By Dr. Ernst Böhme, town registrar and head of the town museum
The founding of Göttingen University took place at the instance of the local ruler Elector George Augustus of Hanover (who was at the same time the King of Great Britain as George II due to the personal union with Great Britain and Ireland from 1714), after whom the University was named. The actual "spiritus rector" (guiding spirit) of this new foundation was Hanover Minister Gerlach Adolph Baron of Münchhausen who created a new type of university: the Georgia Augusta served the goals of enlightenment even more consistently than Halle University, which was only a few decades older. Accordingly, scientific research was freed from censorship by the church (Münchhausen as the representative of the Elector however reserved for himself the right of censorship), and at the same time academic teaching was given high priority. The library, which was systematically sponsored and developed, was open to the students as well – which was a shocking innovation at the time; for emerging and seminal scientific disciplines, Münchhausen created new professorships to which he systematically appointed outstanding representatives of their subjects. Lectures at the University commenced in 1734, and the official inauguration took place in the presence of Münchhausen in 1737.
1736 – approx. 1800
University policy mainly means appointment policy – and Münchhausen proved to have the right touch in this field. Among the great number of scholars whom he called to Göttingen, many of whom were internationally renowned, were
- Albrecht von Haller, physician, natural scientist, and poet (in Göttingen 1736–1756)
- Johann David Michaelis, theologist and orientalist (in Göttingen 1746–1791)
- Christian Gottlob Heyne, archaeologist and library director (in Göttingen 1763–1812)
- Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, physicist, philosopher, and writer (in Göttingen 1770–1799)
- August Ludwig von Schlözer, publisher and historian (in Göttingen 1769–1809)
The Göttingen Academy of Sciences which was founded in 1751 played a decisive role in the rise of Göttingen to a scientific centre of European importance. Whereas universities as places of teaching vs. academies as places of research remained strictly separated elsewhere, in Göttingen these two institutions were closely connected in terms of personnel right from the beginning. In this way, scientific research and academic teaching were enabled to cross-fertilise directly with each other. On 19 July 1766 Benjamin Franklin visited the academy, of which he had been an external member for a short while. Due to library director Heyne's wise acquisition policies the Göttingen University Library became Germany's leading library. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe who used the library in 1801 called it a "capital which silently generates incalculable interest".
The flourishing Georgia Augusta rapidly drew students from all of Germany, Europe, and other parts of the world to Göttingen. For example, a certain Andrea, son of Habashi, from Lebanon spent time in Göttingen in 1741 and wrote his name into a students' register in Arabic writing.
At the instance of Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, an outstanding collector and nature scientist, parts of the ethnographic collection gathered by James Cook on his journeys to the South were brought to Göttingen in 1782. In 1799 the University bought the personal collection of the deceased Johann Georg Forster. He and his father had accompanied James Cook on his second circumnavigation of the world (1772–75). Forster was married to Therese Heyne, daughter of Christian Gottlob Heyne (see above), and therefore had close ties with Göttingen. The Cook-Foster Collection at Göttingen represents one of the most distinguished collections of ethnographica from the Southern Pacific in the world. During the same period, former Göttingen student Baron Georg Thomas von Asch, who was working in Russia, donated many unique ethnographica from Siberia and the Northern Pacific to Göttingen University.
Carl Friedrich Gauß, one of the most distinguished mathematicians in the history of mankind, was a professor of Astronomy in Göttingen. Many aspects of today's world are based on his multi-faceted research. One example is the first functioning electromagnetic telegraph which he installed between the Paulinerkirche and the observatory together with Wilhelm Weber in 1833. This established the basis for electronic data transmission which constitutes an important part of our lives in the form of fax, text messaging, and the Internet. It was a significant coincidence (or was it?) that in the very same year a 17-year-old Rabbi's son came to Göttingen from Kassel to start an apprenticeship at a bank here. This young man, Israel Beer Josephat, was to achieve world fame under the name of Paul Julius Reuter for using Gauß' and Weber's invention to set up a world-spanning news agency which is one of the most influential ones today.
On 1 November 1837, Ernest Augustus I, King of Hanover, abolished the constitution enacted by his brother William IV who had just died. Seven Göttingen professors expressed their protest against this despotic act in writing: jurist Wilhelm Eduard Albrecht, theologist and orientalist Georg Heinrich August Ewald, historians Friedrich Christoph Dahlmann and Georg Gottfried Gervinus, German studies professors Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm, and physicist Wilhelm Weber. Their courageous opposition made the "Göttingen Seven" famous all over Europe at the speed of lightning, but the consequences were painful. They lost their jobs, and three of them were expelled from the country. But the city and the University suffered damage as well: there was a quick loss of reputation, and students migrated to other universities – their number reached a historical low with a mere 562 students matriculated in the winter semester 1847/48. The Göttingen Seven are considered as pavers of the way to civil society in Germany.
The connection of Göttingen to the German railway network in 1854 marked the starting point of its development from a small farming citizens' town into a modern medium-sized town which quickly grew beyond its mediaeval city limits. This modernisation process was driven forward by mayors Georg Merkel and Georg Calsow. At the time of Calsow's death in 1926 the town had reached a well-developed and modern state which was fit to satisfy the needs of professors and students.
