“The German university is at core healthy [im Kern gesund],” declared the historian and head of the German Rektorenkonferenz (Council of University Presidents) Hermann Heimpel at the education reform conference in Bad Honnef in 1955. The Prussian minister of culture in the Weimar Republic Carl Heinrich Becker had made the same claim in 1919 after the catastrophe of the First World War. The invocation of the German university tradition at times of national trauma had obvious appeal. This tradition had produced internationally famous scientists and thinkers, and served as a model for the world until 1914. Moreover, it was a tradition whose origins lay in the celebrated Prussian revival in the early nineteenth century after Napoleonic armies had vanquished the Prussians in Jena in 1806 and divided much of the kingdom with Russia. One of the few flourishing universities of the Enlightenment, in Halle, was lost, and the king charged the diplomat Wilhelm von Humboldt with renewing education in his shattered realm. Under the sign of German idealistic philosophy, he and his colleagues, the theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher and the philosopher Gottlieb Fichte, produced a model of university education that was incarnated in the Humboldt University in Berlin in 1809.
Its potency as a moral source lay in its institutionalization of a neohumanist anthropology that idealized the classical Greek vision of beauty and the unity of knowledge and culture.