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University History

Deep-Rooted Resentment

In her doctoral thesis, Silvia Bolliger examined the University of Zurich's stance towards foreign students during the interwar period (1919-1939). The historian and former UZH archivist’s work shines a light on “discreet anti-Semitism”.
Interview: Roger Nickl. English translation: Philip Isler.
Silvia Bolliger
Historian Silvia Bolliger has explored a little-researched piece of UZH’s history. (Picture: Roger Nickl)


Silvia Bolliger, your doctoral thesis, which you wrote at UZH, investigates the University of Zurich’s attitude towards foreigners during the interwar period (1919-1939). What was previously known about this period?

Silvia Bolliger: UZH’s history during this period was completely unexplored. I was interested in how UZH behaved towards foreign and, in particular, Jewish students between 1919 and 1939.

Now that you’ve researched this historical terra incognita, what role did students from abroad play at the University of Zurich back then? 

Bolliger: Foreign students were welcome whenever the university wasn’t at full capacity. That’s nothing new, and the same could be observed earlier in the 19th century. Switzerland already had a dense network of universities at the time, but not that many students. The university therefore tried to fill the free places with foreign students, and depended on students coming in from abroad. That’s why at the beginning of the interwar period, UZH’s admission requirements in certain subjects were loosened. In the course of the 1930s, the university subsequently changed its admissions policy: Towards the end of the interwar period, UZH was no longer dependent on foreign students, as there were enough young academics in Switzerland. As a consequence, far fewer students from abroad were admitted to university in Zurich.

So the university’s policy on foreigners became more restrictive?

Bolliger: Yes. Foreign students were still welcome and an international outlook was still worth striving for, but not all foreigners were welcome anymore. There were clear preferences. Officially, the tightened admission requirements applied to all students from abroad, but in reality they were mainly directed at Jewish students. From 1933 onwards, many German Jews tried to enroll at the Faculty of Medicine. That’s also why the Faculty of Medicine, but also the Faculty of Law, had the highest admission hurdles.

In your study, you conclude that there was “discreet anti-Semitism” at the University of Zurich. How did this show?

Bolliger: In 1933, after Hitler seized power in Germany, the University of Zurich for example started to record the confession of students from abroad, and later of all students. That was new. With this change, a student's confession, and thus their ascribed ethnicity and race, became significant when it came to admissions.  And this happened at a time when the flow of Jewish students from Germany who wanted to study at UZH was increasing. When the National Socialists came to power, the situation for Jewish students in Germany deteriorated massively, including bans on studying and displacement. In this situation, many saw Switzerland and Zurich as their last hope for getting an education or completing their studies. Jewish students also came to Zurich from Poland and the USA.

How many prospective students were rejected?

Bolliger: There’s no way of knowing, because the matriculation forms of the rejected students are no longer available. There are university minutes indicating that in 1933, for example, several hundred students from Germany wanted to matriculate at the University of Zurich, most of whom were refused admission. We don’t know on what grounds they were rejected, since as already mentioned the relevant documents have been lost. But I think it’s likely that their confession played a central role.

Are there further indicators of anti-Semitic attitudes?

Bolliger: What’s interesting is that there were various codes to refer to Jewish students. For example, “Eastern European students” stood for Eastern European Jews, or “Ostjuden”, while  “emigrants” was used to describe Jews from Germany. People avoided the words “Jews” or “Jewish students” in the university’s minutes, but it was perfectly clear who was meant by “American medical students”.

What can you tell us about the students at the university during this period?

Bolliger: You have to distinguish between the official student body at the time, the SUZ, and students in general, who were organized in various associations. The range of positions among the latter was enormous – from the extreme left to the extreme right. But the SUZ was clearly nationalist in nature. Many of its representatives were also active members in the far-right “Frontenbewegung” movement. The two editors of the Zürcher Studenten student newspaper, Hans Vonwyl and Robert Tobler, for example, had very influential roles. Their newspaper published articles that were clearly anti-Semitic.  However, there was no response to these articles from representatives of the university.  Nobody set the right record straight and there was no official correction, nor were Jewish students ever shielded by university representatives for humanitarian reasons.

Was there a student countermovement that showed solidarity with the Jewish students?

Bolliger: There was, yes – outside of the SUZ. For example, the “Kampfgruppe gegen geistigen Terror”, whose members were mostly socialists and Marxists. But they were far less influential and also less accepted among university authorities, unlike the far-right “Hochschulgruppe Neue Front”, which was approved by the university from 1933 onwards and treated with greater lenience by representatives of UZH. 

So university representatives were less concerned about engaging with right-wing nationalist student associations?

Bolliger: At the time, people were far more afraid of a communist revolution than a right-wing nationalist dictatorship, and this was true not only for the university but for society in general.

How did attitudes towards Jewish people and foreigners at UZH differ from other Swiss institutions?

Bolliger: It’s not surprising that anti-Semitism was condoned or even supported at the University of Zurich at the time. The university’s stance was no different from the rest of society. My findings thus confirm that anti-Semitism was rampant in academic circles in Switzerland, too. Academics in Zurich followed the ideological mainstream of the time. There are also studies in Germany, Austria and other European countries that show that fascist and national-socialist movements were carried by academics, in particular. And evidently Zurich was no exception here. 

You also examined the University of Zurich’s attitude towards women – why? 

Bolliger: One of the defining aspects of the nationalist tendencies that swelled in the 1930s was discrimination. Jews, foreigners but also women were in dire straits.  This is why I wanted to take a look at the university authorities’ attitude towards women, as well as the behavior of fellow students. The authorities’ attitude was unproblematic, but time and again the other students displayed misogynistic behavior. The Zürcher Student newspaper also published misogynistic articles.

What do you think are the reasons for the xenophobic, anti-Semitic and misogynistic stance at the University of Zurich during the interwar period?

Bolliger: The 1920s and 1930s were a time of political, economic and social turmoil – certainly no easy times. Many people were unsettled, and so were the students in Zurich. This is why they sought to strengthen their own identity by discriminating against foreigners, Jews, but also women. What’s interesting is that before World War I, nearly half of the students at UZH were foreigners. Xenophobia and anti-Semitism were nevertheless never as virulent as in the 1930s: At the time the share of foreign nationals was lower, while resentment against Jews in particular was as strong as never before. That’s alarming. It shows that anti-Semitism can spread regardless of whether there are Jews or not.

What do you consider the most surprising insight of your study?

Bolliger: I was surprised that in principle the same discriminatory mechanisms towards Jews and women applied to UZH as to other German-speaking, European and American universities.