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The name dispute

Today it seems hard to understand why the university was denied the honour of naming itself after Nobel Peace Prize winner Carl von Ossietzky for almost 20 years. In his book "Kalter Krieg um Ossietzky", Oldenburg journalist Rainer Rheude describes how the naming dispute became a political issue and how the controversy helped to draw new attention to the publicist's work.

The story begins on 6 June 1972: law student Hans-Henning Adler, a member of the university’s founding committee, suggested Ossietzky as the namesake of the new university. They were looking for a person with a connection to the region who would "symbolise the anti-fascist struggle and the reform aspirations of the new foundation," writes Rheude. Even though Adler was a member of the German Communist Party, the founding committee accepted the proposal without dissenting votes. "As a link to a liberal-democratic political tradition in Germany, the name hardly seemed problematic," Rheude quotes former university chancellor Jürgen Lüthje.

The dispute began in February 1974, when the social democratic state government rejected the name. The official line was that name-giving was no longer in keeping with the times. But it was probably more complicated than that: as the proposal had come from the communists, the social democrats feared that agreeing to the name would bring them into too close proximity with the communists. The centrist and conservative camps, on the other hand, viewed Ossietzky critically, for example because of his criticism of the armaments of the Weimar Republic, and rejected him as a namesake. However, most people knew little about Ossietzky or his work.

The situation came to a head when, on 16 October 1974, students added the name "Carl von Ossietzky University" to the tower of the General Disposal Centre (now A1-4). Nine months later, a scandal broke out: the state government ordered a major police operation to have the letters removed. Just five days later, the polystyrene letters were put up again – and were tolerated from then on. The police action led to international media coverage and encouraged many members of the university to continue campaigning for the name. However, the state government, led by the conservatives since 1976, did not give in.

Meanwhile, the university begins to take a closer look at Ossietzky and his work: The General Students' Committee cultural officer Elke Suhr makes contact with Ossietzky's daughter Rosalinde von Ossietzky-Palm, who speaks in Oldenburg for the first time in November 1975 and hands over her parents' estate to the university in 1981. From 1978, the "Ossietzky Days", an event on current socio-political topics with prominent guests, including former German Chancellor Willy Brandt in 1988, are held several times. In the mid-1980s, Oldenburg researchers also began working on a complete edition of Ossietzky's works, which was published in 1994.

Finally, the name dispute ended in 1991. After another change of government in Hanover, back to the social democrats, universities are allowed to choose their own names. In October, the university celebrates the naming with a ceremony. Minister President Gerhard Schröder apologised to Rosalinde von Ossietzky-Palm on behalf of the state government for "what the state of Lower Saxony has done to your father's name."

The dispute, which lasted almost 20 years, attracted unprecedented attention, writes journalist Rheude: "No other topic could have gained the university more international recognition and esteem in the early years," he concludes.

Rainer Rheude: "Kalter Krieg um Ossietzky – Ein Namensstreit in Oldenburg", Edition Temmen, 2009

  • The picture shows Carl von Ossietzky in a black and white photograph. He is looking pensively into the distance with his head resting on his left arm.

    Carl von Ossietzky (1889-1938) was an author, journalist and pacifist. During the Weimar Republic, he campaigned for democracy and peace and against National Socialism. After Hitler came to power, Ossietzky was arrested, sent to various concentration camps and tortured. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1936. He died in 1938 as a result of his mistreatment. Universität Oldenburg

  • The sepia-coloured picture shows Ossietzky in his younger years. He is wearing a suit and has his hands on his hips. He is looking to the side.

    Carl von Ossietzky as a young man (around 1913). Universität Oldenburg

  • The picture shows Carl von Ossietzky next to other men. He is wearing a suit, tie and coat.

    Carl von Ossietzky in May 1932, shortly before his imprisonment following the Weltbühne trial. Universität Oldenburg

"Commitment to peace"

Who was Carl von Ossietzky? The university's namesake had long been the subject of controversy. Alexandra Otten and Werner Boldt talk about Ossietzky, a staunch democrat who fought for peace and human rights.

Who was Carl von Ossietzky? The university's namesake had long been the subject of controversy. Alexandra Otten and Werner Boldt talk about Ossietzky, a staunch democrat who fought for peace and human rights.

 

Have you been thinking about Carl von Ossietzky more often recently?

Otten: The university is marking its 50th anniversary, so there are more inquiries about Carl von Ossietzky than is usually the case. This means that I, too, have been thinking about him more than usual. I think he would approve of the current wave of protests against right-wing extremism. No doubt he would have liked to see similar protests against the National Socialists back then.

Carl von Ossietzky is often described as a "pacifist and democrat", but what precisely were the values he stood for?

Boldt: "I am, have always been and will always be a pacifist!" Ossietzky said in an interview conducted under the supervision of the Secret State Police (Gestapo) after he was awarded the Peace Nobel Prize. "This statement," said a Gestapo officer in a letter addressed to Hermann Göring, "means that even in a National Socialist Germany he would not and could not give up his current political position. In other words, he is consciously opposed to the National Socialist ideology of rehabilitation and rearmament of the German nation." But his political ideas were actually broader in scope. His political home was the German Peace Society and later on the German League for Human Rights, which campaigned for the rights of individual citizens, for justice in interstate relations and for the creation of international organisations.

