On December 13th, 2016, Andrej Holm was appointed State Secretary of Housing in Berlin by Senator for Urban Development und Housing, Katrin Lompscher (Die Linke). Within a month he was forced to resign due to a highly politicized smear campaign. The smear campaign also resulted in Andrej’s dismissal from his position at Humboldt University. Andrej Holm is a well-known critical scholar and activist, especially concerning housing issues and his appointment appeared as a way for Die Linke to demonstrate that they are serious about a genuine social orientation of the city’s housing policy.
This chronicle of events, background information and appeal for support is aimed at the international community.
Since late December, Berlin’s urban social movements have engaged in defending Andrej Holm, an activist and critical scholar, appointed as State Secretary of Housing of the Berlin Senate for Urban Development und Housing in December, and subsequently forced to resign in mid-January, 2017.
In September 2016, the Berliner electorate voted in a new government for the city and the Federal State of Berlin. In early December, the SPD (Social Democratic Party), the Green Party, and Die Linke (the Left Party) formed a government coalition. The new red-red-green coalition marked a considerable change from the previous legislature led by the conservative CDU and the social-democrat SPD and raised hopes for a more progressive and socially oriented city politics. In the subsequent days, the new government started assembling its new personnel, starting with the Senators (who are the equivalent of ministers) and State Secretaries (who hold a crucial position within the Berlin city government.
Although it was evident from the start that a move as radical as Andrej Holm’s appointment would be met with at least some resistance by the city’s political class, no one could have expected what was about to follow. After only a couple of days, members of the CDU and the SPD, as well as parts of the media, started an aggressive smear-campaign against Andrej. In this context, the main argument against Andrej’s appointment was his five months as a trainee and prospective officer of the Ministry of State Security of the German Democratic Republic (popularly known as the „Stasi“). This was over 25 years ago – from September 1989 until January 1990, when he was 19 years of age.
A perpetually escalating political conflict and media hyperbole marked the following month over the holidays. On the one hand, the smear-campaign reached unprecedented levels: details of Andrej´s personal biography were twisted and sensationalized as coverage concentrated on Andrej’s past and character rather than what his appointment might mean for the housing situation in Berlin. Lies and half-truths quickly spread as news outlets started quoting each other, rather than using primary documents and statements as their main source. The focus was never on what Andrej Holm could achieve for local residents as Berlin’s State Secretary of Housing, rather it sensationalized the actions of a teenager who had just begun his training at the Stasi. From the beginning, critics had designs on Andrej’s dismissal.
On the other hand, solidarity with Andrej has grown stronger and ever more visible. A group of urban movements active around housing issues has within a few weeks gathered more than 16,000 signatures in a petition demanding the Senate keep Andrej in the government. Moreover, although newspapers mostly promoted views critical of Andrej, public opinion, polls published in the online editions of those same papers demonstrated significant support for Andrej’s appointment as Secretary of Housing, with even East German opposition and former victims of the Stasi coming forward to declare their support.
The Stasi issue is, of course, a very delicate one in German collective memory and the country’s coming to terms with its division during the Cold War. Without doubt, the Stasi has come to stand for the criminal character and brutality of the East German regime. Die Linke, who are legally the direct successors of the SED (the German Socialist Unity Party, the governing party of East Germany), play a critical role in this story, as the party is called upon to demonstrate that it has convincingly broken with its authoritarian past while, at the same time, maintaining socialist ideals.
The campaign against Andrej took a dramatic turn when it emerged that Andrej had (allegedly) mischaracterized his brief involvement with the Stasi in a 2005 questionnaire filled out in order to accept an academic position at Humboldt University. Public institutions in Germany require employees to state their (non-) involvement with the Stasi through the use of such questionnaires when applying for mid- to high-ranking positions. When Andrej accepted his job at the University, he stated in the questionnaire he had begun his military service with a particular Stasi regiment.
However, based on files obtained from the Stasi Archives and published (practically on the day of his appointment) by Berlin’s tabloid the BZ, the press argued Andrej Holm’s statement was formally false. The documents showed that Andrej was classified as a „trainee officer“, i.e. that he was not merely a trainee, but one already intending to become an officer. This point was avidly echoed by several politicians. Having completed only five months of service as a trainee in various low-level positions, however, his training ended with dismissal when the revolution in the GDR led to the dissolution of the Stasi.
From the moment the issue of the questionnaire became public, the entire campaign honed in on Andrej´s allegedly deliberate lie to Humboldt University. His detractors maintained that Andrej “deserved” to be dismissed from his political appointment as Secretary of Housing, as well as from his academic researcher position at Humboldt University. At the same time, Die Linke reacted to the growing political pressure by binding its decision on Andrej’s future as State Secretary of Housing to the juridical evaluation of his questionnaire answers, which the University was about to undertake.
