Bruno Snell

Prof. Dr. Bruno Snell
Written by Dr. Gerhard Lohse

Bruno Snell was born in Hildesheim in 1896. He studied in Edinburgh, Berlin, München und Göttingen and qualified as a professor in 1925 in Hamburg. In 1931 he was a professor of Classical Philology at the University of Hamburg. After the war, between 1945 – 46, he was the first Vice Chancellor of the Philosophical Faculty of the University of Hamburg. In 1946 his study was released about the emergence of European thinking by the Greeks “The discovery of the mind”. From 1951 to 1953 he was twice Vice Chancellor of the university. In 1953 he founded the Europa-Kolleg, Hamburg and in 1959 he took early retirement. 1977 he received membership to the Peace class of the Order Pour le Mérite and he died on 31st October 1986 in Hamburg.

Bruno Snell was from his academic as well as personal convictions the champion of a Europe, rooted in early European humanism, which he recognised from the Greek intellectual history. This was expressed not only in his academic work but also in his political reform activities after 1945, where he helped to rebuild the international connections of the University of Hamburg.

National peculiarities display for him, from the historic perspective, the different developments of early European basic structure; nationalism in contrast is a highly calamitous folly. The togetherness of the European states was based for Snell on the Greek culture and its processes of cultural and social integration. It was also shown for him through the comprehensive connections between the individual sciences.

With the foundation of the Europa-Kolleg Hamburg, Snell wanted to create new synergies through political education and the interaction between diverse scientific disciplines in a studium generale, which was aimed towards sparking the students’ critical interest in politics, which seemed to him to be indispensable for the growing together of Europe. This was in accordance with his holistic understanding of science and society, which was influenced by Dilthey.

It was clear to Snell that the creation of a united Europe had to be largely carried out by the new elite, which were coming of age after the war at the European Universities. “Problems have been created through the developments of the last years which were previously not dealt with at the universities. One such problem is in which form the unification of Europe can be realised. In any case it established that our students need to be prepared to work within international organisations and public authorities” (1954).

The academic programme of the Europa-Kolleg is aimed at students of all faculties and should impart knowledge about the actual history, the intellectual and cultural history, the law and the economy. In addition to this, there are lectures about general topics, political forums with guests from politics, the economy and the sciences, as well as study groups on special topics.

Snell’s call for a new orientation towards student education as well as the sciences in general is recognisable here in concrete. The positivistic specialist thinking, which always represented itself to be apolitical, had served the Hitler state unconditionally and uncritically.

It was a bitter experience for Snell “that a substantial percentage of the German academics made themselves available to the national socialist regime in 1933. One cause lay in the disdainful reservation of the German intelligentsia towards political life and the resulting political half knowledge or ignorance.” (Snell in a speech in Tessaloniki in 1965)

With the foundation of the Europa-Kolleg Hamburg, the gulf which he perceived between universities and social-political development should be eliminated, which according to Snell’s convictions had to be aimed towards a historically aware combination of the political and cultural variety of Europe, a united Europe. “A lot of things which are already European reality today have not yet found their way into the consciousness and society of people and we run the risk that we drag behind the facts with our thinking.”

In close cooperation with the University of Hamburg and the culture historical, legal and economic faculties of the university the Europa-Kolleg became an example for this interaction between theory and practise, which Snell referred to in his speech on 14th November 1951. For the understanding of the general, which the intensive research of the specialists advances “can and have to” lead only to a theoretical understanding, when it encompasses in terms of Plato also “a good part practise”. This practical perspective exists for Snell particularly in the political practise:

„An animated researcher also has an alert understanding of politics“.

Written by Dr. Gerhard Lohse