Exposing “Totalitarian Alsatians”
Proposal for Two Simple Rules of Critical Reading
Is there such a thing?
Yes, of course! But, in the true sense of the word, only on paper.
The story about this special type of dog is not only pretty (sad), it is also (unfortunately) untrue.
Once upon a time ...
... there was a group of satirists that targeted the system of humanities conferences and publishing in academia. As their initial victim they selected the academic conference "'Tiere unserer Heimat': Auswirkungen der SED-Ideologie auf gesellschaftliche Mensch-Tier-Verhältnisse in der DDR" (“‘Animals of our Homeland’: The Effects of Communist Party Ideology on Human-Animal Relations in the Society of East Germany”), which addressed primarily young scholars, and was held at the Center for Metropolitan Studies of the Technische Universität Berlin on 6 February 2015. The event was intended “to introduce historical human-animal studies (HAS) in recent inner German history and to gather different research approaches” (Laue 2015). One of the diagnoses that occasioned the event was the HAS perspective that human-animal relationships had received too little attention so far in contemporary history research (Laue 2015).
Under the name “Christiane Schulte”, a member of the group held a lecture about the “inner German Alsatian”, which was supposed to be understood as “a contribution to history of violence in the century of extremes”. “Schulte” did list ample empirical evidence for her statements, but each and every one of the sources was fictitious. Nevertheless, according to the conference report, the speaker succeeded.
“…in verifing her thesis on the basis of many examples, which, despite the restricted scope of action of the ‘watchdogs’, thoroughly evinced that ‘willful, stubborn behaviour’ that ran contrary to the border regime [of East Germany].” (Laue 2015)
Overall, the paper was received favourably, as Florian Peters (2016) later reported. He was an immediate eyewitness, especially as he complemented “Schulte’s” lecture in the conference section entitled “Grenztiere” (“Border Animals”) with a similarly frivolous contribution on the topic of “Free Love in the Shadow of the Wall: The State Socialist Human-Animal Relationship from the Perspective of Wild Rabbits on the Border”.
In contrast, Enrico Heitzer (2016), contemporary historian at the Memorial and Museum Sachsenhausen, was sceptical right away when he read about “Schulte’s” lecture in the conference report that appeared in March 2015 (Laue 2015). He began searching for his colleague “Christiane”, but was unable to find her on any German university homepage nor in any social media. The conference organizers helped out with a private e-mail address, to which he wrote on 20 May 2015, requesting disclosure of the sources cited. Two days later he received the response that the lecture was currently being prepared for publication in the second biannual edition of the journal _Totalitarismus und Demokratie_ (TuD). The editorial board of the TuD is based at the Hannah-Arendt-Institut für Totalitarismusforschung (HIAT) at the TU Dresden.
In December 2015 the hoax was finally complete. The issue with the essay
Schulte, C., 2015: Der deutsch-deutsche Schäferhund. Ein Beitrag zur Gewaltgeschichte des Jahrhunderts der Extreme. Totalitarismus und Demokratie 12: 319–334 (external link)
was delivered to bookshops and libraries. The text simultaneously appeared as a PDF on the website of the publishers Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht. Some passages of the text sounded like a send-up of a humanities essay, Heitzer wrote in an e-mail to friends and colleagues before Christmas 2016.
Heitzer’s presentiment was confirmed two months later, in February 2016. In the online magazine _Telepolis_ the satire group – describing itself as a group of critical academics – revealed in a “Plea against Academic Conformism” that “Christiane Schulte” as well as her lecture and essay were fakes (Schulte & Freund_innen 2016). The responsible editor at TuD had apparently criticized and deleted several passages of the text during preparation for publishing, but had not rejected it in principle (Schäfer 2016). He approved the purely fictional statement that the first victim of the Berlin Wall was a police dog named Rex (Schulte 2015: 319), as well as the passage declaring that the watchdogs of the East German border guards were descended from the dogs deployed in Nazi concentration camps (Schulte 2015: 324). “The implications of this as yet unexplored continuity for a history of violence in the ‘century of extremes’ are huge”, “Christiane Schulte” (2016: 324) elaborated. The organizers of the conference, the HIAT and the publishers were disgraced ...
... and unless the group of authors has since disbanded, they are still laughing about their coup today.
Well, that’s the story. It is no wonder that this farce evoked more than just derisive comments. However, gloating is in order only if we are also able to draw the right conclusions from the case, so that the mockery does not block a potential lesson learned.
“Totalitarian Alsatians”, as Peters (2016) dubbed the satire group’s invention, are essentially a code for a type of academic text that may well occur more often than you think. It designates publications in which great terminological effort is used to distract from the fact that the author did not actually find anything out. Or, formulated in a slightly friendlier manner: the authors skillfilly conceal that they ultimately have nothing new to say. They waste their audience’s time – if they are actually read.
In his impressive polemic “Learn to Write Badly”, the British social scientist Michael Billig (2013: 41-53) mentions a number of examples of “totalitarian Alsatians”, albeit in less extreme manifestations. These cases are more appropriately considered – to stick with the metaphor – ‘totalitarian poodles’. (To avoid any misunderstandings: I have nothing against dogs, only against bad, faked texts.) However, what is interesting is Billig’s observation that many social science texts are concerned with “possessing a research approach” (Billig 2013: 59) and mastering its vocabulary. With this, authors signalize their affiliation. By comparison, the empirical phenomenon about which the text is ostensibly concerned fades into the background. In Billig’s view, pimping one’s texts with diverse theoretical concepts, foreign terms and noun constructs is always an indication for the fact that the text could be a metaphorical “totalitarian Alsation”: lots of rhetoric, no discovery.
