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A Brief History of the University of Cologne

By Erich Meuthen

• Foreword
• Foundation
• Evolvement of the European World of Knowledge
• The Studia Generalia of the Mendicant Orders
• “Greater Cologne”
• University and City
• University and Church
• The Bursas
• Cologne Jurisprudence
• Cologne Theology
• The Discord Over the “Ways”
• Thomists and Albertists
• Humanists
• The “Letters of Obscure Men”
• School Humanism
• Reformation and the Catholic Counter-Movement
• The Jesuits in the Tricoronatum
Tricoronatum – Montanum – Laurentianum
• The Higher Faculties: Medicine
• Law
• Theology
• Modernization
• The Temporary End
• The 19th Century
• Cologne’s Fresh Start
• From the Commercial College to the University
• The “New” University of 1919
• External Development
• Buildings
• The University’s Self-Conception
• Practice-Oriented and General Education
• Social Inclusion
• “Classical Education”
• The Period of National Socialism
• Resumption of the Debate on Principles of the University After 1945
• Effects on Academic Development
• External Development in the Post-War Era
• Constructional Expansion
• From the Municipal to the Federal State University
• The Individual Disciplines Within the Cosmos of Studies
• “1968”
• Top-Level Research
• The Present and the Past
• Further Reading


To commemorate its 600th anniversary in 1988, the University of Cologne brought out a large three-volume edition on its history under the title Kölner Universitätsgeschichte, published by Böhlau, with the first volume written by Erich Meuthen. The work met with great recognition in scholarly circles and was supplemented with thirteen additional studies on the history of Cologne University, including Frank Golczewski’s important exposition on Cologne University teachers and National Socialism (Kölner Universitätslehrer und der Nationalsozialismus, 1988). It moreover gave rise to the idea of creating this abbreviated version – this Small History of the University of Cologne (Kleine Kölner Universitätsgeschichte). And no one was better prepared to bring this plan to fruition than Erich Meuthen himself, whom I warmly thank for his manuscript at this point.

His concise outline begins with the history of the old university (1388 to 1798), which experienced its first period of prosperity in the 15th century under the stewardship of theologians. He then goes on to describe the development of the new university (from 1919), which under the leadership of the Management, Economics and Social Sciences Faculty did not at first see itself as a continuation of the old, but as a “novel” university bound by the principles of practice-relatedness, social orientation and pluralism. The essential need for reflection and review after 1945 nevertheless led to a turnaround headed by the Arts Faculty, in the course of which stronger re-affiliation with the old university and the university ideals of the 19th century was sought. In the period that followed, the methodologies of the natural science disciplines provided further important impetus, thus enhancing also the University’s international reputation, while more recent lines of thought and study were devoted to the world of computers and the magic of their “virtual” realities.
Today, the inherently differing ideals and traditions of the University interact alongside each other, so that the author of this historical overview, himself a member of the Humanities Faculty, ultimately comes to the somewhat resigned conclusion that such a simultaneous thriving of manifold ideas has turned the University into a mere service operation without a distinctive profile – albeit on a level of excellence. Quite rightly, he nevertheless points out the University’s embeddedness in the city of Cologne.

Just as this city blends the old and the new, rigour and laxity, seriousness and not quite so earnest matters, to create a dazzling yet highly inspiring profile of great and unique liberality, the University does likewise – it is awake, alive, flexible, but also tradition-conscious, stern and sober; it feels bound by its history, yet open to all that is new; it is firmly entrenched in the region and at the same time cultivates numerous national and international contacts; it comprises within itself a big world as well as a small one. In the course of this University’s history, its representatives often did not march in the vanguard of progress. This at times gave them the reputation of being “obscurantists”, and unfortunately did not save them from fateful aberrations in the Nazi era, but all in all served to endow Cologne University with its present characteristic atmosphere – calm, level-headed and averse to fevered culminations. The task for the future will be to sustain this wide openness for the old and new as well as the high standards of research and teaching, despite all restrictions from outside, thereby seeking to secure an independent profile of academic individuality even within the large-scale operations of an “anonymizing mass”, and to preserve an overall environment with a human face.

With my repeated gratitude to the author I combine my thanks to Stadtsparkasse Köln, who delivered the decisive financial contribution towards the publication of this Small History of Cologne University.
Professor Dr. Jens Peter Meincke
(at the time of publication) Rector of the University of Cologne


On 21 May 1388, Pope Urban VI complied with the request of the city of Cologne for its allowance to establish a Studium Generale. On the following 22nd of December, the city pledged to found, maintain and patronize the new universitas – that is, a corporative “community” of teachers and learners – which commenced its lecturing activities on 6 January 1389, the date dedicated to the city’s patron saints, the Three Wise Men (or Kings of the East).

Three universities had already been founded in principalities of the Holy Roman Empire: in Prague (1348) by Charles IV, German king and king of Bohemia, and in Vienna (1365) by Rudolf IV, Duke of Austria – two initiatives that succeeded with some difficulty – as well as in Heidelberg (1386) by Rupert I, Elector Palatine, where a crisis was soon to arise. In that setting, the University of Cologne was not only the first in the Empire to have been fathered by the citizenry, it was also able to hold its own with the two-centuries-older western and southern European universities. Thus it offered an extensive range of studies and, already in its early years, recorded far over 700 enrolments, a quite impressive figure for those times; later on, its student numbers levelled out at around 1,000, albeit with considerable fluctuations.

Evolvement of the European World of Knowledge

With that, we already have a rough idea of the long-range as well as overall European development of which Cologne University was to become a part.

The European university was a product of the material and spiritual upswing that had transformed the occidental world on an ever fiercer scale since the High Middle Ages. In the manner of their evolvement from the 12th century, for instance in Bologna and Paris, these high-medieval universities bore outstanding testimony to the scientification of thought and action which would increasingly shape the fate of our continent and ultimately that of civilization as a whole. Among other elements, this development was characterized by the combination of “schooling” (hence the initially predominant role of “schola”sticism) and inquisitiveness, research.

Also important was that scholarly education simultaneously became part of a general social sense of prestige. According to a frequently documented dictum, the uneducated king was considered a “crowned jackass”: Rex illitteratus quasi asinus coronatus. On the other hand, a characteristic of the new university was that it closely linked general education with academic disciplines. For the purpose of intensifying all-round education, the curriculum of the seven artes liberales (knowledge due to a free person) – which in the early Middle Ages was as yet scrawny and scanty, comprising grammar, rhetoric and dialectic (logic), arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy – was comprehensively extended, albeit with different weightings. The predominant interest was devoted to philosophy, which had evolved from the field of logic.

Rapidly, this basic knowledge of the “arts” came to be regarded bindingly in Europe not only as part of said general education but also as a prerequisite for the ensuing academic studies of theology, jurisprudence and medicine. Although this triad of “faculties” (disciplines) was more or less the result of random constellations, it now, together with the Arts Faculty, formed the prevailing organizational structure of European universities that was to last for many centuries until well into modern times. Owing to the importance of philosophy, the Arts Faculty was later also designated “Faculty of Philosophy”.

The academic disciplines lent individual universities their own distinct renown; Bologna shone with its law studies, Paris with theology. To acquire the status of a – higher – Studium Generale, universities needed only one of the three higher faculties besides the arts. Even so, from the second half of the 14th century, the triad became the rule, increasingly breaking up the Parisian theology monopoly, among others. Still, the University of Leipzig, founded 1409, had to wait 25 years before it received a Faculty of Theology.

The University of Cologne had all four faculties right from the outset. Indeed, the jurists, in a double faculty, taught not only the generally prevalent ecclesiastical law but also Roman, hence secular, law – and with prominent representatives at that.

Mentioning Leipzig University of 1409 also makes it necessary to recall that, beyond Heidelberg and Cologne in the German west, the Central European realm was now also academically activated, including Erfurt (1389/92) as well as Leipzig, Rostock (1419) and other new institutions. Cologne had already become a mainstay of that expansion with the rise of its mendicant orders one and a half centuries earlier.

The Studia Generalia of the Mendicant Orders

The mendicant orders founded in the early 13th century were altogether municipally oriented. They saw themselves unable to evade the general trend towards modernization and efficiency enhancement as a result of scientification; on the contrary, they promoted it in an outstanding way and likewise established new study centres, studia generalia, for their orders. Like the university, the institution of the mendicant orders was an achievement of Romance Europe.

The first German studia generalia created by mendicant orders took hold within an overall movement from west to east, but significantly, apart from those of the Minorites, they were first established in Cologne, above all by the Dominicans. Soon the orders were joined by eminent scholars of European intellectuality, like Albertus Magnus, who in 1248 set up the Cologne studium generale of the Dominican Order, where also his master scholar Thomas Aquinas was to teach.

“Greater Cologne”

The German northwest in its broader sense, the “Low Countries”, at the time constituted the most extensively developed region of the Empire in economic, societal and institutional terms. And Cologne was obviously perceived as a kind of metropolis within this realm. To be sure, the southern Low Countries farther to the west – Flanders, Brabant and the Liège countryside – added new emphases, which they consistently sought to reinforce also academically by founding the University of Leuven in 1425, albeit as a “subsidiary” of Cologne University. This new institution was of no apparent detriment to the older Cologne establishment, however, although Leuven boasted a larger number of students and was a worthy scholarly competitor. The co-existence of the two universities once again marks the historical potency, notably the substantive importance, of this greater Low Countries area, thus also rendering a backdrop for the particularities of Cologne University distinguishing it from other German universities, as will be explained forthwith.

