Wiko Then and Now: 1991-1992 and 2014-2015

Susan Rose-Ackerman and Bruce Ackerman

In 2014-2015 Susan is a fellow at the Wiko and Bruce is a partner. In 1991-1992, Bruce was a fellow, and Susan was then a “spouse” or maybe even a “wife”. Our first visit took place a year after reunification and two years after the wall’s destruction. Wiko was reinventing itself under the direction of Wolf Lepennies. There were a number of fellows from Eastern Europe and several focused on issues related to the establishment of viable democracies, market economies and social-welfare systems.

German anxieties were evident as the benefits and costs of merging a divided nation played out across the country and especially in Berlin. A massive red granite statue of Lenin stood in his Square in Friedrichsheim (now United Nations Square). As we debated the transition at Wiko, the government was gradually dismantling Lenin – despite a chorus of East German dissent, especially from nearby residents and the family of the sculptor. We used to drive by the statue to check on progress and protest. Lenin finally disappeared – cut into 129 pieces and buried in Köpenick Park. On our second Wiko visit, organizers of a spring 2015 exhibit of Berlin monuments searched for Lenin’s massive 3.5 ton head, pleading in vain for assistance from the city government. As one observer wryly noted, even a stone Lenin remained threatening. The Guardian noted that, unless the head was found by early October last year, the project would have to be abandoned because an endangered lizard was known to hibernate in the statue’s gravesite. Nevertheless, traces of the Communist past remain: Ernest Thalmann still stands near an S-Bahn stop that used to bear his name.

In 1991-1992 Potsdamer Platz was an empty expanse of dirt surrounding a lonely S-Bahn station. Our son, a visiting college freshman, reported on nightlife in its underground bars and clubs. It is now densely occupied by a clutter of new high-rise buildings of problematic architectural merit, singing the praises of one or other mega-business.

In earlier visits, before the wall fell, we crossed into East Berlin at the Friedrichstrasse S-Bahn station and almost immediately encountered a Communist book shop that, for some strange reason, was at one time featuring Kant’s Perpetual Peace– stacking up hundreds and hundreds of copies for purchasers who never seemed to materialize. In 1991-1992 that same bookshop, located under the train tracks, was selling paperback collections of German laws on subjects such as building law, environmental law, and criminal law. It is hard to imagine that many people actually sat down to read such books, but we suppose it was part of a West German educational effort. Now the space is filled by a McDonalds.

Today Berlin is the place to be for many young people and especially artists. In 1991-1992 it had an edgy feel, inherited from the decades it had served as a lefty-island attracting young people avoiding military service and seeking a freer life. The influx of public officials and other trappings of government has dampened the outlaw mood, but the city still attracts many creative young people seeking cheap rents in a lively city. Of course, Wiko is in Grunewald—far away from the center of artistic dynamism in or near the old East zone. But for us that is not a bad thing. We can concentrate on our work during the day, and then take the M19 bus and S-Bahn in the late afternoon or evening to a host of either cutting-edge or deeply establishment cultural events. They are almost always within a 30-45 minute range.

Grunewald has remained almost static. The Wiko has expanded to include the Villa Jaffé, but otherwise it too is pretty much the same. Lunch, Thursday dinner, and Tuesday workshops still provide the framework for fellows and partners. The librarians are a reliable anchor for everyone’s research needs. Susan wrote a book with their help in 1991-1992 when she was a “spouse”, and they have been equally supportive of Bruce this year. Our sense of déjà vu is accentuated by the fact that we are living in the same apartment in the Villa Walther – it’s been renovated so that everything works just the way it did twenty years ago. The city has changed, but Wiko been faithful to its commitment to serious scholarship and cross-disciplinary discussion.

What is different? The food is healthier and more varied, and the chefs accommodate more dietary variations. There are more scientists, particularly biologists—in part, because the internet makes it possible to keep connected with research going on in one’s home institution. The number of economists and political scientists has not increased. They are still rarely seen. The nepotism rule has thankfully been relaxed to permit two couples to come as dual fellows. There are more women fellows; 18 of 47 in 2014-2015 compared to 5 of 37 in 1991-1992. There are more children now and Wiko has expanded its program to help parents combine their professional lives with childrearing.

