University privilege

A Tradition of Innovation

History of Friedrich Schiller University Jena
University privilege
Image: Universität Jena

The university city of Jena—a pearl in the Saale Valley

Jena is a lively and young city. Year after year, young people come to study in the city on the Saale river, giving Jena a boost of energy. They are full of ideas and verve and are eager to think beyond borders. Friedrich Schiller University Jena provides them with the opportunity to do so.

The University of Jena has once again become an internationally renowned centre of science. New success stories are written in research and teaching; and when browsing through the University’s history, one comes across the names of great scholars who worked in Jena. Ever since it was founded, the University has been through many ups and downs. Numerous famous names have passed through its doors over the centuries: Johann Franz Buddäus, Erhard Weigel, Schiller, Goethe, Hegel and Fichte. They were later followed by industrial pioneers Abbe, Zeiss and Schott, who steered the small town of Jena into the modern age.

This overview sheds light on the history of the University of Jena from the founding years to the present day by means of short texts and useful references.

1548: Foundation of the Hohe Schule at the height of Reformation

The University of Jena owes its existence to a military defeat. John Frederick I, Elector of Saxony spearheaded the Schmalkaldic League, an alliance of Protestant princes in the empire that had been formed to oppose the Emperor Charles V. On 24 April 1547, the followers of the new faith suffered a severe defeat near Mühlberg. Hanfried, the name by which the Duke is known in Jena to this day, was taken prisoner and had to fear for his life. He was later pardoned by the Emperor, but stripped of his Electoral title and forced to forfeit big parts of his territories, including the city of Wittenberg and its university. His cousin Maurice, who had sided with the Emperor, was the beneficiary. John Frederick had to find something else. He chose Weimar as his new residence, and neighbouring Jena as the site for a Hohe Schule, an academy. This new educational institution was primarily intended to train pastors who should spread the Lutheran doctrine.

In 1548, 171 students began their studies under the professors Johannes Stigel and Victorius Strigel in the Collegium Jenense. This Collegium Jenense in a former Dominican monastery is where the University was founded, and it still exists today. Strigel taught theology, his colleague Stigel philology and philosophy. The Hohe Schule initially had very modest facilities. However, Hanfried had brought along the valuable Bibliotheca Electoralis from Wittenberg.

The arrival of the students in Jena probably marked the end of peace and quiet in the city. The students—all men, since female students were still unthinkable at that time—brought their own customs and traditions with them.

From an intellectual point of view, however, the new educational institution soon blossomed: By the mid-1550s, Jena was already considered a leading centre of the Reformation, and the Jena edition of Luther’s works outstripped the competing Wittenberg edition. In 1557, the Hohe Schule was granted university privilege by the Emperor and was subsequently allowed to call itself a university.

You can find more information and visual materials on the website of the Collegium Jenense research projectExternal link, which depicts the events of the founding years of Friedrich Schiller University in a virtual tour through a graphical timeline.

1558: From the Hohe Schule to an imperial full university

As early as 1555, the office of Rector had been introduced at the Hohe Schule. From then on, any of its professors could be elected rector. The university privileges were granted by Emperor Ferdinand I in 1557; his predecessor Charles V would not have done so. Even a faculty of theology was approved, although Jena had become a stronghold of orthodox Lutheranism in the meantime. In view of the religious disputes in the empire, this was rather surprising.

On 15 August 1557, the imperial university privilege was signed in the Imperial Court Chancellery in Vienna. The Jena physician Johann Schröter, the emperor's former personal physician, was dispatched as an envoy to the imperial court. On his return, Jena gave Schröter a triumphant welcome and he was elected the first rector of the University of Jena. With the imperial privilege, the Hohe Schule had risen to the legal status of a full university of the empire. It was inaugurated on Candlemas Day, 2 February 1558. Since then, this day has been regarded as the founding date of the Alma Mater Jenensis.

