Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin

Short History

Wilhelm von Humboldt

Wilhelm von Humboldt
the founder of the "Alma mater berolinensis"

I believe that I can rightly claim that the teaching system in this state has received new impetus from me, and that although I have only been in office for a year, many signs of my administrative work will remain. Something which affects me personally more directly than anything else is the establishment of a new university here in Berlin."


The Vision of Wilhelm von Humboldt

The university was founded in Berlin in 1810, and the foundation concept which Wilhelm von Humboldt had put forward made it the "mother of all modern universities".

This concept envisaged a "Universitas litterarum" which would achieve a unity of teaching and research and provide students with an all-round humanist education. This concept spread throughout the world and gave rise to the foundation of many universities of the same type over the following 150 years.

The concept of the academic and statesman Wilhelm von Humboldt was influenced, among others, by the reform ideas of the philosopher Johann Gottlieb Fichte, the first vice chancellor of the University, and by the theologian and philosopher Friedrich Schleiermacher.

At the outset, Berlin university had the four classical faculties of Law, Medicine, Philosophy and Theology. The first academic term began with 256 students and 52 academic staff. Professors such as Georg Friedrich Wilhelm Hegel (Philosophy), Karl Friedrich von Savigny (Law), August Boeckh (Classical Philology), Christoph Wilhelm Hufeland (Medicine) and Albrecht Daniel Thaer (Agriculture) shaped the profile of the individual faculties in accordance with Humboldt's concept.

Partly due to the influence of the natural scientist Alexander von Humboldt, the University pioneered the introduction of many new disciplines. The chemist August Wilhelm von Hofmann, the physicist Hermann von Helmholtz, the mathematicians Ernst Kummer, Leopold Kronecker, Karl Theodor Weierstrass (the "triple star of mathematics") and the medical scientists Johannes Müller and Rudolf Virchow became known in their specialist areas far beyond Berlin University. Later, a total of 29 Nobel Prize winners did some of their scientific work at Berlin University, including Albert Einstein, Emil Fischer, Max Planck and Fritz Haber. And many famous people such as Heinrich Heine, Adelbert von Chamisso, Ludwig Feuerbach, Otto von Bismarck, Karl Liebknecht, Franz Mehring, Alice Salomon, Karl Marx and Kurt Tucholsky were also enrolled at the "Alma mater" of Berlin. Heinrich Mann, the writer, became the first honorary doctor of the University after the end of the Second World War.

A Royal Home - the Palais Unter den Linden

The Prussian king, Friedrich Wilhelm III, donated the first building to the University - the former Palace of Prince Heinrich of Prussia. Built from 1748 to 1766 on the splendid boulevard Unter den Linden, and it saw major extension work from 1913 to 1920. When the Royal Library was no longer sufficient for academic needs, a University Library was established in 1831. In the course of the expansion of the University, named "Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität" from 1828, institutions that already existed in the city were integrated. One example is the Charité, which is still famous today. Friedrich I had a quarantine house built outside the city walls to keep away the threat of the plague. This "plague house" was used to accommodate the poor who had fallen ill and the frail. As early as 1726, in its function as a military and citizens' hospital, this building was made a training centre for military medicine and a school for doctors and surgeons. In 1727 the "soldier king" Friedrich Wilhelm decreed: "The building is to be named Charité". The Faculty of Medicine took over the building in 1829. With the setting-up of natural science institutions in the second half of the 19th century, highly modern research and teaching facilities came into being. The School of Animal Medicine, which had been founded in 1790, was constituted as the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine, and the Agricultural College founded in 1881 became the Faculty of Agriculture. In 1889 a new building was opened in 43 Invalidenstrasse for the Natural History Collections that had belonged to the University since 1810. This building is now the Museum of Natural History. At the turn of the century the close links between the clinical and pre-clinical facilities of the Faculty of Medicine had been made a generous compound of different scientific disciplines.