The German language is being taught to more fellows, and a German table is well attended. Eva von Kügelgen, who helped Susan read German articles on environmental law in 1991-1992, is now in charge of a much more extensive program that combines grammar with poetry, stories, and comic sketches. We arrived three weeks early so Susan could refresh her German. She is immediately identified as an English speaker as soon as she opens her mouth, but, at least, she now tries to open her mouth.

Wiko is still extremely supportive of initiatives generated by ad hoc groups of fellows. In 1991-1992 we were part of an evening reading group that included Mario Vargas Llosa. We read his novel, The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta, and during the discussion, Mario intervened to say that we were raising many ideas about the story that had not occurred to him. This year Susan organized a reading group focusing on the “crisis” in the European Union, which brings a number of us together every two or three weeks to discuss the multiple challenges facing the EU. Our discussion is enriched by Dieter Grimm, permanent fellow and former Rector, who has been an active participant in the broader public debate. Obviously, we have not “solved” the EU crisis, but the readings and discussion have been very worthwhile in raising many complex and difficult questions that will influence our work and teaching back at Yale.

In the spring term Bruce is a fellow at the American Academy in Berlin, a short ride away on the S-Bahn in Wannsee. The Academy did not exist in 1991-1992. People at both institutes hold various myths about the other place. Most are fanciful, but there is a genuine difference in the formal presentations made by fellows at the two institutions. At the Wiko, fellows present their research at Tuesday morning talks to the other fellows – encouraging them to find a way to speak across disciplinary boundaries to people who have become friends. At the American Academy, the presentations are public lectures in the evening, often attended by several hundred people—more like the Wiko’s occasional evening lectures.

As in the 1990s, Susan is trying to learn about German public law, focusing on recent developments in environmental, energy and telecoms regulation. She is especially concerned with the role of public participation in public policymaking. Her stay in Berlin has been an invaluable resource, allowing her to interview people knowledgeable in German public law and the role of civil society. As far as she can tell, the main difference from 1991-1992 is a greater openness to public involvement in decision-making, especially for large infrastructure projects. It seems that street protests over the rebuilding of the railroad station in Stuttgart served as a wake-up call to German officials – impelling them to understand the value of consulting earlier and more broadly. Current controversies over nuclear power and renewable energy are propelling another sustained experiment in public participation. However, the basic difference between the US and Germany still remains—policymakers in the executive branch are not legally required to consult broadly with the outside experts or the general public before issuing comprehensive regulations to implement legislative policy, although savvy ministers often informally test public opinion and seek expert advice.

Bruce is also returning to themes he first addressed as a Wiko Fellow when writing The Future of Liberal Revolution. Germany was not immune from the fundamental constitutional debates sweeping the region. Indeed, leading jurists, like Ernst Gottfried Mahrenholz, Vice-President of the Constitutional Court, were advocating for a Constituent Assembly that would meet to formulate a new Constitution for a reunified Germany. His current book looks back to consider, among other things, why Marenholz’s demand, based on the Final Article of the Basic Law, was ignored, and has now been almost completely erased in a remarkable act of constitutional amnesia. More generally, it attempts a broader comparative framework which might organize reflection on the twentieth century’s complex contribution to world constitutionalism.

Looking forward, we are struck by the difficulties Germany has encountered in once again playing a leading role in Europe and the world. In our view, its struggle with the demons of its past has led it to play an awkward, and sometimes counterproductive, role in confronting the euro crisis and the future of the European Union. These failures are compounded by the even more dramatic failures of American statesmanship in the recent past.

Nevertheless, our time at Wiko makes it plain that it is far too early to give up on the future of the West. Day after day, the conversations have provoked new insights on a dizzying range of topics. The more formal presentations by the fellows have explored frontiers of thought in a remarkably dynamic fashion. Furthermore, we will be leaving Berlin with a new set of friendships that will enrich our lives for many years to come.

Sources for the paragraph on the Lenin statue: