Cover Story: 20 Years of German Unity

The Art Was to Still Be Able to Look at Yourself in the Mirror in the Morning

Interview with Joachim Sauer

Chemist Joachim Sauer is one of the researchers from East Germany who was successful both before and after the Wende. A discussion about the achievements and injustices of reunification and about research careers between conformism and creative resistance.

Joachim Sauer, Professor of Theoretical Chemistry at the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin: “Here we really do have the blossoming landscapes.“
Joachim Sauer, Professor of
Theoretical Chemistry at the
Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin:
“Here we really do have the
blossoming landscapes.“

Photo: Peter Himsel

Kosmos: Professor Sauer, when the Wall fell, you worked in the Academy of Sciences of the GDR in Berlin-Adlershof, right next door to the Stasi guard regiment which had its barracks here. What can you tell me about your and your neighbours’ experiences on that day?
Sauer: I didn’t encounter the Stasi guard on that day at all because I wasn’t in Berlin; I was in Karlsruhe on a research stay. About a year before the Wall fell, I was finally given permission to travel to the West as what was known as a travel cadre. I’d waited a long time for the privilege. On the evening of 9 November 1989, I went up to my room in the lecturers’ guesthouse and saw the famous press conference with Schabowski on the news. I had always known that the regime would have to fail, but I had never believed that it would happen in my lifetime.

Kosmos: What did you have to do to get permission to travel as a scientist?
Sauer: Firstly, you had to be a cadre who was considered worth being promoted. And, preferably, there had to be some form of guarantee that you would return; that if in doubt, there would be enough hostages left behind here. Before you left you had to cut all ties with your family and private contacts in the West. I wasn’t prepared to do that, but I was prepared not to contact my aunts and cousins during my official trip. The fact that I and others were finally made travel cadres already heralded the fall of the Wall – that was at the time of Gorbachev. Just a few years earlier, there was a time when I wasn’t even allowed to travel to socialist countries.

Kosmos: What impact did your lack of mobility have on your research?
Sauer: You could, of course, exchange ideas through publications, as there were no restrictions on this in my day. It was also possible, and later even encouraged, to publish your work in western journals. The GDR was interested in gaining international renown in the field of science, too. I could even jointly publish with colleagues from the West. Some things were possible, even though they involved certain indignities.

“I had always known that the regime would have to fail.”

Kosmos: What sort of indignities? 
Sauer: For example, I once received an invitation to give a lecture at an international conference in the USA. For a young scientist, such an invitation is encouraging recognition. The first I knew about the invitation was from the director of the institute as all letters from abroad were read before being passed on. The director explained to me that I was, of course, unable to travel to the USA because I was not a travel cadre and that comrade so-and-so would go there instead. This was frustrating because someone else was going to benefit from the reputation I had worked hard to create. However, nothing usually came of it because the event organiser didn’t want to pay for the comrade. And with that, the matter was closed.

Kosmos: To what extent did you have to conform if you wanted a scientific career?
Sauer: In the GDR, you had to make compromises and conform if you wanted to graduate from a university. The art was to still be able to look at yourself in the mirror in the morning but not to be expelled from secondary school or lose your university place or jeopardise your scientific career opportunities. It was a constant worry: will I be allowed to take my Abitur (university entrance examinations)? And once you’d got that far: will I get a university place? Then: will I be allowed to take a doctorate? That was why I always knew that I’d never be able to allow myself to express criticism in public. But, of course, I didn’t always manage.

Kosmos: In what way?
Sauer: It started in secondary school. A fellow pupil whose mother was a functionary in the local SED leadership told her parents about my loose tongue. Her mother then informed the deputy head teacher. He called me into his office and gave me what seemed to be a well-meaning warning: it was a real shame that such a good student could say such things, both for my future and for socialism in general. This kind of thing happened to me on several occasions. At conferences in the GDR or in foreign socialist countries, some form of criticism could always slip out, and there was often someone who heard it and reported what I’d said.

Kosmos: So you had to abstain from criticism altogether ...
Sauer: Abstention wasn’t all that was expected! They wanted submission, active commitment and “social responsibility”, meaning membership in socialist mass organisations for non-SED members. During my time as an assistant at Humboldt-Universität, the professor, an SED member, to whose working group I belonged, approached me and said, “Everyone here is in the Society for German-Soviet Friendship. If you don’t want to join us, then find another working group.” – which would of course have meant leaving the university. And so I became a member. A further example from my time at the academy was when the SED held one of its party congresses. One Friday afternoon, the party secretary knocked on my door, entered the room and said, “We have all been moved by the congress. Many people are taking the opportunity to express their feelings on the wall newspaper in the institute.” He claimed that I was a good scientist whom they wanted to give this opportunity, too.

Joachim Sauer
Joachim Sauer
Photo: Peter Himsel

Kosmos: And did you take the opportunity?
Sauer: It was a catch-22 situation. To decline would have been regarded as provocation. However, I couldn’t express my true opinion either. I therefore had to write something that the comrades wanted to hear but with a little sting in the tail so that they wouldn’t immediately ask me for another article. I worked hard from Friday evening to Sunday evening, tweaking the article until it was perfect. I hung it on the wall myself on Monday morning. Two hours later it had disappeared; the party secretary had taken it down.

Kosmos: The little sting did its job ...
Sauer: Yes, the message had been received but there wasn’t really anything they could accuse me of. Just imagine if the paper were published in the “Spiegel” today. It’s possible that my little sting would go unnoticed and that, instead, people would see a commitment to the party.

Kosmos: What were the consequences of political restrictions and state control for researchers in the GDR?
Sauer: It wasn’t the case for me, but the restricted career opportunities caused some people to give up. They continued their work as usual, but simply had no further desire to get to the top of their field.

