Last Wednesday, hundreds, if not thousands, of students ostensibly protesting poor conditions in German schools stormed the main building of Berlin’s historic Humboldt University: smashing windows, occupying seminar rooms, strewing rolls of toilet paper in the lobby and courtyard, and even setting at least one fire. Most astonishingly, the protesters also laid waste to an exhibit in the entry hall of the building devoted to the Nazi persecution of the Jews. The exhibit was titled “Betrayed and Sold: Jewish Businesses in Berlin 1933-1945.” According to reports on the German news site Spiegel-Online and in the popular German tabloid Bild, virtually all the poster boards making up the exhibit were damaged and, as photo evidence shows, some were fully ripped in two. Eyewitnesses cited by Spiegel-Online say that the rioters who destroyed the exhibit were adolescents around thirteen years old.
Interviewed by Spiegel-Online, a researcher at the university reported that when he informed rioters that the university had visitors from Israel and asked “What will they think?” one young man responded “F*ck Israel!” [Scheiß Israel] and proceeded to attack him. Reacting to suggestions that the students may not have realized what the subject of the exhibit was, police chief Peter-Michael Haeberer told Bild: “Leaving aside the fact that university employees and other witnesses pointed it out to them, even a dyslexic could not have failed to recognize that it was an exhibit about the persecution of the Jews. The perpetrators knew exactly what they were doing.” “Our assumption is that the exhibit was purposely attacked and that anti-Semitic motives were involved,” Haeberer added.
The incident occurred merely three days after Chancellor Angela Merkel and other German dignitaries solemnly commemorated the 70th anniversary of the infamous Kristallnacht pogroms, during which thousands of Jewish-owned shops and synagogues were destroyed throughout Germany. A German video report on the rioting from Spiegel-TV is available here. A six-part series of short amateur clips documenting the raucous scene inside and out front of the Humboldt building can be viewed here, here, here, here, here, and here. Spiegel puts the number of rioters at “up to a thousand.” But the video evidence suggests a larger number.
The rioters were part of a larger protest organized by an association named “Break Down the Educational Barriers,” which militates for free education and smaller class sizes, while employing a marked “anti-capitalist” rhetoric. The current aim of the German school system, according to a “Break Down the Educational Barriers” leaflet, is “to produce labor power for the corporations cheaply and quickly.” In an open letter published on its website, the association regretted the fact that protesters had destroyed the exhibit, but claimed that this was the spontaneous “result of the students’ long built-up rage.”
Rioters also broke up a management conference on patents being held in the Humboldt building: storming the seminar room, pilfering documents and reportedly at least one laptop computer, and lambasting conference participants. One leather-clad protest leader with spiky hair grabbed the microphone and led a chant of “A-Anti-Anti-Capitalista!” In what are perhaps the most shocking images captured by the camera of Spiegel-TV, another protester menacingly berates and mocks conference organizers, yelling: “Managers! We’ve got managers here! Oh dear, Oh dear. … Wouldn’t you be for throwing all the managers out of the university? The pigs!” As the protester — who appears to be closer to thirty than thirteen — completes his monologue, a grim-faced conference participant in suit and tie can be seen in the background obediently holding up a protest sign. (The scene is documented between 1:10 and 1:30 of the Spiegel-TV report here.)
Only three weeks ago, the German economist Hans-Werner Sinn, head of the IFO Institute in Munich, compared the anti-management hysteria linked to the current global financial crisis to the demonization of Jews in the aftermath of the 1929 stock market crash. “During every crisis one looks for … scapegoats,” Sinn told the daily Die Tagesspiegel, “During the global economic crisis of 1929, nobody wanted to believe that the problem was an anonymous systemic defect either. Back then, it was the Jews who were targeted in Germany; today it is the managers.” Sinn was pilloried for his remarks in the German press. But the scene of the humiliation of the conference participant — with its eerie parallels to the public humiliation of Jews by SA gangs during the early years of Nazi rule — suggests just how pertinent Sinn’s comparison in fact was. In any case, as the storming of Humboldt University perfectly illustrates, “anti-capitalist” sentiment and anti-Semitic resentments tend in Germany to go hand-in-hand. They were already indeed inseparable elements of Nazi ideology. (For another recent example, involving Social Democratic Party Chairman Franz Müntefering’s famous description of investment firms as “locusts,” see here and here.)