How we deal with problematic honours

The bestowal and withdrawal of honours is always a symbolic act but also represents a political decision. These honours reflect the respective historical context and the interests and motives of the individuals involved. From a historian’s point of view it is not surprising that the assessment of practices, situations, systems, institutions and individuals is subject to change in the course of time. Honours and distinctions, however, attempt to exempt certain individuals and their achievements from reassessment. This is always a hazardous undertaking as there is a constant risk of being disavowed by history. The University of Innsbruck authorities have in the past honoured a considerable number of individuals who today would no longer be considered deserving.

According to the rules of Innsbruck University, honours become invalid through renunciation, revocation, or the death of the honoured. A revocation is possible only if the respective person has been shown not to be deserving of the honour or, if in retrospect, the honour can be shown to have been obtained by illicit means. In most cases at the time of bestowal biographical details and specific events were known that could have provided a let or hindrance and were either ignored or simply tolerated.

The lapse of an honour due to the death of a recipient renders its revocation formally impossible for individuals already deceased. A revocation can furthermore not amount to an exculpation. In fact, this act would by necessity imply that the original bestowal was made in error. It cannot simply consist of a deletion without trace or constitute an attempt to eradicate the memory of the same. It rather points to the continuing responsibility of the University for past errors of judgment. The original bestowal remains a historical fact and continues to tell us something about the history both of the University and our society. This cannot be made undone by the retrospective revocation as little as can the sufferings of the victims. The bestowal of past honours that are recognized as problematic cannot on the other hand simply go uncommented as this could be seen as expressing continued disdain for the victims.

The University of Innsbruck has decided to mark out and document honours which, viewed today, no longer appear justified or justifiable. Taking into account the large number of those on which honours were bestowed and the frequently inadequate information available today, this can only be considered “work in progress” to which we invite both additions and comments. Admittedly, in many cases there are no simple answers, and a retrospective evaluation is difficult.

Excepting honorary degrees, since the beginning of the 20th century the following are the types of honours Austrian universities can bestow:

  • honorary membership
  • honorary senatorship
  • entry into the book of honours
  • honorary citizenship
  • badge of honour

The honorary doctorate was the only honour to be awarded exclusively on the basis of excellent scholarship. Like other honours, these are not to be bestowed upon active university employees. Honorary membership and entry into the book of honours of Innsbruck University is generally associated with the acknowledgement of scientific or scholarly achievements outside the University. Honorary citizenship is based on the recognition of particular deeds of significance to the University and its departments, i.e. financial support or donations. Honorary senatorship is frequently bestowed upon individuals based on the following rationale: acknowledgement and recognition of achievements benefitting the scientific, scholarly and cultural aims of the University. This rationale corresponds in detail to the stipulations of federal law. Honorary senatorship can equally be bestowed upon persons within academia or without. Badges of honour are gained in service of the fields of research of the University as well as the University itself. Common to all honours is that these are to be registered in the book of honours.

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