In 1939, mindful of the threat across the border in Germany, French students and staff members from the university evacuated to Clermont-Ferrand, roughly 300 miles to the southwest. University officials admit it was easier to focus on the heroism of the Clermont-Ferrand years, when those professors and students set up a resistance network that was raided by the Gestapo.
A resistance medal awarded to the school still hangs in Mr. Deneken’s office. He said that the university hid behind that glory to avoid any introspection about what had transpired in Strasbourg, drawing a parallel with the long-held belief that wartime resistance had been widespread and that France’s true heart had been in London with Charles de Gaulle, never in Vichy with Philippe Pétain.
“But Vichy was France too,” Mr. Deneken said.
The commission was given a 750,000 euro budget — about $765,000, roughly 8 percent of the school’s annual research spending — that was paid almost entirely out of the university’s pocket. The scholars were asked to flesh out the Reichsuniversität’s history and determine whether remains from other human experiments were still on campus.