University and City

The City Council instituted a commission as a kind of supervisory body, consisting of four “provisors” who were elected from among especially merited councilmen. The office was considered one of the most dignified the Council had to offer.

The City paid a fixed remuneration to first nine, later twelve professores publici et ordinarii, comprising four theologians, three canonists, three physicians, and two legists, with the latter increased to three in the course of the 16th century. The salaries of these professors were equivalent to about two percent of municipal expenses – doubtless no insignificant amount.

Above all, however, Cologne professors were also assigned municipal offices and were entrusted by the Council with diverse special functions. The city syndici as a rule held a “municipal” professorship in the Faculty of Jurisprudence. Accordingly, up to 40 percent of the University’s law lecturers were members of the City Council.

University and Church

The University’s close ties to the churches of Cologne were reflected in the papal reservation of eleven canonry prebends for its professors in the Cathedral and the remaining ten collegiate churches. Through a second “grace”, an identical number was again allotted to the same churches in 1437. Cologne professors were frequently assigned parish churches in the city to ensure spiritual-pastoral contacts to the citizenry.

The archbishopric was irrevocably removed from the city following the debacle of Worringen in 1288; the ban was upheld until the 19th century. Nevertheless, the Church’s teaching monopoly, also recognized under a deed by Pope Urban VI, was not to be circumvented. Thus the cathedral provost was appointed university chancellor, who, for example, oversaw the award of academic degrees. As a rule, however, the provosts themselves did not exercise this function but assigned it to Cologne professors acting as vice-chancellors.

As was the custom, also in Cologne, the Pope appointed conservators to ensure the rights and freedoms of university members under the Founding Privilege. These were the abbot of Great St. Martin in Cologne and the deans of St. Paul in Liège and St. Salvator in Utrecht. Their official residences once again testify to Cologne University’s hinterland in the Low Countries.

Apart from that, the rectors occupied a high rank in the church hierarchy – at least later on, when their position came right after that of archbishop and apostolic nuncio, but before all other clerics, thus requiring their celibacy as a personal prerequisite for election to the office of rector. Conversely, this requirement had gradually been phased out at other Catholic universities by the 17th century.

Following the city’s self-conception as Romanae ecclesiae fidelis filia, as declared in the town seal, the University in the age of religious division even referred to itself as fidelissima filia of the Pope and as the obtemperatissima of the Apostolic See, thus expressing a further defining element of its historical existence.

The Bursas

If the relationship between teachers and scholars was much closer in the Middle Ages than it often is nowadays, that was especially true for the old Cologne University. The underlying organizational precondition lay in the development of bursas and colleges, which in Cologne came to play an important role in forming the University.

That applied in particular to the bursas – study houses established for students of the Arts Faculty. Nowhere else in Germany did bursas acquire such great significance for studies as a whole, despite corresponding tendencies and approaches. They were primarily set up by professors, who also maintained and governed them. Aside from the “public” lecture courses that were obligatory for all Arts students, accompanying studies unfolded there. They proved quite efficient and were frequented on an increasing scale, especially as the bursas prided themselves on leading scholars who were influential at the University. With time a kind of bursa constraint developed: every Arts student had to belong to a bursa – always, naturally, if he lived there. But also external students were eventually obliged to attend lectures at the bursas of their choice.

With the help of ever new endowments, bursas expanded in the very manner of enterprises, indeed vying with one another to mutually productive ends. The smaller bursas gave up. Repeated attempts to set up new ones met with stiff competition from the progressively expanding large bursas. By 1524, only four remained, of which the influential Corneliana subsequently also closed down. Able to prevail were the Bursa Montanum, named after its major sponsors, the theology professors Gerhard and Lambertus de Monte (from ’s-Heerenberg in Gelderland), the Laurentiana, founded by the Frisian Laurentius Buninch from Groningen, and the Bursa Cucana, named after its founder and co-regent of the Laurentiana, Johannes von Kuyck of Flanders. Cornelius Baldewini from Dordrecht lent his name to the Corneliana, and so we see that all these founders were representatives of the already cited region of the Low Countries. The Cucana would have perished as well, had it not been taken over by the City in 1551. Emblazoned above the doorway of the new house purchased by the Council was the coat of arms with the three crowns, as was customary for municipal buildings, giving the bursa its new name Trium coronarum. Bursas thus underwent phases of rising, prospering and failing, just like large enterprises – a compelling comparison.

Beyond mandatory membership, bursa advancement continued until well into the mid-16th century, to a point where the Arts Faculty, then statutorily regulated in 1577, became identical with the entirety of the three aforesaid bursas, that is, with the schools they sponsored. These schools had meanwhile been designated gymnasia in the humanistic custom – to which we will revert later. Bursas founded at other German universities never gained such importance as in Cologne. Glancing to the west, we are reminded of college universities such as Oxford and Cambridge.

Cologne Jurisprudence

A further, already mentioned particularity of Cologne was the comparatively strong representation of Roman Law in the double Faculty of Jurisprudence. This would be inexplicable without the obvious need for jurists of the newer sort, a need once again reflecting the societal dynamics of the northwest. In any case, jurisprudence in Cologne was attended by large student numbers. A significant feature was the Cologne law professors’ juridical introductory literature, which most certainly met a commensurate demand. Cologne jurists were moreover frequently called upon to deal with legal expertises, consilia. Among those consulted quite early on were the Cologne legists – teachers of Roman Law, the more general reception of which was then just beginning in Germany. In Cologne of 1424, also the doctor in iure canonico Nikolaus of Kues continued the academic career he had begun Padua, though he quickly gave it up to go into politics.

Cologne Theology

For contemporaries, Cologne was nevertheless the major stronghold of theology alongside Paris. Against the backdrop of the leading scholastics of their time – an Albertus Magnus, a Thomas Aquinas – the studia generalia of the mendicant orders, and later the University, had high expectations to fulfil. Another Dominican from their midst was the most famous of all German mystics, Master Eckhart (? 1328), who also taught in Cologne. Of similar rank and coming from the Order of Friars Minor (Franciscans) was John Duns Scotus, who nevertheless died in 1308 in Cologne after an only brief teaching period and, like Albertus Magnus, was entombed here.

The Discord Over the “Ways”

Scholastics regarded theology and philosophy as closely intertwined, although they remained clear on the differing principles of the two moral sciences. Yet they challenged each other, above all reciprocally. In the philosophical discourse of the 14th century, the main issue was whether universals (as distinct from the particulars that instantiate them) were real entities – as claimed by the realists of the via antiqua, representing the initially prevalent school of thought – or whether they existed only as concepts or even mere signs, nomina, as presupposed by the “nominalists” of the via moderna. Today, by the way, these intrinsic problems are considered much more complex than the catchphrases of the time seem to suggest.

An appropriate assessment of Cologne University’s role in this general dispute is sufficiently rendered by a more pithy understanding of the matter. While the European universities almost exclusively preferred the via moderna until well into the 15th century, a counter-movement in which Cologne University was to play a major part then set in. The movement was initially personified in the Parisian theologian Heinrich of Gorkum, who took on a lectureship in Cologne in 1420. Although the German Prince-electors supported the representatives of via moderna in an almost threatening letter to the City, the University, to whom the City had forwarded their letter, rejected the electors’ intervention as a blatant intrusion on its freedom of teaching, saying that if the via antiqua outstripped the via moderna, they had to accept that.

From then on, Cologne realism sent out its rays to many other universities, from Leuven, Heidelberg and Freiburg, to Basel in the south, as well as to Copenhagen and Greifswald in the north and east. This regularly entailed new foundations whose teaching staff was recruited from Cologne, thus propagating that form of realism.

Thomists and Albertists

Cologne realism was specifically embedded in the tradition of Thomas Aquinas. Heinrich of Gorkum himself was a Thomist. His Cologne student Johannes Tinctoris from Tournai is believed to have been the first to comment upon the Summa theologiae in a lecture in 1443. He was followed by other Thomists such as Gerhard Elten, and wherever Cologne’s Thomists now went, that happened in the same way. The theological manual used at the time was the Sentences set down by Peter Lombard in the 12th century. To be sure, when 16th-century Spanish scholasticism replaced the Sentences with the Summa – under the Dominican Francisco de Vitoria – this no longer occurred through any influence of Cologne’s. Even so, it is significant that in Cologne one had already gone that way for nearly a century.

The realist Albertus Magnus was of course bound to rouse the interest of Cologne’s citizens, given that for centuries the University’s great learned discourse had been entrenched here in local tradition. As early as 1400 Parisians had been meeting Albertists – in particular, Heymericus de Campo from Brabant, who until then had been active in Paris and whom Heinrich of Gorkum called to Cologne in 1422. De Campo was even to become the leading Albertist, but after only ten years he returned home to the University of Leuven, in the founding of which he and other natives of Cologne had played a significant part.

It seems that the Cologne form of Albertism, which was later to be cultivated above all in Cracow, henceforth lacked leading minds in Cologne, and so Albert remained alive only in the Albertism fostered by the Bursa Laurentiana, without gaining much influence elsewhere. Apart from that, researchers advise against using the term “Albertism” because its would-be proponents lack the consistency needed to make it a coherent doctrine.


