University Post
University of Copenhagen
Independent of management


Historians debate Copenhagen links to Nazis

University of Copenhagen scientists kept co-operating with Nazified German scientists during the 1930's, and the official University upheld a co-operation policy with the Nazis from 1940. Recent conference sheds light on a murky period in Danish history

Researchers from the University of Copenhagen and other Danish educational institutions had extensive scientific cooperation with Germany after Hitler’s takeover in 1933, shows recent historical analysis.

At a two day conference entitled ‘Danish Science, Universities and the Challenge from Nazism 1933-1945’, the participants discussed the details.

Associate professor in history Palle Roslyng-Jensen noted how dominant Germany was in scientific circles at the time saying that it had the same status among scientific circles in the 1930’s as the United States gets after the Second World War. This »applies not only to theology and the humanities, but also to science,« he says.

Niels Bohr continued work with Heisenberg

When, how, and under which circumstances, the Danish university world distanced itself from German scientists that had conformed their results to Nazi ideology in the 1930’s, is different from science to science. The Nazi message came out loud and clear in humanities and theology, while it was only indirect in the natural sciences.

The Danish natural scientists were those who continued their co-operation with German scientists the longest.

»The most familiar example is Niels Bohr, and he’s even Jewish and one of the University of Copenhagen’s star scientists with a Nobel Prize and everything. He continues to work with the German physicist Werner Heisenberg. This has been written about extensively,« says Palle Roslyng-Jensen.

Some make the break – some wait and see

It was up to individual professors and researchers to make a stand and this often depended upon ideological convictions.

»It is clear that if you were leftist at the time, you were absolutely anti-Nazi, if you were a national-conservative, it was more difficult. This was evident in, for example, the history department« says Palle Roslyng-Jensen.

»Some break the connection with their German scientist colleagues as soon as they register Nazification. Others hesitate and say: Ah, the storm will settle soon enough, we know them as reasonable people.«

Just keeping a low profile

Less to the University of Copenhagen’s credit was the low profile of the president and senate (konsistorium) which governed the university, when the German occupation came (1940-1945).

The University calls on student-run publications to withhold criticism of the Nazis, but they also urge individual, Nazi-oriented, lecturers to not post invitations to Nazi meetings on campus.

»So it was really a part of the general policy of co-operation to keep a low profile against the Nazis and the occupying power«

5-7 professors fired or reprimanded

After 1945 a maximum of five to seven people were fired or reprimanded for contributing to Nazi activity: a small minority in a 5,000-student university at the time.

Stay in the know about news and events happening in Copenhagen by signing up for the University Post’s weekly newsletter here.