University Towns – Göttingen, Marburg and Giessen (and Kassel)

Between Goslar and Bonn, I passed through a set of small university towns in central Germany that were once the seats of minor dukes and princes – indeed, if Bonn had not become the capital of West Germany it too would have been one of these small university towns. They’re all pleasant, but I found Marburg particularly lovely.

 The first I came to was Göttingen, on the main rail line south from Hannover to Frankfurt – there’s no bypass and virtually every ICE high-speed train stops here, so it must be one of the best-served stations for its size anywhere. It was almost unscathed in World War II, but even so there’s not a lot of medieval architecture here. But there are lots of bookshops and fly-parked bikes, and more young people smoking than elsewhere – a typical university town.

Kurze Strasse, with the Roman Catholic church of St Michael

 The university has an interesting history – it was founded in 1734 by King George II of Britain (also Duke of Hannover, of course) to be a centre of the Enlightenment, and the first students arrived in 1737. Great mathematicians such as Carl Friedrich Gauss, Bernhard Riemann, Hermann Minkowski and David Hilbert taught here, and a group of poets that had studied here in the 1770s were known as the Göttinger Dichterbund (Circle of Poets), studying folksong and paving the way for Romanticism. The poets Achim von Arnim and Clemens Brentano met as students in Göttingen, and in 1811 Achim married Clemens’s sister Bettina, who became the leading muse of the German Romantic movement; she knew everyone, from Goethe to Beethoven, but it was Antonie Brentano, wife of their half-brother Franz, who is perhaps the leading contender to be Beethoven’s Immortal Beloved (a couple of days later I was at Beethoven’s birthplace in Bonn and investigated this).

 Then in 1837, the Göttingen Seven were seven professors who protested against Ernst August I’s suspension of the Hannoverian constitution, and were fired – they included the brothers Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm, famous for publishing collections of fairy tales, as well as teaching the new discipline of German Studies (Jacob was also the university’s head librarian).

 A century later, the Göttingen Eight were among the world’s finest mathematicians and physicists, including Leó Szilárd, Edward Teller, Max Born and Eugene Wigner, but being mostly Jewish they were driven out in 1933 in a Nazi crackdown on ‘Jewish physics’; having emigrated to the United States they played crucial rôles in the development of the atomic bomb (the great mathematician John von Neumann had already left). Göttingen was a very Nazi town, so I dare say they reconciled themselves with having to move away. There are also eight Nobel Prize winners in the city cemetery, including Otto Hahn, Max Planck and Max Born. Hahn’s collaborator Lise Meitner was nominated no fewer than 48 times for a Nobel Prize, but was always ignored. The modern university currently houses five of the eighty Max Planck Institutes.

 Göttingen was also known for its law faculty, which in the nineteenth century accounted for over half of its students – future chancellors Otto von Bismarck and Gerhard Schröder studied law here, as well as Prince Metternich, Chancellor of Austria, and the poet Heinrich Heine. The philosophers Wilhelm von Humboldt and Arthur Schopenhauer also studied here briefly.

 There are a lot of plaques on buildings commemorating other notables who passed through, including Alexander von Humboldt, Bunsen, Goethe, Franklin, Coleridge, Brahms and Joachim, and Sándor Kőrösi Csoma, a Székely from Transylvania who produced the first Tibetan–English dictionary and grammar. It’s a hard-working university, without distractions such as duelling, which used to cause a lot of trouble in Heidelberg (which I visited in 2016, but didn’t manage to blog about) – here the most exciting tradition is just climbing up to kiss the Gänseliesel (Goose Girl) statue after successfully defending a PhD.

 The university has half a dozen museums and botanic gardens, and there’s also the Städtisches Museum Göttingen (City Museum); but I didn’t manage to visit any, partly because it was a Monday and partly because of various refurbishment projects. The main building of the City Museum is closed, but there may be something to see in the Hardenberger Hof building around the corner on the Ritterplan. The University Ethnographic Collection is closed for refurbishment (a shame – it houses the Cook/Forster collection, brought from the Pacific islands by Georg Forster, who sailed with Cook and became a professor at Kassel, not far to the south), but it looks as if the Zoological Museum, which closed in 2018, has reopened. You can (pandemic permitting) visit the Museum for Sepulchral Culture, which sounds fascinating, but it will close for renovation from 2022 – it covers death, burial, mourning and remembrance across the world’s cultures, and will also look at suicide, euthanasia and organ donation, for instance.