Soon Cologne University was faced with two entirely new problems: humanism and the Reformation.

Humanism, which originated in Italy and gradually found its way into Germany from the middle of the 15th century, introduced a new understanding of education in place of scholasticism. Late medieval scholasticism, in particular, had cultivated a distant and abstract form of conceptuality to a maximum. Weary of all that, humanism now rediscovered the concrete world of life, which it expressed in beautifully formed language, modelled on the linguistic ideals of antiquity. While the medieval teaching of language introduced Latin without going to any great philological depths, humanists sought to make the literary works of ancients as such the focus of intensive study. The reading of such literature was to foster a new kind of linguistic education, bringing in its wake a novel style of general education and culture designed to form the human being as a whole.

From the 1440s, humanists from abroad met in the cosmopolitan metropolis of Cologne to unearth classical scripts. But even within the University, humanistic interests seem to have flourished quite early on. Wessel Gansfort, thought of as a “pre-reformer” and active in the 1450s as Magister artium in the Laurentiana, later gratefully looked back on his teachers who had familiarized him with Plato. And one of these teachers, of all people, was the realist Herwich of Amsterdam, who had brought the Cologne form of realism to Heidelberg.

The Cologne University register repeatedly lists the names of learned humanists, some of whom had even accepted invitations to visit. Though several of them may have given much-noticed public lectures, the longer-lasting effects of humanism no doubt came from its advent in the bursas. Nevertheless, a generational problem seems to have arisen in the process, as it was now mostly younger arts teachers, often equipped with Italian experience, who sought to compete with the older scholastics. The latter were in turn able to profit from the enormous reputation of Cologne scholasticism, permitting them to behave quite self-assertively

The “Letters of Obscure Men”

In this context, it is necessary to mention the infamous “Letters of Obscure Men” (Epistolae Obscurorum Virorum), dating from 1515 to 1517. They consist of fictitious letters, which ostensibly stemmed from Cologne theologians and, under their first heading, were mainly composed by the humanist Crotus Rubeanus. He was the former mentor of Ulrich of Hutten, who was several years his junior and as his chief assistant largely drafted the letters of a second part. Both had been enrolled at Cologne University a few years earlier.

As mentioned earlier, large numbers of students as a rule completed the basic studies of the arts and were thereby introduced to the fundamentals of philosophy. To that end, leading Cologne scholastics had compiled philosophical schoolbooks, so-called copulata, in which the subject matter was laid out in a clear but intellectually undemanding way for mass usage, which was certainly profitable to the bookshops. It was against these Cologne authors that the humanists now retaliated by ridiculing a number of them, calling them arrogant and ignorant, above all linguistically inadequate and, on top of that, insignificant babblers. “Obscurity” here refers to this very insignificance which stands in stark contrast to the illustriousness of those whom the humanist Johannes Reuchlin gave a voice in his Clarorum virorum epistolae of 1514.

One addressee of the Letters of Obscure Men was the Cucanian Ortwinus Gratius, who referred to himself as a “teacher of rhetoric and poesy” and who worked in a Cologne printing shop as corrector for scholastics and classics publications. In that way he wanted to reconcile scholastic philosophy with literary education, also in terms of content – an endeavour that was deeply repugnant to the authors of the Letters.

School Humanism

Ortwinus Gratius had nevertheless formulated precisely the course that would be adopted in Cologne to defuse the conflict. Scholasticism and humanism were combined – as reflected above all in the study regulations of the bursas. In the process, humanism as a creative principle of life evolved into a form of humanism for schools and retreated into the realm of purely literary education.

Such was the humanism that joined forces throughout Europe to reshape school education. Specific books were compiled, rendering the organizational framework for medieval studies of the arts, as well as for other courses. In the newly established gymnasia, curricula were now taught in “classes”, which ensured a didactically consistent development of the subject matter. Although that process had already begun prior to the diffusion of humanism, with a first record for the municipal school of Zwolle dating from 1377, and therefore originally had nothing to do with the new intellectual movement, it was revitalized upon assigning the humanistic curricula to school levels.

That occurred in Cologne and elsewhere in the lower grades, starting from the sexta, whereas the philosophical subjects were confined to the two upper forms, secunda and prima. Gymnasia students could not enrol at the University until they had entered the secunda, which was also referred to as logica, indicating its subject matter. In this way, the humaniora in Cologne did not, strictly speaking, form a part of the university curriculum. Even so, they were in fact superbly integrated in the Arts Faculty insofar as it comprised the three gymnasia as a whole. Cologne University thus offered the most comprehensive educational plan possible, from lower grammar classes to doctoral courses in the higher faculties, reflecting a holistic approach to education in line with the particular requirements and expectations of the confessional era.

And this brings us to the second problematic issue for Cologne: the Reformation.

Reformation and the Catholic Counter-Movement

The already underscored importance of Cologne’s theologians was highlighted by their opposition to Martin Luther, when in 1519 the Cologne Faculty of Theology, joined by the Leuven Faculty, composed the first orthodox appraisals against him, thus giving direction to the movement. Accordingly, the papal bull Exsurge Domine of 1520, threatening Luther’s excommunication, made express reference to both reports. Despite several attempts, albeit only by individual professors, to carry the Lutheran doctrine into the University, it remained the fidelissima filia of the Roman Church.

It was only with a certain delay, in 1521, that 104 of Luther’s theses were also condemned by the Theology Faculty as such, namely by the Parisians. The Catholic theologian Johannes Fabri, an expert on religious controversy, was to recommend in his discussions with the reformer Ulrich Zwingli the universities of Paris, Cologne and Leuven as the generally competent interpreters of the Holy Scripture. Prominent among the theologians dealing with religious controversies at the time was the Dominican Jakob Hoogstraten in his function as papal inquisitor.

Apostolic Nuncio Aleander obtained the mandate from Emperor Charles V, who in 1520 was dwelling in Cologne following his coronation in Aachen, to have Luther’s heretic writings burned at the behest of the Pope. When the Nuncio approached Cologne University with this request, the University made a vigorous effort to be spared this task. Although, it stressed, one wished to obey the Apostolic See in all matters, burning books did not come under the University’s competencies, but was a duty of the archbishop, the western princes and the responsible authorities.

Of course, the burning took place anyway by order of the Nuncio, two days later in the Cathedral courtyard, in the presence of personally summoned professors of the Theology Faculty. In the matter per se, the rector expressly recorded in the rectorate ledger, one was entirely agreed catholically. At that time, the humanist Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam also sojourned in Cologne Köln and appealed to Aleander against the book burning. Most certainly he had encouraged the reluctant professors in their reservations.

This sheds light on Lower Rhine orthodoxy, as it were its Erasmanian variant, which tended towards conciliation. An outstanding personage here was Johannes Gropper, who held a “municipal” decretal professorship in the Law Faculty and was also the closest advisor to Cologne’s Archbishop Hermann of Wied. As it happened, Gropper’s conciliatory policy came to a dead end when the archbishop progressively moved towards the Reformation, for example by calling in the Lutheran theologian Martin Bucer, and Charles V warded off the Protestant threat in a demonstration of military strength.

In the course of its further development, which in denominational terms was now much clearer, the University more than ever became a centre of the Counter-Reformation for the greater Cologne area already outlined above – with the only difference that this area was now in the process of political, economic and not least confessional disintegration.

The Jesuits in the Tricoronatum

An important date in the University’s history in this context is marked by the transfer of the Cologne Tricoronatum to the Jesuits in 1556. When the Catholic issue under Hermann of Wied was on a knife-edge, Ignatius of Loyola, the founder and first Superior General of the Society of Jesus, which was dedicated to the Counter-Reformation, sent the Savoyard Peter Faber (Pierre Favre) to Germany in 1542. Faber was to gain his chief assistant in the then Cologne Montanian Petrus Canisius from Nijmegen, with whom he founded the first Society of Jesus on German soil, along with ten further students enrolled in Cologne. In 1560, the Cologne Society had as many as 60 members. It was also in Cologne that the name “Jesuits” was first coined for members of the Society.

The opportunity for exerting extensive influence on religious development presented itself when a crisis paralyzed the Cucana and could not be mastered by the gymnasium, notwithstanding its municipal status as Tricoronatum. It was then that the Cucanian Johannes Rethius, son of the influential Cologne Mayor Johann of Reidt (who had likewise committed himself earlier to the university reform), joined the Society of Jesus and arranged for the City to confer headship of the Tricoronatum upon himself, initially ad personam. The gymnasium was now placed in the hands of the Jesuits – at first de facto, but soon also lawfully. Reidt senior and junior thus personified for the future of Cologne University the characteristic combination of a broad, Christian-humanistic educational ideal with the Catholic vigour of Counter-Reformation.

Tricoronatum – Montanum – Laurentianum

In terms of its importance, the Tricoronatum was soon to rank first among Cologne’s gymnasia, before the Montanum and the Laurentianum. The rise in its student numbers was virtually breathtaking: in 1560, it recorded 500 students; in 1576, over 1000. From 1570 onwards, the Tricoronatum usually boasted as many graduates as the two other gymnasia together.

The Jesuits were widely and exemplarily successful in standardizing gymnasia study regulations. The aforementioned broadening of the gymnasia-relevant curricula in the elementary grades largely went back to Jesuit conceptions.

