German university set to drop Kaiser name after review

Westphalian Wilhelms University Münster set to become the University of Münster

February 4, 2023
Source: iStock

Plans for a German university to drop the country’s last emperor from its name seems to have ruffled few feathers.

In January the senate of the Westphalian Wilhelms University Münster voted provisionally to rebrand as the University of Münster – the penultimate step in a process that has dragged on for years.

In 2020, students in the university senate pushed for a critical re-examination of Kaiser Wilhelm II, questioning if the institution should carry the name of a man who was “militaristic and nationalistic, anti-Slavic and downright obsessively antisemitic”. The last German emperor is largely remembered for his clumsy foreign policy, which led the nation into the First World War. In its two-year historical study, led by university custodian Eckhard Kluth, Münster concluded that Wilhelm II was a racist who had pushed for a murderous and expansionist colonial policy.

The city of Münster has been serene about the proposed rebrand, a university spokesman told Times Higher Education. The university has hosted a series of events and online consultations with locals, driven partly by the controversy around the renaming of Hindenburg Square outside the university buildings, which caused an uproar when it became Schloss Square in 2012. As president of Germany, Paul von Hindenburg was pressured into appointing Adolf Hitler as chancellor.

The university had been deliberately thorough in its approach, the spokesman said. “That’s why we took so much time: that nobody might say at the end of this process: ‘Some people decided on a Sunday afternoon to change the name.’ Of course, not all people are in favour of this change that might come, but you can’t compare it to the emotions 10 years ago when we were talking about the Hindenburgplatz. That’s a good sign our process was warmly welcomed.”

The spokesman said the university had had no complaints from followers of the Reichsbürger or “Citizens of the Empire” movement, which recently inspired a far-right plot led by a German aristocrat to overthrow the state.

The proposed change follows similar renamings at other German universities. In 2019, Goethe University Frankfurt controversially dropped the name of Adolf Messer, an industrialist and early Nazi party member, from a campus student lounge.

It took six years for the University of Mannheim to change the name of a university foundation that awards prizes for research into insurance, following disclosures that the company of Kurt Hamann, who the award previously honoured, had taken properties from Jewish owners during the Nazi era.

At the time, in early 2019, campaigners said German universities needed to be more proactive and systematic when scrutinising the history of former benefactors.

The spokesman said Münster’s rebrand would likely be confirmed by a final senate vote in April. “Nobody expects a different vote,” he said.

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