Bold ideas and critical thoughts on science.

Katrin Frisch on encounters with the different forms of west german hegemony throughout her scientific training and everyday working life in academia.

Katrin Frisch

In class we were reading John Milton’s ‘On Education’, a treatise in which the poet laid out his ideas on an ideal education. After many years of theoretical learning, the students – so Milton argued – should head into the world to learn about different cultures, but ultimately to realise the superiority of their own. One of my fellow students was outraged and he sought to embellish his argument against this type of chauvinism by voicing his love for Italian opera. Who, in the face of Italian Opera, would be able to diminish other cultures and not be in awe and truly appreciate the richness of diverse cultures, he asked rhetorically. But then he remembered: Well, everyone except the two East Germans, with whom he had to share a box at the opera. Unable to appreciate high culture, they had left during the break. No surprise, he continued without any self-awareness, for East Germans are known to be stupid and lacking in culture.

There was a short silence and then I replied: “Stupid East Germans lacking in culture, you mean, like me?” I could tell he did not expect this. Then my lecturer joined in, snickering: “And like me?” He surely did not expect this. The matter wasn’t addressed any further, but it stayed with me for two reasons. First, for the audacity my fellow-student had to not only insult East Germans, but to expect that at an East German university none would be present. And secondly, for the fact that East Germans were, in fact, present as students and staff. For there is an invisible inequality that permeates German academia, and it is the old dividing line between East and West.

There is more to the matter than anecdotal evidence. Thirty years after German reunification East Germans are still vastly outnumbered among academic staff at German universities. This is especially true for the higher ranks. At present only one of all the presidents at German universities is East German which sadly fits the percentage of 1,5% of East Germans in academic top positions in general (Vogel and Zajak 2020). Of course, academia is no exception: East Germans are underrepresented in the higher echelons of politics, the economy, media, and culture. Or, put more bluntly, in the seats of power. With depressing regularity, we routinely address – traditionally on the 3rd October, the anniversary of the German reunification – the continuing disparity between East and West Germany, but nothing really changes. Most recently on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of the Hochschulrektorenkonferenz (the German Rectors’ Conference, an association that now represents universities and other higher education institutions from both West and East Germany) the disparity between East and West German academics in top positions was prominently raised, but no solutions were offered. Instead there was an appeal to universities to contribute to the closing of the gulf between East and West. For thirty years we have been told that time will bring the necessary changes, but these have remained empty promises. In fact, the power dynamics, as they were created after the reunification, did not mark a transition period, but have since been firmly established and continually reproduce themselves, as Jana Hensel aptly noted (Hensel 2019). So where did we go wrong?

Transformations and elite transfers

The time of the reunification was messy and complex, a complexity that this article cannot survey in its entirety. But looking into the restructuring process of the East German academic landscape, one can discern a number of patterns. The reunification was facilitated by a large-scale transfer of West German elites into East German top positions; an event unlike any other transfer of power in other Eastern European countries, according to Steffen Mau, which, instead, saw a ‘recruitment from within’. Maybe more importantly in the German context, Mau also conjectures that West Germany experienced a greater continuity of those in power even after 1945 (Mau 2019). The vacancies in East German universities proved to be ideal career building opportunities especially for ‘second-row’ West German academics. The new posts also came with a financial incentive, the so-called Buschprämie, a word with a colonial past (Prämie means stipend, while the German word Busch in this context originally referred to the African colonies) that captured the sense that East Germany was a primitive region in need of cultivation. Not all positions were given to West Germans – one notable structural exception is the centre for transdisciplinary gender studies at the Humboldt University of Berlin, which was set up during the transformative years by East German researchers (Nickel 2011) – but the number of East Germans often remained pitifully low. For example, in fields such as the military, the judiciary, media as well as the humanities and social sciences, the number of East Germans employed in the years after the reunification was between five and zero percent (cf. Hensel 2019). While the numbers in the judiciary have slowly improved (although mostly in East Germany, not in Germany as a whole), media and academia are still lagging behind. This is not to disparage the West German efforts, without which the transformation in East Germany would not have been possible for the many academics I have worked with and still do. However, it needs to be stated that the present makeup of academic staff is not solely a testament to merit but to structural barriers and privileges as well.

