A short history of the Wissenschaftskolleg

In October 1978 the Berlin House of Representatives, in commemoration of the first Governing Mayor of the city, passed a resolution to establish an “Ernst Reuter Center” whose task it would be to “promote international scholarly communication, to bring as guests to Berlin scholars from all parts of the world, in particular those who were forced to emigrate owing to National Socialism as well as their students, and to promote and expand Berlin’s intellectual life through contacts between foreign guests and German scholars, in particular Berlin ones.” Emerging in the course of the planning phase was the “Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin e. V.,” sponsored by the Ernst-Reuter-Stiftung and based on the American model of Institutes for Advanced Study (particularly Princeton) and aspiring to the same quality standards. At the founding meeting of the society (to which the Berlin universities as well as the most important German scholarly organizations belong) the Germanist and medievalist Peter Wapnewski was chosen as the Kolleg’s first Rector; in October 1981 an initial eighteen Fellows arrived (consisting of two women, half of the total were German Fellows, but with four Poles and two Israelis – with literary studies and history strongly represented but no natural scientists). The founding of such an elite scholarly institution in the “Battleground Berlin” unleashed impassioned discussions which were reflected in the nationwide media. (For a glimpse into the intellectual discussions of the time as well as into the first Fellow group, see the report by Uwe Pörksen, himself a Fellow (and in the year of the report 2012/13 guest of the Rector): Camelot im Grunewald. Szenen aus dem intellektuellen Leben der achtziger Jahre, Munich: Beck 2014). In looking back, it is clear that the Kolleg owes its existence to a happy constellation of circumstances and above all to determined personalities; in particular Peter Glotz who was the responsible Berlin Senator for Science and Research at the time. For particulars on the founding of the Wissenschaftskolleg, see 25 Jahre Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin; 1981-2006, ed. Dieter Grimm, with the editorial assistance of Reinhart Meyer-Kalkus, Berlin: Akademie Verlag 2006.

In the course of the first years there soon crystallized specific formats and goals of life and work at the Wissenschaftskolleg that are essentially the same as today. As of the second half of the 1980s the Kolleg could offer the Fellows and their families further working and living possibilities in the Wallotstrasse. Thanks to the living quarters being in such close proximity to one another, the discursive interaction among Fellows was clearly intensified; a kind of mini-campus emerged which would be expanded in later years through the leasing of additional apartments.

But during the first years it was also important to situate this novel type of institution – particularly in Germany – in the national and international scholarly world and to secure its existence. Along with the Land Berlin it was first the VolkswagenStiftung which lent significant support to the new institution. In May 1982, on occasion of the inspection conducted by the German Council of Science and Humanities, it was asserted that the “Kolleg’s task is of nationwide importance” and of “general governmental and scholarly-political interest” and recommended that the Ernst Reuter Foundation for Advanced Study? be taken up in the general support provided by the federal government and the Länder. The result is that since 1985 the responsible federal ministry has been involved and shares half of the financing with the Land Berlin. Within the university world the Kolleg has also increasingly found popularity and support – in 1985 the Kultusministerkonferenz (Standing Conference of the Ministers of Education and Cultural Affairs of the Länder in the Federal Republic of Germany) decided that members of the university should be granted leaves of absence to be Fellows of the Wissenschaftskolleg. Playing an essential role from the very beginning in the layout, consolidation and expansion of the Kolleg was Joachim Nettelbeck, who as Secretary led the institute’s administration and together with its staff provided for optimal research conditions for Fellows until he passed his duties on to Thorsten Wilhelmy at end of the 2011/2012 academic year.

After tenure of the founding Rector Peter Wapnewski the sociologist Wolf Lepenies headed the Wissenschaftskolleg from 1986 to 2001. It was through Lepenies that the institution more closely converged with the Anglo-American scholarly sphere, continued to build on existing links with Israel and the Middle East, placed a disciplinary emphasis on the history of science, and seized the historical chance of 1989 and fall of the Berlin Wall to make overtures toward Eastern Europe. It was with the non-resident Permanent Fellow Yehuda Elkana, Israeli physicist and philosopher of science, that the Wissenschaftskolleg developed a fellowship program for young researchers from Germany, Israel and Palestine (“Europe in the Middle East”) at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute. Shortly afterward the “Arbeitskreis Moderne und Islam” was founded and conjoined with the Wissenschaftskolleg as an externally financed project. The intellectual profile of this project was informed by the renowned Syrian scholar of Islamic studies Aziz al-Azmeh and later by the German-Iranian scholar of Islamic studies and writer Navid Kermani (both previous Long-term Fellows of the Wissenschaftskolleg).

So as to strengthen a theoretically grounded and historical-philosophical history of science in the German-speaking sphere, for many years the Kolleg was involved in a “Research Association for the History of Science,” thus forming a stage on the way to Berlin’s Max Planck Institute for the History of Science.

In Eastern Europe it was Wolf Lepenies together with Hungarian partners who already in 1989 launched the initiative to found an Institute for Advanced Study. An international consortium of sponsors was so enthused by the idea that in the summer of 1992 the Collegium Budapest was opened. In Bucharest and Sofia similar institutions were later founded with whom the Wissenschaftskolleg still today has intensive relationships.

