On “passing through”. Memory, identity, experiences at Studentenstadt in Munich

A rain of leaflets. It was on February 18, 1943 that Sophie Scholl, a twenty-one-year-old student of biology and philosophy, walked through the deserted corridors of the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität in Munich, in the company of her brother Hans. She climbed the imposing stairs to the balustrade, and from there, giving a small blow to the ream of paper leaning against it, she dropped what would have been the sixth – and last – leaflet of the White Rose on the students who were crowding in the atrium.

The action of the White Rose – die Weiβe Rose – was one of the most significant and moving examples of German resistance to the Third Reich. A group of young university students, who attended the lectures on Leibniz by Professor Kurt Huber, and fed on the pages of Schiller, Goethe and Novalis, wrote six leaflets addressed to students and intellectuals of Germany. The cyclostyled sheets appealed to the conscience of the German people, to the «moral duty» of overthrowing the National Socialist regime, inviting sabotage, active opposition and passive resistance. They wrote “Down Hitler” and “Freiheit” (freedom) on the walls of the University and the surrounding buildings. «Es lebe die Freiheit!» («Long live freedom!»): that’s what Hans shouted just before he was executed that February, after a mock trial, along with his sister and Cristoph Probst.

Seventy-five years later I would enter for the first time the austere Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität, where I would spend the Sommersemester, a summer semester to dedicate to my thesis.

The leaflets launched by Sophie Scholl can no longer be moved by the wind or be faded by the snow that accompanies every German winter: they are turned into stone, set between the cobblestones in front of the main entrance. An intelligent monument, that with discretion literally induces those who approach it to “stumble” on the memory. The two specular squares that house the two main buildings of the University are now called Geschwister-Scholl-Platz and Professor-Huber-Platz.

The names of the other guys who fought in the name of «freedom of speech, freedom of faith, defence of individual citizens from the arbitrariness of the criminal states based on violence», as foundations for the construction of a «new Europe», give also the names to the streets of Studentenstadt Freimann, the largest student housing complex in Germany, built in the 1960s.

With a window overlooking the Nordteil of the Englischer Garten – the wildest part of this huge garden that is covered with yellow flowers in April – I lived six months in a street named “Willi Graf”.

Studentenstadt is regarded by most of its young residents as a field of social and cultural experimentation. It can be considered a great experiment of self-organization: almost all administrative activities, from managing bars and shops to organizing events are in the hands of students’ initiative. 

Every morning I went down the stairs of my building to the Brotladen: here the guys drink coffee and have breakfast, play chess, play guitar. Every morning the sense of a small community is recreated around the large wooden tables, a sense that is greatly amplified during the days of the StuStaCulum. Between the end of May and the first days of June, the student residence spaces are filled with stages, graffiti and visitors: the StuStaCulum is in fact a lively theater and music festival in which many independent artists take part alongside with more established companies and bands. Every year, at the beginning of the summer, the “city of students” prepares to welcome “the city out there”, Munich.

Studentenstadt tends to really set itself up as a “city within the city”. Walking along the corridor of the floor or Stock – where you live, you have the impression of being able to meet the whole world. The interaction of people of all nationalities, who have come in one place from very distant cultural contexts, creates what for Winnie is «the brightest diversity»: a concept that perhaps Studentenstadt embraces more than any other place in Munich. Winnie, a German student who moved from Braunschweig to study mechanical engineering, has Chinese origins and delicate eastern traits: she tells of «a huge identity problem» that she’s often had to deal with. The multicultural atmosphere and sensibility of Studentenstadt, in which no one would ever make a superficial – let alone racist – comment on her origin, is the most precious aspect of her stay in the student residence.

The interviewed guys speak English with different accents, and color the speech of different shades, but all their answers seem to articulate around a single word: “identity”. They describe the international context in which they found themselves immersed as a “mirror”, which, reflecting the gaze of the others, forces them to question themselves in a more radical way, while making them more aware of their own identity structure.

Şimal, a student of management and computer science from Istanbul, tells how trying to understand her national identity was the most difficult obstacle to face. To remain in a context in which one does not have an impact with any kind of diversity, does not allow to acquire a correct perception of one’s «position in the world». On the other hand, the arrival in Germany allowed her to see a big gap between her “being Turkish” and the “being Turkish” of the generation of immigrant workers during the Sixties. The most transformative aspect of her German experience therefore lies in having asked herself fundamental questions about the possibilities of integration and her own roots. To study and deepen the history of Turkey has become a hobby for Şimal, but also a question of responsibility, stemming from the desire to be able to represent herself and her culture in a more conscious way.