1800: First prime of the city privileged to knowledge

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe called Jena a city privileged to knowledge. Goethe, a member of the Privy Council, had laid the foundations for this himself in his role as superintendent of the local institutions for the arts and sciences. He created the necessary academic infrastructure by having libraries and the Botanical Garden expanded and by supporting various collections and laboratories. The University Observatory and the Mineralogical Collection also were established on his initiative. But the motives behind this were not purely altruistic. The poet’s own inclination towards research may have influenced some of his decisions. Admittedly, it also yielded results: Goethe persistently searched for the human intermaxillary bone and was successful. In 1784, he and the physician and anatomist Justus Christian Loder demonstrated the presence of the intermaxillary bone in the human skull in the Jena anatomical theatre. The ruins of this building—the Anatomy Tower—can still be visited today. In addition, the original preparations made by Goethe are kept in the University’s Anatomical Collection.

However, the decisive impetus for the re-flourishing of the Alma Mater Jenensis came from the great minds that gathered in the town: Hegel, Fichte, Schelling, Voß, the brothers Schlegel and Schiller, who would later become the University' s namesake, were teaching and holding lectures, while Novalis, Hölderlin, Brentano, Fröbel and Arndt were sitting in their classes. To this day, commemorative plaques all over the city bear witness to who taught or studied in Jena. There are also buildings from that time: Schiller’s Garden House, Goethe’s Inspector’s House in the Botanical Garden, the Romantikerhaus where the philosopher Fichte lived, the Accouchierhaus established by Loder, and the Frommann estate, where German philologists and art historians are based today.

The cultural density of the twin cities of Jena and Weimar, unique in Europe, marked the beginning of a new era in culture and science. Some notable figures completed their doctorates in Jena. Two of the most famous names are Robert Schumann and Karl Marx.

The uprising of Jena students was also unique: In June 1815, they founded the Urburschenschaft—the very first student fraternity in the country—in the inn Grüne Tanne in Wenigenjena. From the beginning, the students made political demands, called for reforms and set the unification of Germany as their goal. The colours of the Burschenschaft flag were black and red with a golden fringe and cluster of oak leaves; black, red and gold later became the national colours of Germany.

1840: Industrialization: Zeiss, Abbe and Schott

The intellectual prime was followed by an economic one. This period was marked by the names of Carl Zeiss, Ernst Abbe and Otto Schott, who achieved groundbreaking things together and, as pioneers of the optical industry, made the name Jena known throughout the world. The University helped them in this endeavour; it was only the symbiosis of entrepreneurship and drive to research that resulted in the optical precision that Jena became famous for all around the world. The traditional way of trial and error had become outdated. Instead, it was about using scientific findings to develop and produce innovative technical devices. This transfer of ideas between university and company is a successful model in Jena to this day and has lost none of its appeal.

One of the most significant personalities who heralded the beginning of the industrial age was Ernst Abbe, who was appointed associate professor in 1870. He created a theory of image formation in the microscope based on the known diffraction phenomena. Abbe cooperated closely with Carl Zeiss, who held the post of a University mechanic and strived to perfect the production of optical instruments in his private workshops. The trio was completed by Otto Schott, a glass chemist from Witten who had received his doctorate from the University of Jena in 1875. At Abbe’s insistence, Schott founded a glass technology laboratory in 1874, which later resulted in the company Jenaer Glaswerk Schott & Genossen. The company manufactured the specialty glass required for microscopes and other optical instruments.

Matthias Jakob Schleiden, professor of botany and co-founder of the cell theory, was among those who encouraged and later benefited from the groundbreaking innovations by the trio Zeiss, Schott and Abbe.

1900–1914: Second prime just before the Weimar Republic

Once a tranquil town, Jena quickly developed into a flourishing industrial location. The Zeiss factory drew large numbers of highly skilled workers to the town, which saw its population grow in leaps and bounds from 1870 to the turn of the century—by 150 percent to around 25,000. The workers benefited from the company’s success because an unprecedented social statute gave them a share in its profits. This was possible because the Zeiss factory had been transformed into a foundation company at an early stage. The University and the city also were to benefit: For example, the Volkshaus was built with funds from Zeiss, which became a venue for concerts and gave a home to the Reading Hall Association, today's Ernst Abbe Library.