Shortly after this, Andrej participated in a public discussion hosted by an institution connected to the former GDR opposition in which he discussed his past involvement with the Stasi and demonstrated complete readiness to take responsibility for his past and to discuss the complex issue of his involvement with the Stasi and how he had dealt with it. He did this in a context in which he could expect intense, and to some degree, justified, questioning from those who had suffered under the Stasi. Andrej’s willingness to account for his past in such a way is indicative of how he has dealt with his past since the early 90s. Instead of hiding within the echo-chambers of Stasi or GDR apologists (which exist in both former East and West German political circles), he has joined political groups with a background in the GDR opposition, and made his past entirely transparent. In 2007, he disclosed his Stasi-involvement in a national newspaper without any pressure to do so.
Four weeks after the escalating campaign had closed in on this subject, the new mayor, Michael Müller (SPD), hastily made a U-turn on the agreed procedure for Andrej’s evaluation and, on Saturday January 14th, formally requested that Senator Lompscher dismiss Andrej. He argued that Andrej´s polarizing role was damaging to the city.
On Monday, January 16th, Andrej issued a statement announcing his resignation from the position as State Secretary of Housing. He argued that he did not want his pending case to give the mayor an opportunity to end the red-red-green coalition. In his words, the alternatives to such coalitions would be much more detrimental to the lives of Berliners than his dismissal. His retreat means a huge political defeat for Berlin’s social movements and all residents who want a progressive and social housing policy – as demonstrated in the recent election. It is a well-known fact that since the onset of the global financial crisis, the city´s real estate market has attracted an enormous amount of investment from German and international capital. As a direct consequence, rental prices have risen significantly, evictions have become a daily reality, and many people with low to middle-incomes find it increasingly difficult to find affordable housing. In this situation, the need for reform is abundantly clear and Berlin’s social movements have fought for such measures for years. Against this backdrop, Andrej’s dismissal has led to as much frustration and skepticism about the chances for genuine reforms being implemented by the current government, as his appointment a few weeks ago raised the hopes for such measures.
While it is still too early to gauge the political consequences of Andrej’s resignation entirely, the reactions by the social movements have been immediate and forceful. At the same time, Andrej´s stepping down reduced the political relevance of Humboldt University’s decision regarding the questionnaire which was due two days after Andrej’s forced resignation. During those two days, more than 250 University students demonstrated their strong support by publishing and signing an open letter to the University’s Presidenent and which asked for Andrej to be allowed to continue working at Humboldt University. Some weeks before, 300 scholars from Berlin and greater Germany had already signed a public letter of support. International academics have also shown solidarity by voicing their support in the form of an open letter.
The President of Humboldt University, Prof. Sabine Kunst, nevertheless decided against Andrej. On the 18th of January, at a public press conference and during a meeting at the Institute for Social Sciences, Kunst explained the reasons behind her decision. While she praised Andrej´s work as a researcher and teacher, she declared that the University could no longer place confidence in him, because of the – in her view – wrongly marked box in the 2005 questionnaire. Labour law professionals interviewed by the media have emphasized that a dismissal based on this argumentation, even if it were found that Andrej had, indeed, been wrong in filling out the questionnaire as he did, would not necessarily be legally valid and that one could challenge a dismissal based on this argument in court.
Social movements, critical researchers, and students have since united in a strong show of solidarity. Since the night of January 18th, the Institute for Social Science has been occupied by student protesters. The students are demanding that Andrej be reinstated in order for there to be more critical perspectives in teaching and research at the University. Student representatives have also remarked on the political nature of his dismissal. They feel that the university has bowed to political pressure from the conservative parties, parts of the media, and real estate lobbies. With this dismissal, they argue, Sabine Kunst has ousted one of the last remaining critical voices from Humboldt University, and one of the most engaged public sociologists to have taken academic knowledge out of the proverbial ivory tower. The decision means that the social movements in Berlin and elsewhere could lose one of their most brilliant producers of critical knowledge on housing issues, as well as on urban struggles for equality and justice.
In light of what has been described above and despite this frustrating turn of events, we, as individuals and representatives from various Berlin tenant initiatives nevertheless believe that further actions can be effective. We believe that a great wave of critical voices in favor and support of Andrej and what he stands for – the fight against gentrification and for the right to the city – could help Andrej continue his work and further the interests of city residents. With this in mind, we ask for your solidarity and that you voice your support for Andrej.
Winter is here.
By individuals and representatives from various Berlin tenant initiatives