There was overall agreement on fundamental religious objectives, such as those emphasized around 1611 by the prominent regent of the Laurentianum, Caspar Ulenberg, in a draft for his school. Accordingly, students were to be instructed with much greater care in spirituality because piety was better than scholarly education: melior est pietas quam eruditio. Religious education in the gymnasia was not least of all guaranteed by their professors’ personal ties to the Theology Faculty. In actual fact, these ties had always existed in that Masters who studied theology simultaneously went on teaching the arts subjects before fully switching over to the Theology Faculty upon completing their theological studies. Ulenberg now required all colleagues co-opted by the bursa to pledge themselves to the future study of theology. To an extent as yet unknown in the Middle Ages, the control of students was heightened and extended beyond the educational sphere to encompass general aspects of everyday life.

The Tricoronatum was also quite impressive by qualitative standards. An exceedingly large number of important bishops of the 16th and 17th centuries had been its students, as had many prominent citizens of Cologne, for instance the later mayors Melchior von Gail, Wilhelm Hackstein, or Johann Hardenrath. Distinguished academics included the economist and political philosopher Adam Contzen; the philologist and political philosopher Justus Lipsius, who gained vital ideas for his new stoicism there; the astronomer and advisor to the Emperor of China, Johann Adam Schall von Bell; or Georg Braun, editor of the well-known Civitates orbis terrarum (Book of Cities).

Nevertheless, only few eminent Jesuit scholars worked in Cologne over longer periods, among them the influential school dramatist and poetry theorist Jakob Masen of Dahlen (today the city of Mönchengladbach), who with his Rusticus imperans wrote the most-often-enacted school comedy of the 17th century.

Involuntarily short was Friedrich Spee’s sojourn in Cologne; with his Cautio criminalis, presumably started there, he was to initiate the end of the obsessive belief in witches. For that reason he also ran into trouble with other Cologne professors, among them the theologian Heinrich Textorius Glimbach, who had called upon the city in 1631 not to be outshone by the much more numerous witch burnings in Protestant lands. From 1627 to 1632, at least 20 alleged witches were still burned in Cologne. If that nonsensical miscreed declined markedly thereafter, it was doubtless on account of the Cautio criminalis.

Older research findings established very close links between the Hexenhammer, the main guide published in 1487 for the conviction of witches, and Cologne professors as well as the Theology Faculty as a whole. A more recent critical review nevertheless distinctly scales back Cologne’s share in the atrocities.

In its philosophical teachings, the Tricoronatum abided by the Spanish line of Jesuit scholasticism, which had reached its peak in Francisco Suárez (1548-1619). Worth noting are also the school’s interests in mathematics and the natural sciences – interests that were revived in the 18th century. Apart from that, most recent investigations have revealed that the old Cologne University generally cultivated the natural sciences to a much greater degree and was more intensely mindful of their European advancement than assumed so far.

When the Jesuit Order was abolished in 1773, the City took over the entire estate, apart from a few individual tenures. The school’s operations were only marginally disturbed by all this as the City allowed ex-Jesuits to remain in the school as teachers.

Neither the Laurentianum nor the Montanum were able to produce such an abundance of scholarly achievements as the Tricoronatum. Both gymnasia, however, kept a meticulous record of the famed personalities who emerged from their midst, and those were quite a few. All three schools performed an educational function that cannot be thought away from Catholic Germany of those centuries.

The Higher Faculties: Medicine

Cologne’s three higher faculties differed in significance. Its Medical Faculty was the smallest – like at most other German universities, perhaps with the exception of Vienna. Even so, it initially outperformed many, but still fell far short of the leading rank of Viennese medicine. Nearly half of the professors traceable until 1559 stemmed from the diocese of Utrecht, that is, the northern Low Countries. The Faculty then experienced a severe crisis in the 16th century; at times it had only a single full professor, and in 1575 it was even without a doctor. On the other hand, a herbal garden used privately by a Cologne professor of medicine for teaching purposes is documented from the very early date of 1555.

Although, in contrast to other countries, post-mortem dissection was opposed for a long time at German universities, it gradually broke ground here, too, in the course of the 16th and 17th centuries. For Cologne it can be said with certainty that until the end of the 17th century, no public autopsies took place. Thus, it was not until 1715 that autopsies were definitely arranged at the request of the Cologne-born professor Thomas Steinhaus, who had obtained his doctorate in Padua. A Theatrum anatomicum was especially created for that purpose.

Surgery in Cologne, as well as everywhere else, was a matter not of scientifically and theoretically educated physicians but of wound healers who as apprentices had learned their “handcraft” (from chir-urgia, hand-work). Cologne witnessed its first surgical lecture in 1684.

The relationship between university physicians and the City was quite close. At times, up to 50 percent of the professors belonged to the City Council, exercising such functions as medical supervision.


Cologne’s professors of law enjoyed a more distinctive status than its physicians. Their engagement on behalf of the City was hardly increasable. Yet the already large number of “municipal” law professors grew once again in 1559, to now four legist and three canonist chairs because, it was held, law studies in universities were increasing in diversity (dweil die studiosi in iure sich vilfeltig in universitate meren). Except for Leipzig, it seems that no other German Law Faculty possessed as many chairs – a phenomenon that was not so uncommon in other countries, however. Orléans, leading in France, had eight and Coimbra in Portugal even had 15.

It is nonetheless surprising that only comparatively few Cologne jurists went down in the academic annals of the discipline. On the other hand, the often-cited German “introductory scholars”, such as Henricus Brunonis de Piro (of Birnboeme), Loppo von Zierikzee, Nicasius de Voerda and Hermannus Sifridus Sinnema, were nearly all Cologne professors, thus reflecting the aforesaid importance of legal practice. The most prominent German jurist in the mid-16th century, Johannes Oldendorp, was appointed to the University by the City Council in 1538, with the express duty not only to interpret gentium leges Romanas but also to be available in causis rei publicae. Precisely this was expected of a jurist, of course, but not everywhere with such emphasis. Worthy of note in any case and quite typical of the University’s renown is that the civil law scholar from Paris, Denis Godefroy, also studied in Cologne. In 1583, he published the entire edition of Corpus juris civilis, which was to claim canonical validity until well into the 18th century.

Notwithstanding its practical orientation, the Cologne Faculty of Law held traditions in high esteem. Indeed, as elsewhere but not everywhere, lectures in Cologne only reluctantly departed from the legal order of the law corpora by turning, instead, to the system of individual sub-disciplines. It was not until 1732 that the City set aside a fixed salary for a professorship in Public Law. From the middle of the 18th century, emphatic steps towards modernization were finally taken, particularly under the influence of the Göttingen School, entailing lectures in criminal and procedural law but also in, say, exchange law.


Meanwhile, still ranking at the top in Cologne, also from the 16th century, were theology studies. Experiences with the Reformation had taught the Catholic Church leadership that the study of theology need not strive so much for academic excellence, as in the Middle Ages, but should seek to give the common clergy a sound, practical education devoted to the pastoral care of the public at large. It was in this context that theology studies everywhere were abridged in the 16th and 17th centuries. Thus, in Leuven their duration was reduced from twelve to seven years, in Cologne from ten to five and later even to four.
Student numbers, which during the Reformation had generally declined, began to rise again steadily from the mid-16th century. As many as 300 theology students were recorded in 1654 – no doubt an extreme. When the University was dissolved in 1798, 20 professors lectured theology.

The influence of the Jesuits was statutorily restricted. Twelve professorships each were allocated to secular priests and to friars, of which only two were set aside for Jesuits. Alongside the mendicant orders, the old monastic orders of Benedictine provenance generally played an important role in Catholic schools of the baroque period, thus also in Cologne, although they mainly prevailed in southern Germany.

The advent of Thomism in the Catholic academic world was largely initiated by the Jesuits. In 1702, the Theology Faculty in Cologne laid down the binding validity of the Thomistic doctrine for the study of theology.

Controversies within Catholicism, such as those engendered by Jansenism and probabilism, quite often placed Cologne’s theologians in opposition to the papal doctrine. The manner in which faculty professors faced the challenges of Enlightenment reflects not only a basic fortification of tradition-oriented conservatism but also a willingness to compromise on a range of affinities and inclinations.


All these tendencies must be viewed within the scope of a general trend towards modernization, which is significant for the last three decades of the old Cologne University as a whole. The last rector to be elected, Ferdinand Franz Wallraf, professor for botany, natural history and aesthetics in the Faculty of Medicine, proved a great collector and, hence, rescuer of multifarious Cologne records. A less well-known fact is that he was also a protagonist of the University’s reform, a task recognized as ever more urgent. Thus, in his inaugural address of 1786, he stressed the importance of the natural sciences for the University’s future development. His characteristic pragmatism is also highlighted in an expertise in which he recommended the establishment of a “commercial academy for prospective merchants” – as if he had anticipated over a hundred years in advance the Cologne Commercial College (Handelshochschule), which was to form the basis of the new University of the 20th century. Wallraf’s wishes and proposals must moreover be seen against the backdrop of manifold modernizing developments already in progress in the fields of medicine and jurisprudence as well as within the Tricoronatum.

