The Prussian General Code of 1794 stipulated that German universities were to be supported and run by the state. However, they were granted a fair amount of functional autonomy. The four dominant faculties were the laws, philosophy, medicine, and theology. German universities were considered to be at the pinnacle of art, music, literature, scholarship and the humanities. Numerous students from outside flocked to Germany for graduate studies as a consequence of this distinguished standing.
However with the Nazi's seizing power in 1933, the environment of German academia and the tone of intellectual life underwent a transformation rather briskly. Frankfurt was the first university that felt the stamp of the Nazi Jackboot. This institution was the most liberal of major German campuses, with a faculty that prided itself of its commitment to scholarship, freedom of expression and conscience and, most of all, democracy.
The Nazis recognised that control over Frankfurt University meant control over German academic life. Chilling parallels to why and what happened to Jawaharlal Nehru University a couple of years ago. The demonisation of this bastion of liberalism was designed to send out a larger message to Indian academics.
A Nazi commissar was appointed to bludgeon the University into submission. The little dictator squandered no time on civilities. Calling a meeting of the faculty he peppered them with expletives, rarely used even in military barracks. After summarily dismissing all Jewish faculty members he told the rest — do as you are told or be prepared to end up in a concentration camp.
Boundless liberalism evaporated in a second. The faculty was then abruptly dismissed like fresh recruits are from a drill ground. Only a very few of the professors had the courage to walk out with their Jewish colleagues.
Most preferred keeping a safe distance from these who till a few hours earlier had been their closest. The great citadel of letters, independence of thought and academic integrity had crumbled in mere seconds.
Very rapidly thereafter, German universities were absorbed into the militaristic culture of the Third Reich. Every year, most universities commemorated January 18, the founding day of Bismarck's Second Reich, with large congregations underscored with grandiloquent oratory by weighty political personages. A parade of the faculty began the celebrations by gravely marching into the already packed convention halls. The supreme honour of leading the march of academicians went to the person who held the highest martial honour.
In circa 1934, professors of a north German university confronted an atrocious predicament. A Jewish dean held the supreme military decorations. Their response to the setting personified the conduct of these revered dons throughout the Nazi rule. Burdened with hesitations, first they vacillated and then slipped into a decisional paralysis. They neither bade the don to lead the march nor did they expressly notify him that he could not do the customary honours. Grasping the condition, the don stayed in residence with a feigned affliction enabling an “Aryan” to take his position. Having salved their conscience that they had not acquiescently succumb to Nazism the faculty rested on its haunches. However, the pitch was fixed and the tenor set. Great academics abdicated leadership of effective defiance without even a whimper.
It validated the prophecy of the American ambassador to Germany, William Dodd, who only six months before had penned in his diary that an overwhelming majority of intellectuals had already acquiesced under coercion. They had started fearing fear itself. Notice the deafening silence of our academicians to the FIR against 49 intellectuals for writing an open letter to the Prime Minister on lynching. The parallels are uncanny. Have you heard a single vice-chancellor or professor of repute even open his mouth? Have you come across any demonstration in any Indian university, public or private, of any consequence? It seems no people of conscience are left in the world of letters.
Though both individual carpetbaggery and moral feebleness proliferated in the 1920s and 1930s too, they were not the only causes of capitulation. It was the primordial self interest — fear of losing their jobs and fancy titles than weighed them down, perhaps more than most. This may just be a truism in the Indian context today.
The terminal drawback of the academicians was their incapacity to recognise Adolf Hitler as a real menace. Countless numbers of them assumed that he would peter down after attaining power. He would not be able to consolidate his rule. Moreover, the comparative mildness of Fascism in Italy moderated their qualms about the coarser facets of Nazism.
The ultimate obtuseness was their incapacity to take Adolf Hitler seriously. Urbane persons believed that Hitler, a fallow street lout, would barely be able to administer a intricate and industrialised nation like Germany. They never realised that their silence and pusillanimity that commenced in 1933 would result in the utter ruin of Germany by 1945.
A similar scenario played out in Italy, too. Thought control was the name of the game. Very early in his reign, Benito Mussolini issued a diktat in the March of 1923 itself that proscribed the use of texts that had not been authorised by the state. Only books that were sanitised by the state, crafting every subject as the quintessence of the ideals of National Fascist Party were permitted. The fascists believed that the only good use of teachers and academics at all levels was to produce fanatical fascists. Education under Mussolini was only a tool to impart the bigoted tenets of Fascism. Educationists had to demonstrate their unswerving fidelity to the National Fascist Party to keep their jobs. Rather than resisting loony Mussolini and his ilk when they could, they allowed their inaction and petty insecurities to govern their conduct. History records that when the Italian academia was asked to bend they chose to crawl.
The Italian and German tryouts with Fascism offer insightful instruction even today, especially when democracies are being overwhelmed with right wing populism. First and foremost, the stoutest fortification against one-man rule is profound and pervasive belief in the essence of democracy. Both Hitler and Mussolini subverted both free speech and freedom of the press. They emasculated both the legislative and judicial branches of government. They tried to regulate what people saw, heard and read. The second tutorial from fascism is to thwart the fabrication of crises. By fabricating mass paranoia that their nations are under siege, Mussolini and Hitler overpowered democratic institutions and tyrannised the populace.
Finally, the third lesson is the peril of racism and majoritarianism. By dissimulating that the Aryan or the white race, respectively, were superior to Africans and Asians, Hitler and Mussolini laid the groundwork for the abuse, persecution and eventual annihilation of minorities, be they religious, linguistic or gender based. Let us not have 1922/1933-1945 repeated in India.
The Fascist project is the death wish of any nation. Fascination with the so-called “strong leader” is a one-way street to surefire ruin. Stand up and be counted, academicians, while there is still time.