Can Europe Make It?

An occupation in the heart of Berlin

Why the dismissal of a professor at Berlin's Humboldt University is causing widespread protest among the students.

Edwin Montoya Zorrilla
8 February 2017

Demonstration at Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz. Photo supplied by author.

Red banners on the windows, hammocks in the hallway, and each day a flurry of workshops, strategy meetings and movie screenings announced on a noticeboard in the foyer. The Institute of Social Sciences at Humboldt University appears busier than ever and yet no lectures are taking place here. As of now, the political situation in Berlin is tense and the Institute is in the midst of a student occupation.

In every occupation there is something of the commune. Wherever activists attempt to reappropriate a place into a co-operative space, things that were previously difficult to imagine very rapidly become normal. Students with no previous organisational experience have taken up roles in press, communications, and welfare teams. The toilets are gender-neutral. A vegan kitchen is open at all hours by the staircase. But there is nothing utopian about this space; rather it is an explicit protest against a state of affairs increasingly shifting to the disadvantage of students.

The occupation began on January 18, during a meeting set up by the President of the University, Sabine Kunst, to announce the dismissal of Andrej Holm from his position at the University. The ISW Fachschaft, the student representative body for the Institute of Social Sciences, announced their plans amidst a chorus of “Holm bleibt!” (Holm stays!) and within minutes began rearranging the furniture. They were swiftly and spontaneously joined by a range of groups across the university, who very rapidly established a consensus about the issues that the occupation should fight for and a general framework for its ongoing structure.

Students at Humboldt are no strangers to campus occupations, such as those in 2003 and 2008, both part of successful campaigns against proposals to introduce tuition fees and to restructure a range of degree programs, respectively. Some of the students involved in the present occupation were involved in the occupation of 2011, which was part of a wave of #occupy movements protesting neoliberal shifts in tertiary education policy across the EU. The sheer amount of experience among the students involved has ensured that amidst all the decentralised activity taking place, the campaign is waged with a strategic outlook well beyond mere symbolism.

In many ways, Andrej Holm’s predicament tells the story of the political situation in Berlin today. Holm is known as one of the most renowned academic commentators on urbanism across Germany, credited with bringing the concept of “gentrification” into the policy discourse. He has also kept strong ties with Die Linke, the main socialist party in Germany.

Die Linke, while having a strong base embedded within various social movements, has until now only managed to exert parliamentary power through regional coalition governments and as leader of the federal opposition. Its gains in last year’s Berlin city-state election and the subsequent “Rot-Rot-Grün” (RRG) alliance between the Social Democratic Party (SPD), Die Linke and The Greens presented an opportunity for Die Linke to flex its political influence, yet despite the optimism surrounding it, the alliance has been built on a tenuous common agenda.

Not long after Die Linke nominated Andrej Holm as council secretary for housing, a scandal emerged surrounding Holm’s links to the Stasi as a teenager and his statements on the matter. The Mayor of Berlin, Michael Müller, subsequently blocked his ascension to this position, and a few days later, the HU administration dismissed him from his position as lecturer.

The political background to this move is transparent – calls for his resignation had already emerged from SPD figure Sven Kohlmeier even before the Stasi incident broke, and many have alleged links between the SPD and property investors. Klaus Lederer, regional head of Die Linke in Berlin, called this incident a “really bad start”, reflecting the fragility of the alliance.

While his dismissal is what most visibly set the occupation in motion, this is also clearly a case of a movement coming together around an intersection of different issues that point to deeper structural causes. What links the various individuals and groups involved in this movement is the sense of a diffuse neoliberal attack on the self-determination of these individuals and groups around their own beliefs and practices.

Berlin is a city of tenants. 85% of households are renting, compared to a national average of 48%, itself the lowest among all EU nations. In this light, gentrification is invariably having an effect on Berlin’s inhabitants, no matter their suburb or income. For years, housing policy has been one of the most common topics of conversation in the capital.

Occupied space in Humboldt University. Photo supplied by author.

Organisations like Stadt von Unten (City from Below) and Kotti und Co, itself formed in the course of an occupation, constantly advocate for better social housing policies amid declining conditions and rising rents, as well as stronger regulation of landlords and investors, through participatory strategies including people’s plebiscites (such as that of 2015 which led to assistance for poorer households and public housing reforms) and occupations of public spaces. They are joined not only by those who depend on social housing, but also by tenants’ associations representing more middle-class voices, well aware of the flow-on effects of bad housing policy on the entire market.

In this context, it is not surprising to find the occupation references to “Stadt von Unten” and “Uni von Unten” as the key values of the movement, nor that students are co-operating with housing shelters to provide temporary housing at the occupation while it lasts. Solidarity around housing issues runs deep in networks across Berlin, both within and outside the university. And yet the common concerns around this issue have often been addressed by the city government more in form than in substance.

In its 280-page agreement, the RRG alliance has pledged to increase public housing stock by 55,000, and yet among those only 15,000 are newly-built apartments. It will establish housing authorities in all districts, but it is unclear whether this will be enough to regulate the activities of landlords and investors.

Overall, many of these fall well short of the measures required to provide housing, let alone affordable housing, to fit the 40,000 new residents Berlin acquires each year. At stake is Germany’s ability to address housing issues across the country through sensible policies, for which Berlin is considered a testing lab, and perhaps more importantly, the ability of the RRG alliance to work across ideological divides to address the social and economic issues which have seen the growth of the far right in Germany.

Besides being a leading academic on the topic of gentrification, Andrej Holm was also considered one of the most radical and beloved lecturers at Humboldt. “He is seen as one of the few really critical social scientists left in academia today,” says Max Manzey, a former student of Holm. “He has always had roots in the tenant organisations, which is unusual for a lecturer at the university. He is not only a critical thinker, but also an activist, and this made him popular among critical students.”

The occupation has received the support of student representatives and organisations from other faculties, however only a handful of staff have expressed their support of Holm. This reinforces broader anxieties among students that the university as a critical institution is being eroded across Germany through the chilling effect of such actions by the university administration.

Prior to this scandal, Humboldt University President Kunst, despite outwardly proclaiming more spending on faculties, had asked faculties to submit savings proposals on all expenditure of 8% by the middle of January. This was seen by students as an aggressive austerity measure that would inevitably harm the overall quality of education as well as reduce the student intake and therefore the inclusiveness of the university. These policies further placed the spotlight on Kunst, already known for her neoliberal management style as former President of Potsdam University, and her ties to the SPD.

One response from students has been to organise critical thinking circles that they hope will continue after the curtain is drawn on the occupation, and perhaps become incorporated into courses that students can get credit for. This tendency towards self-governance implicit within the slogans “Stadt von Unten” and “Uni von Unten” has thus far contributed greatly to making the movement participatory and resilient. It is clear that when people come together around common causes in Berlin, the resulting organisations and campaigns tend to have staying power.

In Berlin, the principles of free education and affordable housing are supported by a range of state resources and institutions unlike those of most other large cities. It remains to be seen whether the community strength within the movements around the occupation will translate into a corresponding influence within these institutions, and whether Die Linke will play a significant role in this process. The victories of the past 15 years are cause for optimism, but the complexity and urgency of today’s problems suggest an uphill battle.

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