The Temporary End

The big challenge, precisely under the above aspect, nevertheless proved to be the academy founded in 1777 in Bonn in the distinct spirit of Enlightenment by Cologne’s Archbishops Max Friedrich of Königseck and Max Franz, brother of the reform-hungry Emperor Joseph II. It was awarded university status in 1786.

As it happened, Cologne was deprived of the decision whether to emphasize, now more than ever, its orthodox tradition in respect of Catholic teaching or to overtake Bonn in striving for modernity. This was because the French government, following France’s occupation of the city in 1794, in effect abolished the University in 1798 under a sweeping reform of the French school system, which no longer provided for universities. Cologne University was thus replaced by a “central school” for the new Roer Département, although it was allowed to retain its designation as L’Université de Cologne organisée en école centrale.

When central schools were abolished throughout France in 1802, with (lower) secondary schools and (higher) lycées established in their place, Bonn but not Cologne received a lycée. At the request of its citizenry Napoleon granted Cologne a kind of higher-level secondary school which, as far as one knows, was quite unique and whose curriculum practically resembled that of a lycée. In any case, Bonn was given preference.

The 19th Century

The City’s endeavours to regain possession of a first-class academic institution remained unsuccessful throughout the entire “French” period and came to a provisional end in 1818, when the then Prussian lord-paramount of the territory decided in favour of Bonn as the location of a new university for the Western Provinces. To be sure, ideological-political grounds that made Cologne appear reactionary and conservative were less decisive than the locational advantages Bonn offered. Cologne, for its part, henceforth argued strongly along likewise “political” lines, stressing the city’s supra-regional importance. From here, thus the reasoning, followed the utterly logical necessity of re-establishing the University, not from any historical claim in retrospect of the former university.

From the middle of the century, the decisive proponent of the new Cologne initiative was the Cologne merchant and president of the Chamber of Commerce, Gustav von Mevissen, an – in many respects – noteworthy inspirer of both economic and intellectual progress in the town. He first formulated his demand for the re-establishment of Cologne “as a centre of academia” in 1856.

As is generally known, population growth in the 19th century was rapid, thus also in Cologne. That led to a commensurate increase in student numbers throughout Germany, from some 12,300 in the winter term of 1840/41 to 80,000 at the outbreak of the First World War. Such facts, however, never served as grounds for the revival of Cologne University, preference being given rather to formative developments in terms of quality.

Obviously, technization and industrialization brought fundamental changes in their wake, changes that now also had to find their way into the contemporary organization of academia. The classic natural sciences initially evolved within the institutionalized university layout, then, however, gradually moved towards more efficient extra-university research establishments, such as those set up under the auspices of the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gesellschaft zur Förderung der Wissenschaften, founded in Berlin in 1911, with its diverse Kaiser Wilhelm institutes. That trend nevertheless spotlighted the problems of modern academic organization with a view to the function of universities. New fields like engineering and economics, in their early days as a science, stood outside the academic community, struggling to become integrated along organizational lines. The founding of the new Cologne University was most closely interlinked with this problem.

Initially it was questioned to what extent these so-called “practical” sciences were to be accepted as “sciences” in the first place. Both fields, engineering and commercial science, meanwhile pressed very rapidly for educational instruction and the attendant teaching institutions, such as those first realized in the form of the Paris-based École Polytechnique in 1794. Following the establishment of polytechnics in Prague (1806) and Vienna (1815), such institutes were likewise introduced in Germany: in Karlsruhe in 1825, in Munich in 1827, in Dresden in 1828, and so forth. Their designation as “poly-technics” was to show that they differed from technical colleges such as the already existing mining schools and that, similar to universities, they imparted a more comprehensive, higher level of knowledge, although university academics regarded them as second-rate.

Cologne’s Fresh Start

Now it was significant that since the middle of the century, and even more so since 1858, the city of Cologne had been vying for the polytechnic planned for the two western Prussian provinces. In 1863, however, a decision was reached in favour of Aachen, not Cologne. Mevissen had already been active on behalf of Cologne in that matter, so the failure of the polytechnic plans now steered his practical-commercial interests to the erection of a higher-level school in the second of the cited “practical” fields, namely commercial science.

Yet contemporaries in general and academic theorists in particular initially did not regard the subject matter of commercial and economic studies as a “science” in the actual sense; they tended to distinguish it from “pure” science by calling it “applied” science. Thus a general aim of commercial colleges at the outset was to obtain higher-ranking, indeed academic recognition for the economic sciences. Affiliation with a university was one way of achieving that aim, as in the case of Leipzig Commercial College, established in 1898.

That, however, was not the case in Cologne, where the first independent Commercial College was founded in 1901. Such a status would have been unthinkable without the substantial endowment funds of 100,000 Mark that Mevissen had already set aside for the establishment of a prospective “Kaiser Wilhelm Commercial College”.

Interestingly enough, neither the government nor even the city, nor the provincial administration and the business associations had shown much interest in Mevissen’s college plans. And so it took 22 years for the City Council to adopt the project and supply additional funds for its realization. That makes the founding of Cologne Commercial College all the more a landmark of academic and, especially, collegiate history. After that, until 1919, many commercial colleges followed – in Frankfurt, Berlin, Mannheim, Munich, Königsberg and Nuremberg. In the other German-speaking countries, Vienna and St. Gall had already gone forward in 1898.

From the Commercial College to the University

It would be pointless to try to ascertain whether the aim to re-institute the University even still existed in the last few decades of the 19th century, or whether the founding of a commercial college was just one of the tactical moves made to ultimately achieve that aim. Regardless, Cologne Commercial College later made quite a show of self-confidence when it came to establishing itself in the University as a faculty.

In any case, the founding of the College in 1901 clearly opened the floodgates for the entry of general practical scholarship to the academic world. Soon thereafter, in 1904, Cologne witnessed the initiation of the first German Academy for Practical Medicine, which offered clinical disciplines and was devoted in particular to the medical training and further education of physicians. The College of Communal and Social Administration followed in 1912; its main focus was on the legal training of communal and social officers. But one continued to suffer from one’s secondariness in relation to the universities, especially as commercial colleges were not allowed to award doctorates – a privilege that had nevertheless been granted to Frankfurt’s commercial college, along with its future conversion into a university.

All the more remarkable was the initial tendency in Cologne to remain independent, hence “novel”, without having to fit into the framework of a conventional university constitution. The initiation of an about-turn was a major achievement of Christian Eckert, who from 1904 was the director of studies of the Commercial College. It took lengthy negotiations to convince the Chamber of Commerce and industrial associations of the necessity of founding a university.

The “New” University of 1919

Nevertheless, the political breakthrough was not to occur until Lord Mayor Konrad Adenauer appeared on the scene, having fully embraced the university plan since taking office in 1917. To broaden the existing academic basis, he had considered founding a Kaiser Wilhelm institute for nutrition physiology, an idea that failed, as well as a social science research institute, which was launched in 1918 and placed in the authoritative hands of the philosopher Max Scheler. The notion of practice orientation was linked to the so-called Social Question, which had gained new weight in view of the calamitous outcome of the war.

Adenauer was moreover able to draw attention to the political necessity of strengthening the German position along the Rhine through the establishment of a Cologne-based university. Such a university, he averred, was to continue the tradition of Strasbourg University founded in 1872. Adenauer then, however, went even further by assigning the new Cologne University a European bridging function, in particular one between Germany and France.

Not least of all he obtained the go-ahead from the major political forces before proceeding to conduct negotiations with the Berlin Ministry in May 1919. These talks resulted in a contract between the Prussian State Government and the City of Cologne on the establishment of a municipal university, which commenced operations on 29 May 1919 with Adenauer’s signature. That the University was not merely formally “municipal” was reflected in the strong position of the simultaneously instituted Board of Trustees as its supreme administrative body. Under the chairmanship of the Lord Mayor, it included seven City delegates; from the University’s circle, besides its executive chairman Professor Eckert, it comprised only the rector and the pro-rector. The Board was entitled to comment on all appointment proposals submitted by the faculties to the Ministry. Adenauer’s disputes with an ineluctable state commissioner, as which the Governor of the Rhine Province then officiated, underscored the City’s jealous watch over its University.

External Development

The new alma mater consisted of four faculties. The Management, Economics and Social Sciences Faculty emerged from the Commercial College and therefore, until this day, ranks first in the succession of faculties. The Academy for Practical Medicine was converted into the Faculty of Medicine, which in 1925 was supplemented by the preclinical disciplines. Both a Law Faculty and an Arts Faculty were constituted in 1920.

The first decade of the University was an exceedingly dynamic one. Leading, notably young scholars could be won – an aspect to be highlighted further below. By the end of the 1920s, the number of professorships had doubled to 65; student numbers had risen to over 5,000. As early as 1925, Cologne University boasted the second highest number of students in Prussia, following Berlin. In Germany as a whole, it ranked fourth behind Berlin, Munich and Leipzig.

A large proportion of students came from the middle classes – smaller business- and crafts-people, mid-level civil servants and employees; this figure was some 20 percent above the usual average of other German universities. The University’s convenient location as regards transport facilities attracted students from more outlying districts, so that their roots in the city were weaker than in the case of smaller university towns. Consequently, these location advantages, which permitted student access from a wide range of social backgrounds extending far into the middle classes, simultaneously entailed some degree of anonymity at the University itself – a feature which thus has not just emerged lately.