Another striking building was inaugurated on the occasion of the University’s 350th anniversary in 1908: its new main building, designed by the renowned church and theatre architect Theodor Fischer from Stuttgart. This imposing building was constructed on the site of the former city castle and is a central location for the University to this day. A large part of the construction costs was provided by the Zeiss Foundation, while Otto Schott was the biggest private donor.

The years between the ‘Gründerzeit’ and the Weimar Republic were extremely significant for Jena as a centre of science. Like in the 1800s, the town and the University once again attracted numerous great minds. The ‘German Darwin’ Ernst Haeckel, and the mathematician and logician Gottlob Frege, who became particularly important for Anglo-Saxon philosophy, both taught in Jena. Other outstanding scientists who taught in Jena at the time include the inventor of electroencephalography Hans Berger, psychiatrist Otto Binswanger, philosopher Rudolf Eucken—who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1908—and historians Johann Gustav Droysen and Alexander Cartellieri. The philologists Berthold Delbrück and Eduard Sievers, the reform pedagogues Karl-Volkmar Stoy and Peter Petersen, the jurist Eduard Rosenthal and the physicist Max Wien, one of the pioneers of wireless telegraphy, must also be mentioned.

Jena had an active art scene, fuelled by the avant-garde oriented Kunstverein around Eberhard Grisebach and Botho Graef. In 1905, the French artist Auguste Rodin was awarded an honorary doctorate, after his art had provoked a major scandal in Weimar. Between 1907 and 1909, Ferdinand Hodler completed his famous monumental painting ‘Auszug deutscher Studenten in den Freiheitskrieg von 1813’ (Exodus of German Students to the War of Independence of 1813), which now has its place in the auditorium of the University Main Building. During this period, the cultural life in the town was characterized by exhibitions and working residencies of leading Expressionists as well as the connection to the Bauhaus in Weimar.

1904: Women are conquering academia

There is another area in in which modernity was taking hold at the University: Previously barred from studying, numerous women had been wanting to take up university studies since the 1890s. The University made heavy weather of it; the Faculty of Arts was the first to welcome them. From the summer semester of 1902 onwards, women were allowed to enrol and attend courses. However, they were still denied access to the institutes and other facilities. Although women had officially been allowed to complete doctorates since 1897, they still had to overcome numerous reservations.

In 1904, Rowena Morse (1872–1958) from the United States was the first woman to receive a doctorate. She completed her doctoral studies at the Faculty of Arts and was awarded a magna cum laude for her thesis. A commemorative plaque in the stairwell of the Main University Building honours the pioneering achievement of the granddaughter of the inventor of Morse code.

1920–1934: From reform efforts to a National Socialist model university

In the early 1920s, attempts to reform the University are stepped up. For example, the previous prorector was given the title of rector and was from then on elected for a term of one year at a time. The governments of the states funding the University authorized a faculty reform; the faculties were now required to teach certain subjects. In addition, the Senate's status as the Parliament of the teaching staff was reformed, and a small Senate was added as an administrative body In the mid-1920s, the liberal climate in the city came to an end. The National Socialist German Workers' Party (NSDAP) found Thuringia to be an ideal political breeding ground and rapidly rose to power. At the University of Jena, there had been a university group of the NSDAP or National Socialist German Students’ League since 1925/26. The idea of a National Socialist model university was born, with Nazi ideologue Karl Astel becoming rector in 1939. He surrounded himself with other racial scientists—the University fully committed itself to the interests of the war economy.

At that time, the University had already been named after Friedrich Schiller. The name was bestowed on the University on the 175th anniversary of the poet's birth on 10 November 1934.

1945: A new start and reorganization after the Second World War

In the spring of 1945, Jena was the target of several Allied air raids. University buildings were severely affected: The Main Building and buildings in the hospital complex in Bachstraße were hit by bombs. The University Library, the Institute of Botany, where nine people died under the rubble, the Institute of Psychology, three chemistry institutes and the Institute of Physiology were completely destroyed.

