For many years, Winfried Stöcker has been regarded in Germany as a successful entrepreneur who is also socially committed. However, many Germans have changed their minds following the sequence of events set in motion when Mr Stöcker – who is an honorary professor at, and major donor to, the University of Lübeck – refused to allow a benefit concert in favour of refugees at a luxury department store that he owns.
A fierce, and public, row between Mr Stöcker and Lübeck has followed, highlighting some important issues for German universities.
Mr Stöcker purchased the Görlitzer Warenhaus, in the eastern city of Görlitz, after it starred as the titular location in the film The Grand Budapest Hotel.
As to why he refused to allow the building to be used for the concert, the basic reason that Mr Stöcker gave in an interview with the Sächsische Zeitung in December 2014 was his desire to avoid “supporting the abuse of asylum law”. The newspaper had a difficult decision on whether to publish the interview, as the German media have refused to publish remarks made by figures from Pegida, the anti-Islamic and anti-refugee movement.
Mr Stöcker made it clear in the interview that he does not approve of large numbers of foreign refugees arriving in Germany, and that “travel-loving” Africans who cross the Mediterranean ought to be sent back. He added that he did not want to see the crescent moon, an Islamic symbol, on German churches. He also used the word “Neger” (the German for “Negro”) to refer to Africans, which is an awfully long way from political correctness.
Student representatives at Lübeck have called for his professorship to be withdrawn. Hendrik Lehnert, who is president of the university, also criticised Mr Stöcker, according to the local paper, Lübecker Nachrichten.
The entrepreneur responded by saying that he would cease all donations to Lübeck as long as Professor Lehnert is in charge. There has also been criticism of Mr Stöcker by other universities, the Evangelical Church, the Turkish community and the government.
Germany and its universities are keen to retain and reinforce their image as tolerant, open-minded and multicultural. This does not fit with ideas about Überfremdung (over-foreignisation), a cry familiar from its use by the far Right in Austria.
The National Democratic Party of Germany expressly congratulated Mr Stöcker for his comments. They welcome him as a new Thilo Sarrazin, the economist and Social Democrat Party politician who published a best-seller criticising aspects of immigration and Islam.
Mr Stöcker is claiming that he is not a racist, but merely concerned with the pending decline of the West, and feels that asylum seekers should stay at home and get things right there. But German universities, which tend to lean towards the Left, are shocked.
The affair has highlighted serious issues: the potential political entanglements for a university in accepting funding from a proclaimer of what might diplomatically be called “strong views”, and in having such people as professors. Lübeck has been quite clear that it will stand by its values, even if doing so costs the university money.