Lyn, who attended a Master’s Degree in Research on Teaching and Learning during her years in Studentenstadt, believes that she never uttered the words “I’m Asian” before arriving in Germany. Before arriving in Europe, she had never felt the need to «justify» her own identity, or the need to reflect on the “definition” of herself as “Singaporean” or “Chinese”. Although she has sometimes felt among students the roots of certain stereotypes, to which a stratified and complex reality inevitably does not correspond, she remembers the student residence as a «safe» place, capable of offering a great opportunity for growth and personal realization. It is a place that seems to give back a sort of «puberty», with the flourishing sense of possibility that accompanies new beginnings. A city in the city that protects from mistakes, stumbling and judgements.

It is a city that sometimes, however, risks to take the narrow views and contours of a “town”. This is the feeling of Charlotte, who is also a student of mechanical engineering. It is an environment which itself tends to be a small society, whose closure can give rise to gossip. Although Charlotte comes from Berlin and she is accustomed to a highly multicultural environment, she tells how the meeting with people she met in Studentenstadt gave her the opportunity and the taste to reconnect once again with her French roots. A part of herself and her childhood, overshadowed in her previous companies, but that makes her German belonging multifaceted. 

Crossing the common spaces of a student residence is equivalent to being «exposed», and to revealing, even through small details – such as the time at which dinner is prepared, or the spices used while cooking – what their origin is. 

In this sense, J.C., a student of computer science of Chinese origins, but who has been in Singapore for ten years, tells how in Germany he felt for the first time «obliged to adapt to a culture». In Singapore people tend to avoid eye contact and they only say “hello” when the knowledge is already in depth: the first conversations in the kitchen of the student residence were therefore faced with some nervousness and embarrassment. Being able to get used to a new mode of exchange, and being deeply in love with it, determined what J.C. calls “a life-changing experience”. He remembers with nostalgia the dinners organized and the evenings spent singing together: the experience at Studentenstadt, although transitory, has allowed to establish deep connections with the people known, which remain and “reactivate” even after years.

«From an anthropological perspective, the kitchen is the most important space in a house: it is an incredible scenario in which to observe people interact». So tells Andres, who came from Medellín to attend the same master as Lyn. Andres arrives in Germany with his wife Gloria: being an adult couple in Studentenstadt, with goals and intentions different from the students with whom they live, is a very special condition. Encountering such a heterogeneous context turns into an opportunity to confirm their cultural identity, which they express with pride, filling the shared spaces with music, dishes and hospitality. For Andres and Gloria the German period also offers a confirmation to their love and their will to be together. On May 1 – a significantly international day – their little Zoe was born: becoming parents in a student residence meets the solidarity of the friends they are surrounded by. Having crossed a similar place, in which tolerance and care are intertwined, has translated, on returning to Colombia, in a transformed “look” towards other countries and their own.

Sofia studies philosophy and comes from Mallorca. She also has Latin American origins: she talks about her mixed background, and how she was struggling to reconcile with her own identity and roots, before arriving in Germany. Upon arriving at Studentenstadt, she began to realize how it was a fundamentally neutral place, able to put people from far away places eye-to-eye, and give them a similar perception of things. A more subtle sensibility and understanding of people is perhaps the most important legacy of her long stay at Studentenstadt. Learning to communicate, also adopting a non-verbal language, is a fundamental element in this experience of growth, which helps to resolve the misunderstandings that sometimes arise from a different cultural belonging. Sofia feels Studentenstadt as a protected place that she would not want to leave, but she also believes that severing the link and entering world “out there” is necessary for her own evolution not to stop.

She speaks of a «small miracle» that took place in these corridors: it is a «privilege» to have met people from all over the world, to have experienced this «intersection» together, despite the fact that everyone, then, moving away, will take different paths.

In the words of these guys lies perhaps the most pregnant meaning of the term “experience”, which in German – Erfahrung – inherently retains the idea of “journey” and “to pass through”.

Studentenstadt is for anyone who has lived there a transitional stage, but decisive: through contact with an otherness, a more open, sensitive and self-conscious subjectivity is consolidated and refined. And perhaps, in the richness of this experience it is possible – by collecting the legacy of the young people of the White Rose to whom these streets are dedicated – to retrace the foundations for the construction of a «new» European and global solidarity.

Pubblicato da Chiara Molinari

Nata a Brescia nel 1994. Dopo un periodo di studio a Monaco di Baviera, si laurea in Filosofia all'Università degli Studi di Padova con una tesi su Adorno. Attualmente frequenta il Master in Critica Giornalistica all'Accademia Nazionale d'Arte Drammatica Silvio D'Amico di Roma. Si interessa principalmente di letteratura, cinema e teatro.

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