Privatdozent Dr. phil. habil. Jürgen Plöhn
(German Studies Center at Sofia University „St. Kliment Ochridski“ /

Martin-Luther-Universität Halle)


When I came to Martin-Luther-University at Halle in the former GDR at the beginning of the academic year 1992/93 in order to serve as an Assistant Professor of Political Science, two distinct processes were running side by side at East German universities: On the one hand, Eastern German scientists had to pass an evaluation. On the other hand, the first new officeholders, predominantly from Western Germany, were appointed to their professorships. From this unique historic situation which I encountered I want to draw a picture of structural changes at universities which I consider necessary in the aftermath of the downfall of Socialism.

I shall concentrate my remarks on the following topics:

-         the Socialist legacy in 1989,

-         the process of change in the early 1990s, and

-         its structural results for the scientific sector.

Traditionally, German universities have been moulded according to the programatic ideas of Wilhelm von Humboldt. His concept provided for an integration of teaching and research, extending academic freedom to all members of the university – including the students –, and giving even university freshmen the chance to study with the most senior professors.

That model had been inherited by universities in the East as well as in the West of Germany. In Western Germany it had to be adapted to the much greater numbers of students since the early 1970s. In the GDR, Humboldt’s concept had deliberately been converted into its opposite:

-         separation of scientific research from higher education,

-         school-like university training, and

-         more or less secret supervision for all[1].

I. Structural problems of the Socialist legacy

Socialist theory demanded a scientific base for the comprehensive planning of economy and society. At the same time it required a strict obediance of the whole society – including its scientific sector – to the leadership of the party. Therefore autonomous universities did not fit into Socialist societies and could not be expected to deliver the results the leadership was interested in. As a consequence, the scientific system was split into the university sector on the one hand and the sector of the academies on the other[2].

Though there did exist some special purpose research institutes[3] outside the universities in West Germany as well, in relation to the universities this sector was much smaller than in Socialist systems[4]. Therefore the separation between major parts of scientific research and the training at East German university caused major problems after the German reunification. In the mid-1980s, the “Academy of Science of the GDR” was estimated to have 20000 employees – among them, by the way, today`s chairwoman of the CDU, Angela Merkel[5]. In 1990 the whole sector of academies was estimated to employ 25000 persons – in addition to 80000 persons at other research institutes[6]. For the handling of the academy problem, two different approaches have been suggested and partly been enacted:

According to the first concept, holders of research positions should be individually integrated into the university system if their personal contributions to the production of scientific knowledge were high enough[7]. That way, the concept should provide for a strengthening of the research capacities at East German universities in order to revitalize that neglected sector for the production of knowledge.

This first concept had a very limited success. The hierarchically organized academies did not have sufficient numbers of scientists of the type which could be found at Western universities: independently thinking, self-organized people, trying to develop their own scientific product – a product that should sell on the market of academic awards.

The second approach was more successful: The existing institutes were evaluated and, in the case of a positive outcome, they were added to the relatively small group of so-called “blue list” institutions. That are scientific institutes of national importance which are co-financed by the federal government and the sub-national governments of the German states[8]. The impact was substantial: The number of “blue list”-institutes rose from 47 in 1989 to 81 in 1992, adding 4000 East German scientific employees to 5000 West German ones.

II. The process of modernization and evaluation in the university sector

Let us now look at the process of integration for those institutions which generally – at least: potentially – fit into the Western scientific culture: the universities and graduate schools[9].

1. The restructuring process at East German universities

Among the protagonists of the peaceful revolution in the GDR have been several scientists[10], but no bearers of major positions in the administration of science. For the scientific establishment had been linked to and even been selected by the Socialist regime. Therefore, in major parts that establishment was scientifically unqualified and not interested in any substantial changes[11]. At some universities, members of the “old guard” temporarily even succeeded in presenting one of their own numbers as a newly elected “Rektor” (president) [12].

Thus, the task of reorganizing the whole scientific system had to be started by outsiders: persons who had been suppressed by the Socialist system of education. But as there was no organized counter elite inside the universities, the restructuring did not begin with some kind of internal self-cleaning of the scientific community, but had to be started by a political decision of the democratized GDR-parliament.

