Heinrich Heine as the namesake of the University of Düsseldorf
The University of Düsseldorf has borne the name of Heinrich Heine – poet and son of the capital of North Rhine-Westphalia – since 1988. For over 20 years, the idea of naming the university after Heine was the subject of numerous controversies between university scientists and students, politicians, the arts community and citizens of the city of Düsseldorf. Critics labelled the planned renaming as a “foolish act” and an outdated “personality cult”.
Today we can consider ourselves lucky that the decision was ultimately taken to name the university after Heinrich Heine. No other writer could have better represented the concept of the Bürgeruniversität (Citizens’ University) and the values it embodied – tolerance, open-mindedness, equality and freedom – through their work. As a Citizens’ University and in the spirit of Heine, HHU is open to all areas of society, encouraging citizens to enter into dialogue with the university and participate in its activities. Students are offered a broad, humanistic education and the results of their research are utilised to help advance society.
Heinrich Heine as a dedicated poet and European cosmopolitan
Heinrich Heine (1797–1856) possessed a critical mind and wrestled with internal contradictions: At the beginning of his literary career, he was a reactionary romantic and later a prosaic revolutionary, while being patriotic and at the same time a sharp critic of his home country. Heine experienced his present – the first half of the 19th century – as a time of upheaval and crisis. In the eyes of the poet, representatives of the nobility and the clergy were attempting to prevent the formation of a civic society for which freedom of thought, religion and science was indispensable. In his literary, cultural and political writings, the staunch democrat always stood for freedom, equality and the peaceful coexistence of different cultures and religions. He viewed the nationalistic and reactionary tendencies in Europe in the period following the Congress of Vienna in particular 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 a much quoted verse from the poem “Nachtgedanken” (“Night Thoughts”), which was published in 1844.
Heine’s vision of an enlightened society and civic engagement
As a writer, correspondent and columnist, Heine developed a new ironic tone, which proponents of the German “Leitkultur” (leading culture) felt provoked by, both during his life and for a long time afterwards. Employing humour, mockery and satire, he criticised bourgeois narrow-mindedness, subservience, nationalism and outdated authorities. Heine’s work is centred around the bourgeois world. It is literature by the people for the people. He demanded from this civil society that it should not see itself as a victim of circumstances, but rather play an active role in defining its social reality. The Enlightenment and an increasingly self-confident middle class initiated processes in the 19th century that brought progress and improvements in many areas of people’s lives. Dogmas, outdated traditions and authorities were replaced by reason, democratic debates and a science-driven search for truth. The ideal of the Enlightenment thus entered our society and continues to influence it even today.
The Bürgeruniversität (Citizens’ University) in the tradition of Heinrich Heine
In the current times, we should not take the achievements of the Enlightenment for granted. If we do not remain committed to values such as tolerance, liberalism and freedom, and the evidence-based search for truth, we will not only jeopardise these values, but also any further progress. In an age where simple untruths are declared to be “alternative facts” and scientific findings are dismissed as “fake news”, these values are more important than ever before.
Just as Heine worked towards the establishment of an emancipated and enlightened middle class, HHU also attaches great importance to ensuring that citizens can form their own unprejudiced opinions about political, economic and social developments. To this end, HHU is committed to the concept of the Citizens’ University in the tradition of Heinrich Heine. It aims to make a substantial contribution toward empowering citizens to reflect – as critical citizens, critical consumers and critical recipients of media, literature, music and art. In so doing, HHU is assuming social responsibility and contributing to safeguarding a liberal, responsible and tolerant society.
Heinrich Heine supported the progressive powers of his time and scientific progress, yet he also questioned the consequences and risks. Likewise, it is vital for HHU to question scientific methods and the consequences of scientific findings on an ongoing basis. Controversial research topics – such as genetic engineering, animal testing for example in the development of new medicines or the ramifications of artificial intelligence – require constant exchange with the public and it is only through such dialogue that both interest and confidence in science can be strengthened.