Main Content

History of the University of Marburg

Old Aula: richly decorated historical hall with paintings, wooden pews and lectern
Photo: Markus Farnung
Aula of the Old University

Founding by Landgrave Philipp: A University between Lutheranism and Calvinism (1527-1653)

On May 30th, 1527, Landgrave Philipp the Magnanimous of Hesse founded the Universität Marburg after introducing the Reformation in his territory; the University has also borne his name since the early 20th century. The world's oldest Protestant university still in existence began operating with 10 professors and around 90 students at the four faculties of theology, law, medicine, and philosophy. Following Philipp's death in 1567, his territory was divided among his four sons, and initially the sons directed the university together. Confessional conflicts prompted Philipp's grandson, Landgrave Louis V of Hesse-Darmstadt, to establish his own university in 1607 in Giessen, which was  Lutheran - unlike Marburg, which was by this time Calvinist.

The Reformed State University of Hessen-Kassel (1653-1807)

The conflict, which during the Thirty Years' War was also carried out militarily, led to an interruption of university life in Marburg. The re-established university bound its professors to the reformed denomination. The appointment in 1723 of the philosopher Christian Wolff, one of the most influential thinkers of the Age of Enlightenment, triggered a period of advancement for Marburg and drew students from near and far, including the Russian universal scholar Michail Lomonossow. Starting in the 1780's, things began to pick up again, with help from renowned professors of medicine playing a decisive role. Shortly after 1800, jurist Friedrich Carl von Savigny worked as professor and mentor for the two most well known Marburg students, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm.

The University in the Kingdom of Westphalia and the Electorate of Hessen (1807-1866)

With the establishment of the Kingdom of Westphalia in 1807 under the rule of Napoleon's youngest brother, Jérôme, the very existence of the Marburg Universität was hanging in the balance. In addition to the universities in Göttingen and Halle there was to be only one further university in the kingdom. Marburg received – unlike Rinteln and Helmstedt - the contract. In 1858, a modern surgical ward was built at the University, which again became a state university of the Electorate of Hesse in 1813.  Wilhelm Roser worked there. The constitutional lawyer Sylvester Jordan worked on the 1831 constitution of the Electorate of Hesse, though he was incarcerated in Marburg's castle in 1839. The well-known chemist Robert Bunsen was also completing research and teaching in Marburg at this time.

1874 - Marburg Becomes Prussian (1866-1933)

In 1866 the Marburg Universität became Prussian. Along with this came a boom in every sense of the word. The number of professorships doubled by the start of the First World War and the number of students climbed to 2,500.  Around 1900, renowned professors were teaching in all departments in Marburg. The philosophers Hermann Cohen and Paul Natorp founded around this time the so-called "Marburg School." The first Nobel Prize for Medicine was awarded in 1901 to the discoverer of the serum therapy against diphtheria and Professor for Hygienics, Emil von Behring. The "Alte Universität" was built from 1874 to 1891 on the spot of the dilapidated Dominican cloister. In 1908, the first female students were allowed to matriculate at the university. Marburg's scholarly prestige was high in the 1920's.  Martin Heidegger and Rudolf Bultmann were teaching in Marburg. The student body was, however, largely nationalistic. The so-called Marburg Student Corps played a significant role in the Mechterstädt murders, whereby 15 workers were shot to death.

National Socialist Rule and Re-opening Following the Second World War (1933-1945)

Following the Nazi seizure of power in 1933,  academic self-government was eliminated and - as was the case throughout Germany - the Führerprinzip was introduced at the Marburg Universität. Professors and students were forced from their positions in Marburg as well. One of them - professor for Indo-Germanic studies, Hermann Jacobsohn - committed suicide as a result. Doctoral dissertations by Jews were declared invalid, and not only during the war did the Marburg University Library also profit from the large scale theft of books by the National Socialists. The Faculty of Theology, especially Hans von Soden and Rudolf Bultmann, opposed the Aryan paragraphs and supported the Confessional Church. By the spring semester of 1931, the Nazi Student Organization had already obtained a majority in the Marburg student senate. An authoritarian, thoroughly ideologized university was no longer able to perform at a high level in terms of scholarly and scientific performance, and with the outbreak of the war in 1939 these developments worsened.

The University Since 1945

Marburg endured the Second World War largely unscathed. Already in September 1945, the Universität re-opened. As was the case elsewhere, coming to terms with National Socialism was part of the background to the student movement in the late 1960's. The Marxist political scientist Wolfgang Abendroth had a tremendous amount of scholarly and political appeal. He contributed to Marburg's reputation as a "red university." At the same time, the Philipps-Universität was also developing into a modern university for the masses, with about 10,000 students around 1970. Marburg's expansion can be read spatially: Numerous new buildings for administration, the humanities institutes and main library were key developments in the 60's. For the natural sciences and medicine, huge buildings were constructed - including the University Clinic - atop the Lahnberge beginning in 1970.
1970/71 had a profound effect on the university's history. There was a fundamental re-organization. The position of Rector was eliminated and replaced by a President. The faculties - which had now reached five in number - were dissolved and replaced by 21 departments.
The so-called Bologna Process, the privatization of the Clinic and new plans for construction - both atop the Lahnberge and also in the Lahn River Valley - have introduced yet another tempestuous phase of the university's development, with no end or results in sight. The university currently has 16 departments and over 22,500 students.

Katharina Schaal (University Archive)