Friedrich Althoff

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Friedrich Althoff, photography by Fritz Milkau

Friedrich Theodor Althoff (born February 19, 1839 in Dinslaken , † October 20, 1908 in Steglitz ) was a Prussian cultural politician who significantly influenced the Prussian universities at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century.


Althoff's mother, Julie von Buggenhagen (1802–1871), was the daughter of State Minister Julius Ernst von Buggenhagen . Her family came from the Pomeranian nobility ; The reformer Johannes Bugenhagen was one of her ancestors . The father, the Prussian domain councilor Friedrich Theodor Althoff (1785-1852), came from a Westphalian family of officials and pastors of peasant origin.

Life and work up to the time in Strasbourg

After graduating from high school in Wesel , Althoff studied law in Berlin and Bonn from 1856 to 1861 . In 1856 he joined the Corps Saxonia Bonn , which later awarded him honorary membership. In 1867 he passed the legal assessor examination with the grade "very good", which was rare then as now.

In 1864 he married Marie Ingenohl (* 1843; † 1925) from Neuwied am Rhein, who was four years his junior . She was a cousin of the imperial admiral Friedrich von Ingenohl (1857-1937) , who was also from Neuwied . The marriage was harmonious, but remained childless.

When Alsace-Lorraine was annexed to the newly founded German Empire in 1871 after the Franco-Prussian War , he became legal advisor and advisor for church and school matters in Strasbourg . He quickly won the trust of his two superiors, the liberal President Eduard von Moeller and the commissioner for the establishment of a German university in Strasbourg , Baron Franz von Roggenbach from Baden . Althoff learned essentials from the latter, in particular, who was considered an excellent administrative specialist. In 1872 Althoff played a key role in founding the Reich University of Strasbourg (from 1877 Kaiser Wilhelm University ). In 1872 he was offered a full professorship there , even though he had neither obtained a doctorate nor qualified as a professor or had achieved special scientific achievements, which was very unusual even then. However, he initially turned down the offer out of modesty. Althoff's only own scientific achievement was the detailed and annotated compilation of the French laws that were in force in Alsace-Lorraine until the Civil Code came into force . In doing so, he relied on other legal scholars.

Beginnings of the Althoff system

Some characteristics of the later so-called " Althoff system " were already evident in Strasbourg . Characteristic was his non-bureaucratic and often the departmental boundaries -border approach. He built up an extensive network of shop stewards at various points and influenced the decisions through this form of " secret diplomacy ". He also knew how to launch foreign or his own articles under pseudonyms in important newspapers in order to influence public opinion in a targeted manner.

Years after he left for Berlin , he retained significant influence on the appointment policy of the University of Strasbourg, although it was no longer under his jurisdiction, so that the civil governor of Alsace-Lorraine, Clovis of Hohenlohe-Schillingsfürst , annoyed the Eminence of Gray in 1887 Federal Foreign Office Friedrich August von Holstein wrote:

“This Althoff, who mixes in everything that has nothing to do with him, this intriguer under the mask of a staid Westphalian peasant, who knows how to pull fine strings, and who puts the whole high and highest civil servant world in Berlin in his pocket, this person wants rule here too, of course. "

As a ministerial director and "secret minister of education" in Prussia

Friedrich Althoff around 1890

In 1882 Althoff was promoted by Gustav von Goßler as a university advisor to the Prussian Ministry of Spiritual, Educational and Medical Affairs. The calling was z. Partly at the instigation of the Alsace-Lorraine imperial governor, for whom Althoff had become too influential. Althoff was thus formally a senior official of the Ministry of Education and Cultural Affairs and a secret senior government councilor. Above all, he concentrated energetically on the reform and expansion of the Prussian university system. In 1891 he became associate professor in Bonn and in 1896 honorary professor at the University of Berlin. In 1897 he was appointed ministerial director of the first teaching department and was in fact head of the entire teaching and higher education system in Prussia. The Göttingen Society of Sciences appointed him an honorary member in 1901. From 1900 he was also an honorary member of the Royal Prussian Academy of Sciences . In 1904 he received the title of " Excellency " and in 1907 the title of " Real Secret Council ". During this time he also received several honorary doctorates , including in 1906 from Harvard University .

Although he was formally subordinate to the minister of education and never held a ministerial office himself, he was actually the person who shaped Prussian university policy at that time. Since Prussia played a dominant role in the German Empire, Prussian university policy also influenced those of the other German states and Austria . Althoff's important position was already recognized by his contemporaries and he was called " Bismarck of the German university system " because of his energetic action and his assertiveness .

Friedrich Althoff also made a significant contribution to the major reform of the girls' school system in 1908. For this he worked closely with Helene Lange , Adolf von Harnack and Marie Martin, among others .

He had a great influence on publication projects, for example on the universal encyclopedia Die Kultur der Gegenwart , which was to become a kind of encyclopedia of the empire.