St Jacobi
St Albani

 There are some attractive churches: the most important is St Johannis, on the market square (rebuilt as a Gothic hall church between 1290 and 1350, with its choir extended in 1792), which has two mismatched towers, but St Jacobi has a massive 72 metre-high tower that dominates the old town. St Michael has been the city’s Roman Catholic church since 1789; it was designed to be anonymous, but in 1893 the present façade and tower were built; and in 2014 the interior was reworked in a beautifully minimalist white style (there’s a modern memorial to Edith Stein, the first saint of Jewish origin, who studied in Göttingen in 1913-5). There’s another couple of nice Gothic hall churches, St Albani (if you can catch it open) and St Nikolai, which is the university church but is only open on Saturdays. On the art front, there are both university and public museums, which should be worth checking out too.


From Göttingen it was a short hop (just eighteen minutes) on an ICE high-speed train to Kassel – but this stretch of the NBS high-speed railway will be closed for repairs from 24 April to 16 July 2021, as outlined here. Kassel Hauptbahnhof, the original main terminal station, has been superseded by Kassel-Wilhelmshöhe, a concrete box on the through lines in the western suburbs. Regional trains still run through to the Hauptbahnhof, but not the long-distance trains. Steam train enthusiasts will know Kassel as the site of the Henschel locomotive works, Germany’s largest.

 In fact, one of Kassel’s main attractions, the Bergpark Wilhelmshöhe, is a bit further west from the new station – it’s a landscape park, laid out by the Landgraves of Hesse from 1689, which is now on the World Heritage List. Initially in the Baroque style, it was later adapted to the less formal English style, finishing with the Great Waterfall being added in 1826.

 At the foot of the hill, towards the city and the station, the Schloss Wilhelmshöhe is a large Neoclassical pile (built in 1786-98) that was Kaiser Wilhelm II’s summer residence; heavily damaged in World War II, it reopened in 1974 as an art museum (there are quite a few Rembrandts, as well as Dürer, Rubens, Hals and Van Dyck – I shall have to return). In the city centre, the Museum Fridericianum, founded in 1779 in another neoclassical palace, is claimed by Wikipedia to be Europe’s first public museum, but as any good Oxonian knows, the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford was founded in 1677. It hosts contemporary art exhibitions, and in particular the documenta festival, held every five years (next in the summer of 2022). Art works from previous documenta festivals are dotted around the city, notably ‘7000 Oaks’, a piece of land art by Joseph Beuys. There’s also the Caricatura cartoon museum, in the Hauptbahnhof.

 Kassel was heavily bombed in World War II and then captured in vicious house-to-house fighting in April 1945, and rebuilt with modern buildings, so there’s little else to see that’s historic, and I didn’t stop this time.

The Rathaus

With a regional train it took an hour and a quarter to get from Kassel to Marburg, which I found quite delightful. Having spent a month in the flatlands of northern Europe, finding a town on a hill with a castle at the top was a rare treat. It’s quite a steep climb up (stop in the market place to look at the Rathaus, built in 1512, and other half-timbered houses), but the views are worth it.

 St Elizabeth of Hungary (1207-31) moved here after her husband Ludwig IV of Thuringia died on crusade when she was just 20; she was known for her charity, following the teachings of Francis of Assisi, and setting up hospitals for the poor in Eisenach and Marburg. She was strictly controlled by her sadistic confessor, Konrad von Marburg, who was a ferocious persecutor of anyone accused of heresy; she died at just 24, and he was murdered two years later. The Order of Teutonic Knights adopted her as a patron and built the Elisabethkirche (see below) to house her tomb, which became a major pilgrimage centre until the Reformation, at which point her relics were removed by the protestant Landgrave.