After teaching activities had largely collapsed in the last months of the war, Friedrich Schiller University reopened its doors on 15 October 1945 on orders from the Soviet Military Administration in Thuringia. In December 1945, teaching was resumed. The intention to transform the University into a socialist university soon became clear: In the 1950s, compulsory Marxist-Leninist basic studies were introduced, and German, Sports and Russian became additional compulsory subjects.

After a brief democratic revival, the University was once again run by ideologues. The curriculum was geared towards making Jena the technology and science centre of the GDR. Here, the close cooperation with VEB Carl Zeiss Jena played a major role. The University Tower, designed by the architect Herbert Henselmann and built between 1967 and 1972, is a visible sign of the close relationship between the University and the combine. The building was originally intended to be used as a research tower for Carl Zeiss, but instead, many University employees had to move in, even though the working conditions were not ideal.

1989: Political resistance and reunification

The Jentower is literally towering over the city centre to this day; at 159.60 metres, it is the tallest building in the new federal states. In its shadow, disobedient minds emerged in the last years of the GDR: Jena was considered a stronghold of dissidents in the country. In 1989, students and professors took to the streets together. They were protesting to overcome the crippling standstill in the country and to sweep away the restrictions on intellectual freedom in science and research. Immediately after the political changes, the University faced drastic cuts: All teachers were evaluated, and the previous sections once again became ten faculties of a clearly structured classical university covering all disciplines. A new central campus was built on the premises of the former main factory of Zeiss in the city centre; in 2000, the University Hospital in Lobeda was built, bringing together all the medical clinics and institutes in one location. At the end of 2001, a new university library was opened, which replaced the provisional building that had been constructed after the war.

The profile of Friedrich Schiller University follows in the footsteps of its traditions: There is a Faculty of Arts which is highly differentiated. The hospital offers top-quality medical care for the Federal State of Thuringia. Other strong pillars of the classical full university are Physics, Biological and Sports Sciences and Psychology. Jena also offers a range of rare subjects, such as Romanian Studies, Ancient Near Eastern Studies and Indo-European Studies.

The close links between academia and research, between university and non-university institutes whose directors and department heads often teach at the University, as well as the short distances in the city have once again made Jena a widely respected centre of science. The University maintains a university network with Halle and Leipzig and belongs to the Coimbra Group, in which many traditional European universities have joined forces.

The University today: Light, Life, Liberty — Connecting Visions

Joint and often interdisciplinary projects, for example in the six DFG Collaborative Research Centres and the more than 20 Research Training Groups and Graduate Schools, are impressive indicators of where the University is heading. Its focal research areas are united under the slogan Light, Life, Liberty. The field Light includes Optics and Photonics as well as Innovative Materials, Technologies and Energy Storage; the field Life includes Microbiology, Infection Biology, as well as Biodiversity, Bio-Geo-Interactions and Aging Research. The third field, Liberty, includes Social Change and Enlightenment, Romanticism and Contemporary History.

Friedrich Schiller University Jena uses the slogan Student Paradise JenaExternal link for marketing purposes and is rising to the challenge of providing students with the most paradise-like study conditions possible. These include good supervision ratios between students and lecturers, active support for students with child(ren) and a wide range of free time activities in the city and its immediate surroundings. As a line from a 19th century student song goes, ‘In Jene lebt sich’s bene’—life in Jena is good, which is as true today as it was then. The repeated high rankings in surveys by Spiegel, CHE/stern and Stiftung Warentest are a reflection of students’ appreciation for their alma mater.

The doctoral candidates should also benefit from excellent supervision. This is why the University’s Graduate Academy was founded in 2006.

Since October 2014, medical scientist Prof. Dr Walter Rosenthal has been President of the University. Unlike all his predecessors, he does not come from the University’s own ranks, bringing an end to a long line of rectors that began with the professors Johannes Stigel and Victorin Strigel in 1549.

Friedrich Schiller Bust Jena University
How the Alma Mater Jenensis became the "Friedrich Schiller University Jena" in 1934. You can find a detailed article on the topic here.