Appointment policy and expansion of science

During his tenure, Althoff actively intervened in the university's appointment policy. He tried to appoint what he saw as the best researchers and scholars to the chairs . The respective faculty had the right to propose new appointments to a chair . However, the ministry had to agree before a proposed candidate was appointed to a chair and thus became a Prussian civil servant. Althoff did not hesitate to ignore the proposals of the faculty and to appoint and enforce a candidate who seemed more suitable to him against the express will of the faculty. He tried to form his own picture of the candidates and often traveled incognito to various universities in order to hear the respective candidates himself in their lectures . He also tried to get an impression of the candidate's personality during the interview. The main criteria for him were the scientific performance and originality of an applicant. He deeply despised the clique prevailing in the universities , the envy and resentment towards better colleagues , nepotism as well as greed and obstinacy of many incumbents and tried to eliminate this with his recruitment policy. In making his decisions, he relied on a wide network of relationships and friendships with well-known scholars, politicians , publicists and industrialists , who wrote and advised him. In the methods of raising money for the expanding scientific enterprise, he often proceeded unconventionally and hired private donors and industrialists who brought in large sums of money through foundations .


Bust on Althoffplatz, in Berlin-Steglitz

The founding of the Kaiser Wilhelm Society for the Advancement of Science (later the Max Planck Society) can also be traced back to his work (which took place after his death under his successor Friedrich Schmidt-Ott ). Althoff was instrumental in building up the University of Münster (1902, previously " Catholic Academy ") and the Royal Academy in Posen (1903) as well as the technical universities of Danzig (1904) and Breslau (founded in 1910).

The Charité in Berlin owes Althoff's efforts to the approval of the costs for its new construction and renovation at the turn of the 20th century. He thus created the conditions for the successful further development of the Berlin Medical Faculty.

In 1902 he initiated the founding of the International Association against Tuberculosis . In order to support individual scientists, he spent large sums of money and founded entire institutes from scratch. B. the Institute for Infectious Diseases by Robert Koch , the Institute for Serum Research and Serum Therapy and the Georg-Speyer-Haus in Frankfurt am Main by Paul Ehrlich , the Institute for Hygiene and Experimental Therapy in Marburg for Emil von Behring . Ferdinand Sauerbruch turned to Althoff in 1907 regarding a change as senior physician from Greifswald to Marburg, who supported him and also offered to lead the local polyclinic. During his tenure, the University of Berlin was expanded from 38 to 81 institutes. He was involved in the appointments of a large number of important researchers such as Adolf von Harnack , Emil von Behring, Hermann Gunkel , Max Planck , Walther Nernst , Paul Ehrlich, Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff , Ferdinand von Richthofen and Robert Koch. Althoff's work is largely due to the great heyday and world reputation of science at German universities from around 1890 to (well after Althoff's death) into the 1920s . The University of Göttingen was largely through the work Althoff into a leading international center for mathematics and physics .

The later Nobel Prize winner Paul Ehrlich wrote to Althoff with gratitude in 1907:

“I personally thank you for my entire career and the opportunity to develop my ideas in a beneficial way. Shoved around as an assistant , squeezed into the tightest of relationships - completely ignored by the university - I felt pretty useless. I never got a call to the smallest position and was considered a person without a specialty, i. H. completely unusable. If you had not stood up for me with a strong hand and ingenious initiative, if you had not prepared the work opportunities for me with restless zeal and kind friendship, under which I could develop, I would have been completely wasted. "

- Paul Ehrlich
Bust of Friedrich Althoff in the Mitte campus of the Berlin Charité
Friedrich Althoff's tomb in the Berlin Botanical Garden

Since Althoff was also significantly involved in the reform of the German library system, he was named after a non-profit association of scientific institutions in the states of Berlin and Brandenburg, the Friedrich Althoff Consortium . This library consortium provides users of the participating non-university research institutions, universities, state and private colleges with scientific information from electronic publications.

In Potsdam- Babelsberg (then Nowawes ) a grammar school, the Althoff school (today Goethe comprehensive school ) and a street were named after him.

Althoff died in his house in Steglitz in the early evening of October 20, 1908 , presumably of a prolonged heart condition . His grave is in the Botanical Garden in Berlin-Dahlem . It was dedicated to the city of Berlin as a grave of honor until 2009 .

A memorial on the hospital grounds of the Charité - Universitätsmedizin Berlin has been a reminder of the science politician Althoff since 1903. The bust on a high base was replaced by a cast in 2001. This was financed by donations like the original. At the entrance of the Charité location in Berlin-Mitte is the Friedrich-Althoff-Haus with an Althoff hall.

Another memorial decorates Althoffplatz in Berlin-Steglitz. A shell limestone plinth bears a portrait bust of Althoff, modeled in 1908 by Fritz Schaper (1841–1919) and cast by the H. Noack foundry.

Althoff's birthplace Dinslaken took his 175th birthday as an opportunity in 2014 to highlight and honor his life and services in an “Althoff year”. Since 2003 he has been the namesake for the Althoff Seamount , a deep-sea mountain in the Southern Ocean , on the occasion of his work in the creation of the German oceanographic Valdivia expedition (1898–1899) .


