The “Scientific Conspiracy of Nations”: Virginia in Berlin

Fifty years after David Bruce (College ’20), one of the most distinguished diplomats of the 20th century, occupied the residence of the American embassy in Germany, another Virginian followed in his footsteps. Tammy Snyder Murphy (College ’87) is married to the current U.S. Ambassador, Philip Murphy. To celebrate the College’s budding relationship with Humboldt University, Ambassador and Mrs. Murphy hosted a dinner last month, bringing to their residence not just the delegations from Virginia and Humboldt but representatives of Germany’s great foundations—the Max Planck Institute, the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD), the Leibniz Society, and the Alexander Humboldt Foundation. If this sounds very formal, the Murphy children briefly left their homework to come down to join us, leavening the otherwise all too earnest academic discussion; that, combined with catching up on all the College news, gave a special intimacy to the celebratory dinner, as if it were a family affair.

Earlier in the day, the Ambassador and his wife had given me a tour of the new American embassy in Pariser Platz, along the famous boulevard Unter den Linden. It had been built in an open field that until 1990 had been left to fester by the East German regime, bearing mute witness to the spectacular ruins of German modernity. Today the vista from the embassy, opening out to the Brandenburg Gate and the Reichstag, bears witness to another kind of modernity. On the walls of the embassy upstairs are the names of the American envoys to Germany, from John Quincy Adams to Phil Murphy, and of the high commissioners of occupied Germany—men like John J. McCloy, whom John F. Kennedy once described as “the godfather of free Germany” for his contributions to the transition from Nazi Germany to West Germany.

The College has an ongoing relationship with Humboldt University through a research consortium on the study of “lifespan”—life’s evolutionary and ontogenetic dynamics—a consortium that includes the Max Planck Institute and the University of Michigan. Now we are exploring the possibilities for fusing Humboldt’s scholarly talents with ours in a wide range of areas, including the history of literature and philosophy; religious studies; sociology; media studies; theatre; Jewish studies; and political theory.

The University of Virginia and Humboldt University have a somewhat similar provenance. They sprang into being roughly at the same time, from the minds of men who exemplified the best possibilities of their civilization. Wilhelm von Humboldt and his brother Alexander were remarkably similar to Thomas Jefferson in their intellectual orientations. All three believed in the infinite possibilities for the development of the human mind, and hence had an abiding concern with university education. This led Wilhelm von Humboldt to create a structure that combined both teaching and research in one institution—in other words, a research university, one that became the template in this country for Johns Hopkins, the University of Michigan, and the University of Chicago, among others. They also believed in the unity and interrelation of the sciences, based on evidence and not theology, measured with great fastidiousness using the latest technology—in other words, they were, avant la lettre, Humboldtian scientists.

Furthermore, the Humboldt brothers believed not just in the unity of the sciences but of scientists—and in the “scientific conspiracy of nations,” connecting scholars from all over Europe—from Sweden, Prussia, France, England, Russia, Italy—and the United States. Alexander also mentored scientists from Latin America, a rarity at the time. In fact, Alexander von Humboldt led expeditions of scientific exploration to South America, just as Jefferson sent Lewis and Clark across North America. One might say that Jefferson was Humboldtian and the Humboldt brothers were Jeffersonian. It is little wonder that Mr. Jefferson delighted in hosting Alexander at the White House, holding long conversations about the state of science as well as the results of Alexander’s travels.

The “scientific conspiracy of nations” took a curious turn in the century that followed, to the near ruination of the German university, and inversely, the flourescence of the American. Humboldt University, which had been home to men whose work defined the apotheosis of western civilization in modern times—Fichte, Hegel, Schleiermacher, Schopenhauer, Schelling, Einstein, Max Planck, Marx, Engels, Heine, Bismarck, Liebknecht, only to name a few—in the immediate aftermath of Hitler’s rise to power in 1933 expelled some two hundred fifteen Jewish professors and employees and rescinded numerous doctorates. This involuntary European scholarly diaspora led to the immigration of over 100 physicists to the United States, amounting to 25 percent of the pre-1933 physics community in Germany and nearly half of its theoretical physicists. Einstein was of course the most prominent; a few years after he came to the U.S. he was visited by an old friend and colleague. Einstein asked him, “How is German physics?” His response: “There is no German physics.” The stimulus given by refugee physicists to biology, as exemplified by the Watson-Crick model of the DNA molecule, or to nuclear physics for the Manhattan project, would not have been possible, save for this massive diaspora. As German universities became shells of their former selves, American research universities, opening their arms to the scholars fleeing Europe, were spreading their wings toward a golden age of scholarship.

Just as Pariser Platz is finally restored, re-populated by elegant buildings that speak to hope and to the future, so is Humboldt University, seemingly ready to reclaim the legacy of the Augustan age of the eighteen century, when the German states were world centers of culture, and in the nineteenth century when German science and technology flourished in a university system that was the best in the world, bar none. But is that really the past which is the prelude to the German future?