In 1990 – prior to the reunification – the “Volkskammer” decided to adopt relevant parts of West German law. Parallel to that political decision in East Germany, several public and private West German institutions began to develop programs for the structuring and support of the renewal process[13].

On the national level, the joint commission of the national and the regional governments on the planning of the educational system and the support of scientific research (“Bund-Länder-Kommission für Bildungsplanung und Forschungsförderung”) took the lead by

-         setting up a program,

-         forming a joint East-West-commission, and

-         passing principles and requirements for the integration of the educational systems, all until August 1990.

Then, by Article 38 Section 1 of the German unification contract, the West German “Scientific Council” (“Wissenschaftsrat”) was given the authority to evaluate East German research facilities. That council is no academic or political decision maker, but an advisory body for political institutions. It had evaluated West German institutes before. The council

-         formed specialized committees of West German scientists,

-         sent West German professors to the East in order to get first-hand information on both, facilities and faculties, and

-         provided the political system with suggestions for the future structure of the institutions for research and education in the New Länder[14].

As a consequence, the renewal of scientific institutions could follow the process of political institution building relatively quickly: When the New Länder had been shaped and provided with state governments, they were able straightly to go on to

-         passing the necessary state laws on universities,

-         ordering organizational structures and competences,

-         checking the faculties, and

-         creating new study programs, institutional profiles, and so on.

All those efforts resulted in changes of structures and faculties:

-         With few exceptions, the many highly specialized graduate schools which had been created under Socialist rule were either closed or integrated into existing universities.

-         Technical colleges – now called “universities for applied sciences” – were newly set up in East Germany by restructuring institutions which did not have the capacity to become university departments.

-         Scientific as well as administrative staff members were tested for contacts to the GDR-Ministry of the Security of the State – i.e. to the secret police.

-         Moreover, scientists had to hand in their theses and publications for a quality check.

A special problem existed on the level of intermediary university jobs: Due to the planning process under the auspices of the party, in the GDR the successor for a professor had been selected very early. One person was chosen to be destinated for the relevant position. At that time, his or her qualification process might have been unfinished yet. Though the GDR had provided junior scientists with jobs on a temporary base[15], in effect job holders had not been dismissed even if they did not complete the required first or second Ph.D.-thesis. They could not get the position they had been heading for, but simply stayed on their jobs. Consequently, the number of employees had increased even beyond Socialist plans.

According to West German standards, the staff of GDR-universities was far too numerous. The student-teacher-ratio was much more favorable than in the West – but due to a much lower working capacity and not backed by higher financial means. In the contrary, Socialist societies were poor. As a consequence, the administrative staff as well as the number of faculty members at East German universities had to be reduced drastically. More than 60 percent of the scientists in intermediary positions lost their jobs, somewhat more than the average[16].

Fortunately, in 1989 not only the members of the Communist power elite, but also the holders of scientific top positions were relatively old. That enabled the reformers to offer the scientific elite (in a purely functional sense) the opportunity of an early retirement. At Martin-Luther-University, faculty members with close links to the ancient regime left the university when they had reached the age of 55.

2. The evaluation process

The outcome of the tests in scientific quality by first-rate scholars from the West was rather disillusioning. The supervisor of my Ph.D.-thesis at Hamburg University, Winfried Steffani, a Christian Democrat who was involved in the evaluation process at Rostock University, told me: He accepted Socialist remarks in the introduction and at the end of a Ph.D.-thesis. But if he could not find anything else in between, the paper was quite obviously a Socialist tract, not a scientific piece of work.

Especially in the humanities and social sciences East German universities had been corrupted by the Socialist regime because it used them for the legitimization of the existing suppressive political order. Therefore not only the departments of Marxism-Leninism had to be closed. Also the professors and lecturers in (Socialist) Law, (Socialist) Economy, History of the Working Class, and Philosophy had to leave the universities. Their disciplines had to be shut down as well. Instead, new institutes had to be created. The necessary staff was imported from West Germany.

But also in other disciplines like languages or History of Art the testers found a great number of poorly qualifled scientists. Others were regarded as personally inacceptable because of their hidden contacts to the secret police[17].

III. Results

(1.) According to Hermann Glaser, by the evaluation process nearly 20000 out of 38900 staff and faculty members in East Germany lost their jobs[18]. Several turned to protest, some even became politicians. But they could not stop the necessary opening of East German universities to western knowledge.

