History is Located Inside, not Outside Racial Biases – Can Historians in Germany Break the Silence after Black Lives Matter? (Part 1)

In the weeks following the murder of George Floyd, hundreds of higher education institutions and other organizations around the world issued statements of solidarity. Yet despite mounting pressure, most German universities, research institutions, and associations remained silent. The hashtags #ShutDownAcademia and #BlackInTheIvory scarcely registered on German-speaking social media. Criticism was on the rise in the US and the UK because many historians felt the tokenistic statements of their institutions fell far short of plans for concrete action; yet in German academia, many colleagues were still waiting for an initial reaction.


The contrast became particularly stark when international historians specializing in German history began to speak up. For example, the Committee for the Initiative on Diversity, Equality, and Inclusion of the US-based German Studies Association (GSA) issued a statement of solidarity on 3 June, which was subsequently endorsed by the German History Society (GHS) in the UK and Ireland. Acknowledging the ‘historically and currently underrepresented and socioeconomically underprivileged backgrounds within German Studies’, the committee called for diversity, equity, and inclusivity in their fields of study, which include German history.

One feature of the statement made it particularly pertinent in the German context: the signatories put the spotlight not just on the institutional racism of academia and scholarship in general, but on Germany itself. The situation in the US illustrated ‘why we each need to commit to understanding societal hierarchies and racial differences around police brutality, the very real dangers of being Black or Brown in America, and the systemic racism that infuses our country.’ The committee argued, however, that the ‘presence of white supremacy does not reside in the United States alone as cases of racial profiling, the recent murders in Hanau, as well as the previous murders of Oury Jalloh, Dominique Kouamadio, and others demonstrate in Germany.’

Tweet by Anna Hájková on the silence of German historians in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests, 12 June 2020
Tweet by Anna Hájková, 12 June 2020.

It has not escaped the attention of many colleagues abroad that the German Verband Deutscher Historiker and most German colleagues had chosen not to speak out. One tweet even read: ‘Even my swimming club speaks out in favour of #BLM – but German historians don’t.’ (‘Sogar mein Schwimmbadverein spricht sich für #BLM aus – aber nicht die deutschen Historiker*innen.’) Colleagues in Germany who did not remain silent increasingly started to express concern about the unsettling fact that colleagues outside Germany were taking the lead in the anti-racist fight for equality, justice, and inclusivity in a country where racism was on the rise. The blindness was symptomatic. In spite of activism by ethnic minority groups, it took a few weeks for the majority of German society, politicians, and mainstream media to begin condemning racism in their own country as well as elsewhere in the world. Yet institutional resistance to the idea that racially motivated police violence also happens in Germany still persists.

‘Silence is violence’—the slogan of Black Lives Matter has echoed through the world. So why the silence in German academia? Social media provides only a glimpse, but has revealed some noteworthy insights. Several early-career researchers on fixed-term contracts, for example, expressed concern that criticizing the system could harm their prospects. Others were worried that they would be disadvantaged by the system if they invested time in something not directly related to their own career goals. One professor reported fierce opposition against his suggestion that professorships should be advertised in a way that would encourage international candidates and people of colour to apply. Tiffany N. Florvil pointed to the ‘defining feature of neoliberal universities’:

Why relinquish power and privilege when you can keep it for yourself and determine what constitutes real knowledge production. The small handful of Black and POC scholars in tenured jobs in Dland affirms that.’

It would be wrong not to acknowledge the anxiety of colleagues on temporary contracts in a system that grants access to tenured positions only to a select few. At the same time, the tacit control systems that prevent people from speaking up for themselves and others and from distributing power more equally should give us plenty of reasons to reflect. What does it mean for the public debates on Cancel Culture and the supposed infiltration of academia by left-wing politics when scholars of colour are still hesitant to report incidents because they often face disbelief and gaslighting for doing so? What can we say about the state of our discipline in a country like Germany, where being anti-racist as an academic is considered a risk, and addressing racism is a taboo? What if neoliberalism matters more than equality? In a country where the Holocaust, colonialism, and genocides have left their undeniable marks—where ‘never again’ is a collective duty, and yet racism, antisemitism, and xenophobia are seeing a surge—should German academics not be taking the lead and speaking up, rather than shying away? All of this should give us food for thought at a time when populism and revisionist histories have become an increasing problem not just in politics, but also within our discipline. A deeper discussion about racism in German academia and historical studies is not only long overdue, but also a moral obligation.

So what shape should that discussion take? By contextualizing UK and US debates in a German context, this two-part blog essay will present potential themes that could serve as points of departure. Academics in Germany cannot isolate themselves from what has now become a global movement against racism within our sector. Because of our troubled past, German historians bear a special responsibility. Of all groups, we cannot sit idly by and remain silent on violence and discrimination not only against Black Americans, but also against Black Germans and other People of Colour in Germany, which are themselves legacies of the histories we study. Yet racism in German academia is an unspoken phenomenon. German journalist Ferda Ataman recently described Germany as a developing country when it comes to discussing racism.

As the country slowly comes to terms with institutional racism across many sectors, it would be misleading to treat it as a problem that happens exclusively outside our own disciplinary and academic structures. As the GSA explains: ‘Universities, which we claim to be our professional homes, do not exist in societal isolation. Racism poisons academia, it perpetuates academic structures: from recruitment and retention of students, faculty, and staff of colour, all the way to the dismissal and marginalization of rigorous and important research and teaching on colonialism and racism. Our experiences in teaching on-line, similar to the mortality rates for Covid-19, confirm the existence of profound inequities in one’s chances of staying healthy and/or getting educated.’

Protesters at a Black Lives Matter march through down-town Baltimore City. Photograph licensed under a CC BY 2.0 license, via Wikimedia Commons.

Universities are not neutral territory. Discriminatory practices saturate academia and the discipline of history itself, as some of our colleagues abroad have emphasized. The GSA statement, for instance, admitted that historical research was never innocent as far as racial inequality is concerned. ‘Initiatives such as Diversity, Decolonization and the German Curriculum, the Black German Heritage and Research Organization, the GSA Black Diaspora Studies Interdisciplinary Network, H-Black-Europe, the Black Central Europe Network, and the New Fascism Syllabus [have] long exposed the historical burden of antisemitism, toxic patriarchy, colonialism, racism, and xenophobia in the German-speaking world.’ Similarly, the Royal Historical Society (RHS) in Great Britain noted in their Black Lives Matter statement that ‘racial and ethnic inequality is a pressing issue facing the historical discipline. The RHS is located inside—not outside or above—these structural, intellectual, cultural and intersectional biases.’

In other words, we currently lack explanations for the unequal structures that our field perpetuates—from how and what we research and teach, to whom we teach, to hiring policies and funding allocation—which encompass not only ongoing struggles in respect to gender and social background, but also racial and ethnic inequality. The next blog post will lay out suggestions and ideas for how such a debate could be conducted.

Acknowledgements

These blog posts were developed in conversation with Patrice Poutrus and incorporated his thoughts and input. The author would like to thank him and Christina Morina, who has published (with Norbert Frei) an essay on racism, history and academia on the L.I.S.A. blog.

Feedback and Contributions

Would you like to contribute to this dialogue? On this occasion we invite contributions from external authors in the form of blog posts of no more than 1,500 words relating to race, racism, and (German) academia. Please contact the editor for further details or to submit a proposal.


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