Cover image for Universities Under Dictatorship Edited by John Connelly and Michael Grüttner

Universities Under Dictatorship

Edited by John Connelly, and Edited by Michael Grüttner


$83.95 | Hardcover Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-02695-4

$34.95 | Paperback Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-05862-7

320 pages
6" × 9"

Universities Under Dictatorship

Edited by John Connelly, and Edited by Michael Grüttner

“Although the scholarship on the history of universities under dictatorships is extensive, this is the first volume to address this issue in comparative perspective. The book will help readers rethink the very content of the idea of ‘academic freedom.’”


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Dictatorships destroy intellectual freedom, yet universities need it. How, then, can universities function under dictatorships? Are they more a support or a danger for the system? In this volume, leading experts from five countries explore the many dimensions of accommodation and conflict, control and independence, as well as subservience and resistance that characterized the relationship of universities to dictatorial regimes in communist and fascist states during the twentieth century: Nazi Germany, Mussolini’s Italy, Francoist Spain, Maoist China, the Soviet Union, and the Soviet bloc countries of Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Hungary, and Poland.

Comparisons across these cases reveal that the higher-education policies of modern dictatorships were characterized by a basic conflict of aims. On the one hand, universities were supposed to propagate reigning ideology and serve as training grounds for a dependable elite. Consequently, university autonomy was restricted, research used for political legitimation, personnel policies subjected to political calculus, and many undesired scholars simply put out on the street. On the other hand, modern dictatorships needed well-educated scientists, physicians, teachers, and engineers for the implementation of their political, economic, and military agendas.

Communist and fascist leaders thus confronted the basic question of whether universities should be seen primarily as producers of ideology and functionaries loyal to the party line or as places where indispensable knowledge was made available. Dictatorships that opted to subject universities to rigorous political control reduced their scholarly productivity. But if the institutes of higher learning were left with too much autonomy, there was a danger that they would go astray politically.

Besides the editors, the contributors are Ruth Ben-Ghiat, Michael David-Fox, Jan Havránek, Ralph Jessen, György Péteri, Miguel Ángel Ruiz Carnicer, and Douglas Stiffler.

“Although the scholarship on the history of universities under dictatorships is extensive, this is the first volume to address this issue in comparative perspective. The book will help readers rethink the very content of the idea of ‘academic freedom.’”

John Connelly is Associate Professor of History at the University of California, Berkeley.

Michael Grüttner is Professor in the Department of History and Art History at the Technical University of Berlin.





1. Russian Universities Across the 1917 Divide

2. Italian Universities Under Fascism

3. German Universities Under the Swastika

4. Spanish Universities Under Franco

5. The Communist Idea of the University

6. Czech Universities Under Communism

7. Polish Universities and State Socialism, 1944–1968

8. Resistance to the Sovietization of Higher Education in China

9. Between Control and Collaboration

10. Concluding Reflections



John Connelly

In the twentieth century both “dictatorship” and “university” acquired dimensions that had previously been unthinkable. In the turmoil following World War I, dictatorships emerged that marshaled resources, mass movements, and ideologies that had antecedents but no precedents. Because of the theoretically unlimited resolve of these new regimes to establish controls over societal life, some of them were described as totalitarian. At the same time, the functions of universities expanded far beyond the “idea” of the university known in John Henry Newman’s time. Whether state-run or private, universities were called upon to serve “public” interests, and therefore shifted from elite to mass institutions, with heavy emphases on teaching. In the United States, where these trends have gone furthest, fourteen hundred institutions of higher education are devoted entirely to teaching students majoring in everything from classics (ever fewer) to business administration (ever more). Though room remains for disinterested research, it is dwarfed by capacities serving the military industrial complex, and many bemoan the gradual severing of teaching from research—an ideal of the “Humboldtian” university.

What seems to make the juxtaposition of dictatorship and university interesting is academic freedom: dictatorships destroy it, universities need it. This is a proposition that most students of politics would readily accept. Students of higher education quickly recognize a problem, however: academic freedom has no generally accepted meaning. Is it freedom of the academy from outside interference—for example, from the state—or freedom of the individual academic from outside interference—for example, from the academy itself? Does it protect freedom of inquiry on all subjects, or only on the specialty of the scholar? Does it embrace the entire university community, or only professors? And what happens when one goes beyond the Anglo-Saxon world? Within their own contexts, French tend to say “liberté des enseignements” or “liberté de recherche” and Germans “Freiheit der Wissenschaft” when they mean something like “academic freedom.” But universities are not the sole preserves of instruction, research, or science. Teaching takes place at a range of institutions with little to no interest in free inquiry, and there are scientists and scientific research at workplaces carefully controlled by the state—such as defense laboratories. Taken singularly, teaching and science do not touch the university mission that academic freedom supposedly safeguards. They do not involve the “idea” of the university.

