The founder of the University, Wilhelm v. Humboldt (1767-1835), and its first rector, Johann Gottlieb Fichte, are responsible for the University’s educational ideals in the fields of science, teaching and philosophy. These principles are widely accepted as the core educational ideals even today. The three most striking traits of Humboldt and his University– in addition to a burning curiosity and an almost childlike enthusiasm for discovery – are the inseparable link between research and teaching, an interdisciplinary approach and an international bias. Each of these is essential in today’s climate. The first trait seems obvious when one considers the university’s educational ideals. Fichte had the revolutionary idea that an educational system should be formulated not just to instruct students on existing knowledge, but rather to guide and help them in developing their capabilities and in making discoveries themselves – developing their own creativity and skills rather than simply acquiring knowledge. Wilhelm v. Humboldt believed that research and teaching should be inseparable, because the pursuit of knowledge is – or should be – common to both. Knowledge should not be seen as static, as a unit or block about which one can “know everything” (Wagner in Faust, 1790/1806). Knowledge is a process, ever changing.
This was – for applied epistemology – the defining moment; today we accept this as self evident. The other two ideas were that the University should be interdisciplinary and international. Interdisciplinary universality is of course an old, originally classical legacy, typified in the works of Leonardo da Vinci and later in Goethe. But v. Humboldt’s universality was a little different, in that it encompassed such diverse areas as geography, linguistics, politics and legal science. Thus, the mutual impact of the various disciplines on each other, the interdisciplinary aspects, became even more important. The linguist studies geography; he then develops ideas for the classification of language groups, which again affect the political classification of groups of people. As a jurist, Wilhelm v. Humboldt was politically pragmatic and thus could intellectually separate the state from social issues.
He questioned the all-encompassing power, the ‘sanctity’ of states (“An essay on the limitations of states”). Both Wilhelm v. Humboldt and his younger brother Alexander (1769-1859) were deeply international. Full of curiosity, they studied the revolution in Paris and the development of new ideas. For years, even decades, they explored the boundaries of the known world. Few scientists are as famous today, for instance in South America, as the two v. Humboldt brothers. Wilhelm and Alexander lent their name to more than 100 natural phenomena or places. When Cuba donated the statue in front of the Humboldt University, they called Alexander “the second to discover America”, a true Columbus. Knowledge as a dynamic entity, interdisciplinary and international, that is the philosophy and the legacy of the Humboldt University and is the central theme of the curriculum for the European lawyer.
Naturally there can be no interdisciplinary interchange without discipline. Educational style cannot be a “free spirit” (only), as Goethe wrote in his poem of the same era. [Erst] "wenn wir … mit Geist und Fleiß uns an die Kunst gebunden, mag frei Natur im Herzen wieder glühen.” We understand art (‘Kunst’) in this context to mean discipline, respecting discipline first before allowing the free flow of a free spirit. In creating such discipline and system, certainly no one in Germany was more influential in the area of (private) legal science than Friedrich Carl v. Savigny (1779-1861), the first professor of Civil Law at the Humboldt University. He was against what he saw as a premature codification of the scientific principles, and advocated intellectual penetration and concept building in the Law (based on scientific analysis of (Roman) legal history). He implemented a dynamic process of systemisation and concept building such as has never been seen before or since. He influenced the whole of the 19th Century and promoted German Legal Science on Roman Law (the so-called Pandektenwissenschaft) to a leading position in Europe, even from the perspective of other countries such as England, where the great Maitland was one of his most fervent admirers. Savigny in no way restricted his ideas to national boundaries; the 8th volume of his system of the Roman Laws from 1848 is credited as being the basis for Continental European International Private Law today. Later on, Bernhard Windscheid (1807-1892), a great admirer of Savigny who was based in Heidelberg and Leipzig, built on this basis, on the work of systemisation undertaken by the ‘Pandektenwissenschaften’. His work was the main source of inspiration for the German Civil Code.
This historical scientific and dogmatic approach admittedly has its flaws. Again and again it has been shown that this body of law, like the pandectist tradition on which it is based, takes only limited account of social values and therefore appears to be somewhat biased in favour of the liberal civil traditions of the 19th Century. Wieackers expression “the late born child of liberalism” has become famous. Georg Friedrich Puchta (1798-1846), Savigny’s successor in Berlin, was long seen as a protagonist of a purely formalistic school (the so-called ‘Begriffsjurisprudenz’). Rudolf v. Ihering (1818-1892), the great opponent to Savigny’s historically orientated approach, who was known as the father of the legal theory of interests and later of a policy based approach to law, was offered the chance to come to Berlin. This he declined (one of the very few who did so) and later went to Vienna. Legal history, and more generally Roman history, flourished at the Humboldt University. The Humboldt University produced in Theodor Mommsen (1817-1903) the first German winner of a Nobel Prize. He is one of the few lawyers and historians to be accorded this honour. Mommsen was editor of the extensive Corpus Inscriptionum latinarum, author of the influential multi-volume work “Roman History” and “Roman Constitutional Law”, which in his own personal opinion was even more important and is more legally orientated. Legal science at the Humboldt University became the very heart of academia in the society of the 19th Century. Savigny was married to Gunda Brentano, and thereby related by marriage to Clemens Brentano and Achim v. Arnim. The brothers Grimm, and particularly the older Jakob (1785-1863), were his students and wrote the famous German fairy tales at this time. Although Savigny was surrounded by German romanticism, he had totally different, classical ideas. Totally independently Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831) formulated his “Fundamental principles of the philosophy of law and political science” (1821) at the Humboldt University. This work formed the basis of legal philosophy not just for 19th Century Germany but also for later years and for other countries. In essence he said that, as Goethe put it so concisely, only the Law can set us free.
