Of all the precious things falling to pieces below the range of our plague-fogged radars, an institute for advanced study may not be an obvious priority. Yet here am I, an Israeli historian, asking an international audience and calling upon Federal Republic of Germany to help prevent the permanent closure of a little gem of higher learning and research, dedicated to the humanities and situated in Germany. Let me explain why.
In November the University of Göttingen brusquely and unexpectedly informed the director of the Lichtenberg-Kolleg that it is shutting down the institute forthwith. The letter was dated 9 November, surely not a deliberate choice of the Kristallnacht pogrom anniversary, but perhaps a sign of the erosion of bureaucratic memory. I am a member of the Kolleg’s international academic board, along with senior European, US, Indian and Israeli scholars, and we have unanimously decided to fight this one out. We share an uncomfortable feeling that beyond the alibi of financial difficulties, something alarming is happening. It is hard to fathom that one of the few excellent and truly cosmopolitan hubs of the humanities in Europe – that much is acknowledged by the University itself – is being unceremoniously thrown to the dogs.
‘ The kind of place that can raise & nurture
in an anti-intellectual era’
Initially modeled on the institutes for advanced study in Princeton and Berlin, the Lichtenberg-Kolleg spans the social sciences and the humanities, venturing to inter-disciplinary fields such as primate cognition. It has outperformed its hallowed predecessors in creating a unique sociability, brilliance and liveliness, joining together senior, mid-career and young scholars from many backgrounds, including disadvantaged academic communities. Strong in intellectual history, particularly the Enlightenment, and recently combining Jewish studies, the Kolleg has achieved that rare magic blend of distinction and diversity. It is the kind of place that can raise and nurture intellectuals in an anti-intellectual era.
From its campus in Göttingen’s renovated astronomical observatory dating from Goethe’s time, the Kolleg has become a light against darkening skies. As a traveling academic and public speaker I have witnessed first-hand the rise of new European populism, racism and anti-Semitism in the past decade. I saw it spill out from the streets and the Internet’s margins into public discourse and even academic institutes. But from Göttingen there shone a small, steady star. It upheld one of Europe’s best traditions, which Jewish Europeans like my own forebears helped create: pursuing the Humanities in their deep humane sense, alongside a critical yet unapologetic reliance on reason and on truth.
The Kolleg director, renowned Dutch historian Martin van Gelderen, is one of the leaders of a new project for the publication and study of the full corpus of Anne Frank’s written legacy. I should duly note that the University promises, somewhat vaguely, to help keep this particular project afloat. But how safe is the memory of Anne Frank if its immediate context, this fine intellectual interface of humanism and cosmopolitanism – the two concepts so fatally linked with past accusations against Europe’s Jews – is frail enough to be so easily blotted out?
‘The University will save a small sum
but lose its historical bearings, its grand vista, its stargazing’
I have been acquainted with German academia and cultural politics for many years. Governments and universities have been truly generous and committed to our common goals when the going was good. What I find scary is the speed and bluntness of the about-turn when the financial skies become cloudy. Make no mistake: the small Kolleg is dirt-cheap in comparison to Göttingen’s natural sciences departments. By deciding to make this particular cut, the University will save a small sum but lose its historical bearings, its grand vista, its stargazing. It risks healing the university’s body by extinguishing its soul.
My colleagues and I therefore wish to appeal to the German Federal government: please step in. Not to curb a minor public relations disaster in the making, but to keep up the German commitment to the highest moral ground. If not you, who?
There is also a broader lesson: the better intellectual legacy of Europe, in which both Jews and Germans have extremely high stakes, is already imperiled by the radical left as well as the extreme right. In my own country, ‘Enlightenment’ has become a pejorative byword for both social privilege and anti-Netanyahu democratic liberalism. I have learned the hard way that if humanism and universalism still matter to us, we must work to keep them alive.
‘The most dangerous of falsehoods
is a slightly distorted truth’
“The most dangerous of falsehoods”, quipped Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, the Göttingen physicist and irreverent Enlightenment author after whom the Kolleg is named, “is a slightly distorted truth”. Today’s lie-spinners and hate-mongers are not only after minorities and liberal democrats; they are targeting the humanities and humanism itself. Do not let institutional naiveté and academic parsimony unwittingly help them out. For if they win, again in Lichtenberg’s words, “perhaps in time the so-called Dark Ages will be thought of as including our own”.
Fania Oz-Salzberger, Professor Emerita of History at the University of Haifa, is a former Fellow of the Federal Institute of Advanced Study in Berlin (1999-2000), and Fellow and Professor for Distinguished Teaching at the Center for Human Values, Princeton University (2009-10). She has published many works on the European Enlightenment and History of Ideas. Her books include Translating the Enlightenment(Oxford University Press, 1995) and Jews and Words, co-authored with Amos Oz (Yale University Press, 2012).
The German version of this opinion piece was published in the Jüdische Allgemeine (21.01.2021). Please click here.