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“The university can learn a lot about its self-image” – A historical research project examines the transformation of East German universities using the example of the University of Potsdam

House 9 of the Communs on campus "Am Neuen Palais" - now an then
Photo : Ernst Kaczynski
A historical research project will comprehensively examine the “Potsdam Way” – in three individual studies and with a comparative view to other East German universities.

In the course of the upheaval of 1989/90, the academic landscape of East Germany also changed comprehensively and fundamentally – and avowedly along West German lines. In the case of the University of Potsdam, which was founded in 1991, this transformation was particularly complex because exposed institutions of the GDR academic system had existed at each of its three campuses. The extent to which the young university emerged from these institutions or was newly founded, and how continuity in personnel affected its self-image and performance, especially in research, was repeatedly the subject of debate, markedly heated on the occasion of its 25th anniversary. A research project initiated in the wake of this anniversary will comprehensively examine the “Potsdam Way” – in three individual studies and with a comparative view to other East German universities. Matthias Zimmermann spoke with the two project leaders, the historians Prof. Dr. Dominik Geppert and Prof. Dr. Frank Bösch.

In the magazine “Portal” 2021/1, you wrote, “The founding of the University of Potsdam in 1991 was disputed from the very beginning.” Isn’t that a heavy burden for a project like yours? Or the real reason why the project exists at all?

Geppert: The latter. It is – this is my impression – not a bad starting point for historical research. The crucial point is: How do you deal with it?

Bösch: The more recent history of the project is widely known – at least at the University of Potsdam: The latent controversy was reignited by the volume published by Manfred Görtemaker on the occasion of the university’s 25th anniversary. As a result, the university president, Prof. Günther, asked me to organize a conference in 2016 to bring East and West German scholars from the time into dialogue with historians. The guiding question was: What was specific about the upheaval in Potsdam – compared to other universities. There was a dialogue at this conference that provided first answers but raised many questions. The project grew out of this. I see that as a real challenge but also as an opportunity. Especially because the young historians working in it, but also both of us, were not personally involved and thus have a little more distance.

In your opinion, does the project come too late, too early, or at just the right time?

Bösch: All of the above: Too late, because the debate itself has been held and the arguments have been exchanged. Those involved often no longer want to talk about it or insist on their positions. At the same time, it is a bit early because the necessary files are available, but there are still some blocking periods. Where we do get access, the timing is just right and it’s “very fresh research”. Ideal for historians.

Geppert: Our project can also be put into a larger context. For some time now, there has been a re-inspection of the late GDR history and the first years after unification. The reason is that some files of the 1990s have only now become accessible, and the fact that the middle generation who are about 50 years old and have East German biographies is now coming to terms with their own experiences and those of their parents. They bring new momentum to the analysis and evaluation of this period.

What do you think is being debated?

Bösch: The dispute about the transformation period in general is first about the evaluation of lifetime achievements. In our case, it is specifically the recognition of research achievements that is at issue. In this case, it is less about political burdens than about how scientifically renowned the work was, and why certain careers were discontinued or continued in the 1980s/90s. Who was laid off why or able to remain in permanent positions, partly through legal loopholes? Our current quantified assessment didn’t exist at that time, so we have to reconstruct the criteria of the time. Second, there is intense debate about how to evaluate the convergence of the academic systems. Was it a “takeover,” as Ilko-Sascha Kowalczuk wrote, an overpowering of the East by the West? Third, it is also specifically about the Brandenburg way, i.e. the question: Were the employees at the Brandenburg universities not evaluated strictly enough by the SPD course? To what extent and why did they go their own way? This debate is then again very political.

Geppert: I’d like to add two things: Basically, the quality and status of the GDR’s academic system are up for discussion. Where and how was good research possible at all under the conditions of that time? Within this institutional framework, however, very concrete East German lives and academic careers were affected – and that, unsurprisingly, stirs up emotions. On the other hand, one has to take into account that the University of Potsdam emerged from a teacher training college. This background entails distinctive elements that were by no means specific to the transformation in East Germany. The transformation of teacher training colleges into universities also happened in the West, and the assessment sometimes has to do with their different traditions and self-images and not only with differences between East and West.