Felix Klein continued the tradition of top-level research in Mathematics established by Gauß and his successors Peter Lejeune-Dirichlet and Bernhard Riemann. In cooperation with the Prussian Science Administration under Friedrich Althoff, he laid the foundations for the University's second time of prosperity: in the decades to follow, Göttingen became an international centre of the natural sciences. Five scientists were awarded the Nobel prize for their work in Göttingen: Otto Wallach (chemistry, 1910), James Franck (physics, 1925), Richard Zsigmondy (chemistry, 1925) and Adolf Windaus (chemistry, 1928); Max Born, who was a professor in Göttingen from 1922 until he was forced to emigrate in 1933, received the Nobel prize for physics in 1954 for the fundamental research he had conducted in that period. The amount of internationally renowned scholars who were in Göttingen as students or professors during that time is immense. Several of them were later honoured with the Nobel prize (Werner Heisenberg, Peter Debye, Max von Laue). In 1925 Ludwig Prandtl became the first director of the newly founded Kaiser-Wilhelm Institute for Fluid Mechanics, which was the predecessor of today's Max-Planck-Institute for Dynamics and Self-Organization. Eminent researchers of other academic disciplines worked or studied at Göttingen as well: philosopher Edmund Husserl, his student Edith Stein, historians Karl Brandi and Percy Ernst Schramm, linguist Jacob Wackernagel, theologist Karl Barth, and medical scientists Robert Koch, Jacob Henle, and Wilhelm Ebstein.
The rediscovery of the operas of George Frideric Handel and the establishment of the Handel Festival (which triggered the world-wide Handel renaissance) are closely connected with Göttingen local history. Rodelinda was performed at the Stadttheater on 26 June 1920 on the initiative of art historian Oskar Hagen, which was the first performance of an opera written by this great baroque composer since the 18th century. The orchestra was provided by the Akademische Orchestervereinigung ("Academic Orchestra Association") of which Hagen was the director until his emigration to the United States in 1925. Today the International Handel Festival Göttingen is a musical event that receives international attention.
National socialist leadership in Göttingen, as elsewhere, was based on terror and suppression. Political opponents and all the more the so-called "racially inferior" people such as Jews and Gypsies were harassed, arrested, expelled, and murdered. The Jewish professors and lecturers at the University – among them world-famous scholars such as Max Born, James Franck, and Emmy Noether – were sacked and driven into exile. The high period of Göttingen University as an international centre of natural sciences and mathematics met its brutal end. Those Jewish citizens who were not able to flee were marginalised, financially ruined, rounded up in so-called "Jew houses", and eventually murdered. The synagogue located on the Maschstraße went up in flames in 1938; the last 140 members of the Jewish community which had numbered more than 400 people in 1933 were deported from the five "Jew houses" to extinction camps in two transports in 1942. Only very few survived the genocide.
Göttingen survived World War II without major damage, which meant an inestimable starting advantage for the town and the University. With the permission of the British occupying power, the Georgia Augusta was the first German university to resume teaching on 17 September 1945. Göttingen became a rallying point for people especially from academic and artistic circles – one good example being the aged physicist Max Planck (1858–1947) who spent the last two years of his life here. Werner Heisenberg, who had been a lecturer at Göttingen University in the 1920s, returned to Göttingen in 1946 and worked here as a professor from 1947 to 1958. On 26 February 1948 the Max Planck Society was founded in Göttingen, its first president being Nobel prize winner and later Göttingen honorary citizen Otto Hahn. On 19 November of the same year, writers who had not done wrong during the Nazi era, among them Erich Kästner and Johannes R. Becher (who would serve as Minister of Education in the GDR from 1954 to 1958) gathered in Göttingen to found the first German PEN centre.
During the 1950s vital contributions towards strengthening democracy and rule of law in the emerging Federal Republic of Germany originated from Göttingen University, which had been characterised by a high degree of conservative and national socialist thinking before 1945. Three events can be considered as landmarks in this respect. In 1951 and 1952 vehement protests were staged particularly by the students against Nazi film director Veit Harlan ("The Jew Süss" / "Jud Süß") who was shooting new films in Göttingen. When right-wing extremist Leonhard Schlüter was appointed Minister of Education of Lower Saxony, the president and the deans of Göttingen University resigned as a protest on the same day. The students' union executive committee resigned in unison, and demonstrations took place. On 12 April 1957 some of the most prominent [nuclear] scientists of the time – among them the Göttingen professors Otto Hahn, Werner Heisenberg, and Carl Friedrich von Weizsäcker – published the "Göttingen Declaration" to denounce the government's plans to equip the German army with nuclear weapons.
Manfred Eigen was the first Göttingen researcher since 1933 to receive a Nobel prize; he received the prize for chemistry. Eigen played an important role in the establishment of the Göttingen Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry, from which several eminent scientists have emanated, most notably the winner of the 1991 Nobel prize for medicine, Erwin Neher.
Göttingen University is the only university in Northern Germany that was selected to receive funding within the framework of the Initiative for Excellence of the Federation and the Länder (states). It was selected for its institutional strategy "Göttingen. Tradition – Innovation – Autonomy". The concept for project-oriented development of top-class university research involves the measures Brain Gain, Brain Sustain, LichtenbergKolleg, and Göttingen International. The Göttingen Graduate School for Neurosciences and Molecular Biosciences and the excellence cluster "Microscopy at the Nanometer Range" also came out as winners at the excellence competition.