 Marburg was the residence of the Landgraves of Hesse until 1567; the university was founded in 1527 and still dominates life here, so it’s fitting that it occupies the castle that dominates the view. It’s the oldest university still operating that was founded as a Protestant institution (though now secular, of course); in 1529 there was an important meeting of Luther, Zwingli and other reformers here. Marburg then became a backwater, escaping development for a couple of centuries, and was then rediscovered by the Romantics in the nineteenth century, since when it has been treasured for its medieval townscapes. It was a designated hospital town in World War II so escaped bombing. The university was always important however – Otto Hahn and the Brothers Grimm, whom we met in Göttingen (above) studied here, as did Hannah Arendt – she was taught by Martin Heidegger, an important thinker but also a Nazi, which may have helped her explain Nazism (‘the banality of evil’) after the war.

 There are six university museums, of which the Museum der Kulturgeschichte (Museum of Art and Cultural History) in the castle is the most interesting, covering local archeology and history and the urban and rural lifestyles. There are medieval frescoes in the chapel, and the Fürstensaal is a beautiful Gothic hall. There’s some religious art here, but the main art museum is down in town at Biegenstrasse 11, in a large purpose-built building mainly displaying German art since the sixteenth century. Nearby is the modern Marburger Kunstverein, with temporary shows by contemporary artists. The main church is the Elisabethkirche (1235-83, with towers finished in 1340), one of the earliest pure Gothic churches in Germany (along with the Church of the Virgin in Trier, which I’ve written about here) and a precursor of the Kölner Dom (Cologne Cathedral), which as usual I visited as I changed trains on my way home – it’s amazing, and huge. It was the burial church of the Landgraves of Hesse until the Reformation, and after World War II General Paul von Hindenburg, the president of Germany who brought Hitler to power, and his wife were buried here, in a gloomy corner. The golden shrine of St Elizabeth can be seen here, as well as some fine polychrome wooden altars.


From Marburg a very scenic railway follows the Lahn valley to Koblenz, passing through Giessen, another small university town which was heavily bombed in 1944, with most of its historic buildings destroyed. It also has an old university, founded in 1607 as a Lutheran alternative to the Calvinist University of Marburg; the playwright Georg Büchner studied here and Justus von Liebig, one of the founders of organic chemistry, taught here from 1824 to 1852 (and the university is now named after him). He transformed the teaching of chemistry and pioneered the chemical study of foods and fertilisers; he was familiar to me as the scientific director of the Liebig’s Extract of Meat Company, established in 1865 in Fray Bentos, Uruguay, which I know well. The militaristic Prussian state was also largely responsible for creating the modern scientific research university, and Giessen expanded from 1880 (and admitted women from 1900); the most important figure from this period was Wilhelm Röntgen, Professor of Physics from 1879 to 1888, who won the first Nobel Prize for Physics in 1901 for the discovery of X-rays.

 The city centre is pretty bland nowadays, but the old and new castles have been well reconstructed. The Altes Schloss was built in the first half of the fourteenth century and became the Museum of Upper Hesse in 1905; it was destroyed by bombing in 1944 and didn’t reopen until 1980; the half-timbered Neues Schloss was built in 1533-9 and it and the adjacent Zeughaus are now used by the university. The museum also uses two rebuilt houses on the west side of Kirchenplatz, the half-timbered Leib’sche Haus, which was built in 1350, largely destroyed in 1944 and reopened in 1978, and the eighteenth-century Wallenfels’schen Haus; they’re now linked by a bridge, but in theory you want the Leib’sche Haus for local history and folklore (with costumes, tobacco pipes, a loom and models of half-timbered structures) and the Wallenfels’schen Haus for archeology and ethnology (from Greek and Roman artefacts to Buddhist bronzes, thangkas and a mandala). The Altes Schloss displays arts and crafts and some historical paintings; the museums are free, but information is only in German. The university’s botanical garden, the oldest in Germany still in its original locations, is also free and open daily (not in winter, at least during the pandemic). There’s also a Liebig Museum, in the former guard house, which seems to be well worth visiting.

The Altes Schloss