So from this perspective, what can we learn from the story of “Christiane Schulte”? I think there are at least two reading rules to always keep in mind when perusing acadmic texts – be it as a student or as an instructor.
Reading Rule 1:
Check every text you read to see whether it might be a “totalitarian Alsatian”, “without discrimination of the person” (Weber 1972: 129) who wrote the text. Billig’s tip is especially helpful here: too much superfluous vocabulary is an indication that the text is essentially void of content. A second indication for a “totalitarian Alsatian” are assertions for which no evidence or arguments are provided.
Reading Rule 2:
Rigorously reject any text that gives the impression that it could be a “totalitarian Alsatian”. Set it aside, read something more substantial. The capability to reject is the key to this. A core question to ask is certainly whether we are often too hasty to reward the effort we presume was expended in writing the text rather than its content.
In the case of “Christiane Schulte” the editors of TuD were apparently not sufficiently able to consider rejection. The institute that publishes the journal bears Hannah Arendt’s name. What would she have thought and said about the whole farce – as someone who spent her entire life admonishing people to contemplate thoroughly and think on their own?
Thomas Hoebel, 12 March 2016
Billig, M., 2013: "Learn to Write Badly: How to Succeed in the Social Sciences". Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press.
Heitzer, E., 2016 (18 February): “Schäferhund-Gate”. enricoheitzer.de. Blog. External link
Laue, A., 2015 (28 March): “Tiere unserer Heimat”: Auswirkungen der SED-Ideologie auf gesellschaftliche Mensch-Tier-Verhältnisse in der DDR (conference report). Berlin: H/Soz/Kult.Berlin: H/Soz/Kult. External link
Peters, F., 2016 (February): “Von totalitären Schäferhunden und libertären Mauerkaninchen”. zeitgeschichte online. External link
Schäfer, V., 2016 (16 February): “Der große Mauernazihundeschwindel”. "Neues Deutschland". Berlin. External link
Schulte, C., 2015: “Der deutsch-deutsche Schäferhund. Ein Beitrag zur Gewaltgeschichte des Jahrhunderts der Extreme”. "Totalitarismus und Demokratie" 12: 319–334. External link
Schulte, C. & Freund_innen, 2016 (15 February): “Kommissar Rex an der Mauer erschossen?” "Telepolis". External link
Weber, M., 1972: _Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft: Grundriß der Verstehenden Soziologie_. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck.
Quick links to more
- Wissenschaftliche Texte lesen: PDF
- Conference report "'Tiere unserer Heimat': Auswirkungen der SED-Ideologie auf gesellschaftliche Mensch-Tier-Verhältnisse in der DDR" (A. Laue, Center for Metropolitan Studies, 28/03/2015): external link
- The article "Der deutsch-deutsche Schäferhund" by "C. Schulte" as PDF: external link
The publisher has since removed the text from the net. The link used here leads to a copy made available by E. Heitzer in his blog (status of 15/03/2016).
- “Kommissar Rex an der Mauer erschossen?” (C. Schulte & Freund_innen, Telepolis, 15/02/2016): external link
- “Der große Mauernazihundeschwindel” (V. Schäfer, _Neues Deutschland_, 16/02/2016): external link
- “Grenzperspektiven von WilddoktorandInnen” (M.z Hoffmann, private blog, 16/02/2016): external link
- “Das ist der beste Wissenschafts-Hoax, den wir seit Langem gesehen haben” (M. Boeselager, VICE, 17/02/2016): external link
- “Schäferhund-Gate” (E.o Heitzer, private blog, 18/02/2016): external link
- “Von totalitären Schäferhunden und libertären Mauerkaninchen” (F. Peters, Zeitgeschichte online, February 2016): external link
- “Zwergenaufstand: Wenn angeblich kritische Wissenschaftler_Innen hoaxen” (no author, ScienceFiles, 20/03/2016): external link
- “Auf den Hund gekommen” (O. Reinhard, _Sächsische Zeitung_, 20/02/2016): external link
- “Christiane S. und die neuen Formen des Human-Animal-Studies-Bashings” (Chimaira – Arbeitskreis für Human-Animal Studies, 23/02/2016): external link
- “Hol's Stöckchen!” (S. Triebler, Jungle World, 25/02/2016): externer Link
- “Human-animal studies academics dogged by German hoaxers” (P. Oltermann, _The Guardian_, 01/03/2016): external link
- “Folge dem weißen Kaninchen” (H. Goldberg, _Thüringer Allgemeine_, 07/03/2016): external link
- “Geschichte vom toten Hund” (S. Herrmann, _Süddeutsche Zeitung_, 16/03/2016): external link
- Totalitarismus und Demokratie - Zeitschrift für internationale Diktatur- und Freiheitsforschung: external link
- “The Sokal Affair” (B. Goldacre, _The Guardian_, 05/06/2003): external link
- “Academic Drivel Report. Confessing My Sins and Exposing my Academic Hoax” (P. Dreier, _The American Prospect_, 22/02/2016): external link
- “Eigenständig denken war ihr Lebensmotto (J.E. Reichert im Gespräch mit E. Brocke über H. Arendt”, _Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung_, 09/03/2016): external link