But the issue of linguistic equivalency may be deceptive. Regardless of whether the German language has a precise counterpart for “academic freedom” (which is translated as “akademische Freiheit”), it is to German culture that America owes its idea and practice of academic freedom. The 1915 founding statements of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) on academic freedom cite the German notion of Lehrfreiheit (freedom of teaching), whose value was recognized by the thousands of Americans who had studied in Germany in the late nineteenth century. But this idea took new form on American soil. The freedom of professors to pursue scholarship and teaching without external interventions was recognized in both Germany and the United States; yet in the United States scholars also asserted rights to extramural utterance, and it was here that the major contests with “society”—in the form of university trustees—occurred. In Germany, university teachers did not claim this right. But unlike their American counterparts, German universities also explicitly recognized the sovereign independence of students, something called Lernfreiheit (freedom of learning). American universities, with their frequent examinations and rigid degree requirements, have long impressed observers from Central Europe as being more like secondary schools (verschult).

The point is that academic freedom varies according to the place of higher education in civil society. German universities have been and remain state institutions, for which ministers of education bear ultimate responsibility. The campus is the preserve of the professors, however: through their institutions of self-governance, they run the university. In Wilhelmine Germany universities were protected islands in an otherwise highly regimented society. In the United States, by contrast, universities operate under boards of trustees. Professors, therefore, do not owe their academic freedom to the state, but rather gained it through political agitation and legal battles with trustees and administrators. Because trustees threatened them with dismissal, the professors’ defense of academic freedom was couched in terms focused on tenure of employment. As Walter Metzger wrote in 1969, the “key to crime prevention lay in the adoption of regulations that would heighten the security of the office-holder and temper the arbitrariness of the ‘boss.’” Its principal safeguards—tenure, peer review, and academic due process—were enshrined in the AAUP’s 1915 founding statements. This organization reflected and furthered the American approach: nowhere else did a lobbying group have the specific purpose of safeguarding academic freedom.

Since 1915, dismissals of faculty for their political opinions have become exceptional in the United States. Despite witch hunts that all but silenced the left in the McCarthy era, relatively few tenured professors lost their jobs, and in subsequent years professors have defended tenure despite persistent threats. For example, in 1967 a resolution to the regents of the University of Wisconsin to dismiss faculty for boycotting classes after a police incursion on campus (in the wake of an antiwar rally) failed by a vote of 5 to 4. Confessional colleges, a comparatively large part of U.S. higher education, still presume to restrict what their professors may teach, but here too dismissals of tenured faculty are rare. The one case in Catholic higher education occurred in the late 1980s, when the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith determined that Charles E. Curran, tenured at the Catholic University of America, was “neither suitable nor eligible to be a professor of Catholic theology.” Two years later he lost his position.

If dismissals of tenured professors are marginal, other threats remain, directed in particular against those who do not enjoy security of employment. In the 1950s, of all the junior professors who refused to cooperate with committees investigating Communism on campus, only one managed to keep his job. In recent years nontenured faculty and students have come under pressures of speech codes. Almost all U.S. colleges and universities have “verbal behavior” provisions in their codes, but their wording tends to be vague and flexible. To cite just two cases from the top of the alphabet: at Bowdoin College students can be held liable for “harassment” for telling jokes and stories “experienced by others as harassing,” and at Brown University, students can be disciplined for “verbal behavior” that causes “feelings of impotence,” “anger,” or “disenfranchisement,” whether “intentional or unintentional.”

As a result of these and other codes, dozens of students and faculty have been censured, suspended, and encouraged to undergo reeducation for supposedly creating a “hostile environment” for women and minorities. In the view of critics, the codes themselves have engendered a “totalitarian atmosphere” on U.S. campuses. Most controversial was a case at the University of Pennsylvania in 1993, in which a white student faced disciplinary procedures for calling late-night revelers who were disturbing his work “water buffalo.” They were black. But there are numerous other instances. In 1992, student protesters ransacked the premises of the student newspaper at the University of Massachusetts. It was accused of racism for having referred to “riots” in Los Angeles after the acquittal of the police officers who had beaten Rodney King. Refused protection by university authorities, the editors tried to publish from a secret location, but successive editions of the newspaper were stolen and destroyed. In the end, the newspaper’s editors surrendered, and agreed to a new editorial structure with special editors and sections for “historically oppressed” minorities on campus.

