Christian-Albrechts-Universität zu Kiel


Famous scholars from Kiel:

Ferdinand Tönnies


One of the founders of German sociology, Ferdinand Tönnies taught at Kiel University as a professor both before and after the First World War.


Dr Cornelius Bickel from the Institute of Sociology is convinced that "if he had not become an academic, Tönnies would have been at least as important as a writer and publicist." However, Ferdinand Tönnies did follow an academic career. Today the student hostel at Freiligrathstrasse 11 and the Ferdinand Tönnies Society recall the first German sociologist.

Tönnies was born on 26th July 1855 on the farm "Die Riep" near Oldenswort on the Eiderstedt peninsula as the son of a wealthy farmer. However, he did not want to follow in his father's footsteps and was instead attracted to academia. Through his schoolfriend Hans Storm the young Ferdinand became acquainted with the writer Theodor Storm. "Ferdinand Tönnies and Theodor Storm had almost a lifelong father-son relationship", relates Bickel. Tönnies took his Abitur (university entrance qualification) at the age of 16. He then studied philology, archaeology, history and philosophy in Jena, Leipzig, Bonn, Berlin and Tübingen and completed his doctorate in classical philology in Tübingen at the age of 22. In 1881 he qualified as a lecturer at Kiel University at the age of 26. The young scholar was also very active as a writer. He wrote for a range of newspapers under the pseudonym "Normannus", including for the monthly periodical "Das freie Wort" (The free word).

As a critic of the Wilhemine authoritarian state and a great supporter of the workers' movement Ferdinand Tönnies struggled to gain a foothold in academia for many years. He was not appointed to an associate professorship until 1909, at the age of 54, and became Professor of Political Economy at the Kiel University in 1913. He retired at his own request in 1916. The reasons for this are unknown to this day. In 1921 he was appointed a lecturer in sociology in Kiel. Bickel: "After coming to Kiel Tönnies never again left the university. He was too strongly rooted in it and in the whole northern German surroundings and traditions, so that he remained in the North until the end of his life."

Tönnies was one of the leading founders of the German Sociological Society and its sole president until 1933. With the support of the Prussian Minister of Culture he built up sociology as an academic subject in Germany from Kiel. The Kiel sociologist Bickel states that "at the time Tönnies was synonymous with sociology in Germany". Tönnies received the honorary doctorate in law from the University of Hamburg as well the honorary doctorate in political economy from the University of Bonn in 1927. He was held in very high regard as a member of numerous international sociology societies and institutes. His public criticism of Adolf Hitler and national socialism led to his dismissal as a civil servant in 1933. His pension was reduced to subsistence level and he was banned from any form of publishing. Ferdinand Tönnies died in isolation in his house in Niemannsweg 61 in Kiel on 9 April 1936 at the age of 80.


Kerstin Nees



Community and society


In a variety of works, but particularly in his first book "Gemeinschaft und Gesellschaft" (Community and Society), published in 1887, Tönnies laid the foundations of sociology as an academic discipline. For example, he distinguished between general and special sociology and broke the latter down into pure, applied and empirical sociology.

Initially little noted, from its second edition in 1912 "Gemeinschaft und Gesellschaft" became the standard work of the new discipline in Germany. Tönnies developed the terms "community" and "society" as basic categories of pure sociology. In a community interpersonal relationships are combined for their own sake (family, neighbourhood, friendship). These relationships are characterized by a feeling of togetherness and solidarity, based on what Tönnies called the "natural will" (Wesenswille). Set against these processes is society, shaped by the separation of means and ends, based on rationality and utility and ultimately driven by the interests and benefit of the individual.

In his late work "Geist der Neuzeit" (The Spirit of the Modern Age) (1935, 2nd ed. 1998 as part of the critical edition of Ferdinand Tönnies' works) Tönnies applied these concepts and concluded that in the (European) Middle Ages the collective was mostly seen as "community", whereas in the Modern Age this has mostly changed to a view of the collective as "society".

Book tip on the subject: Carstens, Uwe: Ferdinand Tönnies. Friese und Weltbürger. Eine Biografie. Norderstedt 2005

►  Back to top

Responsible for this page: Press, Communication und Marketing Services
phone +49 (0)431 880-2104, e-Mail ► presse@uv.uni-kiel.de