In publica commoda

Felix Klein and the “War of the Intellects”

The dispute between the academics and the warring states during World War I over war guilt and the goals of the war was named the “War of the Intellects”. The University of Göttingen did not take a leading position in this dispute as did, for example, Jena, Tübingen, Munich and Bonn. Professors from Göttingen participated in corresponding appeals and proclamations, or the one or the other opposed them. Göttingen was not a center of this movement, which came from and was steered by Berlin.
For the first time, the majority of the Göttingen professors signed the “Declaration of the University Teachers of the German Empire”, published on October 16, 1914 and addressed toward England, which postulated the unity of army, people and science in Germany. Approximately two thirds of all the professors in Göttingen signed the declaration. Toward the end of the war, a clearly larger party of “moderates” formed at the Georgia Augusta as a result of discussion on the goals of the war, as did a smaller group of advocates of an inconsiderate annexation policy.

Especially the “Manifesto of the Ninety-Three German Intellects to the Civilized World” dated October 4, 1914, which justified the anti-international law German attack on Belgium and denied the war crimes carried out there, inflicted immeasurable damage to the reputation of German science and culture abroad. 93 intellectuals, artists and scientists signed the appeal, some of them with a worldwide reputation, including Max Planck, Walter Nernst and Wilhelm Röntgen, as well as representatives of all parties except for the SPD. As the only one from Göttingen – and the only representative of his subject – the mathematician Felix Klein signed, who otherwise had shown a relatively liberal position in questions regarding appointment to a post, and post-doctoral lecturing qualifications, as well as towards foreigners and women studying. As the science organizer and due to the new method of fund-raising, Klein decisively contributed to Göttingen’s advancement to a world center of natural sciences before and after World War I. Against this background, his signature under the one-sided nationalistic appeal must cause astonishment. Perhaps the initiators of the appeal consciously did some dirty work and intentionally left Klein and other signers ignorant about the text. Klein emphasized that he stated his willingness to sign without knowing the contents of the document, which he only read through the press.

After the war, in written correspondence with his former pupil Grace Chisolm Young from England, Klein admitted that some wording had been inappropriate but emphasized that the indignation on the side of the allies had only been triggered off by the “appeal”, but not actually caused by it. The decisive factor was rather the prejudice of the allies towards Germany. He indirectly admitted that the appeal could be explained by the excited, war-crazed mood of the first months of the war and the one-sided news situation of that time, but emphasized that “Everyone will hold true to their country in good times and in bad”. In the end, he was not willing to withdraw his signature. As a conclusion he saw only one possibility for himself: “To be quiet and work”, meaning to retreat into “apolitical” science.

(Tollmien, Cordula: Der „Krieg der Geister“ in der Provinz – das Beispiel der Universität Göttingen 1914-1918, in: Göttinger Jahrbuch 41, 1993, S. 137-210)