Is this dispute characteristic for new foundings of East German universities after 1989/90?

Bösch: There were conflicts of this kind everywhere. The fact that it was conducted somewhat more harshly in Potsdam than at other universities in the East is probably related to this commemorative publication. At universities with longer traditions, there were institutional histories that began earlier and in which the GDR period did not carry as much weight.

Geppert: The question is still open whether the Brandenburg way has not just postponed the heyday of the dispute. At Humboldt University, for example, a similar dispute was carried out much earlier and was then settled, while it continued to smolder in Potsdam. Another aspect is specific to Potsdam: There was not only the teacher training college, from which the university emerged, but three very different institutions, all of which were highly exposed in their own right: The Academy of the Ministry for State Security in Golm, the Academy of Law and Political Science in Griebnitzsee, and the College of Education as an elite training ground for teachers. This extraordinary mixture influences the perception of the early years of the University of Potsdam.

Bösch: However, the debates in Potsdam had already been very tough in the 1990s. And even if there was an East-West juxtaposition in many disputes, this was definitely not always the case. Sometimes, as in other areas, lines of conflict ran between East Germans, depending on their proximity to the SED, or between West Germans who had different backgrounds or political attitudes.

The University of Potsdam emerged from the Brandenburg State University, which in turn had been called the Potsdam College of Education until not much earlier. To what extent can you say that the University of Potsdam emerged from the College of Education?

Geppert: The conclusion stands to reason. After all, most of the staff and subjects were transferred to the university. But there were many scientific institutions in the region whose presence played an important role in the development of the academic landscape.

Bösch: In any case, the University of Potsdam did not emerge from three institutions; besides Am Neuen Palais Campus, only at Griebnitzsee Campus were there still partially lines of professional tradition while no teaching staff was transferred from the “Stasi University”.

Geppert: Certainly, the College of Education can most likely be considered a predecessor. The continuing focus on teacher training is significant here. At the same time, with regard to the self-image of a strong research university, this connection cannot be understood as a “smooth continuation” ...

Bösch: In this respect, the University of Potsdam is a re-establishment of the College of Education, a new beginning with clear references to its predecessor.

Geppert: And it is precisely this relationship, of course, that is part of the dispute we are examining. For many, the university is a continuation of the College of Education, the same university albeit with a break in 1989/90, with elements of continuity predominating. Others see it differently and emphasize how much has been newly built.

Why are you dividing the project – along the campuses – into three parts?

Geppert: It is less about the campuses and more about the subject groups that are located there today: the humanities at Neues Palais, the natural sciences in Golm, and law, economics, and the social sciences in Griebnitzsee. We want to answer the question of how to evaluate the research achievements at the institutions that existed during the GDR era on a subject-specific basis. This also has its origins partly in the aforementioned debate. After all, particularly strong protest against Prof. Görtemaker’s criticism came from the natural sciences, whose representatives retorted that they had also made important research contributions in the GDR. Dorothea Horas, who is working on the topic, therefore also asks: How political or apolitical were the natural sciences really in the scientific system of the SED dictatorship?

This (re-)founding with ultimately three different forms of “heritage” should be quite unique in East Germany. What can a comparison with other universities, such as the one you are making in the project, achieve?

Bösch: We deliberately chose other specialized universities – in Dresden, Halle, and Leipzig – to ensure comparability. Similar processes were taking place at all of them, which we are analyzing. There were evaluation commissions that developed proposals for the framework conditions according to which employment contracts were prepared. The comparison will show whether the commissions worked according to similar standards everywhere – or didn’t.

