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Scholarship and the Swastika: The Politics of Research in Occupied Poland

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Michael Burleigh investigates how academia was pressed into service to legitimise Nazi imperialism in the conquered East.

At midday on November 6th, 1939, the academic staff of the University of Cracow assembled to hear a talk on the relationship between National Socialism and higher education. An SS officer strode to the dais and told them that since the academic year had begun without the permission of the authorities (he had ordered the meeting), and because it was 'well- known' that the lecturers were 'hostile' to German scholarship, all those present would be sent to concentration camps. He added, 'any discussion and any comment on this matter is forbidden. Whoever offers any resistance to my orders will be shot'. With their ranks swollen by twenty teachers from the Academy of Mines and two students who happened to be collecting degree certificates from the same building, 183 scholars were deported to Sachsenhausen. Although most of them were eventually released, thirteen died of malnutrition or misuse, and in their absence, equipment from the university's 130 or so institutes was pillaged by German academics and industrial concerns.

Throughout the occupied east, Nazi leaders competed to establish their own centres of higher learning amidst local cultures being reduced to their lowest common denominator. The most significant of these new foundations were Gauleiter Greiser's 'Reichsuniversität' in Posen; the Reinhard-Heydrich-Stiftung in Prague; Rosenberg's Reichszentrale für Ostforschung; and Hans Frank's Institut für deutsche Ostarbeit in occupied Cracow. Generous funding of these institutions during a global war reflected not just the conviction that the Germans had a historic 'civilising' mission in 'the east' (in itself largely a construct of the scholarly imagination), but also the extent to which German scholars had voluntarily and enthusiastically transformed their work into an instrument of power. Both of these factors can be seen at work in the brief history of the Institut für deutsche Ostarbeit, which was to form the core-cell of a future German university of occupied Poland.

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