(2.) All academic titles that have been awarded by the old regime are still respected today (Article 37 Section 1 of the unification contract). But the selection process at German universities has been unified, causing drastic changes in the East.

(3.) Today, all jobs in the qualification track are in fact given only on a temporary base. Moreover, every German scientist knows that he or she has to leave the university, at which he or she was awarded the university teaching licence, the “Habilitation”. You can no longer be “promoted” to a professorship by your personal friends at your home university.

(4.) On the contrary, two separate steps are necessary for an academic career:

First, a scientist has to meet the formal job requirements, that is, he or she has to finish his or her Ph.D.-thesis and a “Habilitation”-thesis (or an accepted equivalent like a substantial second book) [19]. Even at that stage, a good reputation at home is not enough, for a formal “Habilitation” requires the participation of a professor from another university. Only afterwards the scientist may enter the race for a professorship anywhere, but not at home.

(5.) All professorships are awarded on the base of a national competition. The formal qualifications are recognized all over Germany. But every applicant has to accept an examination by a committee of scientists from the university – again, including one member from another university – where he or she applies for a new position. Usually, the selection process takes several months and is carried through several stages: screening the applications, screening the publications, inviting the finalists and putting three persons on a ranked list, followed by the appointment by the minister.

In this system, the first vacancies created by the establishing and evaluating processes in the New Länder predominantly were filled by Westerners – due to the lack of qualified Eastern candidates. But meanwhile, scientists from universities in the East do have a chance all over Germany. Not everyone liked the outcome of the reform process. But it was necessary and it provided chances for the future.


[1] On the general development of the educational systems in East and West Germany see Oskar Anweiler/Hans-Jürgen Fuchs/Martina Dorner/Eberhard Petermann: Bildungspolitik in Deutschland 1945-1990, Bonn 1992.

[2] See Ralf Rytlewski: Forschung, in: DDR-Handbuch, ed. by the Bundesministerium für innerdeutsche Beziehungen, 3rd ed., Köln 1985, pp. 424-437.

[3] Especially well-known is, for example, the Robert-Koch-Institut (Berlin). Its embeddedness in the administrative structure is described by Andrea Ditscheid: Die Gründung des Bundesgesundheitsamtes, Diss. med., Universität zu Köln 2001.

[4] Scientific and artistic personnel at West German Universities 1991: 112939 in comparison to 25080 at West German research institutes. For the GDR exact and reliable figures are hard to get. Even the Statistical Yearbook for Germany gives only some hints. From 1989 to 1991 – i.e. due to the reunification –, it mentions an increase of 14334 scientists at public research institutes, compared to 25799 scientists and artists at institutions of higher learning in the five new Länder (without Berlin). Statistisches Bundesamt (ed.): Statistisches Jahrbuch für die Bundesrepublik Deutschland 1996, Stuttgart 1996, pp. 396, 401. Bernd-Reiner Fischer mentions 41000 employees at the three most important academies in 1989. Bernd-Reiner Fischer: Bildung und Wissenschaft im Einigungsprozeß, in: Eckhard Jesse/Armin Mitter (eds.): Die Gestaltung der deutschen Einheit, Bonn 1992, p. 344.

[5] On the GDR-academies see the relevant articles „Akademie der Künste der DDR (AdK)“, „Akademie der Wissenschaften der DDR (AdW)“, „Akademie für Gesellschaftswissenschaften beim ZK der SED (AfG)“, „Akademie für Staats- und Rechtswissenschaft der DDR“ and „Akademien" in: DDR-Handbuch (note 2), pp. 31-37. – On East German careers after the German reunification see Jürgen Plöhn: Ostdeutsche Profile in der Politik: Zwischen Aufbruch und Anpassung, in: Oscar Gabriel/Beate Neuss/Günther Rüther (eds.): Eliten in der modernen Wissensgesellschaft, Düsseldorf 2004.

[6] Horst Pätzold: Die Situation der Hochschule und Hochschulneugründungen in den neuen Ländern – eine problemorientierte Bilanz, in: Jörg-Dieter Gauger (ed.): Die Zukunft von Forschung und Lehre in den neuen Ländern, Bonn 1992, pp. 8-14.