The question is how to ground intellectually and juridically the academic freedom threatened by such practices. Alan Kors and Harvey Silverglate argue that speech codes infringe upon rights protected under the First Amendment, and they cite court decisions protecting academic freedom as derivative of these rights. In 1967 the Supreme Court wrote that the Constitution did not “tolerate laws that cast a pall of orthodoxy over the classroom,” which should remain a “marketplace of ideas.” In recent years courts have struck down speech codes at the University of Michigan and the University of Wisconsin precisely because they violate constitutional rights.

Legal scholar Robert Post takes a different approach: for him academic freedom is not an individual right. “Insofar as freedom of extramural expression is a right that should theoretically accrue to all faculty,” he writes, “it cannot be justified by the general civil liberties guaranteed by the First Amendment or by the civil law generally.” For Post, “the function of academic freedom is not to liberate individual professors from all forms of institutional regulation, but instead to ensure that faculty within the university are free to engage in professionally competent forms of inquiry and teaching, which are necessary for the realization of the social purposes of the university.” Academic freedom is a “professional freedom.” Academics require it because of their “primary responsibility . . . to the public itself.” Universities are not a “private proprietorship” but rather a “public trust.” The German, more specifically Humboldtian, origins of such thoughts tend to be neglected in the American context.

Beyond dismissals of faculty and students, there are deeper, structural challenges to freedom in American academia. In a 1969 essay Metzger cautioned against global processes beyond academic control. The major culprit was the federal government, which began subcontracting research work to universities after World War II, and by 1969 was funding up to three-quarters of all academic research. As a consequence, most of the research at universities served the interests of agencies outside academia. Most objectionable in Metzger’s eyes was military research, which is carried out in secret and encourages deceit. Such “intrusion of lock-and-key research into an ostensibly open enterprise” injures “academic integrity.” To his own dismay, Metzger failed to formulate a general theory that would intellectually ground the university’s defense against the perversions caused by such injuries to academic freedom. Existing regulations protected the academic rights of individuals, but not of institutions.

Government control, reeducation, infringements on speech, obligations to the public—these all sound familiar to students of dictatorship. And so the question arises: are universities under democracies really so different from universities under dictatorships? Regardless of regime, politics in modern settings is invasive, and that means that academic freedom is never absolute. Following sociologist Zygmunt Bauman, some historians conceptualize the modern state as a “gardening state,” which, regardless of constitutional form, prunes unwanted growth in civil society with little moral scruple. Arguably, the intrusiveness of the modern state has shaped and necessitated academic freedom: the premodern state, recognizing universities as legally independent corporations, did not raise concerns about the freedom of academics. Academic freedom is thus a quintessentially modern concept; both defense of it and challenges to it issue from modern regimes. Yet university policies do reveal a difference between democracies and dictatorships: the two sorts of regime come at questions of academic freedom from opposite ends of the spectrum. Liberal democratic regimes honor this principle in all but exceptional circumstances, modern dictatorships honor it only in exceptional circumstances.

In the United States the debate over whether academic speech is shielded by some transcendent public duty or by First Amendment rights seems to have strengthened each side of the question: they are not mutually exclusive, but rather mutually reinforcing. Those who stress one do not rule out the other. A cultural and legal context has emerged in which university communities are deeply sensitive and take quick recourse to institutional safeguards when they feel threatened. The general attitude has been described well by Columbia University president Lee C. Bollinger, who acknowledged in the wake of controversies over speech codes that tolerance is never absolute; every institutional setting ultimately requires and enforces some commitment to belief, a point recognized even by such skeptics as John Stuart Mill, Isaiah Berlin, and Oliver Wendel Holmes. Nevertheless, the task of the university is more the “correction of the impulse to intolerance than the need for commitment to belief . . . the defining characteristic of the university ought to be the extraordinary degree to which it is open to ideas.”

