Contextualization and revocation of WU honorary doctorates


WU reviewed the awarding of honorary doctorates to historically burdened persons. Now the results have been presented.

In 2010, WU (Vienna University of Economics and Business) was one of the first universities in Austria to launch efforts for getting to terms with its own Nazi history. Initially, the projects carried out in this context, such as provenance research or research on the expulsion of university staff during the Nazi era, focused on the victims. Rector Edeltraud Hanappi-Egger has introduced a broader view of the role of WU and its predecessor institution during and after the Nazi era, and she has initiated a review of academic honors awarded to people who played questionable roles in history. As a first step, historians critically examined honorary doctorates awarded by the university. The results were presented yesterday at an event entitled “Closed to Exclusion – Open to Inclusion”: The honorary doctorate awarded to Walther Kastner was revoked, and three other honorary doctorates were put into historical context.

2023 marks WU’s 125th anniversary. The university sees this anniversary as an opportunity to take a closer look at the problematic chapters of its own history. Following an initiative of WU Rector Edeltraud Hanappi-Egger, historians have looked into the historical roles of the people who received honorary doctorates during and after the Nazi era. In the run-up to the event, the Rector’s Council, together with the Senate, introduced an important amendment to the WU By-Laws, allowing the university to revoke academic honors in cases where this is deemed necessary, among other things, to protect WU’s reputation.

Three honorary doctorates put into context, one revoked

As a first step, a team of WU historians led by Johannes Koll conducted a research project focusing on all recipients of honorary doctorates whose biographies include connections to the Nazi regime. This research identified seven problematic cases, and an external expert committee was then asked to submit recommendations for dealing with these honorary titles. Based on these results and recommendations, the WU Rector’s Council and Senate decided to take action in four cases: The honorary doctorate awarded to Walther Kastner was revoked. This revocation has been documented accordingly, but it has deliberately not been deleted from WU’s Book of Honor in order to preserve the memory of the award and revocation of the title in the institution’s historical records. Three further honorary doctorates, awarded to Josef Hellauer, Erich Kosiol, and Karl Friedlich Rößle, were put into historical context. According to the historians, these people can be classified as passive Nazi sympathizers (“Mitläufer”).

Reasons for the revocation

The honorary doctorate awarded to Walther Kastner has been revoked because in his capacity as long-time director of the Austrian Control Bank for Industry and Trade, Kastner was in charge of breaking up and selling off companies belonging to Jewish owners, which caused grave disadvantages for the rightful owners and created massive profits for the German Reich. Kastner was one of the people who were responsible for all contracts drawn up as part of the National Socialist confiscation of assets, and thus played a significant role in the systematic “Aryanization” of business enterprises in the “Ostmark,” as Austria was called under Nazi rule. In addition, Kastner also was a member of the Nazi Party (NSDAP). After the end of the war, he worked as a lawyer, consultant, and high-ranking civil servant and was involved in the restitution of property to Holocaust survivors, but he never questioned his role as a decision-maker under the Nazi regime, nor did he ever distance himself from his actions during that time.

Reviewing past decisions based on new insights

It was very important to WU Rector Edeltraud Hanappi-Egger to initiate this review of academic honors, as part of a university-wide process of critical self-reflection. “When it comes to celebrating anniversaries, it’s necessary to take a differentiated look at one’s own history. This is especially true for decisions that appear problematic from today’s perspective and with regard to changes in society’s discourses. Every institution should take responsibility for its actions, and every institution should constantly reflect upon its decisions, taking into account new research findings regarding the culture of remembering,” says Rector Hanappi-Egger.

Coming to terms with WU’s Nazi history

As part of its efforts to come to terms with problematic chapters of its history, WU launched a Provenance Research project back in 2010. Since then, more than 70,000 books from the WU University Library collection have been examined and several restitutions have been carried out to return books to their rightful owners – and more are to follow. In 2012, WU launched a research project, which is still ongoing, to identify students who, in the time following Austria’s “Anschluss” to Nazi Germany, were prevented from taking up or continuing their degree programs or graduating because of their Jewish ancestry or their opposition to the Nazi regime. This research also looks at other forms of Nazi discrimination, such as the revocation of legitimately earned academic degrees. WU publishes the biographies of persecuted university members in an online memorial book. On May 8, 2014, WU also unveiled a Commemorative Memorial at a central location on Campus WU. This sculpture consists of the names of the victims of Nazi persecution and is designed so that more names can be added step by step. Since the unveiling of the sculpture, 31 further Nazi victims have been identified. Their names were presented to the public during yesterday’s event and have already been added to the Commemorative Memorial. In 2022, WU also completed a project documenting Jewish students from Galicia in the period from 1898 to 1938, carried out in cooperation with a US organization.

Future research

Yesterday’s event focused on the emergence and spread of anti-Semitism and its resurgence in Europe. Speakers included international expert Dina Porat, WU historian Johannes Koll, and the head of the Interdisciplinary Institute for Management and Organizational Behavior, Wolfgang Mayerhofer, representing the WU research group Anti-Semitism at Work. The group investigates the phenomenon of active and passive anti-Semitism in the business world. Among other things, they are researching the extent to which anti-Semitism in the work context resembles or differs from other forms of discrimination and prejudice, and what effects it has on work and management processes, on organizational culture, and on personal and professional identities. These research activities on anti-Semitism in business have received €50.000 worth of seed funding from the WU Foundation gefördert.

Back to overview