Saksa kultuuriruumist pärit teadlased Eesti Vabariigi Tartu Ülikooli teenistuses [Abstract: Scholars from the German Cultural Space in the Service of the Estonian Republic’s University of Tartu]


  • Terje Lõbu University of Tartu



University of Tartu, Academic Staff, History of Medicine, History of Science


Abstract: Scholars from the German Cultural Space in the Service of the Estonian Republic’s University of Tartu

A university where the language of instruction was Estonian began to operate in Tartu in 1919. It continued the best academic traditions of the university that had been established in Tartu in 1632. The time period was not easy for putting the university into operation. The Republic of Estonia had been declared independent in February of 1918 and the young country immediately had to defend its independence, first in the struggle between the countries fighting in the First World War, and thereafter to fight against Soviet Russia. Although war did not spare scholars or young students, the Estonian nation nevertheless considered it necessary to start providing higher education and developing scholarly knowledge as quickly as possible. The University of Tartu became the centre for this endeavour. Among the many other problems that the university faced, professors had to be found who would meet the university’s standards. Until that time, it had not been possible for Estonians to acquire higher education in their mother tongue, for which reason there was also a shortage of scholars whose academic qualifications would measure up to the professor’s occupation, and who at the same time would be capable of providing academic instruction in Estonian. Especially in its first decade, in order to provide instruction in Estonian, the University of Tartu had to recruit scholars from abroad to teaching positions in order to be an academically respectable university. The university invited scholars from Finland and Sweden to assist in the first instance, hoping that they would settle in easily in Estonia’s cultural and linguistic space. Yet the small Nordic countries were incapable of filling all of the vacant professor positions in Tartu, for which reason professors had to be sought from other European universities as well.

This article considers professors invited or elected to work at the University of Tartu who came to Estonia from countries in the German cultural space – from Germany, Switzerland and elsewhere in Central Europe. It was not easy to find professors because there were no benefits that could be offered to attract foreigners to a small university in a newly created country. War was still being waged against Soviet Russia, and the political and economic condition of the Estonian state was uncertain at the time when the first foreign professors arrived in Tartu. The University of Tartu could attract staff only by offering interesting work with possibilities for development and career advancement.

When a candidate interested in working at the University of Tartu had been found, a long correspondence between him and the university’s curator began in order to determine his working and living conditions. Moving with one’s family to another country was financially costly and consumed a great deal of time, and it was not risk-free, for which reason a scholar coming from abroad had to be certain that his life in Tartu would proceed without a hitch. Yet at the same time, the tempting opportunity awaited them in Tartu to be a professor who could in many respects shape his department or chair of studies according to his own preferences. It was, after all, a university where many disciplines were only taking their first steps, and even in branches of knowledge that had already previously operated at the university, newcomers were often given a free hand in choosing the directions for their development. Even though the University of Tartu was not materially wealthy and the property of many of its institutes had been taken to Russia to spare them from warfare, that did not discourage foreigners, who quickly started filling in the missing links either with the help of their own personal libraries or by ordering scientific equipment and scholarly literature from abroad. Admittedly, the university did not necessarily have sufficient monetary resources for ordering equipment and literature, and professors who came from more prosperous conditions did not necessarily understand that.

Foreign professors who came to Tartu were given numerous incentives, the most noteworthy of which was bonus pay. Until 1923, some of their salary was paid to them in British pounds. Thereafter payments in hard foreign currency were discontinued, but their salary was 15-30% higher than that of other professors. Moving to Estonia was supported with the sum of 60 British pounds, and if the professor had worked in Tartu for at least three years, they could also receive compensation for moving back home. Since books were important materials for scholars in their work, up to 1,600 kg of books were exempted from customs duties. Foreign professors became Estonian civil servants, which meant that the same laws and also subsidies (the right to pension support, medical care) applied to them and the members of their families as to Estonian civil servants.

Professors who came from abroad were initially allowed to give their lectures in German, yet the more distant objective at the university where instruction was to be in Estonian was that all professors would also gradually start using Estonian in their lectures. The university started concluding agreements with foreign professors that the language of their lectures would become Estonian after five years, which could be extended for another three years if necessary.

Most of the foreigners who taught in Tartu were relatively young men when they arrived there, who used the opportunity to lay the foundation for their future career, which would not necessarily have been possible to do in their homeland so quickly.

Cooperation between foreign professors and the University of Tartu did not always proceed without problems. Misunderstandings arising from different linguistic and cultural spaces, as well as behaviour by some foreigners that ignored the regulations of the University of Tartu, could cause discord between the two parties.

Nineteen professors who were invited or elected from the German cultural space worked at the University of Tartu in the 1920s, and a closer look is taken at them in the article. Thereat their scholarly activity is not examined, rather the aim of the article is to consider more general tendencies that accompanied scholars who came from old European countries to work in the young Republic of Estonia.

Some disciplines had to use foreigners for years before scholars from Estonia developed to where they could take over. For instance, Germanspeaking professors worked for years in physiology (Alexander Lipschütz, Alfred Fleisch) and pharmacology (Siegfried Walter Loewe, Georg Barkan) in the medical faculty, where it takes years to master the profession, maintaining the development of their disciplines at a high level. Scholars from outside of Estonia also worked for years as professors of foreign languages at the Faculty of Philosophy, creating a strong professional foundation, from which Estonian professors later continued. Not one faculty except for the Faculty of Religion was able to manage without foreigners from the German cultural space.

Many foreigners went back to their homeland after a while, continuing their successful scholarly career paths that they started in Tartu. Only three scholars worked in Tartu for the shortest period of time, which was two years and Heinrich Mutschmann, Professor of English Philology, taught the longest, 19 years. He decided to leave Estonia in 1939 when Baltic Germans were summoned back to Germany.

Although problems with foreigners could crop up for the University of Tartu and they could be costly for the university, they made a great contribution to the development of Estonian scholarship, from which Estonian scholars continued. Foreign scholars brought new ideas and schools of thought to Tartu, as well as necessary connections in European academic and scientific circles. They were full of energy and at the age when they were at the height of their creative powers. As such, they set an example in teaching and research, as well as in organisational skills, for young Estonian scholars, who continued along the path that their teachers laid out for them after the foreigners left Tartu.


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Author Biography

Terje Lõbu, University of Tartu

Terje Lõbu is a Curator at the University of Tartu Museum.