But also within the Kolleg itself certain long-term changes were effected. With appointment of the Zurich zoologist Rüdiger Wehner as (nonresident) Permanent Fellow, the Wissenschaftskolleg gained a strong advocate for the life sciences; thus did (theoretical) biology achieve a firm place in our broad palette of disciplines in the late 1990s. The inclusion of artists, in particular musicians and literati, which had already begun in the period of Peter Wapnewski’s tenure as Rector, was now also made a priority – certainly a high point being when Imre Kertész was awareded the Nobel Prize during his residency at the Wissenschaftskolleg.

By end of the century the Wissenschaftskolleg was attempting a “Europeanization” of its institutional bases; in 1998 it concluded an agreement with the Swiss Confederation, which from here on out would participate in the basic financing. An agreement was also reached with the Swedish endowment Riksbankens Jubileumsfond that they would involve themselves for several years in the Kolleg’s project area. Subsequent to a third inspection of the German Council of Science and Humanities, in 2001 the Wissenschaftskolleg was taken up as a separate entity into co-funding by the Federal Government and the Länder – an essential step in the Kolleg’s institutional development.

It was in 2001 that Dieter Grimm, professor of public law at the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin and former judge on the Federal Constitutional Court, assumed the office of Rector and subjected the Wissenschaftskolleg’s right to exist to a critical analysis in arriving at the conclusion that there was still a need for such an institution. Grimm was of the opinion that since the founding years of the Wissenschaftskolleg the expectations of scholarship and science to serve as “ancillary industries” for society had only intensified; all the more important had become a site of learning where individual outstanding scholars are afforded the possibility of “pursuing self-chosen study objectives without application of any external pressure”(brochure on occasion of the handover of the office of Rector of the Wissenschaftskolleg on 2 October 2001, 37 ff.). During Dieter Grimm’s tenure as Rector the central idea of the Kolleg was thus again deepened while the aforementioned more project-oriented activities were consolidated. Corresponding to the Rector’s own interest, in the Fellow groupings of these years there was a stronger focus on state constitutions, globalization and the European Union. The Kolleg also pursued two long-term research axes with invitations to Fellows in the sphere of image science, driven by Permanent Fellow Horst Bredekamp (art historian at the Humboldt-Universität), and the interdisciplinary field of cultural encounters or cultural mobility, which was propelled by the American literary and cultural studies scholar Stephen Greenblatt (also a Permanent Fellow). This area of research also had long-term effects on the Kolleg’s project-based side activities (Berlin research networks, “Wege des Wissens,” “Forum Transregionale Studien,” etc.).

Since April 2007 the Wissenschaftskolleg has been led by Luca Giuliani, professor of classical archeology at the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin. When he assumed this office there were already adumbrations of the enormous upsurge that the category “Institutes for Advanced Study” has since enjoyed. In view of these changes the Kolleg seeks to sharpen its profile and to further develop its certain inimitable qualities. A central aspect is the diversity of the personalities that we assemble here at the Kolleg and which are shown to advantage through the creation of institutional parameters which stimulate a beneficial juxtaposition of these personalities and often collaborative work among them. In taking office the new Rector declared: “The heterogeneity of Fellows and their amalgamation into a community is itself the precondition for allowing all their differences to be addressed – this seems to me the decisive difference between this institution and all newer university-based institutes that presently find themselves in their foundational phase thanks to the Exzellenz Initiative” (brochure on occasion of the handover of the office of Rector of the Wissenschaftskolleg on 1 April 2007, 17). Accordingly more resources were invested in the process of the selection of Fellows – with the goal of assembling groups of Fellows of multi-dimensional richness and variety and which meet our criteria of scholarly excellence. In our effort to strengthen the life and natural sciences and simultaneously promote young scholars, and with support of the relevant Permanent Fellows, Paul Schmid-Hempel (biological ecology, Zurich) and Raghavendra Gadagkar (biology, Bangalore), the College for Life Sciences was called into being. We sought to offer Fellows and their families additional services that aim at greater integration of the accompanying partner – for instance the introduction of intensive German courses (gratuitous for Fellows) at start of the academic year as well as assistance rendered in terms of childcare.

Alongside the core area of Fellow invitations, in 2010 we heightened our commitment in the project area. So as to place jurisprudence as social science on a broader interpretive basis and to exploit the outstanding competence of Permanent Fellows Dieter Grimm and Christoph Möllers (he too a jurist at the Humboldt-Universität) the Berlin research network “Recht im Kontext” was conceived, the Kolleg headquartering its coordination. Institutionalization of the “Forum Transregionale Studien” also built upon long-term theoretical and methodological interests of the Wissenschaftskolleg. It was under the umbrella of the Forum that a number of research projects were subsumed; among these presently are “Europe in the Middle East – The Middle East in Europe” (successor program to the earlier “Arbeitskreis Moderne und Islam”), “Art Histories and Aesthetic Practices,” and more recently the “Berlin-Brandenburg Ukraine-Initiative.” The hallmark of all these undertakings is the effort to combine rigorous methodologies, anchored in their respective disciplines, with regional knowledge, while yet still taking the local phenomena into account from an overarching perspective. Mirrored in the project area are research questions and principles that come into effect with our selection of certain Fellows and which provide for mutual inspiration and incentive.

A remark as to methodology to conclude. Writing a history of the Wissenschaftskolleg is an almost unanswerable task. This institution lives and breathes both for and through its Fellows, whose complement is renewed on a yearly basis. Any true history would therefore be compelled to name all these 1600 personalities together with their themes, various contributions and final impact – something impossible to do were one to do justice to them. And so we have this mere outline.