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  • Writer's pictureMeirion Harries

DAY TWENTY ONE Cholesterol and Research


On this lovely day, I pedalled the 10 kilometers from Heiligenstadt to Gottingen – or to be more precise, to the medieval centre, to Cron Lanz, makers of the finest Baumkuchen in all of Germany. There are tables and I sat with the Race Marshal and ordered Schokolade mit Schlagsahne and some slices of Goethe Baumkuchen (Rum, Schokoladen, Krem auf Cherryboden). We sat there for quite a while feeling sorry for the theology students who live down the road in one of the towers of the medieval Johanniskirche. They pay no rent – but have to endure the peal of bells from the other tower. Of course, Nikolaus Pevsner taught at the university here – which, incidentally had been founded in 1734 by our own George II - and the Race Marshal, who wrote his biography, told me a little about his time here - time that was brutally cut short, just as he was settling into the academic fast track, by the rise of the Nazis. On Pevsner's 31st birthday, Hitler was elected Chancellor and on May Day 1933 Jews were banned from state employment - and Gottingen lost Pevsner, ultimately to England. But these purges meant that the Nazis, here in Gottingen, probably also lost their best chance of winning the war. In the 1930s, the university led the world in maths and physics: more precisely, eight men – the 'Gottingen Eight – almost all Jews, led the world. They were researching and developing Albert Einstein's ideas – and the facts that they were Jewish and that they were not teaching 'German physics', which had no room for Einstein, saw them flee to the West. Two of the Eight, Leó Szilárd and Edward Teller, became very important in the Manhattan project. While Germany did try to create an atom bomb (as did the Japanese - their single cyclotron lies in the depths of Tokyo Bay, thrown in on the order of President Eisenhower), the myopia of Nazism ensured its failure. It wasn't just intellectuals who suffered in Gottingen under the Nazis. The Guardian reported in 1938 that in nearby Kassel, “nearly all the homes of the Jews have been destroyed. There the arrested Jews were paraded in the open, the fire brigade was called out, and the hose-pipes were turned on them, so that they were all completely drenched before being sent to the concentration camp at Buchenwald. At Göttingen the fire brigade observed that a char-woman was inside a burning synagogue. The firemen rescued her, although the crowd tried to prevent them from doing so.” John Ardagh recalled a conversation with a former Mayor of Gottingen who said that before the war, “officials and councillors tended to be autocratic and very conservative and there was little real debate. This then made it easier for the Nazis to gain control of local affairs”. Be that as it may, in the Reichstag election of 1932, 51% of Gottingeners voted for the Nazis, compared to 37% of Germans nationwide. In his 2013 book Becoming a Nazi Town: Culture and Politics in Göttingen Between the Wars, David Imhoof looks at some of the processes by which Nazism was boosted. One was to involve the townspeople in collective activities. The Nazis promoted traditional gun clubs and sharpshooter contests and took advantage of a music festival that has always had citizen participation. In 1921, Gottingen had started the Handel Festival - which continues to this day. For the first four years of its existence, the stagings tended toward the modernistic, but by the mid-20s, the Festival was espousing historical accuracy and a monumentalist style of production, emphasising Handel's Germanness. This profile suited the Nazis well and they paid for the Festival. Perhaps they also liked the fact that Handel had been a financier of the early slave trade. Gottingen was hardly bombed in the war and the university was the first in West Germany to reopen. It experienced the student protests of the 1960's – but with an interesting twist. One of the reasons underlying the protests, apparently, was that the students realised that they were being blamed for Nazism simply because they were German - and they did not want to be held responsible. You will recall that it was this generation that supplied the teachers who introduced Holocaust studies into the general curriculum. These days the university has over 31,000 students, one of the largest libraries in Germany and a global reputation as a research centre formed by alliances with research institutes based in Gottingen - the Academy of Sciences, the German Primate Centre, the German Aerospace Centre, the Laser Laboratory and the five Max Planck Institutes for biophysical chemistry, for dynamics and self-organisation, for experimental medicine, for solar system research as well as for researching multi-religious and multi-ethnic societies.

Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research, Gottingen

In terms of the impact of its scientific research, the Max Plank Institute is second only to Harvard, a huge engine at the heart of German development opening new fields in basic research under the mantra 'knowledge must precede application'. The MPI operates by 'allowing specialists who produce outstanding work in their own fields to cooperate in a spirit of understanding and openness towards other disciplines without having to compete for resources' thereby making it 'possible to generate new, dynamic scientific ideas with enormous potential.' And we wonder why Germany does so well. The bright minds in the white painted Institute up the hill may not have noticed, though, that they could do some handily local research into cholesterol at Cron Lanz. The Baumkuchen demolished, it's time to walk a little and perhaps say hello to 'most kissed girl in the world' – the Ganseliesel, the Goose Girl, whom students are supposed to embrace after their finals. With 10,000 graduates a year …. If you want to feel intimidated, here is the Max Plank Institute website: Here is a really laid back home movie A Day in the Life of Gottingen made by someone coming to terms with a new camera: This is a recruiting film about the University of Gottingen - Here is Laurence Cummings (who is Musical Director of the London Handel Festival and Artistic Director of the Internationale Händel-Festspiele Göttingen) conducting the Festspiel Orchester in the Air from Handel's Water Music - And Anne Sofie von Otter singing the song Göttingen -

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