A German university rector’s car reportedly crashed after being sabotaged during a period of high tension over immigration and right-wing speakers on campus last year.
Jens Strackeljan, who leads the Otto von Guericke University Magdeburg, has striven to attract more international students to the city, but was caught up in a confrontation over freedom of speech on campus that mirrors similar controversies in the US and UK.
In January 2017, protesters disrupted an appearance by André Poggenburg, a member of the right-wing, anti-immigration Alternative for Germany (AfD), now the third biggest party nationally.
A video of the incident shows scuffles, a smoke bomb going off and the eventual exit of the AfD representatives from the lecture hall.
Following the incident, Professor Strackeljan said in an interview that he had received death threats from both left and right, and condemned the protesters who had forced the AfD to leave.
The protest had coincided with a perfect storm of other tensions in Magdeburg – in eastern Germany, a region where the AfD finds its highest levels of support – he told Times Higher Education. These included “the high number of refugees” and ongoing controversy in the country “about integration and xenophobia”, a “scepticism…towards science” emerging in some quarters, plus “a strengthening of nationalistic tendencies in many parts of Europe”, Professor Strackeljan said.
“In times like these, the university can and should provide opportunities for public discourse,” he continued.
It has since emerged that Professor Strackeljan had a “serious” accident after the front wheel of his car broke while driving. Police concluded that the crash was caused by tampering, according to a recently released report by Germany’s national association for student service organisations on challenges to making campuses more international.
Professor Strackeljan declined to go into details about the crash and stressed that since May 2017 the situation in Magdeburg had calmed. But the incident showed that “protests stepped from the public office into my private life,” he said. His family had also required police protection.
The incident is one of a series involving AfD speakers on German campuses.
Magdeburg’s proportion of international students has grown from 8 to 20 per cent in just a decade, said Professor Strackeljan.
“There is an established culture of welcoming newcomers [in Magdeburg], and many students have built excellent networks in their new home,” he said.
But, he added, “in a state where only 3 percent of the residents have a foreign background, people do have reservations, and in some cases little in the way of cross-cultural understanding”.
Despite the high AfD vote, the city and region does not have a “fundamental problem” with right-wing extremism, he maintained.