[7] This concept is the only one mentioned by Dieter Simon: Wiedervereinigung des deutschen Hochschulwesens, in: Christoph Führ/Carl-Ludwig Furck (eds.): Handbuch der deutschen Bildungsgeschichte, vol. VI, 2nd part, München 1998, pp. 390-397. Obviously, Simon’s report is severly biased against the westernization of the East German sector of science. More balanced is the article of Bernd-Reiner Fischer: Bildung und Wissenschaft im Einigungsprozeß, loc.cit. (note 4), pp. 336-364.

[8] See the pages of the “Wissenschaftsgemeinschaft Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz”, The distinguished institutes in that organization like, for example, the “Alfred-Wegener-Institut” for arctic research, are financially based on agreements between the Federal Government and the state governments according to Article 91b of the German Basic Law.

[9] Oskar Anweiler: Bildung und Wissenschaft, in: Werner Weidenfeld/Karl-Rudolf Korte (eds.): Handbuch zur deutschen Einheit. 1949-1989-1999, Neuausg., Bonn 1999, pp. 72-85; Barbara Kehm: Hochschulen in Deutschland, in: Aus Politik und Zeitgeschichte, B 25/2004 of June 14, 2004, pp. 6-17 (internet:

[10] See, for example, Angela Merkel, Hans-J. Misselwitz, Jens Reich, Richard Schröder, Wolfgang Ullmann, Hansjoachim Walther.

[11]Heidrun Katzorke: Das sozialistische Bildungskonzept und seine Durchsetzung im Hochschulwesen der DDR, in: Konrad Löw (ed.): Ursachen und Verlauf der deutschen Revolution 1989, 2nd ed. Berlin 1993, pp. 159-175; Bernd-Reiner Fischer: Bildung und Wissenschaft im Einigungsprozeß, loc. cit. (note 4), p. 342-344.

[12]  Really spectacular was the election of Heiner Fink to head the Humboldt University (Berlin), when his activities for the secret police had already been made public. Also questionable but less publicized was the first election of a “Rektor” at Martin-Luther-University at Halle after 1989. See Johannes Mehlig: Die “Wende“ von 1989/90 aus der Sicht der Nicht-Etablierten, in: Gunnar Berg/Hans-Hermann Hartwich (eds.): Martin-Luther-Universität. Von der Gründung bis zur Neugestaltung nach zwei Diktaturen, Opladen 1994, pp. 167-201.

[13] For example, the Konrad-Adenauer-Foundation and the Foundation Volkswagenwerk supported university teaching and the acquisition of scientific literature for East Germany universities. In Eastern Europe, the Körber-Foundation tried to encourage changes. Ralf Dahrendorf: Universities After Communism, Hamburg 2000.

[14] Oskar Anweiler: Bildung und Wissenschaft, loc. cit.; Barbara Kehm: Hochschulen in Deutschland, loc. cit. (see note 9); Bernd-Reiner Fischer: Bildung und Wissenschaft im Einigungsprozeß, loc. cit. (note 4), p. 354-357. – According to the German constitutional order, the Länder have most competences with respect to universities.

[15] An overview on the different types of scientific employees is given by Hans-Ludwig Schreiber: Über die Erneuerung der Personalstruktur in den Hochschulen, in: Jörg-Dieter Gauger (ed.), loc. cit. (note 6), pp. 34-38.

[16] Hermann Glaser: Deutsche Kultur 1945-2000, 2nd ed., Bonn 2003, p. 477.

[17] On Martin-Luther University as the first reconstructed university in the New Länder see Hans-Hermann Hartwich: Der Prozeß der Transformation 1990-1993 in der sozialwissenschaftlichen Analyse, in: Gunnar Berg/Hans-Hermann Hartwich (eds.), loc. cit. (note 12), pp. 203-236. See also Wolfgang Schluchter: Perspektiven der ostdeutschen Universitäten, in: Hans-Hermann Hartwich (ed.): Universitätsjubiläum und Erneuerungsprozeß, Opladen 1995, pp. 133-143. For a general overview see Barbara Kehm, loc. cit. (note 9), pp. 10-12.

[18] Hermann Glaser, loc. cit. (note 16), p. 476.

[19] The current majority in the Bundestag tried to abolish the formal „Habilitation“. The outcome is not clear yet. At least the general pattern of qualification and subsequent appointment can be expected to be kept.