Politically, Althoff was liberal and, like Chancellor Bethmann Hollweg in Alsace-Lorraine, campaigned for a conciliatory policy towards the Alsatians and Lorraine people, who were often skeptical of the newly founded empire. He also sharply rejected any form of anti-Semitism or anti- Catholicism ( Kulturkampf ) (" I have not participated in any agitation in my life, neither against Jews nor Catholics . "). Friedrich Althoff stood completely on the ground of the existing monarchical state order and rejected, for example, the award of university offices to political dissidents . In 1900, the Lex Arons was approved, a law that specifically served to withdraw the venia legendi from Leo Arons , a private lecturer in physics in Berlin , because he was a member of the social democratic party and therefore seemed unsustainable for a teaching post at a Prussian university .

Althoff's personal characteristics included sincerity, personal altruism, political wisdom, tireless industry and humility. Notorious, however, were his notorious lack of punctuality and his generous treatment of the time of other people. In many cases it happened that people who had an appointment with Althoff had to wait for hours in small anteroom until they were finally admitted to the "Ministerial Director". The academics concerned saw themselves pushed into the role of supplicants and found this treatment degrading. When it came to getting things done, Althoff could be ruthless. On the other hand, however, he valued and respected the direct demeanor of his counterparts and despised the submissive spirit that often prevailed at German universities . His down-to-earth humor and moral courage led him to win the favor of Kaiser Wilhelm II and to give him the right to speak , which was very unusual for an official of his position, but on the other hand characteristic of the personal regiment of the emperor.

Criticism of the Althoff system

Althoff's mode of action was not only rated positively during his lifetime, and even more so after his death. Above all, the "personal regiment" with which the university self-administration was eliminated was criticized. In particular, the increasing state influence on the design of science was viewed with skepticism by contemporaries. Even by his critics, however, Althoff's personal altruism and his services to the great expansion of the Prussian-German scientific system were recognized. During Althoff's tenure, the number of students and the budget of the universities had doubled, the faculty at the universities had increased by 1.5 times, science expenditure had risen by three and a half times and the culture budget by four times.


A few quotations are given here to represent many (reproduced from vom Brocke , see below).

It is very difficult to talk about this man. He was really not only a good person in the specific sense of the word, but he was also a man from very broad points of view [...] to whom the German universities owe things that are immortal in a certain sense [...]. And from a personal point of view it cannot be emphatically emphasized […]: there was no nepotism under him […]. But [...] the means with which the Prussian education administration worked were the most ruthless imaginable. [...] The influence of the Althoff system [“the treatment of people”] had a direct corrupting effect [“on the offspring”].
It will only be possible to judge at a much later time whether his almost dictatorial rule brought more advantages or disadvantages over Prussian scholarship. Today we see both before us: an increase in state services for almost all branches of knowledge, many and exemplary new buildings of university components, new professorships, new grammar schools and polytechnic institutions, but at the same time a dependence on the central office, as it did not previously exist. Althoff means the expansion of state omnipotence compared to the older, more republican constitution of the universities. That too can have advantages if the character of self-administration silts up in the petty favor of sons-in-law and favorite students, but it certainly has major disadvantages where the old freedom was used in a good sense. Now the central office decides much more than before about the scientific direction. Althoff led his regiment over the Prussian professors with a certain kindly brutality that no one will easily imitate him. Even his recklessness was not devoid of humor.
  • "Althoff's resignation" in "Die Hilfe", Volume 13, No. 40, October 5, 1907:
As long as a man like Althoff is at the top, an Althoff system can be endured, just as enlightened absolutism had its good sides. But if great power falls into small hands, petty abuse of force will be the unfortunate consequence.




Contemporary authors

The secondary literature is widely scattered. Almost all of the university teachers teaching in Germany around 1910 had something to do with Althoff. Many autobiographies contain relevant chapters on Althoff. The often reprinted, brilliant analysis of the Althoff system by the economist Werner Sombart is well known :

  • Werner Sombart: Althoff. In: New Free Press . Vienna, No. 15427 of August 4, 1907 ( digitized version ), reprinted in excerpts from B. vom Brocke: System Althoff , p. 13 f.

Newer literature

  • Dieter Oelschlägel: “Spirit of Liberality and Justice?” Friedrich Theodor Althoff and the Jewish scientists. Hentrich & Hentrich, Berlin / Leipzig 2019, ISBN 978-3-95565-330-9 .

Web links

Commons : Friedrich Althoff  - Collection of images, videos and audio files

Individual evidence

  1. ^ Kösener corps lists 1910, 27 , 196
  2. ^ Members of the previous academies. Friedrich Theodor Althoff. Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and Humanities , accessed on February 14, 2015 .
  3. ^ Christian Nottmeier: Adolf von Harnack and German politics 1890-1930. A biographical study of the relationship between Protestantism, science and politics . Tübingen 2004, p. 270.
  4. ^ Ferdinand Sauerbruch [, Hans Rudolf Berndorff]: That was my life. Kindler & Schiermeyer, Bad Wörishofen 1951; cited: Licensed edition for Bertelsmann Lesering, Gütersloh 1956, pp. 106-108.
  5. About us. In: Friedrich-Althoff-Konsortium eV. Retrieved on June 2, 2020 .
  6. Althoff created a new professorship for Minkowski in Göttingen, thus enabling close collaboration with Hilbert.