Academia in world war format

Protests continue against attempts by Germany’s education ministry to discipline politically non-compliant academics. For two years pressure has grown on universities to toe the line on foreign policy.

BERLIN (own report) - Protests are ongoing against the Federal Ministry of Education’s efforts to discipline university staff it considers politically undesirable. Senior civil servants under Education Minister Bettina Stark-Watzinger (FDP) attempted to have Berlin universities cancel the funding available for specified academics. The reason: they signed an open letter objecting to the violent eviction of a Gaza protest camp at the FU Berlin. The signatories were insisting on the constitutionally guaranteed freedom of assembly and opinion. The ministry’s attack on Berlin lecturers has now triggered widespread solidarity, along with calls for Bettina Stark-Watzinger to resign. From the very beginning of her time in office, Stark-Watzinger has sought ever more aggressively to align the German university landscape to the politics of the Federal Foreign Office. The first step was to cap all academic cooperation with Russia. Then came measures to restrict scientific cooperation with China, including the work of Chinese scientists in Germany. As the German government pursues its “Zeitenwende”, Stark-Watzinger declares this hawkish “turning point” to entail the “harmonisation” of the academic sphere “with our security policy interests”.

“Isolate the Russian government”

Federal Education Minister Bettina Stark-Watzinger took the first drastic measure to reshape the German academic landscape immediately after the Russian attack on Ukraine. “The previous long-standing cooperation in science and research as well as in vocational training” would, she announced on 25 February 2022, be terminated straightaway. It mattered not, she insisted, that research cooperation with Russia had been helping to “solve global challenges such as climate change”.[1] The aim, a ministry spokesperson explained, was to “isolate the Russian government as far as possible”. Germany’s new “Zeitenwende” would also apply to relations with Belarus.[2] The official position of the education ministry is now that any “dialogue on research policy” remains “suspended”. “Collaborative research projects have ... while respecting legal frameworks ... now been terminated” or would "be continued without the participation of the Russian or Belarusian partners”.[3] This move had, she added, been “endorsed by Germany’s science and research organisations and by the Standing Conference of the Ministers of Education and Cultural Affairs of the Länder”.

Geostrategic considerations

Stark-Watzinger’s ministry formally justifies the measures with the assertion that “a country that wages a war of aggression ... cannot be a partner for Berlin”.[4] This can hardly be true: neither was science and research cooperation with the United States discontinued after its attack on Iraq in 2003, nor did the Federal Ministry of Education consider any consequences from the violation of international law when NATO prosecuted a war of aggression against Yugoslavia in 1999 with German participation. Apart from the question of hypocrisy, Germany is quite isolated internationally in imposing a science and research boycott on Russia. Support is limited to Western governments while the BRICS states, including Brazil, India and South Africa, are continuing their academic and scientific cooperation with Moscow,[5] as are Middle Eastern states such as Saudi Arabia [6] and numerous African countries.[7] The decision to cease all cooperation with Moscow is not based on any imperative but flows solely from a calculated geostrategic strategy.

Preventing China from having an advantage?

Germany’s education ministry under Stark-Watzinger has long been on the offensive against academic and research cooperation with China. As early as June 2022, the minister called for “drawing clear boundaries ... in sensitive areas” of cooperation. This applied “in general wherever we might be helping China to gain an advantage in the competition between different systems.”[8] The Federal Ministry of Education will in future continue to “advise universities and research institutions” on the question of “what is acceptable and what is not”. When asked in an interview about “the fields ... in which our researchers should not or may not cooperate”, Stark-Watzinger replied, “If I were a university president, I would not put up with a Confucius Institute.” The Confucius Institutes are official cultural institutes of the People’s Republic, equivalent to Germany’s Goethe Institutes abroad. In August 2023, the minister doubled down, demanding in an opinion piece for the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung that German “research must be protected from China”.[9]