Discrimination and disrupted biographies

The fact that the existence of East Germans in top positions remains an anomaly, requires us to address West German hegemonies as a structural problem, comparable to other systemic forms of discrimination. A well-publicised study by Naika Foroutan et al. from 2019 put into words and numbers what many East Germans have long since felt. The study demonstrated that both East Germans and migrants, especially Muslims, are not only subject to similar stereotypes and prejudices but also raise doubts about society’s underlying meritocratic narratives. And while West Germans are more willing to recognise the structural inequalities Muslims face, less than a third considered East Germans equally disadvantaged (Foroutan et al. 2019). This shows that West German hegemonies in German academia are part of a more comprehensive power matrix – mirroring complex structures of discrimination as well as privilege outside academia, where different categories intersect and binaries like East/West form part of a bigger picture – and they cannot be discussed without this context in mind.

After the reunification East Germans not only faced a comprehensive elite transfer, but a strategic dismantling of industries, massive job losses, a crumbling away of social structures and security as well as the need to recalibrate their identities. There is often a tacit glossing over the fact that while many East Germans lost employment, university diplomas and money during the reunification, West Germans in return got first dibs on a new market for cheap housing and (academic) vacancies. East Germans were not only discursively made to feel like second-rate citizens, but for many the loss of employment and the invalidation of their academic degrees did, in fact, make them second-rate contenders in the new neoliberal economy. In my family each and every member lost their job and none of those who got back on their feet were then employed based on their actual qualifications. And my family is not the exception. These disrupted biographies not only manifested themselves in people’s identities, but also in their roles within society. Former academics became labourers in the lower service industries, those formerly in secure careers now had to struggle as self-employed workers or juggled multiple jobs. My mother, a single mum who worked at the Humboldt University of Berlin, was – together with the majority of her colleagues – unceremoniously asked to leave, simply because in the newly restructured faculty they had become superfluous. What should have been no more than the birth pangs of a new system has slowly crept into its very structures. Instead of being undone by the passage of time, Western hegemony in German academia has manifested itself. Thirty years after the reunification , an East German background is still in some respects a disadvantage.

Intersections of class and East/West German backgrounds

Sure, thirty years after the reunification, categories like East and West German start to become fuzzy. But what is beyond dispute, is that not only were the last generation who spent their formative years in the GDR barred from entering German academia in significant numbers, but also that the so-called Nachwendekinder – the post-reunification kids, i.e. those who were born in the years shortly before or after reunification 89/90 – still face academic structures that were established by West Germans with only West Germans in mind. The reason I use the phrase ‘with only West Germans in mind’ is to highlight that the majority of discriminatory practices and structures disadvantaging East Germans were not put in place out of malice, but out of ignorance. For example, in the last years a number of mentoring programmes were established that target first generation students, i.e. students coming from non-academic households. While these programmes are commendable, they completely overlooked people like me and many of my East German peers who felt equally lost in academia, despite often having family members who had been to university. The difference in academic systems in the GDR and West Germany was significant enough that it warranted a complete overhaul of the East German universities, but seemingly not enough to include Nachwendekinder in these mentoring programmes.

The same holds true when we bring in the intersection between East German origin and class. Routinely on university and scholarship forms the question to ascertain class background is whether one’s parents have a university degree. Every time I filled out these forms either ticking the box or not ticking the box felt like the wrong option in my case. Time and time again I had to explain in West German dominated groups, that you could be both from an academic background and grow up in a low income household. Growing up, there was less money in my family than in those of my West German working-class friends, but based on educational background I was privileged. Academia seems to have no space for these hybrid (which is just a nice way of saying messy) backgrounds. When young people, particularly those from East Germany, are adamantly holding on to the markers of East and West it is not to create difference, but to make these often overlooked biographical trajectories and experiences visible.

The more I climbed the academic ladder, the more aware I became of my East German identity: During school and my Bachelor’s I had always been in plentiful company of those who shared my experiences and whose families shared certain aspects of my family’s experience. But with many of my East German peers quietly leaving academia behind to pursue other careers, an East German background became something that needed to be explained and occasionally defended. Make no mistake, my friends who left academia tend to face similar structures and prejudices in their respective fields; rolling their eyes at tired jokes and telling me of their colleagues’ disbelief that intelligent and eloquent people grew up in (the East Berlin borough) Marzahn. It reminded me of a conversation I once overheard at a restaurant where tourists planned their trip to Marzahn to ‘go and look at the white trash there’. The words are crude, but the general notion is not so different from what I have read in many serious media outlets. Western-centric media narratives of East Germany as a place of small-minded, chauvinistic, uncultured and embittered people fuel these prejudices and legitimate existing hegemonies.

