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Heinrich Heine and the Bürgeruniversität

Heinrich Heine and the "Bürgeruniversität"

Heinrich Heine as Namesake for the University of Düsseldorf

The University of Düsseldorf has borne the name Heinrich Heine – poet and son of the capital of North Rhine-Westphalia – since 1988. For over 20 years, the naming of the university after Heinrich Heine was the topic of numerous controversies between scientists and students of the university, politicians, persons active in the cultural sector and citizens of the city of Düsseldorf. Critics referred to the planned renaming as a foolish act and unfashionable "personality cult".

Today we can consider ourselves lucky that the decision was made in favour of Heinrich Heine as namesake. No other writer than he could have better represented the Bürgeruniversität with his work and the values it embodied – tolerance, open-mindedness, equality and freedom. As a Bürgeruniversität, HHU completely opens itself to different social areas in the spirit of Heine; citizens are encouraged to enter into dialogue with the university and participate in its activities and students are offered a broad, humanistic education. For HHU it is equally important that the results of its research help to shape societal progress.

Heinrich Heine as Dedicated Poet and European Cosmopolite

Heinrich Heine (1797–1856) was a critical mind and not devoid of inner contradictions: at the beginning of his literary career a reactionary romantic, later a prosaic revolutionary; patriotic and at the same time a sharp critic of his country of origin. Heine experienced his present – the first half of the 19th century – as being a time of upheaval and crisis. In the eyes of the poet, the representatives of the nobility and the clergy attempted to prevent the formation of a civic society for which the freedom of thought, religion and science was indispensable. In his literary texts, feuilletons and political writings, the steadfast democrat always stood for freedom, equality and a peaceful coexistence between different cultures and religions. He particularly viewed the nationalist and reactionary tendencies in Europe in the time after the Congress of Vienna with great concern. "Denk ich an Deutschland in der Nacht, dann bin ich um den Schlaf gebracht" (“Thinking of Germany at night just puts all thought of sleep to flight“) is one of the much quoted verses from the poem "Nachtgedanken" („Night Thoughts“), which appeared in 1844.

Heine’s Idea of the Enlightened Society and Civic Engagement

As a writer, correspondent and feuilletonist, Heine developed a new ironic tone, by which the German "Leitkultur" (concept of a cultural identity) felt provoked by during his life and long thereafter. Using humour, mockery and satire, he wrote against petty bourgeois narrow-mindedness, subservient spirit, nationalism and traditional authorities. Heine’s artistic work centred around bourgeois world. It is literature for the people by the people. He demanded from this civil society that it should not see itself as a victim of circumstance, it should rather co-design its social reality actively. The Enlightenment and its ever more self-confident middle classes initiated processes of progress in the 19th century which led to improvements in many areas of human existence. Dogmas, outdated traditions and authorities were replaced by reason, democratic debates and a science-driven search for truth. Thus the ideal of the Enlightenment entered into our society and continues its influence even today.

The Bürgeruniversität in the Tradition of Heinrich Heine

The achievements of the Enlightenment are also nothing to take for granted in our present times. Should we stop being committed to such values as tolerance, liberalism and freedom as well as the evidence-based search for truth, we not only endanger these values but also any further progress. In an age that declares simple untruths as "alternative facts" and scientific findings as "fake news", these values are more important than ever before.

Just as Heine worked towards the formation of an emancipated and enlightened middle class, HHU is also concerned that citizens receive an unprejudiced overview of political, economic and social developments. HHU is committed to that idea of the Bürgeruniversität in the tradition of Heinrich Heine. It aims to achieve a substantial contribution to the citizen’s ability to reflect – as a critical citizen, a critical consumer and a critical recipient of media, literature, music and art. In this way HHU assumes social responsibility and contributes to the protection of a liberal, responsible and tolerant society.

Heinrich Heine supported the progressive tendencies of its time as well as scientific progress; simultaneously, however, he also questioned the consequences and risks. Likewise, it is vital for HHU to continuously question the scientific methods and the consequences of scientific findings. Controversial research topics – for instance interfering with genetic engineering, animal testing for example in the development of new medicines and the effects of artificial intelligence – would require constant exchange with the public. Only through such dialogue can both the interest as well as the confidence in science be strengthened.


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