We see hundreds of struggles in schools today. Some schools do not receive proper or adequate funding. Students are profiled and treated differently based on labels that society or previous teachers give them. Teachers turn to their administrators for help and receive no support. So, what do we do about it? How are we going to stand our ground and fight for our students and colleagues? Speaking up for our rights and the rights of our students is not always the easiest thing to do. History gives us a challenging example in Wolfgang Köhler.
World War II impacted the lives of millions of people. Mary Henle writes in her 1978 article One Man Against the Nazis: Wolfgang Köhler of one man’s battle against Nazi leaders to save his colleagues, students, and ultimately the department. Leading up to the war, Berlin was a thriving site of psychological studies and research. The Psychological Institute of Berlin University housed advancements in Gestalt psychology (a branch of psychology that studies perception and how it can be applied to areas such as learning, problem solving, and thinking). As the Nazi’s gained power in Germany, the university lost its Jewish professors and scientists. While most of the faculty offered no complaint to the dismissal of their colleagues, one scientist did speak out to Hitler and asked that the scientists be allowed to remain and continue their work. But Hitler responded with the eradication of science being preferable to keeping Jewish people in their positions (Hartshorne, 1937 as cited by Henle, 1978).
Wolfgang Köhler was the director of the Psychological Institute during this time. Upset by the loss of his colleagues, he publicly announced his stance against Nazi rule. Several months passed and he remained in his post. Professors were ordered to start each class with the Nazi salute. Köhler complied yet followed it with an explanation of his action and disagreement. Surprisingly, this was met with applause from both viewpoints. A month later, troops guarded the doors to his seminar and they inspected each student card as they left. Outraged by the incident, he approached the head of the university, Eugen Fischer. They reached an agreement that the institute would be exempt from further investigations. However, when Fischer would leave town, his associate would go ahead and conduct the investigations. Köhler eventually told Fischer that he could no longer be the head of the institute due to the violation of their agreement.
Several exchanges took place between the two and Fischer denied any exemption for the institute. Despite requests for oral responses, Köhler wrote each reply to Fischer. Köhler eventually went to the Ministry about the disagreement and they got involved, backing Köhler. He returned to the university but received a letter requesting that he sign to announce his loyalty to Hitler. That and the denial of the reinstatement of his assistants led Köhler to permanently resign from the university, ending the days of the Psychological Institute of the University of Berlin. Nazi leaders ordered all of his students to leave the university and psychology research ceased. Köhler was unable to save the department. Köhler fought hard for his colleagues and students throughout the war. His passion for the work he and the institute were doing fueled his fight against the heads of the university.
We must advocate for our colleagues and our students. Like Köhler, there is a chance we will not succeed. But, we are the ones who can open the difficult conversations that lead to change.
Henle, M. (1988). One man against the Nazis: Wolfgang Köhler. In L. J. Benjamin, L. J. Benjamin (Eds.) , A history of psychology: Original sources and contemporary research (pp. 528-534). New York, NY, England: Mcgraw-Hill Book Company.
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