Today, I would like to celebrate a birthday that is special to me: my alma mater, the University of Bonn, is 200 years old. Compared with some other European universities that may not seem like much, but it is still a memorable feast.
Its origins are part of some political manoeuvring, not unlike what we see today. The Rhineland, and with it Bonn, had been given to the Prussians by the Congress of Vienna after the defeat of Naploeon in 1815. However, this was not universally popular. In order to get his new citizens to look more favourably at the new rule, the king of Prussia promised that he would establish a new university in the Rhineland to replace three previous ones, which had not survived the French Napoleonic rule.
These three universities had been a Catholic university in Cologne since 1388 and a Lutheran one in Duisburg since the late 17th century. In Bonn there had been an “institute” since 1777, which had been elevated to university status in 1786. Traditionally universities, like the ones in Cologne and Duisburg, had been aligned to the religious affiliations of the rulers of the state, where they were situated (as were the citizens of these states). However, as Bonn university was only established later, in the era of the enlightenment, this one had been free of such religious affiliations.
Planning the site of the new Rhenish university was not uncontroversial, but in the end Bonn’s enlightened history won the day. And on 18 October 1818 a nine-page document was finally signed by King Friedrich Wilhelm III of Prussia: the Foundation Charter of the University of Bonn.
The Charter stresses its denominational parity. There were five faculties: Lutheran theology, Catholic theology, legal studies, medicine and a philosophical (arts) faculty. Except for the two theological faculties, professors were not to be selected according to their religious beliefs.
Poor, but deserving students were to be supported by free meals and other “benefices”. A fund to support widows of professors was also set up.
The university was given buildings and land and famous scientists and learned men where called to teach at the new foundation. However, it was only in 1828 that it got its name: Rhenish Friedrich Wilhelm University.
The buildings and land had belonged to the ruler of the state before the French occupation, the archbishops of Cologne. The university was established in the main palace next to the town centre, which to this day is the main building of the university. It also received the Poppelsdorf Palace and the adjacent ornamental gardens. The gardens had already existed since 1574, though they had changed several times. These gardens then became the botanical gardens of the university, with gifts from botanical gardens all over the world and well-travelled people. The botanical gardens are to this day a popular destination for locals and tourists alike. So it’s “Happy Birthday” to the botanical gardens, too.
Bonn University became known as a “Princes’ University”, because it was attended by the princes of Germany’s ruling families, among them Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, who was to marry Queen Victoria.
Quite a few of its former students would become famous in a wide variety of fields: poets like Heinrich Heine and Heinrich Hoffmann v. Fallersleben, philosophers like Karl Marx (who famously spent a night in the university lock-up for being noisy) and Friedrich Nietzsche, scientists like Justus von Liebig, as well as politicians like the first Chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany Konrad Adenauer. Among those alumni who are remembered with considerably less pride is Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi propaganda minister. So far, seven Nobel Prize winners and three Fields medallists are associated with the university (either as alumni or lecturers). The latest was Peter Scholze, who was awarded the Fields Medal this year.
Since 1896, the university accepted female students, initially only as “guest students”, and from 1908 onwards as full students. The first German society of female students, ‘Hillaritas’, was established in Bonn in 1899.
I have many fond memories of my time at Bonn University and its influence lasts to this day. After all, it was a throw-away remark of one of my professors which kindled my interest in Richard III and its time.
Becker, T.P., ‘Geschichte der Rheinischen Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität’, Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität Bonn. URL: https://www.uni-bonn.de/einrichtungen/universitaetsverwaltung/organisationsplan/archiv/universitaetsgeschichte/unigeschichte [last accessed 17 Oct. 2018]
Glass, P., ‘Botanischer Garten der Universität Bonn‘, in: KuLaDig, Kultur.Landschaft.Digital (2012). URL: https://www.kuladig.de/Objektansicht/O-30385-20120116-2 [last accessed 18 Oct. 2018]
Rosin, P., ‘Parität. Religion und konfessionelle Konflikte an der Universität Bonn im 19. Jahrhundert‘, Portal Rheinische Geschichte. URL: http://rheinische-geschichte.lvr.de/Epochen-und-Themen/Themen/paritaet.-religion-und-konfessionelle-konflikte-an-der-universitaet-bonn-im-19.-jahrhundert/DE-2086/lido/5b30e5884d7089.82134018 [last accessed 17 Oct. 2018]
‘Fields Medal for Peter Scholze’, Hausdorff Center for Mathematics (1 Aug. 2018). URL: https://www.hcm.uni-bonn.de/hcm-news/fields-medal/ [last accessed 17 Oct. 2018]
You can see the Foundation Charter with a modern transcription (in German) here: https://cams.ukb.uni-bonn.de/public/UniBonn/urkunde/urkunde_1818.html