Plattenbauten – prefabricated panel block buildings – in Marzahn, Berlin. Credit: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-1987-0128-310, via Wikimedia Commons/ CC-BY-SA 3.0

Hegemonic narratives

In academia these hegemonic narratives often express themselves in the little details, for example when East Germany is completely overlooked in historical reflections on Germany or when East German lived realities are marked as deficient. I remember attending a conference with a West German historian who not only considered the success of a number of East German manufactured goods a simple case of misplaced (n)ostalgia (the German word Ostalgia is a neologism describing the nostalgia for all things East German) but also described Plattenbauten (prefabricated panel block buildings) as traumatic living environments. Worse, the same historian later proceeded to lecture me on the issue of right wing ideology in East Germany, seemingly convinced that I – an East German academic researching right-wing extremism – was unable, or too biased, to really understand the matter at hand. None of the other researchers present took umbrage at her comments. I remember their silence as clearly as her comments. Many, it seems, are more comfortable with East Germans only as research objects and not as academic peers.

The feeling of being out-of-place stayed with me throughout my PhD. Even though I finally landed a coveted scholarship, I don’t remember ever meeting someone with a similar biography as mine at the conferences and events hosted by my scholarship foundation. This does not mean that there weren’t any others like me, but being an East German from the Platte is not an identity you are encouraged to cultivate, but rather one to be hidden if you want to succeed. Scholarship foundations play their part in the underrepresentation of East Germans among the academic elites by promoting West German centric biographical trajectories of excellence. This not only decreases the chances for people who don’t fit these notions of excellence, but it also increases the hidden self-selective processes, whereby students, who think they don’t fit the mould, don’t even apply in the first place. Twice I threw away the application papers after I had been recommended for a scholarship, convinced that applying would be in vain. I was also lacking evidence to the contrary: at that time not one of my East German friends received a scholarship despite getting top grades. The idea that scholarships are not awarded based on merit alone but reproduce existing hegemonies seems to rub many people the wrong way. I once raised this point during a departmental meeting and was swiftly informed by the majority present that scholarships were a testament to academic excellence. The same colleagues would, probably only two hours later, encourage classroom discussions about society’s existing power dynamics and hegemonies. The theoretical structures from the classrooms don’t travel to the streets.

A call for systemic change

Where do we go from here? The best actions that could have been taken should have been those taken twenty years ago. But we need to stop saying that the ‘change is long overdue’ and then abandoning the issue until the next anniversary of the reunification. Paying lip service to equality without action is just another way of postponing the issue. A quota for East Germans could be one way out of this mess, though a rather unpopular one. It seems to contradict the very basis of meritocracy. However, if we are being honest, the employment policies after the reunification have been nothing but a quota for West Germans. It is almost farcical that a system built on the structural privileging of one group shall now be overcome by individual action of those marginalised. What we need is systemic change; a change that ideally addresses academia’s power dynamic from an intersectional perspective with East German background as one of many categories. As I argued above, actions that target class discrimination would benefit many East Germans, too. It is also time to rethink the relationship between class membership and educational trajectories to allow for more complex identities, as Nathan Connolly suggests in his piece ‘You’re Not Working Class’ (2017).

We need an open conversation about privilege in academia and more importantly we need the courage to act upon it. The process of self-reflection cannot end with the question of ‘who is missing from the table?’ and then going back to business as usual. Very importantly, it is not only universities that need to change. Scholarship programmes are important agents in the transmission of privilege and power and need to critically re-evaluate their selection processes. Some have started to introduce different criteria and trained staff on internalised prejudices. Yet maybe we have to re-think the concept of academic excellence from the root by abandoning the worship of immaculate CVs and focus on the ideas people bring into the debate. Moreover, we need to move away from the ever-increasing proliferation of short-term contracts in academia and establish more permanent positions. Academic precarity doesn’t only have disastrous consequences on the financial and mental health of researchers, it also acts as a further selective measure that benefits those who already have economic and social capital.

In short, to effect systemic change first we have to make hegemonic structures and structral discrimination visible and we should do so from an intersectional point of view. Secondly, we should abandon the idea that this system will be undone by individual action alone. A quota or other targeted support programmes could be a first step in the right direction. Thirdly, we should look beyond universities and include, for example, scholarship programmes in these efforts. Fourthly, we need to improve working conditions and career options in academia. As a result German academia would not only become fairer but also better.

For addressing West German hegemonies in academia is not only a matter of fairness. Universities produce the knowledge that eventually affects the lived realities of all people in society. Thus, people from all backgrounds should be part of the process of knowledge production. Thirty years after the reunification, I want to make you an offer: You can keep your fancy Altbauwohnungen in the gentrified parts of East Berlin, just give us a seat at the academic table!