There is also a practical problem for those who would restrict academics’ extramural utterances. Who is to say when controversial speech is based on professional competence, and when not? Post sketches the dilemma:

It is plain that universities would be placed in an extremely awkward position were they to refuse to accept responsibility for publication of faculty that relate to professional competence, but accept such responsibility for extramural expression that does not relate to professional competence. In such circumstances universities would virtually invite offended constituencies to argue that faculty publications should be censored because they are insufficiently related to scholarly expertise as to merit the protection of freedom of research. Universities would thus strengthen their ability to protect freedom of research if they were categorically to refuse to accept responsibility for the publications of their faculty, regardless of the precise connection between such publications and the academic expertise for which the faculty have been hired or trained.

He echoes Harvard president Abbott Lawrence Lowell, who wrote in his report for the 1916–17 academic year:

If a university or college censors what its professors may say, if it restrains them from uttering something that it does not approve, it thereby assumes responsibility for that which it permits them to say. This is logical and inevitable, but it is a responsibility which an institution of learning would be very unwise in assuming. . . . If a university is right in restraining its professors, it has a duty to do so, and it is responsible for whatever it permits. There is no middle ground. Either the university assumes full responsibility for permitting its professors to express certain opinions in public, or it assumes no responsibility whatever, and leaves them to be dealt with like other citizens by the public authorities according to the laws of the land.

Though universities in Communist and fascist states also claimed to be fulfilling a duty to the public—referred to alternately as people, state, nation, or race—they came to radically different views on academic freedom. They branded it a fiction and spoke of “so-called freedom of scholarship.” They argued that academic freedom had a particular political or class content. After the Nazi seizure of power, as we learn from Michael Grüttner, Hitler’s lawyer Hans Frank rejected Theodor Mommsen’s idea that science should be “without precondition,” asserting instead that it “must of necessity be in service to National Socialism.” Following their own seizure of power in 1948, Communists in the Czech city of Brno maintained that professors had been discharged for “abusing academic freedom in order to incite students to act against the law.” In effect, professors had violated the freedom of the working class. Higher education always served the interests of the governing classes, and since the state is an instrument of these classes, universities do—and therefore should—serve the state. This view had originated among Soviet functionaries and was faithfully transplanted. As Douglas Stiffler describes the Chinese case, the Soviet model in higher education involved removing politically offensive teachings and teachers, outright service to the cause of economic growth, placing important decisions on higher education in the hands of state functionaries, promoting the new classes—workers and peasants—in students admissions and faculty hiring, and establishing new courses in the social sciences for all students.

These considerations lead to deeper questions about the “idea of the university.” Did Communist reforms—which privileged technical education, punished free speech, and corroded academic autonomy—destroy the university? On the face of it, they did not. As we see in Michael David-Fox’s contribution, Bolsheviks of the early 1930s vilified universities as “feudal relics” and seemed ready to cast them onto the dust heap of history. But at the crucial moment they backed off, and universities survived, despite radical transformations. Chinese and other Communists followed the Bolshevik cultural revolutionaries in reforming, not demolishing, universities. The question was how far reforms would go.

As we see in each of the chapters in this book, universities under duress were able to protect some of their traditional freedoms, more for example in the hard than in the social sciences, more in research than in teaching, more in traditional institutions than in the newly founded. If in liberal regimes academic freedom is never completely protected, in the dictatorial states of the twentieth century it was never completely eroded. Can we speak of a core, of things so essential to a university that they became visible only under the pressures of states wielding unprecedented powers?

That conclusion might be drawn from the essays of Michael David-Fox on the Soviet Union and of György Péteri on Hungary. At the height of the assault on universities in 1932, professors at Leningrad State University were “most persistent in defending a component of advanced research in official definitions of the university’s functions.” Yet they did not attempt to “defend the research university on philosophical grounds.” They argued instead in terms of “rational production of cadres, maintaining standards, and serving the industrialization drive more effectively.” The issue was not freedom but rather function and performance. Péteri calls these professional standards. At the height of cultural revolution in Stalinist Hungary, Péteri notes that even the most ideologically correct faculties—those teaching Marxist-Leninist political economy—“could not remain totally unaffected by the norms and standards set by the economics profession in the country.”