Geppert: Following up on this, Lara Büchel and Axel-Wolfgang Kahl are examining in their projects if there was an increase or reduction in personnel at the three locations Potsdam, Leipzig, and Dresden – and what effects this had …

Bösch: The comparison helps us to better identify the specific development in Potsdam and in the process also to verify the theses that Manfred Görtemaker put forward. Was evaluation particularly lax in Potsdam, with employees submitting self-reports for this purpose? To what extent did the CDU government in Saxony set different framework conditions? And what influence did trade unions have? In each case, the transition was different: in Halle and Leipzig, the teacher training colleges were integrated into existing but also reorganized university structures; in Dresden and Leipzig, the teacher training colleges experienced more layoffs and only a part of the educational sciences was taken over; and in Potsdam, a university was developed from the College of Education.

Geppert: It was already clear to us in the first conversation that we needed this comparative perspective to be able to work out the specific features of Potsdam. This is not trivial because of the different actors, conditions, and contexts at the different campuses, also in terms of craftsmanship. But I think our three doctoral students will be able to manage.

How do you research something as complex as the emergence or transformation of a whole university?

Bösch: At very different levels. First, we examine the framework set by government policy – for example through the files of the Ministry of Science, Research, and Culture, but also interviews of contemporary witnesses, such as the former Minister of Science Hinrich Enderlein. Second, we take a look at the university administrations – especially the presidential board and the central commissions – again using documents and interviews. And thirdly, we take a look at the level of the scientists – using a few examples. When looking at the structure and development of individual disciplines, it is impossible to reconstruct all individual biographies.

Geppert: In the course of this examination, we want to evaluate, at least approximately, how good research can be identified. We are fully aware that this is a particularly ambitious part of the project …

Bösch: In addition to reviewing files and interviewing contemporary witnesses, scientific publications are also examined for their contemporary evaluation.

Geppert: Compared to the history of other institutions of this kind, it is not least the students who play an important role, one that we believe is imperative to include in the study. How do they learn? How do they shape university life? What freedoms and constraints do they experience?

How will you publish the project results?

Geppert: Three doctoral theses are being written as independent books, each with a different comparative perspective. They form the core of the project. Frank Bösch and I will write a shorter synopsis. Events are planned as well – lectures, discussions, workshops – to get into a conversation with the groups that initiated the project.

Bösch: A contemporary witness workshop, which was postponed due to Corona, is to take place in the fall. And at the end, a large conference will follow. In addition, we want to repeatedly communicate the results to the employees and students of the university in a variety of ways.

Do you have hope that the project can help resolve the dispute?

Geppert: I believe that the various actors will retain their positions. And they have every right to do so. We hope to contribute to a rational, fair discourse and to enable an understanding of the other perspectives. We want to enter in an exchange with the scientific community, of course, but also with the interested public.

For the future, what can the university, which is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, take from this project?

Bösch: The university can learn a lot about its self-image. We can better understand why many people felt they were treated wrongly. In addition, a project like ours can potentially stimulate questions about blind spots that continue to exist: about lines of conflict that are not as easy to pinpoint as East and West or gender and diversity issues. This could also provide impetus for further research.

Geppert: If we could show how to argue productively about difficult questions and enter into scientific discussion, it could serve as an example and be transferred to other contexts at the University of Potsdam.

The Project

“The transformation of the East German universities in the 1980s/90s: Potsdam in a comparative perspective”

Duration: May 2019 – April 2022
Participants: Prof. Dr. Frank Bösch, Prof. Dr. Dominik Geppert (co-leaders); Lara Büchel, Dorothea Horas, Axel-Wolfgang Kahl

The Researchers

Prof. Dr. Frank Bösch studied history, German studies, and political science at the universities of Hamburg and Göttingen. After positions in Bochum, London, and Gießen, he has been Director of the Center for Contemporary History (ZZF) and Professor of German and European 20th Century History at the University of Potsdam since 2011.
Mail: frank.boeschuni-potsdamde

Prof. Dr. Dominik Geppert studied history, philosophy, and subfields of law in Freiburg and Berlin. Since 2018, he has been Professor of 19th/20th-Century History at the University of Potsdam.
Mail: dominik.geppertuni-potsdamde

This text was published in the university magazine Portal Wissen - Two 2021: Departure (PDF).