What other values besides pacifism did he stand for?

Boldt: He campaigned for the "fundamental rights and obligations of the German people" that were enshrined in the Weimar Constitution. Ossietzky saw these basic rights as "a programme of political education for decades to come." He believed the constitution as a whole contained "the best social and moral tendencies of modern society". By this he meant that it resolved the class antagonisms between the "Bürger" ("citizens") and the "Arbeiter" ("workers"). He never used the terms "bourgeoisie" or "proletariat" in his writings.

How did he become a symbolic figure for the resistance against fascism?

Otten: In the old Federal Republic of Germany for a long time he wasn't a symbol of resistance, because so little was known about him and his work. There were various, often inaccurate interpretations concerning Ossietzky. He was alternately seen as a victim, a martyr, a pacifist, a communist and even as a traitor to his country. The university's Carl von Ossietzky research centre deserves credit for researching and publishing Ossietzky's biography and works between 1988 and 1996, because this was what paved the way for him to become a symbolic figure. It was a different matter in the GDR: its culture of remembrance was controlled by the state, which cast Ossietzky as an anti-fascist.

Was Ossietzky an unconditional pacifist who also openly criticised the rearmament of other states?

Boldt: Ossietzky frequently criticised that all over the world states were building up their armies and weapons even more than before 1914. He spoke out about this in more detail after the notorious Weltbühne trial, in which he personally was involved. In 1931, Ossietzky and Walter Kreiser were sentenced to prison for treason because of an article that alluded to cooperation on rearmament – stricty prohibited by the Treaty of Versailles – between the Reichswehr (the armed force of the Weimar Republic) and the Soviet Union. Kreiser was the author of the article and Ossietzky the editor of the Weltbühne weekly paper that published it. Kreiser fled to France and published details about the trial and judgment in a French newspaper. Ossietzky, however, described the French newspaper as a "highly capitalist medium, with close connections to the armaments industry", and then made a comment about Kreiser that revealed his aversion to any kind of rearmament, regardless of who was behind it: "[Kreiser] thought that he was contributing to the liberation of Germany from the spirit of militarism, when his hand was really led by the journalistic tools of French gun makers, whose invisible and involuntary customers are, in the final analysis, German nationalism. […] That is in accordance with the laws of motion of the bloody international." This last sentence was a reference to the international entwinement of the armaments industry.

UNI-INFO: Why was he awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1936 (retroactively for 1935)?

Otten: The Nobel Prize Committee received 86 nominations for Ossietzky – more than for any other individual to this day. This success was the result of a tireless campaign by a group of friends and supporters. This group, led by two journalists, managed to gather all these nominations within two months, simply by writing letters and using personal contacts. Ossietzky received the prize not only for his commitment to democracy and peace. He was also the first person to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for the suffering he experienced as a result of his convictions.

What was the significance of the award back then – also in comparison to today?

Otten: Carl von Ossietzky considered it an honour to receive the award. He wrote: "After lengthy consideration, I have decided to accept the Nobel Peace Prize. I do not share the view expressed to me by the representative of the Secret State Police (Gestapo) that I am thus excluding myself from the German national community. The Nobel Peace Prize is not a symbol of internal political struggle but of understanding between peoples."

How relevant do you think Ossietzky's work is today?

Boldt: Ossietzky's writings are still helpful in exploring the "socio-moral" causes of political developments – even if today's political conditions cannot be equated with those of the Weimar Republic. There was no broad mass movement against the right that reached deep into the middle classes back then, for instance. Nevertheless, it can still be beneficial to study and discuss Ossietzky today –and in my opinion there is still plenty of scope for this – also to strengthen our commitment to democracy.

Are there any aspects that could be criticised from today's perspective?

Otten: I'm not sure what Ossietzky's image of women was. On the one hand, he advocated equal rights in many articles in which he wrote about emancipated, working women. He honoured the work of Annette Kolb and Käthe Kollwitz, for example. However, he also paid attention to outward appearances. He once mocked the lacking physical attributes of the "ladies of the Reichstag". In his private life he preferred to be the sole breadwinner, providing for his family and making all the decisions – despite the fact that his wife Maud was also employed when they first got married. I think he was old-fashioned in that respect.

How would you describe Ossietzky as a person?

Boldt: Ossietzky was a very reserved person. He considered himself recalcitrant. I think that he was unwavering in his convictions. He wasn't stubborn, but he didn't conform, and he didn't self-censor. Three times he gave up a safe position. Overall, I find his firm, if somewhat gruff character very impressive.

Otten: I would describe Ossietzky as a quiet person. However, this changed as soon as he started giving public speeches. He even gave a speech at the "Never Again War Movement" in front of an audience of around 200,000. It was similar with his articles. He became a sharp critic and analyst with a fine sense of irony.

Interview: Ute Kehse and Henning Kulbarsch

 

Prof. Dr. Werner Boldt, is a historian and one of the editors of Carl von Ossietzky – Sämtliche Schriften (Carl von Ossietzky – the complete works edition). He taught and researched at the University of Oldenburg for almost 30 years until his retirement in 2000.

Alexandra Otten is a historian at the University Library and curator of the permanent exhibition on Carl von Ossietzky.

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