Humboldt University of Berlin
#13 Overall Influence

Humboldt University of Berlin

Public research university located in Berlin, Germany

By James Barham, PhD

This university has a fascinating pedigree. It was originally founded by Kaiser Friedrich Wilhelm III, in consultation with three great German Enlightenment thinkers: the philologist and linguist Wilhelm von Humboldt, the philosopher J.G. Fichte, and the theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher. Originally known simply as the University of Berlin, for most of its existence up until the aftermath of World War II, it was officially known as the Friedrich Wilhelm University.

The site of the university lay in the central, Mitte neighborhood of the city, and in the aftermath of the war it unfortunately found itself just inside the Soviet sector—and thus, after 1961, just east of the Berlin Wall. Kaisers (that is, caesars, or emperors) being in bad odor with the new communist regime, in 1949 the university was renamed after Wilhelm von Humboldt, already mentioned above, and his brother Alexander, a famed naturalist and explorer.

In 1948, a brand-new university was founded in the western sector of the city. It was named the Free University of Berlin. Since the reunification of the two parts of Germany (and Berlin) in 1990, the Humboldt University and the Free University have entered into fairly close cooperation with each other—even to the extent of sharing the same medical school—while still retaining their own distinctive identities.

Regarded by many as the preeminent university for the natural sciences during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the University of Berlin (let us call it that to avoid anachronism) boasted such scientific superstars as:

  • Theodor Schwann and Rudolf Virchow, co-discoverers (with Matthias Schleiden) of the cellular nature of life
  • Heinrich Hertz, discoverer of electromagnetic waves
  • Wilhelm Wundt, a pioneer of experimental psychology
  • Hermann von Helmholtz, co-founder of modern thermodynamics, as well as an important contributor to the physiology of visual and auditory perception
  • J.H. van’t Hoff, pioneer of chemical kinetics and physical chemistry, as well as discoverer of the tetrahedral structure of the carbon atom

Moreover, among mathematicians of the very first rank during this period, we may name Bernhard Riemann, Leopold Kronecker, and Georg Cantor.

However, the University of Berlin was by no means merely a technical institute. Its liberal arts faculties were highly distinguished, as well. Indeed, the list of intellectual stars connected to this school is nothing short of astonishing.

Among famous philosophers who studied or taught here during the nineteenth century, we may mention:

  • G.W.F Hegel
  • F.W.J. Schelling
  • Ludwig Feuerbach
  • Søren Kierkegaard
  • Arthur Schopenhauer
  • Friedrich Engels
  • Karl Marx
  • Wilhelm Dilthey
  • Georg Simmel
  • Edmund Husserl
  • Max Scheler
  • Carl Stumpf
  • Max Weber

Finally, we may mention:

  • Distinguished jurist and historian, F.C. von Savigny
  • Composer, Felix Mendelssohn
  • Novella-writer, Theodor Storm
  • Novelist, Wilhelm Raabe
  • Beloved poet, Heinrich Heine
  • Preeminent German statesman, Otto von Bismarck
  • Great classical historian, Theodor Mommsen

all of whom studied here.

Moving to the twentieth century, University of Berlin-connected physicists include:

  • Max Planck
  • Albert Einstein
  • Albert Michelson
  • Max Born
  • Lise Meitner
  • Otto Hahn
  • James Franck
  • Max von Laue

In addition to this stellar roster of physicists, we may also mention:

  • Chemists, Walther Nernst & Fritz Haber
  • Geologist, Alfred Wegener
  • Microbiologist, Robert Koch
  • Physiologist, Hans Krebs
  • Rocketry pioneer, Wernher von Braun
  • Ornithologist and evolutionary theorist, Ernst Mayr

Twentieth-century philosophers and theologians who studied or taught at Berlin include:

  • W.E.B. Du Bois
  • Ernst Cassirer
  • Hannah Arendt
  • Hans Jonas
  • Dietrich Bonhoeffer
  • Abraham Heschel

Other important figures include:

  • Novelists, Robert Musil & Alfred Döblin
  • Literary critic and theorist, Walter Benjamin
  • Satirical journalist, poet, novelist, and cultural critic, Kurt Tucholsky
  • Economist, Wassily Leontieff
  • American statesman, George Kennan

All in all, Humboldt University (to revert back to its present name) can boast of connections to around 30 Nobel laureates.

What is Humboldt University of Berlin known for?

#2 World Rank
#3 World Rank
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#5 World Rank
#5 World Rank
#6 World Rank
Religious Studies
#7 World Rank
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#10 World Rank
#13 World Rank
#13 World Rank
#16 World Rank
#16 World Rank
Earth Sciences
#24 World Rank
Social Work
#25 World Rank
Political Science
#28 World Rank
#30 World Rank
#38 World Rank
Computer Science
#100 World Rank
#511 World Rank
Criminal Justice

Influential People

Who are Humboldt University of Berlin's Most influential alumni?

Humboldt University of Berlin's most influential alumni faculty include professors and professionals in the fields of Philosophy, Physics, and Sociology. Humboldt University of Berlin’s most academically influential people include Karl Marx, Edmund Husserl, and Friedrich Engels.

Karl Marx
Karl Marx

German philosopher, economist, sociologist, journalist and revolutionary socialist

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Edmund Husserl
Edmund Husserl

German philosopher, known as the father of phenomenology

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Friedrich Engels
Friedrich Engels

German philosopher, historian, communist, political scientist and journalist

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Max Planck
Max Planck

German theoretical physicist

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W.E.B. Du Bois
W.E.B. Du Bois

American sociologist, historian, activist and writer

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Georg Simmel
Georg Simmel

German sociologist, philosopher, and critic

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Arthur Schopenhauer
Arthur Schopenhauer

German philosopher

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Otto Hahn
Otto Hahn

German chemist

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Max Weber
Max Weber

German sociologist, philosopher, and political economist

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Heinrich Rudolf Hertz
Heinrich Rudolf Hertz

German physicist

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Wilhelm Wundt
Wilhelm Wundt

German physician, physiologist, philosopher and professor

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Ivan Turgenev
Ivan Turgenev

Russian writer

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