Many, if not most, of the leading lawyers in Germany up until to the great break of 1933 either taught at or wanted to teach at this university. It is, of course, not possible to mention all the lecturers who contributed to the great intellectual traditions of the Humboldt University in one booklet. To explore this in any depth one would have to attend the partner universities’ summer schools on “The foundations of Law in Europe”. Savigny’s historic, conceptually orientated teachings were only the central theme; other lecturers brought to Berlin a stronger, more practically orientated legal science. The sheer number of famous Berlin lawyers is impressive. The first chair in Germany in this extremely dynamic field of commercial law was at the Humboldt University; its first professor was Levin Goldschmidt (1829-1897). He stressed the highly dynamic and international nature of Commercial Law. With good reason K. Schmidt called him “the greatest German commercial lawyer”. He was, at a time when most trade was at a national level, one of the intellectual fathers of International Commercial Law, which is today increasingly becoming a reality.
Otto v. Gierke (1841-1921) was the second most important company and commercial lawyer of the 19th Century. From his cooperative ideals of mutual support and solidarity he developed exceptionally powerful ideas – particularly regarding Europe. In addition, a Berlin Lawyer, Hermann Staub (1856-1904) developed in the area of Commercial Law the modern commentary technique. Instead of simply compiling the information, he presented it systematically, fact pattern for fact pattern and legal consequence for legal consequence. This systematic approach allowed him in 1904, with the breach of ancillary contract duty, to identify a major loophole in the German Civil Code. Franz v. Liszt (1851-1919) created the foundations for modern Penal Law, in that he emphasised that the effectiveness of punishment must be observed – Criminology and Legal Realism – and that the goal of reintegration of offenders into society is to be balanced against atonement for their crimes. All of these from the Humboldt University, which was known at that time as the (Royal) Friedrich Wilhelm University.
Carl Gottlieb Svarez (1746-1798) had previously created the first Codex based on the Laws of Nature and Reason in Berlin, which was less systematic than later offerings and is therefore only of interest from a legal history perspective today, but it was the beginning of modern legislation based on reasonableness, the (Prussian) ‘Allgemeines Landrecht’. The basis for this development was laid down in the times before the Humboldt University by Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716) who is known as the founder of the Berlin Academy. Leibniz was a lawyer and philosopher and recognised mutual goodwill as being the foundation for justice, a fundamental positive belief in the nature of the state, which was perhaps a bit naïve, but possibly also particularly relevant today in a period of globalisation.
With Ernst Rabel (1874-1955), a great change to modern international thinking developed. He was the head of the Schloß Institute (later Max Planck Institute), and in 1929 wrote his famous blue report, which called for a global legal harmonisation of the key areas associated with the international exchange. For Rabel, this was sales law. The legal philosopher Gustav Radbruch (1878-1949) was also highly influential at the beginning of the 20th Century, not at the university in Berlin but as a Minister in Berlin in politics and legislation. As the forefather of positivism, he later became, under the influence of National Socialism, a totally committed advocate for basic principles of justice, the inalienable limit for every law.
It is obvious that after 1933, proximity to the centre of power would affect legal science in Berlin, particularly in Constitutional Law. This was perhaps above all demonstrated by Carl Schmitt (1888-1985) with his highly influential Theory of Constitutional and International Law. This was used by the 3rd Reich for propaganda purposes, because it criticised the multi-party politics of the Weimar Republic and justified, with the Friend-Foe-Theory, likeminded politics. This was a period of painful exodus, which we are still feeling today, Rabel and Radbruch, among others, were affected by this emigration. Rabel went to America, which was the foundation for his global fame. There were, however, also other developments at the University at this time. Rudolf Smend (1882-1975), the leading constitutional lawyer opposing the philosophies of the 3rd Reich, taught here. He was a leading figure in the so-called ‘Bekennende Kirche’, a church still actively ‘confessing’ its ideals, and at the same time a major player in the legal arena with his thoughts on the integration needed between the old state and a young and fragile constitution, not too formal nor too heavily based on the free flow of a law of nature.
Gerhard Anschütz (1867-1948) completed the trio of great teachers of Constitutional Law in Berlin during the Weimar period. It is ironic that only after World War II, when times became less pro-science and a heavily egalitarian society developed, the University changed its name from the Friedrich Wilhelm University to the Humboldt University. The brothers v. Humboldt were not necessarily forerunners for communism. However, due to their open and liberal attitude, they found broad recognition, also in the 20th Century, which some refer to as the century of social democracy. This aspect is also a tradition in Berlin. The two foremost German proponents of social and political change, both of them lawyers, Ferdinand Lasalle (1825-1864 - social democracy) and Karl Marx (1818-1883 – communism), worked in Berlin. In the former East Germany, still more great jurists came from this law school, e.g. Lothar de Maizière and Gregor Gysi, and this is true independently of how they are judged today.