I’ve had a couple of short trips in recent weeks to Germany and Poland and it’s always fascinating to have a look at Universities in any town I visit.

Of course, with Berlin, I’ve had a longish connection with Humboldt University, but it is always nice to see it again, particularly its main buildings along Unter den Linden and around Bebel Platz. Any visitor to Berlin is of course overwhelmed by the sense of history that hangs everywhere in the air around, but how much do ordinary academics working away in Irish universities appreciate how much they owe to the work that was done in conceiving of a new model for a University in Berlin that Humboldt published in 1810? Here, our national narrative flags up Newman and his ‘Idea of a University’, but in truth his conception was of a place that bears little relation to the reality of the modern university. His antipathy towards research, the sciences, ‘critical thinking’, and the production of new knowledge was discussed in detail by Sheldon Rothblat in his book “ The Modern University and its Discontents.”

Whereas Humboldt’s model, it is often argued, really gave rise to the modern conception that a university is a place, not just of knowledge reproduction, but also of enquiry, of research. Students in such a university should be nurtured and supported as they develop their understanding through undertaking research and engaging in scholarly enquiry and critique.

The University in Berlin was named Friedrich Wilhems Universität from 1828 and grew in scale, ambition and achievement. To date it can claim 29 Nobel Prize winners as former students or staff.  The period of Nazism and the Second World War, obviously had a major impact, not least of which was the famous burning of books in the University square and the expulsions of Jewish staff and students.

The post-war period led to international isolation beyond the Soviet sphere of influence and substantial changes to the operation of the institution, though it did lead to its renaming as Humboldt university in honour of the two brothers, Wilhem and Alexander.

It’s always a fascinating place to visit and an interesting lens through which to view the history of this nation. As for the list of notable alumni and staff? Staggering, including: Albert Einstein, Karl Marx, the brothers Grimm, Herbert Marcuse, Otto Hahn, Werner Heisenberg, Heinrich Hertz, Lise Meitner, Felix Mendelssohn, …

And more recently, our trip to Poland took in Uniwersytet Wrocławski, or the University of Wrocław. Again, historically fascinating and once-more riddled with the history of this part of Europe, essentially reconstituted as a Polish institution after the war when displaced professors from the University of Lvov started teaching amongst the ruins of the former German institution. In the first part of the 20th Century the University produced 9 Nobel Prize Winners and in the contemporary era it has grown in size and reputation.  Famous alumni and faculty include Erwin Schrodinger, Max Born, Fritz Haber, Paul Ehrlich, Gustav Kirchhoff, Jan Evangelista Purkyně and Robert Bunsen.

Photo shows Humboldt University on Unter den Linden, where each year students hold a book market to commemorate/repudiate the burning of books in 1933.