29 Nobel Price Winners

The early decades of the 20th century were characterised by great academic achievements and international attractiveness. In 1901, Jacobus Henricus van't Hoff from the Netherlands was the first scholar of the University to be given a Nobel Prize for Chemistry for his research into the laws of chemical dynamics. The antiquity expert Theodor Mommsen published trendsetting work on Roman History, and in 1902 he received the Nobel Prize for Literature. 27 other Nobel Prizes won by scholars and scientists of Berlin University reflect outstanding achievements. The chemist Walter Nernst and the physicists Max von Laue, Gustav Hertz and James Franck must be mentioned here. Emil von Behring received the first Nobel Prize for Medicine for the development of an effective cure of diphtheria, and some years later Robert Koch, who discovered the tuberculosis and cholera bacteria, also obtained the Nobel Prize.

When in 1954 the Nobel Prize was awarded to Max Born, at that time a professor at Berlin University and co-founder of quantum mechanics, for "Establishing a New Way of Thinking about Natural Phenomena" (Born), the University had been through a dark chapter of German history: The expulsion of Jewish academics and students as well as political opponents of National Socialism, and the murdering of some of them, did great damage to the University in the period from 1933 to 1945. It was a particularly shameful moment for the University when on 10th May 1933 students and lecturers took part in the burning of books. After that and in the subsequent war years, many academics left Berlin University, which had once been renowned as the home of humanitarian thought.

Since 1908 women have been admitted to universities in Prussia and soon afterwards they were employed as assistant or associate professors in both teaching and research. A well-known example was the physicist Lise Meitner. From 1945 it has been possible for women to be appointed to full professorships.

Re-opening after World War II

Although weakened by the great loss of scientific potential, the University was re-opened in January 1946. It consisted of seven faculties accommodated partly war-damaged buildings. The political turmoil of the post-war period and the protest of students and staff against the increasing Communist influence on the university led to a split among staff and students. As a result, the Freie Universität of Berlin was founded in December 1948 in the American sector of the city.

The main building of Humboldt-Universität and the Faculty of Medicine, Charité
(Campus Charité Mitte)

In 1949 the University was given the names of the brothers Alexander and Wilhelm von Humboldt. However, the university reforms of 1950/51 and 1967/68 caused the university to develop in a way that ran counter to its former academic traditions and changed the contents taught, the study procedures and research conditions in obedience to the ruling ideology. Nevertheless, it was still possible in some areas to restore international contacts and create world-wide cooperation. The long-standing and intensive research and exchange links with the universities in Eastern Europe and particularly in the former Soviet Union are worth special mentioning; many of these links are without parallel in Germany. In addition, formal academic cooperation with nearly all universities in the capital cities of Western Europe has existed since the 1970s. And for several years there have been close relations to universities in Japan and the United States, as well as in Asian, African and Latin American countries.
Following German unification in 1990, Humboldt-Universität seized the opportunity to enhance international components in both teaching and research, and to increase the mobility of its students. This was done by explicitly continuing previously existing international cooperation and exchange agreements.
Future development is focused upon three areas:

  • the strengthening of contacts within the EC, especially under the auspices of the Socrates/Erasmus Program;
  • the boosting of researcher and student exchange opportunities with North American universities and colleges;
  • and the stabilisation of relations with partner institutions in Central and Eastern Europe.

The University currently maintains formal contacts to nearly 100 academic institutions on all continents, and holds more than 400 formal contracts within the Socrates Program. Students from over 100 different foreign countries are presently enrolled at Humboldt-Universität. International students comprise 10.9% of the entire student population.

