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The 20th Century

The First World War obliterated this lifestyle and ushered in an age of crisis. From 1919 onwards, in the face of exploding student numbers (over two-and-a-half times as many as two decades earlier), the state of Hesse did its best to support the university. The political and inflationary economic situation of the Weimar Republic hit the socially weak first and hardest (in Giessen these were the students), causing widespread radicalism. After 1931, there was a National Socialist majority in the students’ association. Most of the teaching staff were pre-war revanchists, or abstained from political involvement altogether.

The behaviour of the Ludoviciana during the age of National Socialism was average for the times – meaning: depressing and shameful. Twelve percent of the professors were relieved of their duties – chiefly in the philosophy faculty. The Nazi party brooked no opposition. Both those already in the party and new entrants were, as elsewhere, partly resistant to following new policies and partly active in implementing them. Forced treatments such as sterilization were conducted in the hospitals and some ‘fashionable’ subject areas (such as ‘race’ theory and eugenics) were promoted. Nonetheless, distrust of those in power persisted, as was revealed in the revision of the university regulations, in which the influence of professors was curtailed and that of the teachers and students increased.

The question of the university’s continued existence was, however, soon to be resolved. A sharp drop in student numbers and a radical shift in subject allocation (in 1939, some sixty percent of students were in the medical faculty) prompted fears for the worst – even before the Allied bombing raids on the 6th and 11th of December 1944, which almost completely destroyed the inner city, including the university buildings.


In 1945/46, the university led an uneasy existence, neither alive nor dead, in a destroyed and starving country. The newly founded state of Hesse regarded the institution as being competitive only in subjects not taught elsewhere. Justus Liebig University took up operations again in 1946, with agriculture, veterinary medicine, the most essential natural sciences, and (from 1950 onwards) human medicine. Only in 1957 was the University’s charter restored by the American occupation, and it was also at this time that an extensive construction program for new buildings was launched. The economic slowdown of 1973/74 ended a phase of unprecedented growth which saw a tenfold increase in the teaching staff and a twenty-fold increase in student numbers.
The university, which was now defined in terms of its standing within the German federal university system, grew to become the second-largest in Hesse, in accordance with the new doctrine of university access for all social classes. In 1970, national legislation transformed the country’s institutions of higher education into ‘group universities’, whose internal structure (no longer governed ‘from the top down’ but with democratic representation) was devised to act in accordance with the principles enshrined in the Basic Law and as a counterbalance to the ‘progressive’ policies of the state.

* The "Kleine Geschichte der Universität Gießen" (2. ed. 1990) by Peter Moraw offers more detailed information (in German only).