Legal studies - the first hundred years

The Goethe University Frankfurt celebrated its centenary in 2014 – a relative newcomer in comparison with Germany’s earliest universities (Heidelberg 1386, Cologne 1388, Erfurt 1392 and Leipzig 1409) and the many institutions dating from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (e.g. Marburg 1527 and Giessen 1607). The University opened in October 1914 with an endowment established by Frankfurt citizens. The University was characterised by a belief in progress, associated with scientific discovery at the time and the social and political commitment of its founders. Equally important for the new University was the city’s liberal spirit, developed through centuries of commerce and the city’s trade fair tradition and encouraged by the intellectual excitement of the emancipated Jewish middle classes.

The Law Faculty started with six professors, increasing to twelve by 1932. Similarly, the number of students grew from 119 (including seven women) at the outset to 452 (including fifteen women) in 1921, further expanding to 800 by 1932. Major academic contributions in this period include the development of modern labour law by Hugo Sinzheimer, one of the founders of the Akademie der Arbeit, a pioneering workers’ academy. At the same time, Ernst Levy, Paul Koschaker, Hans Planitz and Franz Beyerle wrote important works in the area of legal history while Berthold Freudenthal, Max Ernst Mayer and Arthur Baumgarten were key figures in the area of criminal law.

Following these early achievements of the short-lived Weimar Republic era came the Faculty’s downfall during the Nazi period. A third of the teaching staff, including the important figures of Karl Strupp, Hermann Heller, Ernst Cahn, Hugo Sinzheimer and Arthur Baumgarten, were forced to leave the University because of their political views or ‘Jewish heritage’. Despite the sharp reduction in staff and dwindling numbers of students, the Faculty lived on until wartime conscription brought teaching almost to a standstill. By the winter of 1944/45, only five professors remained giving lectures.

Teaching resumed in the summer semester of 1946 under difficult conditions. But within a short time, the Faculty regained its pre-war size with seven full and two associate professors. After declining initially from 900 (1950) to only 793 (1953), student numbers rose slowly again, reaching 1,000 in 1961, before increasing rapidly in the years that followed.

In parallel to those developments, from the 1960s onwards, the Faculty expanded in several academic directions. Particular strengths emerged in the areas of international law, commercial and labour law, and in conflicts of law and comparative law. Legal history also became an increasing focus, benefitting from close cooperation with the neighbouring Max Planck Institute for European Legal History founded in 1964. Over recent decades further specialisations evolved reflecting Frankfurt’s prominent position as a financial centre and transport hub and as a reaction to new technology and social change (e.g. European law, data protection law, media law, environmental law, social law and banking law). At the same time, Frankfurt enhanced its traditional focus on the fundamentals of legal science (philosophy of law, legal theory, comparative law and legal history). The Faculty’s students are expected to learn more than the skills and techniques of law. They must also consider the fundamental questions of what makes a legal and political system just and fair.

Over time, the University became too costly for the city and in 1967 responsibility was transferred to the Land (or State) of Hesse. The Faculty’s destiny was increasingly shaped by the Ministry for Higher Education in Wiesbaden. The Faculty and its institutes were renamed. The short-lived attempt to introduce a single-stage model of legal training was abandoned in 1974. Instead, the two-stage model was retained, but with a modernised curriculum requiring fewer years of study.

Fifty years later, in September 2007, the Parliament in Hesse resolved, following an initiative started by the University President Rudolf Steinberg, to re-establish the university as an endowment university. This status gives the University particular freedom in the appointment of new professors and in the selection of students. The University’s position is also enhanced by development guarantees given by the Land of Hesse and the prospect of a growing endowment. In addition, this new development seeks to foster Frankfurt’s philanthropic tradition in the University’s direction. Teaching and research in the law faculty has already begun to profit, with endowed and visiting professorships, new funds for the Institute for Law and Finance, the Cluster of Excellence: The Formation of Normative Orders, the Forschungskolleg Humanwissenschaften (an institute for advanced study in the humanities and social sciences) and the establishment of new prizes. A further very welcome and exciting development was the Faculty’s move from Campus Bockenheim to the delightful, parkland grounds surrounding the IG Farben Building on Campus Westend.


Michael Stolleis