A group of student activists at Ernst Moritz Arndt University in northeastern Germany are calling for the institution’s name to be changed, saying Arndt was an anti-Semite.
In early January, a group calling itself “Uni Ohne Arndt” (University Without Arndt) asked the 12,000 students enrolled in the college in Greifswald to vote in favor of striking the famed writer’s name from the university’s title.
Twenty-three percent of the student body turned out to vote; in the end, the initiative was defeated narrowly, with 49 percent voting to retain the name and 43 percent voting to change it to University of Greifswald — a difference of just 182 votes.
However, noted group spokesman Sebastian Jabbusch, the results may have been skewed by voters who did not oppose a name change in general, but did not like the option given.
“Many students told us they were against Ernst Moritz Arndt, but not for University of Greifswald,” Jabbusch said. “They’d like to have a new name.”
The name could still be changed, however, when the university senate meets in March to discuss the issue. Several professors at the university have spoken out in favor of a change.
Arndt was a German patriot and nationalist scholar generally viewed today as an extremist. When Jabbusch publicly recited some of Arndt’s texts during a demonstration to promote the campaign, horrified pedestrians called the police.
Arndt’s writings contain furious condemnations of “toxic Jewish humanity” and resound with anti-foreigner sentiment, especially against the French, the hatred of whom he calls the “religion of the German people.”
The controversial name was bestowed to the university in 1933 by Hermann Goering, Hitler’s right-hand man.
“In his books we find racism and nationalism, and his anti-Semitism stretches out chapter after chapter,” Jabbusch said. “Can you forgive all this in the context of his time? … How can such a person be an idol for our generation?”
The renaming of schools and famous places is not an uncommon practice in Germany. In 2008, the Erich Hoeppner Gymnasium in Berlin dropped the name of the Wehrmacht general, and in April of 2009 the Hindenburg Gymnasium in Trier changed its name to Humboldt Gymnasium because parents were unwilling to send their children to a school named after the man who appointed Hitler as chancellor.
However, this case has been deemed more complex than those regarding streets and schools named after Nazi authority figures, since Arndt’s writings predate the rise of National Socialism.
Instead, the debate focuses on the question of whether 19th century German nationalism and its prominent representatives were forerunners of Nazism.
In his time, Arndt, who died in 1860, was considered a combatant of Napoleonic occupation and in favor of national unity, says the Pro-Arndt Camp, a group of students who have been fighting to keep the name. They add that he could not have foreseen Auschwitz and the Holocaust.
Numerous streets, squares and schools all over Germany carry Arndt’s name, without anybody objecting to it, the group says, and adds that if xenophobia against Jews and French were the only criteria to be taken into consideration, one would have to dismiss Heinrich von Kleist, Martin Luther and Richard Wagner as well.
But for Jabbusch, the closeness of the vote sends a clear sign to the university that it’s time for a new name.
“As a patron, Arndt is not acceptable anymore,” he said. “Especially not for a university that sees itself as a place of science, with worldwide contacts ranging to France and Israel as well.”
For its part, Uni Ohne Arndt would like to see a fully democratic system of choosing a new name for the university.
“We want that all members of the university — students, professors — but also the people of Greifswald could take part in the process of finding a new name,” Jabbusch said.