The pictures of men that hang in the American embassy point, just as easily, to a different past as prelude to the future: the sharp break in German history in 1945 and the relative longevity of the Federal Republic. During this time the United States tried its best to help create a new Germany, persuading it to turn around and look west, to work with France and integrate their iron and steel industries under the Schuman Plan, to anchor its economy deep in the European market, and to integrate the Bundeswehr into NATO operations. The important political actors—parties, the state bureaucracy, interest groups, the federal reserve, individual states, the supreme court, and the media—would become so closely tied to one another that changes, when they came, were only in small, incremental steps. Yet when the Berlin Wall suddenly fell in 1989, the U.S. quickly supported the major step of German reunification, over opposition from England and other allies. Almost as suddenly Humboldt University emerged from its East German shell and quickly began recouping its previous global stature.

So it seems today that the future of this great German university derives both from its Humboldtian past, but also shrewd postwar American policies and the continuing American presence in Bonn and now in Berlin: really a positive outcome by all measures. Two centuries after Alexander von Humboldt’s visit with Thomas Jefferson, we might call it a truly Jeffersonian outcome.

16 Responses to “The “Scientific Conspiracy of Nations”: Virginia in Berlin”

  1. James Wilson says:

    Dear Meredith
    An inspiring tale beautifully written. One quesion and one add:
    1. I understand how the scientific diaspora from Germany helped the Manhattan Project, but how did it help Crick and Watson? ( I probably ought to know this)
    2. I understand that another major beneficiary of the exodus in the 1930s was Turkey, which received a large number of Jewish academics despite the alliance with Germany.
    I wish you a very happy holidays

  2. Ruika Lin says:

    I had a chance to visit Berlin and of course Humboldt University during summer 2009 when studying abroad in Germany. Touring the hall ways and seeing all the world’s top scientists’ and researchers’ photographs hanging on the wall was truly an inspiring experience. Hope to see more cooperative programs between U.Va. and German universities in the future, especially the ones that involve undergraduate students with basic/intermediate level of German language.
    Thank you Dean Woo for sharing! Hope you enjoy your holiday season!

  3. John B. Thompson says:

    Dear Dean Woo,

    What a splendid piece! It is heartening to encounter such quality writing these days and I congratulate you and thank you for sharing this.

    John B. Thompson

  4. Will Wingfield says:

    Thank you so much for the update! I submitted a Master’s paper using Humboldt’s “Ideen” in 1973, then was stationed in Germany for 3 years. Duties precluded travel to Berlin and being able to follow up from what archives may be left. It’s great to hear about the association and mutual stimulaton of the universities. Best wishes for both! — Will Wingfield, College 1971

  5. Meredith Woo says:

    Dear Jamie,

    As I understand it, the Watson-Crick discovery of the double-helical structure of the DNA model owed a great deal not only to the work of Oswald Avery and his colleagues at Rockefeller University but to the new biology pioneered by Delbrück, Salvador Luria, Leo Szilard, and Erwin Schrödinger. They were all, with the exception of Luria, physicists by training, instrumental in the development of quantum physics. For more information, please see Donald Fleming, “Émigré Physicists and the Biological Revolution,” in Donald Fleming and Bernard Bailyn, INTELLECTUAL MIGRATION (Cambridge: Belkap Press of Harvard University Press, 1969)

  6. Thomas Ross says:

    By a coincidence, I just returned from a visit to Berlin, my favorite city in the world. The last day of my visit I went to see the new embassy building but approached it from the back side, making my way through the haunting Holocaust Memorial which the embassy also overlooks. Thus, I was drawn to your posting.

    I was pleased to hear of Virginia’s collaboration with Humboldt. It is an exciting and enormously promising thing.

    I was not pleased, however, to see you single out John J. McCloy for praise. Mr. McCloy, as you must know, is a very controversial figure in the history of race relations in this country. His eager participation in the internment of the Japanese-Americans and his unwillingness to repudiate that terrible rascist act even several decades after, along with his role in the refusal to bomb the railroad lines into Auschwitz in the waning months of the war, and his controversial grant of amnesty to scores of Nazi war criminals, all make him for me and many others not a person to hold up as an exemplar.

    Again, as an alumnus (College 1971, Law 1974) and an academic myself, I am delighted to hear of the academic collaboration with Humboldt, another truly great university. Thank you for taking the time to share this good news.

    Tom Ross

  7. Peter M. Barres College 1950 says:

    You suggest the DNA Watson Crick discovery was made possible by scientists fleeing Germany.

    Wasn’t Watson American and Crick English?

    I enjoyed the article very much.

  8. David Y. Miller (Class of 1957) says:

    Dear Dean Woo,

    This is indeed a fine article! It encourages me to pass on one of my favorite Jefferson quotations:
    “History I believe furnishes no example of a priest-ridden people maintaining a free civil government. This marks the lowest grade of ignorance, of which their political as well as religious leaders will always avail themselves for their own purpose.” — to Baron von Humboldt, 1813

    David Miller

  9. Meredith Woo says:

    Dear Peter,

    See my note to Jamie Wilson, above. Happy holidays to you!

  10. Dear Dean Woo,

    A couple of footnotes suggested to me by your interesting article that may be of some interest:

    (1) One of my history professors at the University of Virginia, Oran J. Hale, served with John J. McCloy’s High Commission for Germany during 1951-1952 as U.S. State Commissioner for Bavaria.

    (2) Like his friend and collaborator Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels was indeed associated with the Humboldt University of Berlin, but unlike Marx, he was not a formal student there. During his military service in Berlin, he audited the lectures of five members of the faculty there. His lack of formal affiliation with this or any other university did not prevent him from becoming a man of wide-ranging knowledge. In fact, Marx, who held a Ph.D. from the University of Jena, called him the most learned man in Europe.

    J.D. Hunley

  11. Charlie Herbek says:

    Great article Dean, but with every glitter praise for Germany there must also be a strong reminder of the destruction wrecked upon the world and peoples from 1933-1945.

    27 million Russians, 6 millions Jews and millions of other nationalities were subject to a brutality that could have been stopped had the ruling nations taken more assertive action in the mid 1930′s.

    Mr Jefferson understood the need for assertive action dealing with rogue states, exampled by his pursuit of the Barbary pirates.

    There is another tragedy within the lines here and it is the willing cooperation of US businesses with Hitler’s Germany all while the physicists were fleeing.

    The real lesson of collaboration with Germany is complex and shaded

  12. Brawner Cates says:

    Germany is one of the great incubators of phamaceutical chemistry. Advancements in pharmacuetical chemitry and research have resulted in quality of life benefits all over the world. Jefferson would be pleased with this modern alliance.
    Dr. Woo doing great work.


    Brawner Cates

  13. Allen M. Kaplan DMD says:

    Dear Dean Woo,

    This in a very fine article and thank you for sending it along. I was always curious, as to exactly why, FDR in 1937, initiated and funded the enormously expensive and secretive Manhattan Project. The president just didn’t wake up one morning and say that “the Nazis were working on developing an Atomic Bomb and we had better beat that Hitler guy to the punch, or else”. It was Dr. Einstein who educated FDR in the potential of hypothetical nuclear physics and a panic stricken president launched our 24/7 blank check Manhattan Project as a direct result.

    In the years following WW11, it became public that Hitler had no intention of developing an atomic bomb. Albert Speer, Hitler’s Armaments Minister, is quoted in his ‘Memoirs’ that Hitler did not believe in nuclear physics and derided it as “Jewish Physics”. The Nazi leader commanded that all research and development money go into rockets, jets, and missles. Even the unsuccessful heavy water project, using a source in Norway, was done behind Hitler’s back. Germany’s most prominent nuclear physicist of that era, Dr. Werner von Heisenberg, also confirmed to his good friend, Dr. Bohr of Denmark…a Danish Jew, that Hitler had no atomic weapon plans or interest in “Jewish Physics.”

    The Japanese surrendered in 1945 and, Roosevelt died a few months before. But did anybody question Albert Einstein, about the faulty information, he gave to FDR in the late ’30s? President George W. Bush was also given faulty WMD information from the CIA. It appears that FDR and Einstein got a ‘free pass’ but, the CIA and W. were hung out to dry.

    Allen Kaplan DMD, Col. 1971

    P.S. I will be attending my 40th College of A & S Reunion this June. It will be the first time in 40 years that I have been in Charlottesville. Will I recognize C’ville?

  14. Mary V. Thomson, GSAS 1980 says:

    Thank you for a very interesting article. When I was a child, my family was stationed in West Berlin between 1964 and 1967. It was a fascinating city. I’d love to see all the wonderful changes there since 1989.

    Mary V. Thompson
    GSAS 1980

  15. James wyckoff says:

    Although I initially read your comments about an armed and belligerant germany as pro semitic rhetoric at least a generation late, I came around to think of them as parallel to the dark collaboration exposed between american businesses and the us ag department to end run sanctions in place against iran. In my lifetime no greater threat to human freedom and dignity than the religious dictatorship in tehran.the freedom to protest, exercised at virginia during the aftermath of the us incursion into cambodia in 1970, should be supported, and collaboration in the face of sanctions is a step in the wrong direction.

    James wyckoff’73

  16. Dear Dean Woo,

    Thank you for a thoroughly engaging article. As a UVA graduate student writing a dissertation on Afro-German autobiographies and narratives, I was especially pleased to read about the University’s long engagement with Berlin and the strengthening of our relationship with Humboldt University.

    I recently returned from a research trip to Spelman College in Atlanta where I had the pleasure of combing through the Audre Lorde Collection. From 1984 until her death in 1992, Lorde traveled frequently to Berlin to teach and lecture. Her presence, engagement, and encouragement lit the spark not just for the Afro-German women’s movement, but also for a Black German civil rights movement. The archival materials revealed, as I expected, a long and sustained engagement with Berlin, especially as Germany moved toward reunification. Lorde is but one of numerous African Americans whose travels to and interactions with Germans and German institutions, provide us with alternative narratives of engagement. I look forward to seeing what the German archives hold.

    I am encouraged by your post as well as by work such as that undertaken by the German Historical Institute ( in Washington, D.C.

    Again, thank you.

    Sonya Donaldson