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Richard Byrn (Tübingen, 1961-2)
“What’s this – ‘akademische Freiheit’?”

It is not a coincidence that I — a Dubliner — also spent a ‘year abroad’ in Tübingen, although at the time I knew very little about Leeds and certainly had no inkling that I would go on to spend virtually the whole of my teaching career here. — It so happened that the start of my UG course in French & German at Trinity College, Dublin coincided with the arrival of our new Head of German, Lionel Thomas — from Leeds. (And he came with Leeds expectations: after our first term language-test he declared that, if this had been Leeds, only 3 of the 21 of us would have passed. I was not one of those 3 — the rest of my life has been spent compensating!) More pertinently, another significant piece of baggage Lionel brought with him was his admiration for the Leeds-Tübingen academic link. The structure of the Dublin degree did not allow the introduction of a ‘term abroad’ exchange, so he negotiated instead an annual Dublin-Tübingen exchange scholarship: I was the fortunate first beneficiary from Dublin. The duties were not onerous — two or three conversation classes per week (occasionally in Café Pfuderer) plus helping out with English translation classes — and the exchange scholarship paid rather better than my TCD allowance.

What a wonderful year it was! Everything about Tübingen was a big, eye-opening experience — one long, rich Bildungserlebnis. My landlady (I’d never had a landlady before, dear Frau Renz) required me to go out on the first day and buy two covers for the Federbett she had provided – and what was I, an innocent abroad, supposed to do with a Federbett? She also volunteered to wash my socks at 10 Pfennigs each. The temperature during December fell to minus seven — my hands froze on the handlebars freewheeling down the Schlossberg to the University. Early during my stay came a mysterious, solemn public holiday — a Buß- und Bettag (WW2 still cast a long dark shadow) — which incidentally provided a helpful lesson on vowel-length: “Nein, Richard ! nicht ‘Bus- u. Betttag’!” At night the whole of Tübingen appeared to be asleep by 10pm (this was also Wirtschaftswunder Germany) — in Dublin the last buses didn’t leave the city centre until 11.30.

But if Tübingen seemed small in that respect, in university matters it was huge. TCD in my day had about 2,500 students. Tübingen had about 10,000 for the Wintersemester and 12,000 for the summer. That statistic alone introduced me to the vital idea of akademische Freiheit — in those days German students really did go to whichever University they chose for as many semesters as they wished (though there were limits of course: medical students had to negotiate their clinical arrangements carefully). And students really did seem to attend lectures in a wide range of subjects. Nowadays I know that akademische Freiheit is more important at the level of a teacher’s freedom to teach without political or other interference — conscience must always come first — but in those days it was astonishing just to discover what ‘academic freedom’ might mean for students.

My second awareness of akademische Freiheit came from that remarkably generous-minded institution: the Vorlesungen für Hörer aller Fakultäten on a Thursday afternoon. These provided an opportunity to attend a lecture in Anatomy — unimaginable in Dublin! (It was a downer to learn later that the Lecturer — genial blackboard operator though he was — had a suspect past: how, it was asked, had he come by his anatomical specimens during the late 1930s?) Much more salubriously, it also provided the opportunity to observe an expert in child psychology (Dr Lempp) lovingly treating an autistic child — I had never come across autism before, let alone observed a practitioner at work. And similarly, I was able to attend lectures on Oriental Religion by Prof. von Glasenapp. This latter course was the only one with a near-parallel in Dublin, where interested non-Theologians were invited to attend a Saturday morning series of so-called ‘catechetical lectures’. But there was no comparison in the numbers attending: maybe 10 patronised the catechetical lectures whereas von Glasenapp attracted at least 50.

But the — to me — truly amazing numbers came in the Theology Faculty. Well over 500 students attended Prof. Käsemann lecturing on the Römerbrief. And only a small proportion of these were planning to go on to Ordination — unimaginable in Dublin! Ernst Bloch had only recently come over from the ‘Zone’, and his lectures (Das Prinzip Hoffnung) attracted 1000+. Hans Küng was also a great draw. And just as impressive was the series of vividly interactive lectures on contemporary German novels held in an overflowing Audimax by a phenomenon who was a Professor of Classics — Walter Jens. In the years since then, when teaching Böll’s Und sagte kein einziges Wort myself, I still take issue with Jens’s dismissal of the scene in the dingy hotel room where Käte prays fervently to God. — There was also inevitably a down-side to big numbers, e.g. a Proseminar on German stylistics with 250 of us: was that worse for the lecturer or for the students? Conversely, it was a special privilege to be allowed to attend a Hauptseminar on Otfrid given by Wolfgang Mohr where there were 50 of us.

Memorable though those academic impulses were, the most wonderfully life-enriching experiences came in company with friends from the Schlatterhaus, home of the Evangelische Studentengemeinde under the benign guidance of Pfarrer Aichelin. That, too, was unlike anything I had known in Dublin. From taking lunch at their overflow Mensa I went on to attend meetings of their Ausländerkreis. By the Sommersemester I found myself acting as Kreisleiter, and this meant working closely with a group of people committed to living out their Christian faith creatively. They looked after Africans and Iranians far from home, they organised social meetings, debates, Päckchen für die Zone, punting-trips on the Neckar, Bunte Abende (we put on a hilarious skit about the misadventures of a foreign student just arrived in deepest Swabia), Wanderungen, and a special week-long trip to Berlin (very tense: it was barely five months since the Wall had gone up). Three of that circle of good friends have since become clergymen – the challenges of Reconciliation never cease.

And in Tübingen I also first met Douglas Cossar, sharing a conversation-class
a student on his ‘term abroad’ from Leeds without the slightest expectation of ever seeing him again. Two-and-a-half years later we were sharing an office in the Leeds German Department. And that, surely, was no coincidence either?

Without that year in Tübingen I would never have made it as a Lecturer in German. Nor would I have been gifted a Goddaughter in Bavaria ten years later.

Praise be!