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

Building 9 on the Campus Am Neuen Palais gets its cupola back. The photo is from Karla Fritze.
Building at Campus Golm, 1992. The photo is from Karla Fritze.
Campus Griebnitzsee, spring 1990. The photo is from Dr. Christoph Hauschild.
Photo : Karla Fritze
Building 9 on the Campus Am Neuen Palais gets its cupola back.
Photo : Karla Fritze
Campus Golm, 1992
Photo : Dr. Christoph Hauschild
Campus Griebnitzsee, spring 1990

The Transformation of the East German Humanities: Potsdam in Comparative Perspective

Lara Büchel

“Transformation”, “renewal”, “colonization”: These are the contradictory terms used by those involved to describe the transformation of East German universities following the system change of 1989/90. But how do these disparate perceptions come about? To a large extent, the assessment depends on whether the actors see themselves as the winners or losers, whether they look back on it as outsiders or as someone who was directly affected, and not least whether they adopt a West or East German perspective. Until the early 2000s, publications and anniversary publications on the “restructuring of universities in East Germany” were characterized by subjective recollections, polarizing assessments, and conflicting experiences. The dividing lines ran mainly between people of West and East German origin. In some cases, these views have remained entrenched to the present day. In historical studies, the period of upheaval in East Germany has experienced a downright boom in recent years. This is primarily a result of research trends and conditions that are also of central importance to my dissertation project.

Long transformation process from the 80s to the 90s

I want to reconstruct the processes of transformation at the universities in Potsdam and Dresden. I don’t want to tell them as mere stories of success or decline but as an open-ended process that did not begin in the fall of 1989. Rather, my investigation concentrates on the time axis between the 1980s and the 1990s. This is because the complexity of the transformation process can be analyzed and embedded in a broader historical context only by examining the sociopolitical developments in the GDR during the 1980s and the gradual erosion of the socialist higher education system. Moreover, this makes it possible to include longer lines of tradition in the analysis, some of which go all the way back to the 19th century - such as the Humboldtian ideal of education. These traditions played an important role in the unification of the two German academic systems and had an integrative and identity-defining effect in the process.

In addition, I examine the East German change of elites, which particularly affected the humanities due to their ideological orientation, as a story with two sides. Experiences of West and East German actors are equally included in the analysis. It can be observed that the evaluation procedures at the beginning of the 1990s were characterized by a strong asymmetry of power: East Germans were largely evaluated by West German evaluators. The different political conditions in the former East German states also played a significant role. From my previous research on elite change in the humanities, however, it is clear that the professional and political review procedures played only a subordinate role in the process of “personnel renewal” in both Saxony and Brandenburg. Rather, the decisive factors were whether there was to be a reduction or increase in personnel and whether universities and departments were to be liquidated across the board or integrated into newly founded universities. Moreover, staff restructuring in the East, which lasted until the mid-1990s, led to a co-transformation of universities in West Germany. There, the humanities subjects also came under stronger competitive pressure, which made it necessary to gear these subjects towards international trends, third-party funding, and budget cuts.

Thirty years have passed since the University of Potsdam was founded in 1991. This figure marks an important threshold in contemporary history, which means that previously blocked files are now accessible and new sources can be used. This is crucial for my dissertation project: I was able to access previously inaccessible files from the ministries of science, state administrations, and university archives. In addition to contemporary historical sources, oral history interviews, ego-documents and autobiographies of actors involved in the transformation process complete the multi-perspective approach.

I am currently working intensively with the holdings of the Ministry of National Education, which are preserved in the Federal Archives in Berlin-Lichterfelde. The Department of Teacher Education, which was responsible for the teacher training colleges, meticulously monitored the situation at the university departments and exerted considerable influence on teaching and research. In the course of my research in the archives, I found that since the mid-1980s, it was increasingly difficult for university administrations to find suitable personnel who met both professional and political-ideological requirements. At the same time, functional and managerial positions at universities were blocked by the so-called post-war generation who built up the GDR. To what extent this generational constellation at the universities at the end of the GDR also affected the process of change after 1989/90 remains an exciting question that I would like to answer in my dissertation project.

The Project

In her dissertation project, Lara Büchel describes the transformation in teacher training for the humanities in Potsdam and Dresden, giving special attention to the changes in structure and personnel during the transformation phase. In addition, she analyzes the continuities and disruptions in research and teaching content from the transition of the 1980s to the 1990s.