Evaluation and Restructuring

As a result of the unification there were three universities in Berlin, somewhat later there were even four. Due to the problems connected with the unification process, Humboldt-Universität went through a quite extraordinary process of reorganisation in which it succeeded in attracting outstanding scientists and scholars from East and West, from home and abroad. Supported by the work of Structure and Appointment Commissions, partly consisting of academics from outside the University, and with the help of numerous expertises and recommendations from groups of experts, Humboldt-Universität began to develop its own new academic structures. The contents of study programmes was evaluated, changed and re-defined. At the same time, the entire staff was subjected to personal and academic scrutiny. Financial restrictions and structural factors led to a drastic reduction of staff.
Following the internal restructuring process, Humboldt-Universität now consists of eleven faculties and two central institutes. The present Medical Faculty Charité has become the largest medical faculty in Europe as a result of the merger of the Charité University Clinics with the Virchow Clinics and the Benjamin Franklin Hospital Complex of the Freie Universität Berlin. It is now maintained by both universities.

Teaching and Research in Profile

The University covers all the major academic disciplines in the Arts and Humanities, in Social Science, Cultural Science, Human Medicine, Agricultural Science, Mathematics and the Natural Sciences.

Currently, 207 study courses / programmes or course combinations are offered at Humboldt-Universität. Courses in 19 disciplines lead to the "Diplom" degree, and there are also "Diplom" degree courses in Interpreting and Translation for twelve different languages, including several Eastern European languages. The degree of "Magister" can be obtained in 59 different subjects. The range of study courses also includes the courses leading to the first academic degree known as "State Examination", i.e. in Law, Medicine, Dentistry and Pharmacy (to be discontinued), and others leading to the university and church exams in Protestant Theology.

Besides, a wide range of study courses leading to teaching qualifications is offered, including the teaching qualification for special schools working in various specialist areas. Some courses are new and unique, e.g. “The Reformed Medical Curriculum”, "Statistics", “British Studies”, “Transatlantic Masters”, “Master in European Studies”, "Polymer Science", "International Health”, “Gender Studies” and “International Agricultural Sciences”.  In the winter term 2003/2004 a total of 38,272 students were enrolled, 10.9 % of them from abroad. The number of postgraduate programmes, further and supplementary study courses will be further increased over the coming years. Humboldt-Universität has also begun again to offer correspondence study courses for which there has been much demand. Moreover, a great deal of teaching is offered in areas of further scientific instruction, interdisciplinary and in public lectures. The Faculty of Medicine offers "senior citizens' courses".

Alexander von Humboldt

Alexander von Humboldt

"In time, Berlin should have the first observatory, the first chemistry institute, the first botanical garden, the first school of transcendental Mathematics. That is the goal of my efforts for coherence in all I strive for."


Research at Humboldt-Universität is internationally acclaimed in quite a few subject areas, e.g. in Mathematics, Medicine, Physics, Chemistry, Biology, History, Cultural and Art Studies, Scandinavian Studies, Economics and Law. In eight Collaborative Research Centers Humboldt-Universität is the co-ordinating institution and there are 16 Graduate Colleges co-ordinated by Humboldt-Universität. Numerous projects have been implemented with the support of the European Union. The University participates in 16 special research projects of other universities, eight further graduate research groups and eight research groups funded by the German Research Association (DFG). Ten foundation professorships have been established. Researchers representing a variety of projects have participated in national and international fairs, among them the CeBIT computer fair, the annual Hannover Fair, the agricultural exhibition "Internationale Grüne Woche" and UTECH Berlin. Almost 70 projects at Humboldt-Universität are currently funded by trusts and foundations (VW Foundation, German Science Sponsorship Association etc.). The University's success in continuing or resuming traditional partnerships and the interest shown by renowned universities from all over the world show that Humboldt-Universität plays an important and accepted role in the global scientific dialogue.

The Campus in Berlin-Adlershof - City of Science and Industry

As early as 1991 the cramped conditions in which mathematics and scientific institutions were accommodated in the central Berlin district of Mitte caused a debate within Humboldt-Universität  concerning the possibility of giving them a common new campus in the area of Berlin-Adlershof.

Within the last decades, a whole new urban district has been created there with about 30,000 jobs, 5,000 dwellings and a landscape park. The district now accommodates the Mathematics and Science Faculties of Humboldt-Universität. With the move of the Geography and Psychology Departments, Humboldt-Universität formally opened the Adlershof Campus in December 2003.

The close links between science and business provide an ideal setting for the development of new products, new technology and intelligent services. This also applies to the development and testing of modern forms of university teaching, research and further training, this providing the basis for the development of a unique urban district in the south-east of Berlin.

The implementation of this project, the relocation of departments and institutes will also be accompanied by the development of new areas of interdisciplinary research, e.g. in Materials Science, Environmental Technology, Biophysics and Biotechnology.

Due to the difficult financial situation of the federal state of Berlin and the resulting extreme austerity, Humboldt-Universität has been moving directly from the "building up phase" in recent years into a "phase of reduction". A contract concluded with the government of Berlin gives the university a solid basis for planning its academic policies and also a greater degree of responsibility. Humboldt-Universität has decided to use the option of deviating from the Berlin Higher Education Act for some time in order to try out new decision-making structures, organisational forms and course structures.

In spite of its turbulent history over several decades, Humboldt-Universität has always been true to its principles, considering research and teaching as a unity.

Institutions at the University - A Selection

The Museum of Natural History at Humboldt-Universität is an internationally renowned centre of natural science collections. It is the largest natural history museum in Germany and one of the ten leading museums of its kind in the world. Its exhibits include the best preserved fossil of the prehistoric bird archaeopteryx lithographica, the 12 metre high and 23 metre long brachiosaurus skeleton - the world's largest assembled dinosaur skeleton, Tasmanian tiger and quagga specimens and the largest known piece of amber. The exhibition has just been re-opened after a thorough renovation phase.
Invalidenstraße 43

The Pathoanatomical Collection in the Museum of Medical History is considered one of the major attractions in the Charité. It was systematically built up by Rudolf Virchow, the founder of modern pathology and a universal scientist, after his professorial appointment in 1856.
Institute of Pathology, Schumannstrasse 20/21

In honour of Robert Koch, who received the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1905 while working at the Charité, a museum was set up at 96 Dorotheenstrasse. It houses over 300 exhibits, including the Nobel Prize certificate and a wet preparation of tuberculosis in an ape signed by Koch himself. In the historic reading room of the building, Koch announced the discovery of the tuberculosis bacteria in 1882.

The Mori Ogai Memorial is part of the Japanese Language and Culture Centre at  Humboldt-Universität . It is dedicated to the Japanese doctor, scientist, author and translator Mori Ogai (1862-1922) who studied at Robert Koch's Hygiene Institute in Berlin from 1887-1888. In memory of Ogai's achievements in making German culture, literature and medicine known in Japan, the memorial fulfils research purposes and places special emphasis on translation.
Luisenstraße 39

The "Little Humboldt Gallery" founded in 1978 is located in the Computing Centre. It presents changing exhibitions showing works of art of university staff, students and artists from in and around Berlin.
To be found in the main building, 6 Unter den Linden, open from Tuesday to Friday, noon to 6:00 p.m.

The "Arboretum" in the Berlin district of Berlin-Treptow covers an area of 3.5 hectares. It was set up by Franz Späth (1839-1913), the proprietor of the Ludwig Späth Nursery Gardens (founded in 1720) and later on an Agricultural Councillor,  at the time when the Nursery Gardens moved to an area that was then known as the Neu-Britz district.
There are now about 1,200 families of trees and shrubs in the Arboretum.
Späthstraße 80/81, open from April to October

The University Library, with its numerous smaller constituent libraries, has an stock of 4.2 million books and periodicals, 1.3 million dissertations and 530,000 other reading materials. Among its most precious exhibits is the library of the Grimm brothers with about 5,500 volumes. The restoration of these books, some of which badly damaged, is supported by "book sponsorships".
Zentrale Universitätsbibliothek, Hessische Straße 1-2

The "Humboldt-Universitäts-Gesellschaft" is an association of former students, friends and patrons of the University. Founded in 1966, it considers itself as a link between the university and the general public. It is responsible for maintaining connections with former members of the Humboldt-Universität .
To be found in the main building, Unter den Linden 6