“Zeitenwende” comes to the universities

Stark-Watzinger has rationalised this position by stating that “the Zeitenwende demands a more strategic approach”, which in practice “makes the precious good of academic freedom compatible with our security policy interests”.[10] To achieve this, “more must first be done for the security of our research.” In particular, “the unwanted outflow of expertise and technology to other countries” would have to be stemmed. “Especially with regard to China,” it was, claimed the minister, necessary to make “an even more critical assessment of the risks and benefits of cooperation”. This also applied to the activities of Chinese scientists at German universities. Interventions were above all needed “in the case of security-relevant research and identifiable dual-use risks”. “If necessary, we will develop new instruments in our dialogue with the academic community,” wrote Stark-Watzinger. Finally, she has questioned the traditional aversion to military research at many German universities, saying, “the strict separation between civil and military research must also be reconsidered.” This applied above all to the “Zivilklauseln”: the civil clauses, which exists in some seventy universities today, commits to peaceful research.

Fundamental democratic rights

The next step taken by Stark-Watzinger’s ministry was to intervene in the conflict surrounding protests against the slaughter in Gaza. It was triggered by an open letter from lecturers at Berlin universities which opposed the police eviction of a protest camp at the Free University of Berlin. The pro-Palestinian politics of the camp ran counter to Berlin’s determinedly pro-Israel Middle East policy. The order to evict was clearly a political decision influenced by government policy. “Freedom of assembly and freedom of expression,” affirmed the open letter from academics and administrators, “are fundamental democratic rights that must be protected, especially at universities.”[11] This applies “regardless of whether you agree with the specific demands of the protest camp.” The open letter has now been signed by almost four hundred Berlin academics and more than a thousand staff from other universities. Stark-Watzinger went on the attack against the signatories from the outset: “We are appalled by this statement from lecturers at Berlin universities,” she was quoted as saying in the Springer-owned Bild daily.[12]

First protests

As has recently been revealed, the top civil servants at the Federal Ministry of Education not only demanded that the open letter be subject to an internal “legal examination into possible criminal relevance”, but also began looking for ways to impose “consequences under the regulations on funding”. The idea, in other words, is to deprive the letter’s signatories of the resources needed for their work. And ministry officials even doubted whether “the university lecturers are acting constitutionally within the scope of the Basic Law”.[13] The insinuation that anyone who calls for freedom of assembly and freedom of opinion for opponents of Israel’s Gaza war is acting unlawfully under the Basic Law represents an authoritarian turn that has now led to demands for Stark-Watzinger’s resignation. She is accused of unwarranted interference in academic freedom. A further open letter, now signed by over three thousand academics, states that “withdrawing funding ad personam on the basis of political statements” is itself a violation of the Basic Law.[14] This development shows that the attempt to force universities to toe the political line of the German Foreign Office has initially met with widespread resistance.

Calls for resignation

It has emerged that ministry staff were asked to compile lists of individuals who could be financially sanctioned. Last week, Stark-Watzinger blamed her State Secretary, Sabine Döring, for initiating plans to impose “consequences under funding regulations” and sacked her. However, the protests against her conduct in office continue and calls for her resignation are getting louder.


[1] Klare Konsequenzen für den russischen Angriff. 25.02.2022.

[2] BMBF friert Kooperation mit Russland und Belarus ein. 30.03.2022.

[3], [4] Russische Föderation und Belarus.

[5] Kudzai Mashininga: Agreement boosts academic mobility across BRICS borders. 31.08.2023.

[6] Russia, Saudi Arabia agree to develop cooperation across various fields. 07.12.2023.

[7] Wagdy Sawahel: Africa-Russia HE cooperation plan reflects geopolitical tussles. 10.08.2023.

[8] Barbara Gillmann: „Man darf nicht naiv sein“ – Forschungsministerin rät Hochschulen zu radikalem Schritt gegen China. 16.06.2024.

[9], [10] Bettina Stark-Watzinger: Unsere Forschung vor China schützen. Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung 21.08.2024.

[11] Statement von Lehrenden an Berliner Universitäten. Berlin, Mai 2024.

[12] Heike Schmoll: Ein versuchter Befreiungsschlag. Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung 18.06.2024.

[13] John Goetz, Manuel Biallas: Als Reaktion auf Kritik: Bildungsministerium wollte Fördermittel streichen. 11.06.2024.

[14] Heike Schmoll: Ein versuchter Befreiungsschlag. Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung 18.06.2024.