‘Professor hunters’ dig in on the digital battlefield

Brian Bloch considers the attacks against two Humboldt University scholars in the internet age

August 27, 2015
From Where I Sit illustration (27 August 2015)
Source: Getty

According to an article in the German magazine Der Spiegel, left-wing students have a new hobby: harassing professors with political views contrary to their own. They do so anonymously, and with considerable impact. Online ratings of professors are already controversial, but this is a whole new dimension.

One of the victims is Jörg Baberowski, professor of Eastern European history at the Humboldt University of Berlin, who claims that the “fanatics” have been pursuing and stalking him for more than a year, with “ever more rubbish on the internet”. Professor Baberowski complains that they photograph him whenever he appears in public. He is highly regarded and, in 2012, won the Leipzig Book Fair prize for his book on Stalin. However, he has come under fire from the Left, who accuse him of relativising Germany’s guilt over the Second World War.

Another Humboldt professor, a political scientist by the name of Herfried Münkler, has also come under attack from the Left for alleged militaristic views, and a blog “Münkler-Watch” has been set up, according to the Spiegel article. There are plenty of other professors who also complain of arrogant, self-righteous and aggressive attacks and vilification.

In his Spiegel article, journalist Sebastian Kempkens is clearly critical of the “professor hunters”. One of the chief protagonists, says Kempkens, has links to a Berlin student group that has about a dozen members who hero-worship Leon Trotsky.

For his part, Kempkens has been criticised on the World Socialist Web Site for his “gutter journalism in the service of German imperialism”. The counterclaim is made that the criticism of Baberowski is quite valid and that Kempkens’ approach is not. Clearly, this is a head-on conflict between Left and Right, with each side viciously criticising the other’s views and rights to express them. Furthermore, both sides are going to great lengths to make their opinions public and to disseminate them as widely as possible.

It is evident that some professors, whose work and words are intrinsically or deliberately political, stir up heated emotions, particularly if they are seen as taking sides, or simply the “wrong” side. The internet provides a mechanism by which unpopular views can easily be attacked, and freedom of the press can be used and abused. However, where exactly freedom ends and abuse or libel begins is contentious and controversial.

Significantly, Germany has just been rocked by a political row after two journalists were accused of treason after they reported that the state planned to increase online surveillance. In that context, the right to express oneself appears to have triumphed over Harald Range, the chief prosecutor who launched the investigation, who has been sacked. The decision to open the case was generally regarded as over the top and the state investigation into the two journalists has now been dropped. In this case, the masses were clear in their preferences and perceptions of right and wrong.

But with these Humboldt professors, there seems to be a major dichotomy of views. There are two opposing camps, according to where people find themselves on the political spectrum. And the mutual resentment seems largely irreconcilable.

Brian Bloch is a journalist, academic editor and lecturer in English for academic research at the University of Münster.

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