The Researcher

Lara Büchel studied history, cultural studies, und public history at the University of Tübingen and Freie Universität Berlin. Since April 2019, she has been a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Potsdam on the transformation of the East German humanities.
Mail: lara.buecheluni-potsdamde


“Natural Sciences in the Transformation Process of the East German Universities. Potsdam in Comparative Perspective“



Dorothea Horas

On October 20, 2020, I board the regional express train RE 1 at Zoologischer Garten station in Berlin. Today, however, I’m not going to Potsdam, but to Magdeburg, the last stop on the line. In the local state archive of Saxony-Anhalt, piles of files are waiting for me – including numerous appeals and court cases against negative evaluations at the N. K. Krupskaya Teacher Training College. The Halle-based college serves as a comparison in my investigation of the transformation process of the University of Potsdam, whose most important predecessor institution was also a teacher training college. Using both institutions as examples, I explore the questions to which extent the natural sciences at teacher training colleges in the GDR could remain apolitical and what role employees from the natural sciences played in the transformation process of East German universities in the 1990s.

The evaluations of employees that started after 1990 form one part of my work. At both institutions, university employees underwent political, professional, and needs-oriented reviews. In this way, personal misconduct and non-scientific decision factors were to be uncovered and the employees were transferred to a job structure based on West German standards. To assess political integrity, personnel commissions were set up at both universities to review the respective staff. The work of the commission in Halle now takes me to Magdeburg, where the files of Saxony-Anhalt’s Ministry of Culture were archived. I had previously looked through the archive's online search tool, but it was the helpful conversation with the archivist in charge that led me to these particularly exciting files. Each file in the stack is associated with a person or an appeal against a negative evaluation. Therefore, these are personal files from the 1990s, which are generally not accessible in 2020 due to archival retention periods. For research projects, however, this period can be shortened, so that I am allowed to inspect the files. Some of them are several centimeters thick, others consist of only a few pages.

The coming weeks are marked by long train journeys between Berlin and Magdeburg and intensive study of the files. I am trying to identify recurring argumentation structures in the correspondence and court proceedings, to draw conclusions from them about the procedures of the personnel commission as well as to compare them with the activities of the Potsdam personnel commission. It is not permitted to take photos of the files; copies are available for a fee and are blackened in places. Therefore, I take many notes. After looking through the pile, it is clear that the personnel commission in Halle was much more rigorous than its counterpart in Potsdam. This is not particularly surprising at first, since Potsdam was repeatedly accused of a particularly lenient approach. Numerous newspaper articles from the 1990s document this criticism. But even compared to commissions at other East German universities, the figures in Halle are clear. This result is unexpected since the teacher training college in Halle had a focus on natural sciences and the natural sciences of the GDR were considered rather unideological after 1990 or were less affected by negative evaluations than the humanities.

Transformation with specific local features

Was the teacher training college in Halle perhaps simply exposed to greater political influence than the one in Potsdam during the GDR era? The fact that the teacher training college in Potsdam was a favorite toy of the People’s Education Minister Margot Honecker speaks against this interpretation. My archival research in Magdeburg rather leads to the conclusion that it was not the political exposure of individuals that played a central role in the evaluation of employees at the former GDR universities – despite case-by-case evaluations – but rather the specific local conditions during the transformation period. The natural sciences were no exception. To trace these local features, it is necessary to look at both the higher education landscape of the respective federal state at the time and the higher education policy of the state government as well as individual actors such as the personnel commission members and their biographies. This can only be done through further research, especially in the relevant archives, but the Corona pandemic makes it extremely difficult to plan and do this. Access to archives is severely restricted. Appointments booked months in advance are often cancelled and replacement appointments are either only available spontaneously or again mean weeks of waiting. Despite the adverse circumstances, I have been able to collect an immense amount of material over the last two years, which for the time provides me with some consolation given the gaps that still exist. In the end, the last hurdle remains: bringing everything together, analyzing it, and writing down the results.

The Project

In her project “Natural Sciences in the Transformation Process of the East German Universities. Potsdam in Comparative Perspective”, Dorothea Horas investigates the transformation of natural sciences in Potsdam und Halle. The study will take the teacher training colleges of the 1980s as a starting point and a wider view beyond the immediate upheaval of 1989/90 into the 1990s.

