Satire strikes unfunny chord

October 26, 1995

Germany's overcrowded and bureaucratic university system has provoked one professor into a rather un-German line of attack - satire.

Dietrich Schwanitz, professor of English studies at the University of Hamburg, caused a sensation this summer when his provocative new novel, Der Campus, was serialised in the regional daily, Hamburger Abendblatt. Bricks were thrown through a bookshop window and one venue where he gave a reading provided bodyguards.

Now as some 40,000 students return to Hamburg for the start of the winter semester this week, Professor Schwanitz has turned from fiction to fact to criticise the bureaucracy which he believes is blocking much needed university reforms.

In an essay in the weekly news magazine Der Spiegel, he sharply ridiculed the tangled web of committees and twisted personalities. He claims that this all conspires to prevent improvements in higher education. They are: * the saboteur, whose aim is complete stagnation, and whose I and J Syndrome (incompetence and jealousy) prompts him to try and put a spoke in every hint at innovation * the anarchist, for whom the university committee is a perfect opportunity for living out his desires to cause chaos * the social outcast, for whom committees are a replacement for the circle of friends which he does not have * the socially concerned, who uses committee meetings as an opportunity to vent his anger over all the injustices of the world along the lines of "How can we be talking about re-organising seminars when there are people dying in Bosnia".

But Professor Schwanitz is certainly not embittered by the system: "You have a great deal of liberty within the university system because no one controls you. And that is wonderful, although it is not always good for the students."

He supports the mass university system in which 40 per cent of school graduates enter higher education. But he would like to see a three-stream system of rigorous, intermediate and easier university courses in which students could choose the level that suits them rather than getting lost and dropping out. "No one would accept it," he says with resignation.

The current state of the German university can only be explained by history, he says. The people at the heart of the 1968 revolts who swept away the old university system are now the establishment, says Professor Schwanitz. "There is nothing more conservative than a successful revolution."

The leftwing establishment cannot accept or admit that they are part of the problem, he says. "It is not good for the universities, but it is fertile ground for satire."

Professor Schwanitz's novel Der Campus emulates the British campus novel. It is the story of a distinguished sociology professor at the University of Hamburg, the vain and womanising Hanno Hackmann, who is married to an upperclass wife and trying to extricate himself from an affair with a neurotic student called Babsi.

After engineering a last encounter with Babsi on his office desk, gleefully observed by a group of workmen, Hackmann is later falsely accused by her of rape.

Although she soon withdraws the accusation, Hackmann falls victim to a witch-hunt led by university bureaucrats pursuing their own interests - a university president with political ambitions, a chairman of the disciplinary committee with academic ambitions, a women's representative out to crucify a "macho man", a tabloid reporter seeking to compensate for his own academic failure with a big scoop, and other schemers. All these conspire to wreck his career.

Reaction to the novel was strong. Professor Schwanitz was inundated with letters from other academics demanding to know how he knew what was going on in their department.

"Everybody recognises their colleagues in it but no one recognises themselves," he smiles. But inevitably there were some who did not enjoy the joke - principally the student "lunatic fringe" who come in for some entertaining teasing.

Then there were the incidents when a shop front in the university quarter displaying his book was smashed and when he was heckled at readings to promote the book.

Professor Schwanitz loved every minute of it. The bodyguards provided by the Hamburger Abendblatt for one of his readings he describes as "the pinnacle of my career". The hecklers "make me feel young again", reminding him of 1968.

Der Campus is not Germany's first campus novel, but what makes it different is that it is funny. Professor Schwanitz thinks this is part of a new atmosphere in German society which is producing a flood of light-hearted literature and films. "The general feeling is that the postwar period of reflection and transformation is over."

Post-reunification Germany is seeking a new version of itself, he says. Now Professor Schwanitz is hoping the success of his novel will attract a wider readership to his latest academic publication, a two-volume work on British cultural history, Englische Kulturgeschichte.

His next project will also be to set up a creative writing workshop to foster a new generation of German fiction that will travel beyond the boundaries of Germany.

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