Increasingly eye-catching developments of the time were the university buildings. The former university of the Middle Ages and early modern times did not possess a central edifice. Aside from premises built for the individual faculties or merely used by them, such as the Aula Theologica in the diocesan chapter building, the bursas and other collegiate endowments purchased and constructed larger buildings, concentrating on the square to the west of the Cathedral.

On the other hand, the new University now also started to make its presence felt as regards urban development. From 1905 to 1907, a representative structure had been erected for the Commercial College on the southern fringes of the historic town centre; it initially served as the main university building. By the 1920s, it had nevertheless grown too small, so that in 1929 one set out to construct expansive new premises in the western part of the city, inside the planned broad green belt. The work was temporarily suspended in 1931, in the wake of the Great Depression, but was resumed again as early as 1933, and then completed in 1935 with the inauguration of the main building, still known today as Hauptgebäude. The plans for the city park, based essentially on Adenauer’s initiative, had played a key role in the choice of the new location.

Another point of orientation was the Lindenburg medical facilities to the west. They were to be connected to the new building by a representative avenue flanked on both sides by additional university buildings, thus creating a relatively self-contained university quarter. Property circumstances nevertheless caused that plan to fail, although it was re-adopted later in the form of a compromise, as will be shown further below.

The University’s Self-Conception

According to the founders of the 1919 University, which they themselves labelled as “novel”, their institution was to be defined by the principles of practical relevance, social orientation and pluralism. Pluralism was at the same time supposed to avert over-specialization and the general sectoring of the sciences as well as of society as a whole. Even so, it was queried whether academic and ideological pluralism per se was capable of doing so, whether such pluralism did not require a more precise factual definition such as, say, in the case of endorsing the necessity of classical education. Thus one sought to cope with the encapsulation feared from over-emphasizing individual disciplines by expressly promoting a studium generale.

With this, the key points governing the new University’s self-conception, along with its educational programmes, have been identified. This new self-image is to be highlighted further by at least a few examples.

Practice-Oriented and General Education

The problems of Cologne University are more readily understood by looking at the teaching programmes of the Commercial College and the ensuing Management, Economics and Social Sciences Faculty. The College, for its part, had mainly taught economics (Nationalökonomie) and the pertinent jurisprudence – that is, disciplines and subject matter with a certain tradition, albeit tailored to commercial practice. Having developed business economics as a new academic discipline, Eugen Schmalenbach, who accepted the chair in Cologne in 1904, nevertheless sought to distinguish his field as a practice-oriented “art” from the ideal of pure science. His student Ernst Walb, who from 1911 to 1920 and then again from 1926 to 1945 taught in Cologne, focused on business accountancy and elaborated the subject of banking management. At the same time, actuarial science developed at a rapid pace. On the initiative of Schmalenbach in 1925/26, further specialization was reflected in the division of business economics into the separately budgeted sub-disciplines of trusteeship, business operations and banking management, as well as in departments for industrial business management and commercial teachers.

On the other hand, individual disciplines maintained close contacts to non-university research and practice. Thus a variety of research institutes sprang up, bridging the gap from teaching to practice and back again. The growing importance of economics and the social sciences was also mirrored in the opening up of other faculties such as, say, the Law Faculty to the development of commercial and industrial law, labour law, or banking and stock-exchange legislation. Fields like economic history and political science likewise directed attention to issues that transcended specific disciplines. In 1917, the first German Chair for Economic History was set up in Cologne.

It is interesting to note that already the Commercial College’s teaching programme had been supplemented by general arts courses. From the beginning, there were professorships for French and English language and literature – hence, not only commercial language – and, from 1914, also for philosophy and aesthetics. These lectures, which were held publice, were purposely scheduled for the evenings. The historical, philological and philosophical subjects of general education met with emphatic support. That they were intended for wider circles, also outside the University, is reminiscent of adult education tendencies. It is no coincidence, then, that Paul Honigsheim, a pioneer of the adult education movement, held a chair for philosophy, sociology and pedagogy in the Arts Faculty from 1927, after Adenauer had assigned him the full-time direction of the Cologne Adult Education Centre back in 1920. Incidentally, the Centre was initiated by the sociologist Leopold von Wiese, who was among the leading minds of the Commercial College and then of the Management, Economics and Social Sciences Faculty.

Wiese was moreover one of the founders of sociology as a separately constituted discipline that had detached itself from social philosophy, economics and psychology. In his Cologne University lecture of 1919, he stressed that the Management, Economics and Social Sciences Faculty was “primarily the straight-line continuation of the Commercial College”. Yet if, he said, the main emphasis had previously been on vocational training, the aim was now to devote oneself more intensely to personal education; only then would one be able to execute Mevissen’s will. Wiese saw private-sector economics (Privatwirtschaftslehre) and sociology as the cornerstones of the new faculty.

Social Inclusion

The postulate of personality development apostrophized here was thus reiterated in numerous statements and explanations of the time as being “social” in the broadest sense, and not classical-individual. Proceeding from the College for Communal and – significantly – Social Administration founded back in 1912, the City then provided the necessary funds for the establishment of a Research Institute for Social Sciences in 1918. The Institute comprised the following departments: Sociology, under the direction of Leopold von Wiese and the philosopher Max Scheler (one of the dominant personalities of Germany’s intellectual community in the 1920s); Social Policy and Community Politics, flanking Sociology, under the Social Democrat Hugo Lindemann; as well as Social Policy and Social Law, under Theodor Brauer, who was devoted to the Catholic social doctrine. Lindemann and Brauer were dismissed, or rather forced to resign, after 1933. Among other subjects, Lindemann included [female] gender studies in his research, publishing, for instance, an inquiry into the occupational and personal fate of female employees (Enquête über das Berufs- und Lebensschicksal der weiblichen Angestellten).

The citing of these scholars’ political-ideological attributes is quite intentional here because it reflects Adenauer’s corresponding notion of the “modern” Cologne University, namely that it ought to represent in a pluralistic way the prevailing trends of the time – the liberal, the social-democratic and the Catholic. Time and again he evoked the “pluralism of worldviews” that had to be entrenched in the new Cologne University.

That ideal, of course, conformed to the fundamental aim of social inclusion. Yet it also raised the question of a potential impairment to scholarship following in its wake. The ensuing lively debate ultimately led to the conclusion that if political forces were wisely balanced, a kind of academically refining and tradition-forming tolerance would develop. This notion has lived on, though often only covertly, in the new University until the present day.

Looking at the early beginnings of this Cologne-specific development, we spot a tenet, which was catching in its very time-relatedness: the so-called Social Question. It was able to bring its influence to bear on the way in which economics and the social sciences, jurisprudence, or even medicine, sought to configure themselves. But it could not be applied to the canon of university courses as a whole. In particular the natural sciences, but also some of the humanistic disciplines of the classical Arts Faculty, remained outside its most pressing interests. The designation “Arts Faculty” (Philosophische Fakultät) was virtually shunned, with preference initially given to the term “Faculty of Cultural Studies”, which no doubt fit in better with the basic concept. “Ancient philology” – thus it was stated in a memorandum – “ancient history and archaeology, pure mathematics and the like” were to be put in the rear at Cologne University, given their cultivation in Bonn. In this way, a basic element of the classical university, the aspiration for universality, was given up. Yet many a commentator also stressed that, precisely to the contrary, a lot of new academic fields had so far not been considered by the universities.

“Classical Education”

The above problem presented itself for Classical Philology. Of Johannes Stroux, who taught in Basel and ranked second on the 1922 appointment list for a chair, it was stated in his credentials that he “as a teacher in adult education lectures … [had been] eagerly and successfully active”. The ultimate appointee, Joseph Kroll, who was to become the influential Cologne rector after 1945, ironically remarked in his 1964 retrospection that one had expected of him “more entertaining lectures on antiquity” back then in 1922. Kroll was a Greek scholar. For now, let us leave it at that. By establishing yet another chair with the main focus on Latin, Classical Philology was nevertheless now also restored in Cologne, thus matching the older universities. The professorship was offered to Günther Jachmann, a strict philologist, with whom the “cultural studies” concept was no doubt abandoned. And, after all, the chair for Ancient History was entrusted to Johannes Hasebroek, who was exceptionally devoted to ancient economic history.

The Cologne discourse on educational theory, in terms of its history, was part of the larger conceptual framework prevalent at the time. As a correction to Humboldt’s basic principles of education – individualism, totality and universality – the educational scientist Georg Kerschensteiner declared, “The pathway of education leads through work.” Eduard Spranger put it similarly: “The pathway to a higher level of general education leads through one’s occupation and only one’s occupation.” Vice versa, the idealistic conception of university and education placed general education at the outset. Notwithstanding this converse, both concepts sought to save general education. Humanistic education and technical-economic training were thus supposed to be reconciled with each other. According to the view taken by the “novel” University, the social sciences thereby played a key role on account of their obviously integrative effects.

The Period of National Socialism

The Cologne specifics were nevertheless in the process of eroding in the early 1930s, when National Socialism brutally severed all strands of discussion. It is remarkable how little effort the University put into resisting this, although its mission and structures pronounced it a democratic institution at the time. What is more, it was the first university to let itself be “brought into line” (gleichschalten) in 1933 and, in doing so, undertook opportunistic changes in leadership, albeit in an attempt to save what perhaps could be saved.