Kosmos: Necessity is the mother of invention: did you have to be particularly creative as a GDR researcher?
Sauer: You certainly had to get the best you could from the research technology available, but even those with better technology do that. Despite several embargo breaks, the GDR was always at least one generation behind when it came to computers. In my field, the application of quantum-chemical methods, this gave me even more time to consider how to make certain problems calculable by selecting suitable models. This meant that I was well prepared and knew precisely what I would do if better methods were available.

Kosmos: What was your opinion of the wave of evaluation and dismantling that followed reunification, and how do you view this now in retrospect? Was it handled fairly?
Sauer: Change naturally occurred extremely quickly – and it had to. On the other hand, no one was used to such transformation. We have to differentiate: what is good for science, what is good for scientific institutions and what is good for individual scientists? Structurally, reunification was a great success in the world of science. But did it also do justice to individuals in terms of their achievements, their directness, their opportunism or their complicity? Not really. But it may be that that simply wasn’t possible.

“Abstention wasn’t all that was expected; they wanted submission!”

Kosmos: Do you understand the bitterness of colleagues whose careers didn‘t develop as positively as yours did?
Sauer: Primarily, I don’t only think about those who lost their jobs after German reunification but rather about those who were prevented from entering the academic world in the first place. This may have been because they weren’t allowed to take their Abitur due to their ties to the church or because as undergraduates or doctoral students they let themselves be provoked during the obligatory courses on Marxism- Leninism and had to leave the university. I also think about all those who, unlike me at the age of 40, weren’t young enough to avail themselves of all the new opportunities. In the East, there were far more university teachers and positions for mid-level faculty per student than in the West. This meant that job cuts had to be made. And this also affected many people who had led upright lives in the GDR and conducted sound research – as far as was possible with the opportunities available.

Kosmos: What happened to the supporters and opportunists?
Sauer: If we leave aside the true believers, all of us who worked at the Academy or the university in 1989 were opportunists to some extent. The non-conformists and those who were completely unwilling to compromise had already been dismissed. The active supporters of the regime in managerial roles had backed up a regime that was, on the whole, hostile to science, and had to face up to their structural responsibility. A number of them did just that – when the Wall fell, the director of my institute asked the staff for a vote of confidence and lost. He then stood down – which I thought was respectable.

Kosmos: And then there were the “unofficial” Stasi employees – the ones who spied on their colleagues. What happened to them?
Sauer: People’s motives and actions differed greatly – blackmail was often involved. Commissions were therefore established, at my institute, too, and people with anything to confess were asked to go ahead and confess. Then they would review all the circumstances and decide whether they could be forgiven. Hardly anyone grasped the opportunity. Most people were only identified when the victim files were looked at. Even in my file, I found reports by three colleagues, including one who was slightly older than me with whom I had a friendly relationship and from whom I had learnt a good few things while studying for my doctorate. He had also told me about the job at the Academy.

Kosmos: Did you find out what happened to himde?
Sauer: No. Everything worked out well for me and so, like many others, I was able to expend my energy on developing new things. Also, the reports in my files weren’t about anything bad, nor were they malicious. However, anything and everything was reported, and that was dangerous. The Stasi collected everything so that if they ever decided to instigate subversive measures or force anyone to cooperate with them, they would have known precisely where to apply pressure. What illnesses you had, who your contacts were – they knew everything.

“Some people gave up and had no further desire to get to the top.”

Kosmos: Despite some considerable achievements there is still a West-East divide in German research, as the lower level of success in the Excellence Initiative has illustrated ...
Sauer: There’s also a South-North divide in the Excellence Initiative, and the 3rd pillar, which deals with the universities’ overall concepts, shouldn’t really be taken very seriously anyway. What matters is that the universities and nonuniversity institutions in the East are playing in the same league as those in the West. In the USA, the achievement gaps are far wider than those in Germany.

Kosmos: Most people funded by the Humboldt Foundation still prefer to be based in the West. After the Wall fell, about one percent of Humboldtians were based at East German universities, at least this has now risen to nine percent ...
Sauer: Well, there you are then. What matters is the trend. As a Humboldt Host in Berlin, you don’t have any problem motivating international post-docs or award winners to stay here. However, many universities in the East suffer from a lack of renown. Americans have heard of Heidelberg. And Berlin. And Munich. But Greifs wald? Or Rostock? Or Cottbus? The provinces are simply unknown. The system then only works through specific academic contacts or personal relationships established by former Humboldtians; or on the basis of the host’s personal reputation, of course.

Kosmos: And how easy is it to encourage your colleagues from West Germany to accept a position in the East?
Sauer: When the first jobs were advertised after German reunification, some of our young colleagues from the West said they wouldn’t come to Humboldt-Universität if they could go to Bayreuth – especially as we’d made the error of showing them our laboratories in advance (laughs). They couldn’t be won over by national responsibility. Now, it’s easier because in the field of science, we really do have the blossoming landscapes in the East – as you can see from the institute here in Berlin-Adlershof.

Interview: Georg Scholl

published in Humboldt Kosmos 96/2010
Joachim Sauer
Joachim Sauer
Photo: Peter Himsel

Professor Dr. Joachim Sauer is a professor of Theoretical Chemistry at the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin and has acted as a Humboldt Host on multiple occasions. Until its dissolution, he worked at the GDR Academy of Sciences in Berlin. Following a brief period of employment at a company that developed modelling software for molecular structures in San Diego, USA, Sauer became the head of the Max Planck Society’s Quantum Chemistry Group in Berlin in 1992.

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