Recollections of the first year of the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin 1981/82:

Uwe Pörksen’s new book “Camelot im Grunewald. Szenen aus dem intellektuellen Leben der achtziger Jahre” (Munich 2014)

By Reinhart Meyer-Kalkus

The book by the Freiburg linguist and specialist in German Studies, Uwe Pörksen, published by Beck Verlag in Munich, has a special position among the books of former Fellows who refer to the year they spent in Berlin (see the attached list). Neither a diary nor a collection of anecdotes, it strives for nothing less than an overall depiction of a “class” at the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin. The newly founded institution, its Fellows, and its Rector are its theme. It conveys something of the euphoria of the first “class”, as well as of the debates about the future shape of the institution.

The powerfully eloquent Founding Rector of the Kolleg, the Medievalist Peter Wapnewski, defended the Wissenschaftskolleg in the public realm with the thesis of the necessity of social and intellectual elites. He thereby poked into a hornets’ nest; the “elite discussion” divided opinion at that time. Wapnewski’s thesis found a critical, sometimes smug echo; for example the book reproduces in toto the January 1982 report in “Spiegel” magazine (14/1982), whose title translates as “King Arthur in Dahlem district” and that made fun of the Rector’s style-shaping measures. As counterpoint, the article also contains the sobering utterance of the then-groundskeeper, Gerhard Riedel: “These are perfectly normal people, really!”

Pörksen used the diary entries he made at that time and elaborated them with subsequent research. His book is written from the double perspective of someone who logged what he directly experienced and someone who, from a temporal distance, quotes literally, edits, comments, and expands these notes. The person of the narrator thereby stands in the foreground, of course, with his research project on the scientific language of the natural sciences since Goethe, with his curiosity about other people, with his poetic predilections and political convictions. Surprising and sometimes piquant are the flashbacks with which he includes the earlier history of the acquaintanceships he already had with some of the people described here (like Gershom Scholem, Peter Wapnewski, and the Secretary Joachim Nettelbeck).

The book is a gallery of lovingly precisely drawn portraits of the author’s co-Fellows, especially of Gershom Scholem, Ivan Illich, Hartmut von Hentig, Mazzino Montinari, and the Rector Peter Wapnewski. Beyond the personal-anecdotal and the many humorous utterances and witty banter, these portraits take on their special profile by means of digressions on the history of disciplines and science. Thus, one learns something about the reform pedagogical ideas of the 1970s and the disenchantment with these ideas on the part of Hartmut von Hentig and Ivan Illich, a lot about Medieval Studies and German Studies at German universities around 1980 in the example of the Rector Peter Wapnewski, something about the Student Movement of 1968 in the example of the linguist and specialist in German Studies Dietz Bering, etc. With this device, Pörksen fulfills the claim made in his book’s subtitle, which translates as “scenes from the intellectual life of the 1980s”. His book penetrates deeply into the scientific and cultural history of that time – all of it, of course, not drily academically, but rather told with humor and wit, especially by using a technique of significant abbreviation with which the narrator repeatedly withdraws discreetly from his material and permits the reader’s imagination to fill in the gaps.

From today’s perspective, one ineluctably gains the impression that, although the Wissenschaftskolleg has constantly changed since its first year, its basic characteristics have remained the same. The institutional framework has been little altered, despite the expansion from 20 Fellows at that time to 40 Fellows since 1985. The Founding Rector Peter Wapnewski can be credited with successfully defending the Institute’s autonomy, for example against critical attacks from circles of prominent Berlin university professors (for example Jacob Taubes/FU/Religious Studies). At the same time, in the first year a dynamic of change already developed that would accompany the institution thereafter. The book reproduces the “Manifest der Pilgermütter” (manifest of the pilgrim mothers) written by the only two female members of this “class”, Michal Ginsburg and Helga Nowotny, which makes a number of demands that would be fulfilled in later years, including the call to intellectually open the Wissenschaftskolleg to international discussions, to dismantle aspects felt to be specifically “German (Prussian)”, etc. Pörksen’s book is thus a small protohistory of the Wissenschaftskolleg: the first year as molding what it would become in the future. (1)



  • (1) The title used by the publisher does not seem well chosen, since it confirms the cliché of King Arthur’s Round Table, against which the Rectors of the Kolleg have consciously worked and that, as Pörksen persuasively depicts, did not capture the character of even the first year. Associated in the United States with the Kennedy era, the name “Camelot” unfortunately does not have the same good reputation everywhere in Europe. In France, the adherents of the nationalist-monarchist right wing since Charles Maurras have been designated the “Camelots du Roi”, and many adherents of the Front National claim this title for themselves today.


Here are some bibliographic notes on other books by former Fellows who refer to their year at the Wissenschaftskolleg, without striving to depict an entire “class”:

  • Nicolaus Sombart (Fellow 1982/83): Journal intime 1982/83: Rückkehr nach Berlin, Berlin 2003.

  • Robert Darnton (Fellow 1989/90): Der letzte Tanz auf der Mauer. Berliner Journal 1989-1990, Munich 1991.
  • Joan Richards (Fellow 1995/96): Angles of Reflection. Logic and a Mother’s Love, W. H. Freeman and Company, New York 2000.
  • Peter Esterhazy (Fellow 1996/97): Harmonia Caelestis, Budapest 2000 (German: Berlin 2004).
  • Kenzaburo Oe (Fellow 1999/2000): Tagame. Berlin – Tokyo. Novel, Frankfurt 2005 (Japanese first edition 2000).
  • Imre Kertész (Fellow 2002/03): Letzte Einkehr. Tagebücher 2001-2009, Berlin 2013.
  • Antije Krog (Fellow 2007/08): Begging to Be Black, Cape Town 2009.
  • Ilma Rakusa (Fellow 2010/11): Aufgerissene Blicke: Berlin-Journal, Graz 2013.