In fact, the University did thus succeed in retreating into a lee, as it were, which enabled it to weather the storms of the next twelve years more passably than many other universities. The number of dismissed professors, at 20 percent, was above the German average; two professors paid for their views with their lives: the full professor for Social Policy, Benedikt Schmittmann, and the Medieval Latin scholar, Goswin Frenken. It is nevertheless significant for the Cologne climate of those days that the later call-back letters, sent after the War by deans on behalf of their faculties to colleagues who had been expelled, merely met with one attested hostile-negative response, even if only few addressees actually returned.

Resumption of the Debate on Principles of the University After 1945

After 1945, the experiences with National Socialism led to a revival of the debate on the University’s principles with regard to its desired character. Die problematic tensions prior to 1933 were, of course, still present in the minds of those who now set out to rebuild the University. Both of the formerly targeted objectives were formulated anew and, unlike before, set in opposition to each other in a thoroughly antagonistic manner.

Initially, the most defining figure was the afore-cited Greek scholar and now first post-war rector, Joseph Kroll. He made no pretence of his rejection of the “practice-oriented”, “novel” University of 1919. “I found myself”, thus he spoke of the 1920s, “at a university whose immense life I felt everyday. A university, however, that wished to know nothing of the humaniora.” Yet a university, he said, was simply not a technical college. Rather, students there were to be “educated on an academic pathway” towards the “ideal of pure humanity”. “[That ideal] was conceived in Hellenism, has formed the Occident with its creative power, and upon it rests the culture of humankind.” “To work for that with all our strength is the particular mission of our University.”

This reasoning corresponded to an interpretation, quite common after 1945, of what had happened since 1933 from a historical perspective. Thus it was held that alienation from classical-Christian legacies or “Western tradition” as a whole, as evoked by Kroll, had led to the barbarianism of National Socialism.

The concomitant objectives of the post-war years were referred to as “restorative”. This term was by no means a merely defamatory placard held up by a critical opposition. Kroll himself said that the point was not re-education in one sense or another; “instead” it was “restoration”. He therefore now applied the epithet “new”, meanwhile familiar from the University’s history, to the post-war University, asserting that restauratio in fact denoted renewal: “The new University has a completely different face … than at the beginning of the century.” On the other hand, the University was once again strongly committed to the Humboldtian model. From this position, for example, Kroll in 1953 briskly rejected the division of the Arts Faculty into a Faculty of the Humanities and a Faculty of Mathematics and Natural Sciences, stressing that the “new” University had to resist such specialization tendencies.

Effects on Academic Development

Such was the universal tradition typical above all of the Middle Ages. No wonder, then, that this epoch was now more heavily accentuated in the teaching programme than it had been in the 1920s. A variety of, in part very heterogeneous, reasons had stood in the way of creating a Faculty of Catholic Theology at that time, although such a faculty, in keeping with the overall aim, could have been weighted by practical pastoral considerations – all the more so as the Catholic worldview had contributed to the above colour spectrum. Instead, 1947 witnessed the creation of a new chair for Medieval Philosophy along with a Thomas Institute, which has cultivated this discipline with special care and has flourished until this day.

The establishment of the chair was initially rejected at a board of trustees meeting by the social democratic Mayor of Cologne, Görlinger, who did not see the point of such an undertaking based on an attitude “that ignored the necessities of present-day life”. The undertone of that discussion readily brings to mind the 1920s, which were obviously invoked again here. And so both sides struck a deal in the spirit of pluralism: the one side relented and agreed to the Medieval Studies in return for which the other, at the same meeting, endorsed a professorship plus department for Political Sciences. And to round it all off in a good kölsch manner, the former Reich Chancellor and Centre Party leader, Heinrich Brüning, was offered the latter chair. Nevertheless, in the same year of 1947, a Research Institute for Social and Administrative Sciences was set up within the Faculty of Management, Economics and Social Sciences, with the express aim of reviving the former Institute for Social Sciences that had been dissolved in 1934. In resuming the custom of the 1920s, the new Institute was supported politically by Cologne’s Social Democrats.

Within the University, the jurist Hans-Carl Nipperdey was its most important sponsor; he was also co-founder of the modern discipline of labour law and, from 1954, the first President of the German Federal Labour Court in Kassel – and, within the teaching staff, he was the major opponent of Joseph Kroll. Nipperdey and Kroll were university politicians who represented two quite different yet, for Cologne University as a whole, highly characteristic traditions. Cooperation between them not only enhanced the University’s profile but also served as a mutual balance and, as shown in the “1968” student protests, had a generally stabilizing, not disruptive effect.

External Development in the Post-War Era

After a one-year interruption, the University was re-opened by decree of the British military government dated 24 October 1945; lectures commenced on 26 November. Already in August, a personnel commission set up by the professors had worked out guidelines for the political evaluation of the University’s staff. The denazification programme also applied to students; they were only allowed to enrol if they could submit a political clearance pass. Certificates for passed exams required the military government’s prior confirmation.

On the whole, the thirties and forties were no doubt left behind all too easily as a kind of intermezzo. Cologne’s post-war history is characterized by the same hectic re-construction activities commonly depicted in the historical descriptions of other German universities. In 1935, during the National Socialist period, the student number had been limited to 2,300. At the restart in 1945/46, initially 1,450 students were admitted; in the following term, their number was again at 2,300. By 1950 this figure had risen to 5,000, and by 1960 it had almost hit 14,000. Ten years later, the count was 19,000. Alone in the period from 1985 to 1997, student numbers swelled from 48,000 to 62,000, leaving Cologne to compete with Munich University for first place in Germany.

An erratic increase occurred in 1980 with the affiliation of the two Cologne-based departments of the Rhineland College of Education as the Faculties of Education and of Special Education – from 1987, the Faculty of Therapeutic Pedagogy – as a result of which student numbers rose in addition to their otherwise continual growth. In particular the last-mentioned faculty witnessed an above-average surge of 130 percent in its accession rate from 1985 to 1997. Ranking second, with a 63 percent rise over the same period, the Faculty of the Humanities had meanwhile become the strongest faculty of all, with over 20,000 students. Conversely, the number of medical students had declined by about 22 percent, to just over 3,500.

All these figures must moreover been seen against the backdrop of restricted admission, numerus clausus, which was being applied to more and more study paths. Over 12,000 applications for a place at Cologne University had to be declined for the winter term of 1997/98. With 54 restricted-admission degree programmes, the University thus held a top position in Germany. Within the twelve previous years, the number of students from abroad had risen by over 100 percent, to nearly 6,000.

Staff developments trailed student figures with some degree of variance. At the end of the War, 86 professors held established posts. While there were 46 professors upon restarting in 1945, the earlier figure was re-attained in 1948. The 5,000 students enrolled in 1950 were able to profit from the courses offered by 125 tenured professors – that is, one professor on average mentored 40 students. Although there were 270 full-time professors for the 19,000 students signed up in 1970, the ratio was now 1 to 70. Then in 1985, with 528 professors it was 1 to 91. The 62,000 students of 1997 stood vis-à-vis 527 professors at a ratio of 1 to 117, while the federal average was 1 to 55. With a personnel utilization rate of over 300 percent, Cologne’s overload factor was the highest in Germany.

Constructional Expansion

The University’s expansion was most evident externally in its constructional development. As mentioned above, the original large-scale plan that had included Lindenburg could not be realized. Instead, the main building, which from 1956 to 1960 had already been extended northwards by an annex for the Management, Economics and Social Sciences Faculty, was fronted to the west by a forum, which was then framed by a new lecture hall (1964-68), and later by the so-called Philosophikum (1971-74) to meet the needs of the ever-growing Humanities Faculty. To the south of the lecture hall, the new University Library, completed in 1968, partitioned off the landscaped green, thus seeking to conserve the green-belt conception. The Physics and Chemistry Institutes, erected from 1968 to 1975, were positioned closer to the city centre and, like the meanwhile re-designed canteen, were also embedded in green spaces. No other German metropolitan university is known to have such a campus – scattered, yet right within in the city.

Further to the west, the extensive clinics area – dominated by the Central Clinic’s hospital, which was ready for occupancy in 1974 – constitutes a counterpoint of urban development, thus embossing the entire Lindenthal district. The district includes a series of additional university buildings, above all those of the Faculties of Education and Therapeutic Pedagogy. Located here as well are numerous student accommodations, some of which are also found farther out of town, with the largest residence in Efferen.

From the Municipal to the Federal State University

The year 1945 did not entail any larger-scale organizational restructuring for the University. On 7 May 1946, the Board of Trustees was constituted under the chairmanship of Cologne’s Lord Mayor in its first meeting following the war. It soon became quite active in staff-policy matters.

To be sure, the financial burdens on the City owing to the reconstruction and the requirements of a modern university quickly came to the fore. In a Board of Trustees meeting on 14 May 1947, the Lord Mayor had still declared that in order to maintain the University’s independent status as a municipal institution, the Board did not wish to apply to the federal state government of North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW) for funding. That position, however, could not be upheld. On 20 July 1948, Mayor Görlinger announced to the Board that his social democratic faction in the City Council had motioned for the NRW government to assume at least partial coverage of the university costs. The Senate of the University nonetheless declared a few days later that the City should retain financial sponsorship.

