University defends controversial scholar

A department director at Berlin’s renowned Humboldt University has issued a statement calling on students and teaching staff to counter what he refers to as a campaign against historian Jörg Baberowski. A left-wing student group has repeatedly criticised Baberowski for what it regards as his hawkish right-wing views.

In the statement, Peter Burschel, executive director of Humboldt’s history department, refers to a campaign launched by the youth organisation of the Trotskyist Party for Social Equity.

The campaign material calls Baberowski a right-wing historian and, referring to recent debates on whether Germany should intervene in the crisis in Iraq and Syria involving Islamist terrorists, alleges he is an intellectual trailblazer for a world-wide German war policy.

“Unfortunately, this is not only being portrayed on the internet, but also within the premises of Humboldt University itself,” Burschel says, adding that his institute has been concerned by “the academic reputation of a distinguished scholar being attacked with insinuations going way beyond a legitimate debate”.

He has called on teaching staff and students to “oppose the campaign against Professor Baberowski and stand up in defence of academic freedom”.

Baberowski caused controversy in February when he took sides with Ernst Nolte, a central figure in the “Historikerstreit”, the 1986 Historians’ Dispute on the singularity of the Holocaust, in an interview with the German news magazine Der Spiegel.

Comparing Adolf Hitler with Josef Stalin, Baberowski claimed that Hitler was not “a psychopath, he wasn’t cruel, and he tolerated no mention of the extermination of the Jews in his presence”. Stalin, on the other hand, “had fun adding names to the death lists and signing them. He was evil-minded, a psychopath”.

Further debate arose when Baberowski spoke at the German Museum of History in Berlin at the height of discussions over Germany possibly engaging in the Iraq and Syrian crises. On this occasion, he stated: “If one is not prepared to take hostages, burn villages to the ground, hang people and spread fear and terror, which is what the terrorists are doing, one cannot win such a conflict.”

Attempts by students to organise an event at Humboldt to address these remarks were initially blocked by university officials, who spoke of a possible “defamation of staff members”. But the meeting was eventually held.

In an open letter to Humboldt’s president Jan-Hendrik Olbertz, however, the student organisation alleged to be at the centre of the campaign against Baberowski warns against what it sees as a ban on criticism of statements by university teachers.

This would “practically make right-wing, hawkish positions unchallengeable”, the students say. In this context, they also refer to Humboldt’s past: On May 10, 1933, then still known as Friedrich Wilhelms University, it was the scene of the burning of books by the Nazis and among them was the Nazi student fraternity – founded at the university in 1926.

* Michael Gardner Email: