‘Decolonising the university’ in Germany: Debates and challenges

American and British universities in particular have been rocked by a wave of student-driven contestation focused on the content of curricula, on the predominance of white (and frequently male) authors and faculty, as well as on institutions’ enmenshment in colonial exploitation and racialised hierarchies.

Students and activists have begun to voice similar challenges in Germany; challenges frequently summarised under the – somewhat unhelpful – header of ‘diversity’. (In the words of Anna Holmes, ‘diversity’ “has become both euphemism and cliché, a convenient shorthand that gestures at inclusivity and representation without actually taking them seriously.)1

Weakness of post-colonial studies in Germany

But beyond the potentially problematic nature of the quest for ‘diversity’, German activists seeking to ‘decolonise the university’2are facing further hurdles. Most notably, the theoretical groundwork that has inspired campaigns in Great Britain or the United States remains relatively weak and unexplored in the German context.

As Fatima El-Tayeb has put it in her study of race and racism in contemporary Germany, “by and large, continental European intellectuals actively resisted an opening of European theorising to the extremely important influences of postcolonial and critical race theory.”3

This is not to say that there is no contestation surrounding matters of race and racism in the German university: recent student mobilisations suggest that there is (perhaps growing) mobilisation occuring on these issues. Yet partly as a result of limited engagement with key post-colonial debates, movements to ‘diversify’ or ‘decolonise’ German academia in a systematic and sustained manner are only at their beginning.

Whitened Black studies …

The comparative scarcity of sustained post-colonial scholarship is potentially due to the almost complete absence of non-white university professors in Germany. The Black Knowledges Research Group at the University of Bremen furnishes a fitting example of German academia’s whiteness: founded to explore ‘black knowledges’ in the German and European diaspora, the group was solely composed of white researchers.

After the research centre had been criticised from the start by a number of scholars and activists,4 several organisations and members of the Black communities in Germany and abroad joined hands to send a scathing open letter to the University of Bremen in early 2015. In their words,

“while the financial resources of the [Research Centre] will be used to fund the employment of white scholars, the names of Black scholars/activists, if mentioned at all, are wielded as tokens without their permission. This is not only procedurally egregious and unethical but also reinforces the colonial model of expropriation: Black Germans can serve as the ‘raw resource’ or ‘native informants’ for white academics but are not permitted to act as scholars in their own right. White German academics and graduate students, however, stand poised to reap even more monetary and symbolic capital as part of the proposed [Research Centre].”5

In response to the letter, the research group disbanded in early 2015. Its initiators stated that “we have become targets of a radical critique, which we think legitimate in its basic argument”; a critique that has “pointed out structural injustices within the constitution of our group, as well as injurious aspects in our self-positioning and modes of communication which played into white racist structures of exploitation of black agency and knowledge. We accept this critique.”6

… and  whitened feminism

Nor has the concern that white researchers might monopolise and exploit people of colour’s emancipatory claims remained confined to the (comparatively small) field of Black Studies in Germany. In fact, similar criticisms have been voiced with respect to German feminist scholarship. According to Emilia Roig of Berlin’s Center for Intersectional Justice, mainstream feminist thought inside and outside German academia has struggled to come to terms with the salience of race and (post-)coloniality.

And while the notion of ‘intersectionality’ has been eagerly appropriated, “intersectionality theory has undergone a process of depoliticization on its way to the mainstream feminist movement in Germany”. This, in Roig’s view, has resulted in a ‘whitened intersectionality’ bereft of its critical edge on analysing racialised patterns of inequality and injustice.7

Cold War student politics

What is more, even when self-consciously critical initiatives from the student body articulate anti-racist and post-colonial concerns, non-white activists routinely find themselves and their positions side-lined.

This is perhaps linked to the historical trajectory of German student activism: for, at times, the internal battle lines striating German academia are strongly reminiscent of the waves of contestation that rocked universities during the Cold War: then as now, the most acrimonious clashes pit socialist or Trotskyist student organisations – which tend to be strongly white in membership – against institutional structures and faculty members these students castigate as fascist.

A recent instantiation of this dynamic could be observed at Humboldt University of Berlin in the summer of 2019, when concerted left-wing student resistance8 forced the abortion of the proposed Interdisciplinary Centre for Dictatorship Research.9 The historian Jörg Baberowski, tasked with leading the centre, has become a well-known public pundit castigating the Merkel government for its admission of refugees. In his columns for a number of conservative newspapers, Baberowski routinely presents the Federal Republic as a quasi-dictatorship without effective opposition to an authoritarian left-liberalism.10

Yet it is noteworthy that student opposition to Baberowski – whatever its faults and merits – was not centred around the claims of those most immediately targeted by his public pronouncements – Muslims and people of colour. Instead, it rehearsed the well-worn tropes of post-1945 anti-fascism. It even harked back to the Historikerstreit of the 1980s to paint Baberowski as a Nazi apologist.11 Refracted through the particular prism of German history, a debate about contemporary racism was thereby turned into a quintessentially white-German exercise in navel-gazing.

