Volume 87 Issue 45 | pp. 42-46
Issue Date: November 9, 2009

Chemistry Behind The Wall

Twenty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, chemists who lived in former East Germany reflect on science then and now
Department: Science & