Monday, 9 November 2009

twenty years after

Just finished watching the BBC broadcast from Berlin, with giant dominoes falling and all that. I remember the euphoria at the time. Nowadays it is difficult to imagine anyone in right mind who’d say that the fall of the Berlin Wall was a bad thing. (Margaret Thatcher was famously opposed to it, but I am not sure she was in right mind.)

Still, I didn’t expect yesterday’s article in Guardian by Bruni de la Motte to cause such a torrent of (mostly right-wing) comments.

As a result of the purging of academia, research and scientific establishments in a process of political vetting, more than a million individuals with degrees lost their jobs. This constituted about 50% of that group, creating in east Germany the highest percentage of professional unemployment in the world; all university chancellors and directors of state enterprises as well as 75,000 teachers lost their jobs and many were blacklisted.
I don’t know how correct are the figures, but the article rings the right bells to me. Some of my colleagues from former GDR have lost their jobs as a result of Abwicklung (restructuring, or rather liquidation, of East German institutions). I think the biggest loser here was German science as a whole: East German scientists, educated to a high standard, had no problem finding jobs in the USA. But then, social revolutions, even velvet ones, are rarely good news for science.

Brigitte Young wrote in her 1993 paper:

Women are not only the first to lose their positions in the process of Abwicklung, they are also the last to be considered in the new stage of rebuilding the university system. Thus the politics of Abwicklung has to be understood as a microcosm of the gendered nature of German unification as a whole. Unification has provided German conservatives the opportunity to roll back not only the social policies of the east, but also the feminist achievements in the west.
But that was 16 years ago, right? Surely by now things should have got better. Yet the East-West divide still exists in German science. (In words of Fritz Stern, “the physical wall has been internalized”.) In last week’s Science, Gretchen Vogel wonders why the Max Planck Society, out of its 267 directors, has only one former East German who started a career before 1989. Not that it has many women directors either. Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard, Director at the Max-Planck-Institute of Developmental Biology, wrote that
in 1995, the society was able to boast that 25% of their female directors had received a Nobel prize.

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