The Researcher

Prior to her studies, Dorothea Horas trained as a technical assistant for natural history museums and research institutes at the Senckenberg Research Institute in Frankfurt/M. Then she studied history, archaeology, and gender studies at the Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg, the Universidad Nacional de San Marcos, and the University of Marburg before moving to Potsdam for her doctorate.
Mail: dorothea.horasuni-potsdamde



Research Insights: Searching for the Traces of a Brandenburg State University’s Buried Futures

Axel-Wolfgang Kahl

The form of the legacy of historical material can also provide information about past times. This is exemplified by the written records of selected sources from Potsdam’s period of upheaval. The collections of the Potsdam University Archive include source material labeled “Steding Collection”: six so-called units of description – minutes of meetings, correspondence, in-house instructions, speech manuscripts, handwritten lists of names, newspaper clippings, etc. – which make up the presumed contents of a desk or entire study. It is no longer possible to reconstruct whether they were left behind randomly and in disarray in the turbulent times of those days or whether they were left intentionally. One thing, however, becomes clear to me as I look through them: These documents, which were stored at the turn of the year 1990/91 and have only now been accessed again, are a product of the radical and rapid changes of a tense episode of merging different, independently acting universities.

Between hope and reality

Prof. Rolf Steding (1937-2016) was the rector of the former University of Law and Administration, located on today’s Griebnitzsee campus, which had emerged from the Academy of Legal Studies and Political Science of the GDR in the course of the Peaceful Revolution. With the help of source criticism, a core tool of historical science, I reconstruct the dramatic and multi-layered events around the Potsdam universities in 1990 from the seeming chaos of the files and embed them in the general lines of development in higher education policy during the period of upheaval. In this way, I can show that Steding’s actions followed two motives in particular that are characteristic for this period: great enthusiasm in the light of democratization and the hope for self-determination of universities on the one hand. On the other hand, reform efforts with the goal of being able to exist as an institution in the long-term, even after the fall of the Wall. This also involved fierce interpersonal conflicts in the wake of prescribed staff reductions and rampant unemployment in East Germany.

One option for continued existence was a gradual integration into a newly founded Brandenburg state university. From notes of one of Steding’s speeches, I learn that in the course of the reestablishment of the East German federal states, local public debates were held here about such an institution. For example, he was a guest at the SPD’s “Brandenburg Dialogue” and was obviously concerned about a political proposal that the planned Brandenburg State University might be built on the border with Poland and exclude Potsdam’s universities. But on that evening in September 1990, he could rest assured: In the event of a (basically certain) SPD victory in the federal state elections, the party promised a decentralized university landscape. According to this, all existing higher education institutions would be merged into three universities at the Potsdam, Frankfurt/Oder, and Cottbus campuses. Steding seemed relieved; all his efforts since taking office in the spring of 1990 would not have been in vain, and so he applauded the concept: “After a year of political monkey business, serious, predictable politics” could finally be pursued again.

Although the SPD won the elections in Brandenburg, the rector’s hopes were dashed less than three months later – with the decision to liquidate his university and partially integrate it into the Brandenburg State University. The fast-paced founding process of a University of Potsdam pushed by the state government deviated significantly from Steding’s, somewhat naive, idea of a gradual and equal participation in the reorganization of the legal, economic and social sciences. Only a small number of academic staff of his university was permanently integrated into the University of Potsdam. A burden in the merging process of the young university? From eyewitness interviews with Rolf Steding handed down to us, I gather that at least he was never able to fully come to terms with the experiences of that time.

In my sub-study, I want to include all perspectives of the actors involved in the transformation of Potsdam’s academic landscape. The transformation of the GDR’s higher education system was an asymmetrical, but by no means linear historical process. The reforms and spaces of opportunity initiated at the East German universities from the revolutionary fall of 1989 onwards, in their implementation in the early 1990s often fell short of the expectations of some of those who were affected. In institutional and media memory, many of the alternatives that were virulent at the time have been overlaid or submerged by the actual founding processes. In a contemporary historiography of Potsdam as a university location during the period of upheaval, I will bring together these different experiences in my work on an equal footing.


In his dissertation project, Axel-Wolfgang Kahl investigates the Transformation Paths of the Legal, Economic, and Social Sciences in Potsdam and Leipzig with a particular focus on the often unfulfilled expectations of those involved in the process of transforming the academic landscape in the East.

The Researcher

Axel-Wolfgang Kahl studied history, philosophy, and global history at the University of Potsdam, the University of Tartu, Heidelberg University, and the University of Delhi. Since May 2019, he has been pursuing his doctoral studies at the University of Potsdam on the transformation of East German law, economic and social sciences in comparative perspective.
Mail: axel-wolfgang.kahl.iiuni-potsdamde


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