The University of Berlin, which reopened as soon as January 1946, had been the city’s only university. It was located in the Soviet sector and adopted the name “Humboldt-Universität” in 1949. The Soviet military administration’s ideological influence on teaching as well as the persecution of students critical of the system soon led to demands for an independent university. With support from the American occupying forces, the “Free” University came into being on December 4, 1948.

Its location in the US sector in southwestern Berlin made it possible to utilize buildings formerly belonging to the Kaiser Wilhelm Society. However, there was also a need for new buildings. The desire to create a central meeting place for the students led to the construction of the Henry Ford Building. As was the custom in the USA, this structure was intended to serve as the main building of an extensive university campus.

The building’s architecture focused on transparency and openness, thus embodying the freedom-loving values the newly founded university was intended to stand for. The building took its name from Henry Ford II, grandson of the famous founder of the Ford Motor Company. Following a visit to the Free University in 1951, during which he personally informed himself on the local situation, Henry Ford II arranged the financing of the ultimately 8.1 million D-mark building through the Ford Foundation. The dedication took place in June of 1954.

The university clinic in the district of Lichterfelde – today’s Charité Campus Benjamin Franklin – and the Schlachtensee student village in Nikolassee are further examples of buildings in southwestern Berlin that were made possible by funds from the USA.

The site

The Henry Ford Building, which was designed by the architects Franz Heinrich Sobotka and Gustav Müller, serves to this day as the central representational building of the Free University. The last comprehensive renovation occurred between 2005 and 2007. The building’s expanded western section houses the university library, reading rooms, offices, and lecture halls. The eastern section contains additional lecture halls and conference rooms. Portions of the building, as well as the foyer, which also includes an exhibition room in the form of the Otto-H.-Hess-Galerie, can be booked for events.


Lunch at the Harnack House with Lucius D. Clay, the supreme commander of US forces in Europe and military governor of Germany (fourth from the left in the back row), 1947.

Between the university library and the foyer of the Henry Ford building runs Harnackstrasse, named after the first president of the Kaiser Wilhelm Society, Adolf von Harnack, who promoted international scientific cooperation. At the end of the street lies Harnack-Haus, a lecture and meeting center that was opened in 1929.

In July 1945, the US Army confiscated the building, remodeled it and set up an officers’ club inside – in 1955, this was followed across the street by the Dahlem guesthouse with its apartments for guests of the US Army. In addition to press conferences and diplomatic receptions, the Harnack House increasingly hosted balls and parties that were occasionally open to Berliners as well. Besides the Harnack House, the Americans also opened numerous other clubs for noncommissioned officers in southwestern Berlin, such as “Club 48” in Saargemünder Strasse or “SilverWings” at Tempelhof Airport. There one could eat burgers and fries, attend appearances by American artists and enjoy some of the joys of hometown life.

Following the withdrawal of the Allies, the Harnack House was transferred to the Max Planck Society, a successor institution to the Kaiser Wilhelm Society. During the building’s renovation from 2012 to 2014, many of the Americans’ architectural modifications were reversed.

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