only partly acting to protect those who had been targeted by the political police of their home states; equally important, if not more so, was the intention to demonstrate independence from foreign powers. Authorities in Switzerland emphasized that they wanted to address the problem themselves and conduct their own investigations.

Over the course of the proceedings, which lasted for more than three years, those accused of revolutionary agitation denied all accusations. Historiography on the events notes that they “calmly” lied to the Basel authorities in the spirit of their own self-defense. Among other things, they had been accused of praising regicide in obstreperous songs as a means to a holy end. Follen, however, had also tried to organize a secret youth association, as he had done during his Giessen days, and was able to escape to America with the help of a “young Basel gentlemen” who provided money and false documents. Paul Burckhardt concluded in 1942: “Basel, however, had fought honorably, and not without success, for the freedom of its university against foreign claims to power and against the pressure of a timid federal authority” (1942, 153).

This account would be incomplete without considering another immigrant who came to Basel “late,” in 1833, even though he cannot truly be counted among its political exiles. Wilhelm Wackernagel, born in 1806 and later a famous Germanist, was too young to have been an important activist in the early struggles for a liberal social order. A patriot and a supporter of the Turner movement, he got pulled into the apparatus of Prussian state security as fourteen-year-old boy, yet remained in Prussia. From 1824 to 1827, he studied in Berlin, concentrating on his own efforts in science and writing, without obtaining a degree. Through a friendship with the Basel theologian Abel Burckhardt, whom he had met in Berlin, the penniless scholar received an appointment in Basel in 1833, further managing on the journey to Basel, in Göttingen, to obtain the doctorate he lacked, with friends paying for the fees (His 1941, 117). In 1835, at the age of twenty-nine, he became a full professor of German language and literature, and in 1837, Basel granted him citizenship after he had been targeted by Prussia for finding refuge in Basel’s “nest of demagogues.” Wackernagel remained connected to Prussia throughout his life, but he also directed some of his patriotism toward his second homeland. Many of his writings dealt with matters relating to Switzerland and to Basel. Beginning with his inaugural lecture upon accepting the position in 1833, he spoke about the “merits of Swiss writers in German literature.”

In 1843/44, Wackernagel took the opportunity to address the Battle of St. Jakob (1444) in several texts, and in 1841, he became rector for the first time, followed by two more terms in 1855 and 1861. The same year he acquired Basel citizenship, he married the sister of a friend from his Zurich student days, Johann Caspar Bluntschli. After her death, he entered into a second marriage in 1850 with a woman from one of Basel’s elite families, Maria Salome Sarasin, daughter of the industrialist Sarasin-Heusler and sister of the councillor Sarasin-Vischer. Not only did Basel benefit from Wackernagel’s intellectual work, but the city also received three sons from him and his wife who in turn enriched Basel: Johann Gottfried Wackernagel (born 1844) became editor of the Basler Nachrichten, while Jacob Wackernagel, a scholar of Indo-European languages, followed his father as rector of the university and himself was father to another scholar, the constitutional lawyer Jacob Wackernagel Jr. (born in 1853), who became a professor of constitutional law in 1934. The third son, Rudolf Wackernagel (born in 1855) became the state archivist and author of a major history of the city.