Split between ‘anti-Germans’ and ‘anti-imperialists’

Yet it is not simply that the activist student landscape is still shaped by the left-wing politics and the conservative reflexes of the Cold War era. Since the early 1990s, a particularly salient dynamic in German student politics has been the split of the far left into ‘anti-German’ and ‘anti-imperialist’ factions.12

Anti-imperialists are heirs to a tradition – however problematic – of white-European, left-wing support for Third-World liberation movements. In this context, they express solidarity with the Palestinian cause for national self-determination. Anti-Germans, by contrast, accuse anti-imperialists of being (covert or overt) anti-Semites, and of naiveté vis-à-vis an aggressive form of ‘Islamic fascism’. Strong supporters of Israel, anti-Germans view Zionist expansion as a logical step to protect the survivors of the Holocaust.

The split between these two factions brings to a head acrimonious debates about the meaning and the salience of (neo-)imperial power structures raging within German student circles. As such, the schism between anti-Germans and anti-imperialists also hampers the consolidation of a strong, united student movement calling for a genuine ‘post-colonial’ turn in university curricula and hiring practices.

Non-white tokens

Finally, even where student groups do seek to advocate explicitly from the vantage point of (post-)coloniality rather than from anti-fascism and Cold War leftism, it is frequently white student activists speaking for people of colour. In this context, non-white groups often remain a pawn in a quintessentially white-German play.

Kai Linke offers a thoughtful case study of how white-dominated student activism may effectively side-line and suppress non-white actors.13 In this instance, a number of students of Berlin’s Humboldt University criticised a public discussion event as having given a platform to racist and hurtful speech, particularly against people of colour. As a response, they took their protest to the department and university administrations.

However, the student group was not only majoritarily white; it was also white students who took the lead in formulating students’ agenda and in interacting with the department. The dynamics of these interactions did, according to Linke, reinforce the exclusion of people of colour from intra-university debates: people of colour’s interventions were perceived as ‘too angry’ and ‘not academic enough’. Thus, they were not seen as legitimised to talk about matters of racism that concerned them directly; instead, preferential attention was paid to white students’ arguments.

A way forward

In this instance, then, people of colour became tokens in ‘their’ own fight: rather than being able to shape discussions of race and (post-)coloniality, people of colour were reduced to second-rank participants in all-white debates.

Such tokenisation is not confined to people of colour and their perspectives, however: German-Jewish intellectual Max Czollek recently published a scathing critique of Germany’s ‘culture of memory’ and its ways of instrumentalising ‘the Jew’ for enacting a entirely white, (post-)Christian German national imaginary.

Against this backdrop, it remains one of the enduring challenges of political debate in Germany – and beyond – to forge a debate on issues of race that, on the one hand, accords pride of place to the arguments of racialised subjects without, on the other hand, enshrining rigid and essentialised identity categories as the only legitimate basis for discussion.

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  1. https://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/01/magazine/has-diversity-lost-its-meaning.html  

  2. https://www.theguardian.com/education/2019/jan/30/students-want-their-curriculums-decolonised-are-universities-listening  

  3. Fatima El-Tayed, Undeutsch: Die Konstruktion des Anderen in der postmigrantischen Gesellschaft. Bielefeld: transcript, 2016, p. 18 

  4. http://isdonline.de/gegen-rassistische-epistemische-gewalt-an-der-universitaet/  

  5. https://blackstudiesgermany.wordpress.com/statementbremen/  

  6. http://www.fb10.uni-bremen.de/inputs/pdf/BKRG_Aufoesung-Disbanding_deu-engl.pdf, p. 2. 

  7. Emilia Roig, „Intersectionality in Europe: a depoliticized concept?“, Völkerrechtsblog, 6 March 2018, doi: 10.17176/20180306-142929, available at https://www.intersectionaljustice.org/publication/2018-03-06-intersectionality-in-europe-a-depoliticized-concept/  

  8. https://www.wsws.org/de/articles/2018/04/09/zeit-a09.html  

  9. https://www.faz.net/aktuell/feuilleton/debatten/wie-an-der-hu-berlin-ein-forschungszentrum-zu-fall-gebracht-wird-16322330.html  

  10. https://www.tagesspiegel.de/wissen/hu-historiker-joerg-baberowski-der-professor-als-wuetender-buerger/19729058-all.html  

  11. https://www.wsws.org/de/articles/2018/04/09/zeit-a09.html  

  12. https://taz.de/!5409463/  

  13. Kai Linke’s “Keeping Academia White: A Case Study” appears in Mahmoud Arghavan, Nicole Hirschfelder, Luvena Kopp, Katharina Motyl (eds.), Who Can Speak and Who Is Heard/Hurt? Facing Problems of Race, Racism, and Ethnic Diversity in the Humanities in Germany.