In July 1950, the finance ministry held out the prospect of funding for the new construction of an orthopaedic clinic, whereupon the Board authorized the City’s chief municipal director, on 7 August 1950, to commence negotiations with the NRW government for a pertinent amendment to the University charter of 1919 with regard to NRW’s contribution of funds for the growing university costs. The negotiations between representatives of the NRW government, the City and the University lasted from January to early May 1952. As a result, it was agreed that the University would be incorporated into the federal state budget with effect from 1 April 1953, and the City would pay 50 percent of the annual subsidy requirement to the state of NRW. The official NRW sponsorship was declared on 1 April 1954, but was effective from 1 April 1953.

The supplementary agreement of 24 October 1960 provided that NRW would over the next five years, in annual increments of 10 percent, cover the entire subsidy requirement for the University’s running costs. In return, the City would convey additional property to the University for the erection of new institute buildings. The City moreover undertook to fund 20 percent of the subsidy requirements of the University clinics.

The district president was admitted to the Board of Trustees as the NRW representative; the Lord Mayer continued to act as chairman. Through their representatives, the City and benefactors of the University retained their presence on the Board.

The Individual Disciplines Within the Cosmos of Studies

Within the University, the most remarkable organizational change was wrought by the division of the Arts Faculty into one for the Humanities and one for Mathematics and the Natural Sciences from 1 April 1955. As indicated above, this step was preceded by a controversy over principles.

The offer of studies was extended from 1 April 1980 through the afore-mentioned affiliation of the two Cologne-based departments of the Rhineland College of Education, creating the Faculties of Education and of Special Education – from 1987, the Faculty of Therapeutic Pedagogy. The field-by-field allocation of disciplines discussed on that occasion was rejected for the same reasons as was the disintegration of faculties into departments, which had occurred at nearly all other universities. Embedding the excellently represented disciplines in larger academic contexts is an aim the University pursues and endorses just as emphatically as its ties to extra-university research and practice by way of “affiliated” institutes – a meanwhile established tradition.


In the histories of individual German universities, the year “1968” is as a rule associated with upheavals that entailed crucial ruptures whose repercussions have shaken and weakened some of them until today. Not so in Cologne. Here, too, there was a 1968 sit-in at the rectorate, joined in the following years by impingements on individual institutes and excesses against professors, culminating in an assault of the rector. Steadfastness, consistency, rationality and not least the typically kölsch willingness to compromise enabled the rector to report a first success in 1971: unnecessary intra-university provocations were on the decline. The University had proven stable.

Top-Level Research

To pay due regard to most recent developments in the ever broader range of disciplines would at this point require an excessively long list of institutions and projects that take account of the revolutionary political and technological changes of past decades while remaining committed to the achievements of our civilization. Quite arbitrarily, I mention the life sciences, environmental and space research, research on Africa, informatics, modern sinology, Latin American regional science, or research on Europe. The Cologne chemist Kurt Alder was awarded the 1950 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Breadth might also be exemplified by citing two contrary research undertakings: on the one hand, the Genetic Institute as part of the Cologne Genetic Research Centre (rivalled by only few in Germany); on the other, the Institute of Archaeology and its interpretation of previously undisclosed papyri of Egyptian-Roman antiquity. That Cologne research activities, beyond specialization, have also had a formative effect on institutional academic structures is highlighted by the University’s establishment of the first German Research Training Group, a post-graduate programme introduced in 1985 that has since acquired model character.

The Present and the Past

For all that, we should not fail to note that Cologne University, like all large universities, has a downside, one which is nevertheless typical of sprawling modern mass universities: academic individuality is at risk of deteriorating beyond recognition within an anonymizing mass, turning the University into a mere service operation without a characteristic profile – though on a still outstanding level. But the medieval University already taught us that nothing but a large university was likely to flourish in Cologne, a fact admitted without embarrassment.

And thus, to arrive at an appropriately positive conclusion: without doubt, the University’s appeal since the Middle Ages has thrived on the attractiveness of this great city, and so both must remain closely affiliated.

Further Reading

On the scientific analysis and depiction of the history of Cologne University

  • Kölner Universitätsgeschichte, edited by the Senate Committee for the History of Cologne University. Volume I: Die alte Universität, by Erich Meuthen. Volume II: Das 19. und 20. Jahrhundert, by Bernd Heimbüchel and Klaus Pabst. Volume III: Die neue Universität. Daten und Fakten, in collaboration with Karl-Heinrich Hansmeyer, Friedrich-Wilhelm Henning, Manfred Kops, Bernd Kranski, Peter Lauf, Hannelore Ludwig, and Peter Peil; edited by Erich Meuthen, Cologne, Vienna 1988.
  • Älteste Stadtuniversität Nordwesteuropas. 600 Jahre Kölner Universität. Ausstellung des Historischen Archivs der Stadt Köln 4. Oktober bis 14. Dezember 1988, Cologne 1988 (compilation of the exhibition and the catalogue text by Manfred Groten).
  • Die Matrikel der Universität Köln, adapted by Hermann Keussen. Volume I: 1389-1475, 2nd extended edition, Bonn 1928. Volume II: 1476-1539, Bonn 1919 (reprints of both volumes, Düsseldorf 1979). Volume III: Nachträge 1389-1559 und Register zu Band I und II, Bonn 1931. Volume IV: 1559-1675. Volume V: 1675-1797, prepared by Hermann Keussen, and adapted by Ulrike Nyassi and Mechtild Wilkes, Düsseldorf 1981. Volume VI and Volume VII: Register 1559-1797, prepared by Hermann Keussen and Philipp Nottbrock, and adapted by Manfred Groten and Manfred Huiskes, Düsseldorf 1981 (publications of the Gesellschaft für Rheinische Geschichtskunde VIII).
  • Hermann Keussen, Die alte Universität Köln. Grundzüge ihrer Verfassung und Geschichte, Cologne 1934.
  • Festschrift zur Erinnerung an die Gründung der alten Universität Köln im Jahre 1388, Cologne 1938.
  • Rainer Christoph Schwinges, Deutsche Universitätsbesucher im 14. und 15. Jahrhundert, Stuttgart 1986; cf. pp. S. 221-486: Universitätsbesuch in Köln.
  • Frank Rexroth, Deutsche Universitätsstiftungen von Prag bis Köln, Cologne, Weimar, Vienna 1992.
  • Hans-Jürgen Becker, Die Entwicklung der juristischen Fakultät in Köln bis zum Jahre 1600, in: Der Humanismus und die oberen Fakultäten (Mitteilung XIV der Kommission für Humanismusforschung), Weinheim 1987, pp. 43-64.
  • Markus Bernhardt, Gelehrte Mediziner des späten Mittelalters: Köln 1388-1520. Zugang und Studium? Cay-Rüdiger Prüll, Die "Karriere" der Heilkundigen an der Kölner Universität zwischen 1389 und 1520, in: Gelehrte im Reich, edited by Rainer Christoph Schwinges (Zeitschrift für Historische Forschung. Supplement 18), Berlin 1996, pp. 113-158.
  • Günther Binding and Georg Müller, Die Bauten der Universität zu Köln, Cologne 1988.
  • Studien zur Geschichte der Universität zu Köln, edited by the Senate Committee for the History of Cologne University, Cologne, Vienna 1985. Volume I: Margaret Asmuth, Die Studentenschaft der Handelshochschule Köln 1901 bis 1919 (1985). Volume II: Naturwissenschaften und Naturwissenschaftler in Köln zwischen der alten und der neuen Universität (1798-1919), edited by Martin Schwarzbach (1985). Volume III: Rolf Ortmann, Die jüngere Geschichte des Anatomischen Instituts der Universität zu Köln 1919-1984 (1986). Volume IV: Jochen Bolten, Hochschulstudium für kommunale und soziale Verwaltung in Köln 1912-1929 (1987). Volume V: Luitwin Mallmann, Französische Juristenausbildung im Rheinland 1794-1814 (1987). Volume VI: Betriebswirte in Köln, edited by Friedrich-Wilhelm Henning (1988). Volume VII: Kölner Volkswirte und Sozialwissenschaftler, edited by Friedrich-Wilhelm Henning (1988). Volume VIII: Frank Golczewski, Kölner Universitätslehrer und der Nationalsozialismus (1988). Volume IX: Handelsakademie - Handelshochschule - Wirtschafts- und Sozialwissenschaftliche Fakultät, edited by Friedrich-Wilhelm Henning (1990). Volume X: Humanismus in Köln, edited by James V. Mehl (1991). Volume XI: Peter Lauf, Jüdische Studierende an der Universität zu Köln 1919-1934 (1991). Volume XII: Hannelore Ludwig, Die wirtschafts- und sozialwissenschaftliche Lehre in Köln von 1901 bis 1989/1990 (1991). Volume XIII: Götz-Rüdiger Tewes, Die Bursen der Kölner Artisten-Fakultät bis zur Mitte des 16. Jahrhunderts (1993). Volume XIV: Gunter Quarg, Naturkunde und Naturwissenschaften an der alten Kölner Universität (1996). Volume XV: Dorothea Fellmann, Das Gymnasium Montanum in Köln 1550-1798 (1999).
  • 600 Jahre Kölner Universität 1388/1988. Reden und Berichte zur Geschichte, Gegenwart und Zukunft der Universität, edited by Karl-Heinrich Hansmeyer and Friedrich-Wilhelm Henning, Cologne 1989.