Death Threats Against a Rector and Free Speech in Germany

After incidents involving anti-immigrant speaker, university leader found his car sabotaged.

May 3, 2018

A German university rector’s car was reportedly sabotaged last year, according to police, causing a “serious” accident. The accident occurred during a period of high tension over immigration and right-wing speakers on the rector’s campus last year.

Jens Strackeljan, who leads the Otto von Guericke University Magdeburg, has striven to attract more international students to the city, but he was caught up in a confrontation over freedom of speech on campus that mirrors similar controversies in the United States and Britain.

In January 2017, protesters disrupted an appearance by André Poggenburg, a member of the right-wing, anti-immigration Alternative for Germany (AfD), now the third-biggest political party nationally.

A video of the incident shows scuffles, a smoke bomb going off and the eventual exit of the AfD representatives from the lecture hall.

Following the incident, Strackeljan said in an interview, he condemned the protesters who had forced the AfD to leave and later received death threats from both left and right.

The protest coincided with a perfect storm of other tensions in Magdeburg -- in eastern Germany, a region where the AfD finds its highest levels of support -- Strackeljan told Times Higher Education. These included “the high number of refugees” and ongoing controversy in the country “about integration and xenophobia,” a “skepticism … toward science” emerging in some quarters, plus “a strengthening of nationalistic tendencies in many parts of Europe,” Strackeljan said.

“In times like these, the university can and should provide opportunities for public discourse,” he continued.

It has since emerged that Strackeljan -- whose position at the university is equivalent to a president in the U.S. -- was involved in a “serious” accident after the front wheel of his car broke while he was driving. Police concluded that the crash was caused by tampering, according to a report recently released by Germany’s national association for student service organizations on challenges to making campuses more international.

Strackeljan declined to go into details about the crash and stressed that since May 2017 the situation in Magdeburg has calmed. But the incident showed that “protests stepped from the public office into my private life,” he said. His family also required police protection.

The incident is one of a series involving AfD speakers on German campuses.

Magdeburg’s proportion of international students has grown from 8 percent to 20 percent in just a decade, said Strackeljan. “There is an established culture of welcoming newcomers [in Magdeburg], and many students have built excellent networks in their new home.”

But, he added, “in a state where only 3 percent of the residents have a foreign background, people do have reservations, and in some cases little in the way of cross-cultural understanding.”

Despite the high AfD vote, the city and region does not have a “fundamental problem” with right-wing extremism, he maintained.

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