Reestablishing Philosophy in a Destroyed Country: Karl Löwith’s Return to Germany

by guest contributor Mike Rottmann

Almost one year after the end of war, on July 20, 1946, a leading executive of the Department of Education in the State of Baden sent a letter to the President of Heidelberg University:

With regard to the letter of the Dean of the Faculty of Philosophy from May 23, 1946 […], we have—lacking any files—reconstructed by looking at the last staff appointment scheme that at the end of the Nazi regime only a single ordinary professorship of Philosophy existed, which is now filled with Professor Jaspers.

Karl Jaspers. By permission of Karl Jaspers Stiftung, Basel

Karl Jaspers. By permission of Karl Jaspers Stiftung, Basel

Within the newly constructed scheme, we have budgeted the reestablishment of a second professorship. We would like to inquire now how the fields of specialization of both chairs should be defined and how the new chair can be entitled. The new chair is to be filled by Professor Ernst Hoffmann as part of compensation. A precise labeling should be desirable, so that several lines of thinking are kept permanently in Heidelberg.

Gerhard Hess. By permission of Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft, Bonn

Gerhard Hess. By permission of Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft, Bonn

One week later, on July 28, Dean Gerhard Hess formulated his answer and underlined the Faculty’s “exceptional satisfaction” with Ernst Hoffmann’s return. In the same letter, however, the dean emphasized that at this University “the fields of specialization have never been circumscribed” and that each professor always has the right “to cultivate the entire field” of philosophy. This system, Hess argued, was based on a “fundamental understanding of philosophy” and should be maintained.

In October that year, Hess sent a list with three nominees to the Head of Baden’s Department of Education. A university commission nominated the three candidates. The first (and most preferred) candidate was Erich Frank. As a renowned historian of ancient philosophy, he succeeded Martin Heidegger as professor of philosophy at the University of Marburg in 1928. After the Nazi seizure of power in 1933 and the introduction of the Gesetz zur Wiederherstellung des Berufsbeamtentums (Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service), Erich Frank, who was of Jewish descent, was forced to resign his office. After a brief imprisonment in a concentration camp, Frank emigrated to the United States where he taught at both Harvard University and Bryn Mawr College. The second candidate was Hans-Georg Gadamer, professor at Leipzig University since 1939. Gadamer tried to leave the Soviet occupation zone, and moved to Frankfurt in October 1947. The third was Gerhard Krüger from Münster. Like Gadamer and, in some respects, Frank, he spent most of his career in Marburg, where he wrote his doctoral dissertation under the supervision of Nicolai Hartmann and became a close friend of the famous New Testament scholar Rudolf Bultmann.

While the government of the State of Baden entered into negotiations with the nominees, Karl Jaspers suddenly accepted a job offer from the University of Basel, Switzerland. This directly influenced the faculty and their dean, and they were under immediate pressure to make a decision: both chairs were vacant and, due to his disappointment with the political developments in the immediate postwar period, a prominent figure of West-German academia was gone. As a result of Jasper’s departure, filling his prestigious chair became top priority. Since Jaspers supported Gerhard Krüger, Krüger received the appointment in April 1948. For reasons that are difficult to understand—especially from today’s perspective—the Government of Baden was unable to allure him to Heidelberg. One external cause might have been the fact that there was no appropriate residence available! Certainly, the decisive reasons were of a personal nature and thus difficult to reconstruct. In any case, by the end of the year 1949, Hans-Georg Gadamer succeeded Karl Jaspers as chair of philosophy.

In July 1950 a second commission came to an agreement about three new candidates: Karl Löwith as primo loco, followed by Oskar Becker and Helmuth Plessner. In the report we can find the following statement as an introduction:

To re-establish the chair of Philosophy, the commission was guided by the viewpoint of bringing a new note to academic instruction.

Commission report on Löwith's candidacy. Deutsches Literaturarchiv Marbach, Nachlass Hans-Georg Gadamer

Commission report on Löwith’s candidacy. Deutsches Literaturarchiv Marbach, Nachlass Hans-Georg Gadamer

About Löwith one can read this opinion:

L. is a brilliant author. All his literary works are thoroughly made and demonstrate an unusual intellectual personality. His point of origin lies completely in the Weltanschauliche Problematik of the 19th century. Yet in his most recent work especially, he traces this problem back to its origins in the Apostolic Age in a most systematic way. There he proves again a complete mastery of the Abendländische Geistesgeschichte (western history of ideas) L. is a brilliant lecturer and he is able to stimulate and to encourage the students. As a restrained, calm and likeable scholar, he would be a pleasant colleague. It is to be expected that he would accept a call to Germany because the American teaching style remains strange to him.

Karl Löwith. By permission of Universitätsarchiv Heidelberg

Karl Löwith. By permission of Universitätsarchiv Heidelberg

In April 1951, Löwith, Professor at the New School since 1949 (as successor of Leo Strauss), received the call. But before the “causa Löwith” was able to pass through the committees, another difficulty had to be resolved. Ernst Hoffman and Raymond Klibansky had begun an edition of the works of Nicholas of Cusa in 1927, based at the Heidelberg Academy of Sciences and Humanities. When the interest in Löwith became known, the Academy intervened: with respect to this most significant project, the University should require a more appropriate candidate to follow Hoffmann. A solution was found when Gadamer agreed to burrow into the edition of Cusa’s works.

Another problem came up when Löwith wrote to Karlsruhe that he would expect about 10,000 DM to cover his moving expenses. He also noted the great difference between the salary he was currently receiving and the salary he would get in Germany. In the appeal record, one finds the notice of a circumstance which increased the pressure on the decision-makers. After the death of Nicolai Hartmann in October 1950, the administration of the University of Göttingen made inquiries about the status of the proceedings—which could be interpreted to suggest as though Göttingen were also considering an appointment of Löwith. 
Hess contacted the Federal Government in Bonn and asked for grants to fund the emigration. An Oberregierungsrat (senior civil servant) rejected this request and recommended that Hess contact the State of Hessen, since the University of Marburg had dismissed Löwith in 1935 without any claims.

Although the high academic importance of Löwith was consistently emphasized, and a failure of the negotiations due to a few thousand DM was considered unforgivable, the meagerness of the public budget could not be overcome. At the end, 7,500 DM had to be enough. 
A “cosy 2-bedrom-apartment,” an annual salary of 11,600 DM plus 2,000 DM seminar fee, and a study room at the Institute of Philosophy were initially the only conditions the university was able to offer. Löwith, who had become an American citizen, was not required to swear an oath on the constitution. The government also did not demand that he should take German citizenship again.

By the end of 1954, Löwith received a call from the University of Hamburg and a second from the University of Cologne. He could demand more concessions: a secretary as well as the highest possible salary.

Document dismissing Löwith from Marburg. By permission of Universitätsarchiv Marburg

Document dismissing Löwith from Marburg. By permission of Universitätsarchiv Marburg

Löwith's personal data form. By permission of Universitätsarchiv Marburg

Löwith’s personal data form. By permission of Universitätsarchiv Marburg

In 1954, the University of Marburg was also looking for somebody to follow Julius Ebbinghaus. The appointment commission invited Josef König to prepare a report on the candidates: Walter Bröcker, Walter Schulz, Ludwig Landgrebe, Klaus Reich and Karl Löwith. In January 1955, König wrote:

It seems to me that Mr. Löwith holds an exceptional position among those who are doing Philosophy these days. I regard him as a genuine philosopher in a broader sense of the word. He is a gentle, restrained nature. He stands with a certain distance against the Welttreiben, but also (in some way) against the going-ons of the Philosophers. But behind this form of distance his original solicitousness and connoisseurship becomes distinctly and visibly. He is absolutely not an aesthete, but his artistic nature is appreciable. Insofar, general things are of lesser interest for him, but the individual human being. These are the roots of his interest of historical situations, of psychology, sociology, and phenomenology. And this is why he is deeply moved through existentialism and, especially, through Heidegger. Therefore it is well-founded that, in his book From Hegel to Nietzsche, the following became his topic: the conflict between Hegel’s philosophy which allocate towards general things, and the philosophy of the great individuals. At the same time, this is also the conflict between philosophy and religious self-awareness. I estimate this book and the later published Meaning in History to the best that was issued since the end of war. Löwith has got a dialogic power. He is in full possession of his own and his competence. His standing should be generally accepted.

König's report on Löwith. By permission of Universitätsarchiv Göttingen

König’s report on Löwith. By permission of Universitätsarchiv Göttingen


Only a short time later, on January 28, Rudolf Bultmann, in a letter to his friend Gerhard Krüger, stated that

there is still no decision made about the succession of Ebbinghaus. Löwith, who initially had the chance to get the first position on the list, has ruined the favour of his friends through his lecture on knowledge and faith. Now Bröcker seems to have a chance.

There may well also have been objective reasons due to which an appointment to Marburg was no longer being considered. However, it is evident how stubbornly and unrestrainedly Martin Heidegger counteracted an appeal of his former student. To Bultmann he wrote in October 1954:

Löwith is an extraordinarily learned and versatile man, but he cannot think. In principle he always says “No!” where it is essential to go into the matter. Basically he is a skeptic who is able to achieve to utilize the Christlichkeit for his skepticism.

In the end, Klaus Reich became successor of Julius Ebbinghaus, while Löwith stayed in Heidelberg until his retirement in 1964. In 1961, Löwith served as visiting professor in Basel to replace the chair of Karl Jaspers.

Mike Rottmann is writing his MA thesis at the University of Jena on religious discourse in literature around 1800. He has studied modern German literature, Jewish studies and philosophy.

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