Newsletter 3/2013

A Journey Through Time - The Alexander von Humboldt Foundation - 60 Years

That Humboldt Feeling

One has been associated with the Foundation since its beginnings, the other leads it today. Heinrich Pfeiffer and Enno Aufderheide discuss the past and the present, fellows’ meetings and mnemonic tricks, German beer and Coca Cola, and the secret of the Humboldt family’s success.

Heinrich Pfeiffer und Enno Aufderheide
Heinrich Pfeiffer and Enno

Photo: Oliver Rüther

Kosmos: Dr. Pfeiffer, you served as Secretary General of the Foundation for almost forty years. Which personal encounters do you remember particularly fondly?
Pfeiffer: I fear that might somewhat exceed the scope of this interview …

Kosmos: Please, choose at least one encounter …
Pfeiffer: All right. An incident I remember especially well is our meeting with the very first Humboldtians from the People’s Republic of China. They arrived together, 32 of them, at Frankfurt Airport. So we drove over there and picked them up. We had ordered decent beer, a few sandwiches. The Chinese were all wearing regulation Chairman Mao suits and caps, we were in dark suits. We greeted each other and I said, “May I invite you to the hotel for some refreshments after your long flight?” They walked into the dining room, saw the bottles of beer, and unanimously chorused, “Coca Cola”, because Coke wasn’t available in China then. That was a bit of a disappointment. I thought German beer was something special that would go down well. Instead they drank Coca Cola by the bottle; we could barely keep it coming fast enough.

“Many fellows came here with mixed feelings.”

Kosmos: When you took office, the Foundation was just three years old. What can you tell us about those early days so soon after the war?
Pfeiffer: Germany’s past was initially a great burden for us. From 1953, researchers started coming here from countries like Poland, places that Germany had invaded just a few years earlier. Many fellows came with mixed feelings. I had experienced those reservations myself when I went to Sweden on a fellowship after the war, and from there to the United States. People frequently avoided me because I was German. Building trust and sympathy, being human and personal was our main task then and remains so to this day.

Heinrich Pfeiffer
Heinrich Pfeiffer 
Photo: Oliver Rüther

Kosmos: Dr. Aufderheide, the post-war period and the division of Europe are long past. Today, research funding is also about locational advantages and international competition. How important is the idea of international understanding nowadays?
Aufderheide: It’s true that the Humboldt Foundation and its role have changed since the end of the Cold War. But sponsorship and understanding are still two sides of the same coin for us, because today’s world isn’t really all that much more peaceful. There is conflict everywhere. And all that potentially involves prejudice or tension between nationals of enemy states who meet on neutral ground here in Germany. So international understanding remains important.

Kosmos: Today’s researchers are more mobile than ever. What difference can a stay in Germany still make these days?
Aufderheide: Mobility has become more commonplace. But the Humboldtians of recent years assure us that they still see their time in Germany as an extraordinary period of their lives, and that the particular esteem in which we hold our fellows is quite unique. From the hospitality they encounter at our universities and research institutions to the reception hosted by the Federal President, our Humboldtians experience their time here as special. Last but not least, the stay is beneficial to their careers, at least that’s what 90 percent of Humboldtians tell us.
Pfeiffer: Many have also had fellowships in other countries and are in a position to compare. We frequently hear things like: Where else do you get that: annual meetings where you have the opportunity to get together with your colleagues from neighbouring countries? Where else can you go on a study trip across Germany and have time to get to know the country and its people? Most research funding organisations don’t provide that sort of care. Not to mention our alumni programmes.

“Whenever Humboldtians congregate, it’s as if they had known each other forever.”
Aufderheide: Exactly. “Once a Humboldtian, always a Humboldtian”, that still applies. Were you the one who came up with that?
Pfeiffer: Possibly. If not, then I certainly wish I had (laughs).


Kosmos: Dr. Pfeiffer, when you took office, there were roughly 250 fellows. When did you stop knowing every one?
Pfeiffer: 1975 was when it started getting difficult. I used to use our index cards to prepare for the annual meeting and the introductory meetings. The combination of a photo and a name is very helpful. And if I also knew who the host was, or a few personal details, then it all fell into place again.

Enno Aufderheide
Enno Aufderheide 
Photo: Oliver Rüther

Kosmos: Dr. Aufderheide, how do you prepare for an annual meeting of 600 today?
Aufderheide: I certainly can’t learn the index cards of all those who attend off by heart. It’s more important to recapitulate on the personal relationships, to at least recognise the people one has spoken to before. I also have the feeling that Humboldtians understand that we are unable to know each and every one of them personally, but they are happy that we take an interest. And that interest is sincere and very great. I can honestly say that I have never met a Humboldtian who wasn’t interesting in some way or other.

Kosmos: The network now has 26,000 members. Can that still be described as the much-vaunted Humboldt family?
Aufderheide: It’s astounding: whenever Humboldtians congregate, it’s as if they had known each other forever. I’ve just come back from a conference in Taiwan attended by people from Japan, Korea, India, China and Taiwan, about half of whom were Humboldtians. And although they had never met before, they quickly got together and started talking. While Japanese, Chinese and Taiwanese warships were stalking each other over the island dispute north of Taiwan, science was building a bridge of friendship between the three nations under the Humboldt umbrella.
Pfeiffer: That sort of thing, that spontaneous familiarity and openness, is something I have frequently observed as well. In this family, even if people don’t all know each other personally, there is still a sense of belonging.
Aufderheide: That Humboldt feeling, so to speak.
Pfeiffer: That’s exactly it! Congratulations, now you’re the one who has coined a good phrase.
Aufderheide: But it could just as well have been you (laughs).
Pfeiffer: True.

Interview: Georg Scholl


Alexander von Humboldt-Stiftung
Press,Communications and Marketing
Jean-Paul-Str. 12
53173 Bonn

Tel. 0228 833 -257/-144


Further Information

Dr. Heinrich Pfeiffer was Secretary General from 1956 to 1994 and shaped the fortunes of the Foundation for more than 38 years. He is always welcome at the Foundation and often visits, even today. He is still also a tireless networker, maintaining contact with many Humboldtians.

Dr. Enno Aufderheide has been Secretary General of the Foundation since 2010. A biologist by training and passionate ornithologist, he is an experienced science manager whose career has taken him to institutions such as the Max Planck Society, the German Science Council and the German Aerospace Center.