We seem confronted with an image of totalitarian failure, of desperate attempts to extinguish the flame of inquiry, which nevertheless continued to smolder in institutions of higher education, ready to reignite under proper circumstances. In Hungary, these reemerged after 1956, and as Péteri notes, Hungarian social sciences reattained international prominence in the relative openness of that time. In a sense, the traditional university returned to the buildings from which it had been banished, and with its regenerative capacities it grew over and limited the damage of ideology. Perhaps one can measure the degree of erosion of the university by the time it takes to recover after assault. In the early 1990s, an impatient West German establishment did not wait for native forces to reassert the university in the former German Democratic Republic, but instead hastily moved in with its own underemployed cadres. Local historians and social scientists were purged before they could recreate full academic life. But this is the exception: elsewhere, including the part of former Nazi Germany that became West Germany, academia was permitted to return to a less politicized identity on its own.

But should one conclude that universities are indestructible? Ralph Jessen cautions that academic work does not survive without a modicum of independence and willingness to take initiative. And what about the Humboldtian notion that universities comprise teaching and research? Does one still have a university when the former has fully eclipsed the latter? Or where research is free, but teaching is not? Jessen notes that the East German regime compensated for the “politicization of teaching by granting freedom to research.” And scholars colluded: the Communists may have opposed academic freedom but they were arguably pro-science. So were the Nazis: they made research possible in the biological sciences that was forbidden under liberal regimes. Or what if one removes from the university most social science and humanities faculties and permits only one methodology in those that remain? This is what happened in China, the Soviet Union, and much of Eastern Europe. In Fascist Italy the opposite happened: technical and scientific disciplines were separated from universities, and separate higher schools were created to train Italians in pharmacology, architecture, and engineering. Ruth Ben-Ghiat calls this process “deprofessionalization.” If the Italian state was eviscerating professionalism, it was destroying precisely that quality which had saved universities from ruin in Stalinist Hungary. This destruction went hand in hand with a devaluation of scientific and technical disciplines. How many faculties or degree programs can a university sacrifice before it becomes something else, or at best a university in name only?

Over these questions hovers a larger one, whether there is a generally valid understanding of the university. Does it not, like the idea of academic freedom, differ according to context? Péteri warns against “essentializing” the university, preferring to view it as something “socially embedded” that changes according to time and place; after Pierre Bourdieu he imagines it as a “dynamic social field which is inhabited by various agents of academic and science-political activities and where various (‘orthodox’ and ‘heterodox’) positions as to the idea of the university articulate themselves.” The only thing eternal and universal about the university is the “never-ceasing contestation about what the ‘idea of the university’ should be.”

The essays that follow do not pretend to give final answers to these questions. But by providing a comparative framework they permit readers to consider what happens to institutions of free inquiry that come under extreme political pressure. The essays were originally written for a conference that took place in Berkeley in May 2000, and describe the range of options that dictatorships pursued in order to make universities useful, but also a range of responses adopted by universities: from opposition and evasion to accommodation and active collaboration. For the sake of comparability, authors were encouraged to address the following groups of questions:

1. What role did universities play in the foundation period of the dictatorship. Were they defenders of autonomy, or pioneers of dictatorship? Or both? In some cases, academics began to doubt the idea of the university. Why? To what extent and why did they collude in the destruction of academic freedom?

2. To what extent did the dictatorship cause a personal and structural rupture with university tradition?

3. What influence did the political system have on the content of teaching and research? Did traditional ideals of autonomy or unity of teaching and research seem outmoded, a dangerous illusion? Did the regime recognize limits to intervention?

4. To what extent did dictatorships succeed in creating academic elites that identified with the interests of the regime? In some cases we see production of eminently loyal students, for example in the GDR, but in others, such as Hungary or Poland, even promises of massive upward social mobility failed to secure political loyalty. How can we account for the differences?

5. Were universities in the long run more a support for or a threat to the dictatorship? More aids in helping discipline society, or places that generated alternative visions?

All of these questions boil down to the issue of self-defense: what resources did universities possess to ward off incursions of the state? The answers are partly moral, involving perceptions of legitimacy. In the postwar period, professors in Hungary or East Germany appeared deeply compromised through collaboration with the previous regime, and could not make plausible cases for freedom and autonomy. They faced legacies of their own creation. In other cases, like China, the strength of a different moral imperative—nationalism—tended to overwhelm attempts by academics to band together in common defense. Finally there were cases of overwhelming political will on the part of the rising hegemon, and its power to corrupt (as in Italy) or destroy (as in Spain). Explanations for divergence divide between the role of the university in civil society and the contours of ideology. Neither was supreme; in no case do we see absolute power either of society or of idea, but rather a subtle interplay of both.

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