Committing critically engaged social science in Germany - an act of terrorism?

The past three weeks have been extremely worrying for Germany's intellectuals. Under § 129a of German penal law, a number of people, among them university-based social scientists, have been accused of membership in a terrorist association, several were arrested. The arguments brought forward against the accused are highly problematic and represent a threat to our democracy, to the German constitution as well as to critical research and teaching and are fundamentally opposed to the country's Constitution. By Wiebke Keim

On 31st July 2007, Florian L., Oliver R. and Axel H., accused of membership of the ''militant group'' (''militante gruppe''), were arrested in the region of Brandenburg. The ''militant group'', described as an extreme leftist grouping, has claimed responsibility for several acts of vandalism against military, police and private vehicles, since 2001. The ''Initiative for the Termination of Procedures under § 129a'' says the arrest was accompanied by unusual and unnecessary police brutality.

A few hours later, police searched the living and working spaces of Andrej Holm, urban sociologist at Humboldt University in Berlin, and of political scientists Matthias B., as well as of one other academic and one journalist in the German capital. A. Holm was arrested and held in pre-trial confinement until 22 August when he was released on bail, following protest actions by thousands nationally and internationally. Yet, according to his lawyer Christina Clemm, the arrest warrant has not been suspended. All four have been charged under § 129a of the German Penal Code, for ''membership in a terrorist association'', as supposed members of the ''militant group''. According to the search warrant, these four individuals have been under surveillance since September 2006. A. Holm's lawyer, after consulting the 29 folders of files of enquiry, has found out that the German Federal Bureau of Investigation became interested in A. Holm after a google-search for particular key words that the ''militant group'' used in its claims of responsibility, and has observed him since then.

The charge brought forward by the Federal Prosecutor against the above mentioned four individuals is presently justified on the following grounds: Matthias B. is alleged to have used, in his academic publications, ''phrases and key words'' which also appear in texts of the ''militant group''. Being a political scientist, the Federal Prosecutor deems him capable of ''authoring the sophisticated texts of the 'militant group'''. Additionally, ''as employee in a research institute, he has access to libraries which he can use inconspicuously in order to do the research necessary to the drafting of texts of the 'militant group''. Another person is accused to have met with suspects in a ''conspiratorial'' manner: ''meetings were regularly arranged without, however, mentioning place, time and content of the meetings''; furthermore, he is said to have been active in the ''extreme left-wing scene''. In the case of a third accused person, his address book seems to have contained the names and addresses of the other three accused. These three persons have been charged but still remain free.

A. Holm, in turn, was arrested and is ''strongly suspected'' to be a member of the ''militant group'', among others because of contacts with all three individuals. He is alleged of activism in the ''resistance mounted by the extreme left-wing scene against the World Economic Summit of 2007 in Heiligendamm''. The fact that he attended one meeting without bringing his mobile phone is considered to be ''conspiratorial behavior''. Andrej H., as well as Florian L., Oliver R. und Axel H., have thus been detained since 1st August 2007 in Berlin-Moabit under solitary confinement.

The charges against A. Holms are highly questionable. The Federal High Court, so far, could not substantiate its reasoning with any concrete evidence. The hypotheses underlying the charges are rather absurd: Because of their research, intellectual capacities and access to libraries, university-based social scientists are supposed to be the heads of a ''terrorist organization''. This appears to be evident, to the Federal Prosecutor, through the fact that the organization used some of the key concepts that are also used by the scholars, as for instance the concept of ''gentrification'' - when Amazon lists 78 books on the subject of gentrification and Sociological Abstracts has 452 entries on this topic.

Andrej H. as well as Matthias B. have been working, presenting and publishing on this topic for several years, in academic as well as in non-academic circles. The two have written their PhD theses on the process of the Berlin neighbourhood Prenzlauer Berg after 1990. A. Holm's academic research focus has since been on the impact of privatisation of public housing, such as social housing. Recently, he has been researching the real estate market in the German capital, putting special emphasis on the situation of the long-term unemployed. Since 2005, he participated in the research project ?The European URBAN Experience - the Academic Perspective''.

But the two of them were active beyond academia. They published in popular leftist newspapers such as ''Junge Welt''. A. Holm has been engaged with the ''German Association of Tenants'' (Deutscher Mieterbund), where he presented his work on housing and urban space. He is also the co-editor of ''MieterEcho'', the journal of the Berlin Tenants' Association. At the international level, Andrej is a member of INURA, the International Network for Urban Research and Action. Thus, he is one of the few critically engaged scholars in the country who make an effort to make their findings available to the concerned - among others by preparing overviews on the structure of housing available for rent at the European level on request of the Berlin Tenants' Association or by speaking to the unemployed section of German trade union ver.di.

To base an accusation of membership in a ''terrorist organization'' on the fact that texts by that organization contain concepts utilised in his so widely spread and publicly received research work appears to be totally absurd. Furthermore, the charges establish a sort of ''guilt by association'': One of the accused was blamed for having Andrej's contact details in his address book, as well as those by two others who were accused but not jailed.

Paragraph 192a, created in 1976 in the course of prosecution of the ''Red Army Front'' and judged by critiques to be undermining the German constitutional state, has for long been used to observe and criminalize politically dissident groupings in the left scene. This case, however, goes still far beyond that. Now, the fact that critical research supposedly feeds into ''terrorist activities'' by others is used for the criminalization of academics, and especially of critical, public intellectuals, who are linked to activism in the real world, as ''terrorists''. This is a disastrous development in a country where universities are already driven very far back into the ivory towers and few academics step out of their classrooms and offices in order to engage with the public. The construction of an ''intellectual perpetrator'' is highly questionable and fundamentally in contradiction with article 5 of the German Constitution, that guarantees freedom of opinion, science, research and teaching.

Protests and demonstrations in support for the accused stated that any sociology seminar in Germany would from now on have to be held in jail. If the above mentioned accusations prove to be sufficient for the condemnation of the accused, this also means that critical social science is under general suspicion. In fact, any user of a library could be seen as a suspect according to the reasoning of the Prosecutor. This would represent a threat to academic freedom and to the scientific integrity of the scholarly community.

The arrests have engendered broad protests from academics, activists, civil society, as well as from an international audience. The American Sociological Association that held its annual congress in August 2007, has written an open letter to Federal Prosecutor Monika Harms. Richard Sennett and Saskia Sassen have published an article entitled ''Guantánamo in Germany. In the name of the war on terror, our colleagues are being persecuted - for the crime of sociology'' on 21 August in The Guardian. Supporters can sign the ''Open letter to Federal Prosecutor Monika Harms against criminalization of science'' under Institute of Social Science at Humboldt University/Berlin. (go to: ''Unterstützen!''), launched by the

Dr. Wiebke Keim is a researcher and post-doc candidate at the University of Freiburg, Germany.