The Wissenschaftskolleg and the East: The New Europe College in Bucharest

Katharina Biegger, former head of the Wissenschaftskolleg’s admission department, takes a look back after thirty years

Already the founders of the Wissenschaftskolleg had directed their collective gaze eastward across the German border. Among the eighteen Fellows in the first academic year of 1981/1982 were four Polish scholars, and in the years to follow ever more invitations to colleagues behind the “Iron Curtain.” Yet these remained isolated instances from which no real East-West exchange could develop.

Directly after the fall of the Berlin Wall, in the 1990/1991 academic year, the East was already strongly represented at the Wissenschaftskolleg. Scholars from Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, Romania, Georgia and Russia made the trek to Halensee. Ștefan Savulescu, the first Romanian scholar at the Wissenschaftskolleg, conclusively summarized things in saying: “I recognized the importance of being integrated into current scientific research as well as the disastrous effects of a long isolation . . . . [The] moral support [of the West] is essential during the difficult period of normalization and integration into Europe for a scientific community from the East, which has suffered from political pressure and injustice.” Unfortunately the Kolleg was unable to support Savulescu - a specialist in turbulent flows - after he had returned to his native land where his lab had been destroyed. But then a more apposite pairing ensued that very next year when we issued an invitation to the Romanian art historian and philosopher Andrei Pleșu. He had just resigned his post as Minister for Culture of the first government to take power after Ceauseşcu was toppled and so he was available to assume a fellowship. Pleșu was initially reluctant to yield to Berlin’s manifold temptations, which distracted him from his research on angels as a “theory of proximity,” yet then he came to recognize that, “what mattered now and here was the intellectual opening beyond the boundaries of specialty, the capacity for dialogue, interest in the great questions of contemporary history. I finally understood that I could only gain by it, that I was being offered the rare chance of immediate integration into the breathing rhythm of this century (. . .) The six months spent at the Kolleg have been (. . .) a decisive influence on my future activity.” This last sentence was right on target. Pleșu had told Rector Wolf Lepenies and Secretary Joachim Nettelbeck that an Institute for Advanced Study (IAS) would be important for his own country. Presumably he had expressed this opinion without actually believing in its ultimate attainment. As he later mentioned, “projectology” had been a widespread phenomenon in the communist East – people conceived fantastical things while being forever conscious of the fact that the political circumstances would impede any realization of their envisioned project. But Pleșu was still as yet unacquainted with the moxie and drive of the Berliners! The Kolleg’s leadership had already made great efforts to establish the Collegium Budapest, which in 1992 was the first IAS to open its portals in the East, and the founders’ enthusiasm continued apace with the Romanian “project.” This latter enterprise was fleshed out, accomplices were sought and won over, alliances struck with private and public sponsors. After Pleșu had enough capital in hand through receipt of the New Europe Prize – awarded by a group of six IAS (Princeton, Stanford, North Carolina, Wassenaar, Uppsala, Berlin) – then things really got rolling. On January 23, 1994 in Bucharest the Fundația Noua Europă was registered as a private endowment and gave out stipends to its first six Fellows at New Europe College (NEC). The following years were characterized by drastic social changes in the post-communist countries and demanded great effort, mindfulness and sagacity. The NEC grew and had to develop its role without losing its identity – but as other comparable institutional startups have shown, it was hardly self-evident that this enterprise would enjoy the success it now does. In the Hungarian context the Collegium Budapest encountered increasing difficulty and was finally compelled to surrender its independence. Happily less problematic was the development of institutes in St. Petersburg, Bucharest and Sofia which were likewise supported by the Wissenschaftskolleg.

During a year of sabbatical in 1995/1996, I spent several months in Bucharest playing an active role at the NEC. It was an instructive sojourn. I witnessed the dramatic and unmanageable social upheaval along with the continuing effects of underhand machinations and old cliques as well as the impact of stark squalor and hardship on scholarship. In the diary which I was keeping, I wrote the following words: “In such a situation where time-tested guidelines for action are lacking everywhere, it is all the more crucial for the realization of a scholarly project that the ‘right’ persons should be on hand, (…) scholars who have the authority and ability to set standards and work toward something better. (…) Under these conditions nothing is easily shifted, the old stuff tenaciously sticks and the existing entities sap one’s strength.” I took especial note of the fact that you had to first “carefully listen and reflect when presented with a scholarly text that on first reading one wants to dismiss as thematically abstruse, old-fashioned, creaky and positivistic.” I wanted to understand the lay of the land and eventually learned that I could help by mediating, translating and applying my know-how. Among many others things I wrote the very first case report for the attention of our sponsors. To my Romanian colleagues the mere mention of the word raport caused a shudder because this was the term used for those infamous communiqués composed or demanded by Ceaușescu’s secret police the Securitate.

At the end of my time in Bucharest I was asked whether in the future a part of my workforce might be deployed in supporting NEC, and the endowment of the Swiss Landis & Gyr Foundation promised to make an annual contribution to the Wissenschaftskolleg so as to help secure the Romanian institute. And so it was that henceforth, and until today, I have stayed in close contact with NEC as a kind of “double agent”. Unforgettable was the lecture given in the 1990s by Stephen Greenblatt, who at the time was a Permanent Fellow of the Wissenschaftskolleg and whose Bucharest talk attracted so many people that those who could not be squeezed into the venue simply crowded around the open windows. One of our more consequential mediations was inviting the young Bulgarian historian Diana Mishkova (Mellon Fellow 1998/1999) to give a lecture in Bucharest. After she had seen that an institute like NEC could flourish even under the difficult conditions holding sway in a post-communist nation, she decided to establish a similar research center herself. In helping to get the Centre for Advanced Study in Sofia on its feet, I feel the pride of a godmother in celebrating the Bulgarian institute’s twentieth birthday this year, while in 2019 its elder Romanian sister was able to commemorate a quarter century of existence.

Of course I was hardly the sole Berliner who made some contribution to the success of our partner institutes in Eastern Europe. Without the commitment of the Wissenschaftskolleg’s leadership and minus the many willing helpers in the administration, nothing would have ever materialized. So it was entirely fitting that in June 2001 the Wissenschaftskolleg shipped some thirty of its staff down to Bucharest. This expedition also marked WIKO’s twentieth anniversary as well as a changing of the guard from Wolf Lepenies to Dieter Grimm as rector of the Kolleg.

By virtue of its initiatives and sponsorship of the institutes in Budapest, Bucharest, St. Petersburg and Sofia, the Wissenschaftskolleg was and remains in closer contact with Eastern European scholarship than other Western Institutes for Advanced Study. In fact this focus has to some extent become the Wissenschaftskolleg’s trademark, and over many years it was lent support through an extremely generous funding program of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation: whenever Wiko’s admission department had an auspicious applicant in its sights, that candidate could be invited for a three-month stay with funds set aside in the special endowment for short-term fellowships. This encouraged the relevant committees to be more risk-taking and even experimental than they might otherwise have been.

Did the year 1989 change the Wissenschaftskolleg? I believe so. And not only was WIKO’s life changed but – and this should have already become clear through the foregoing narrative – my own life as well.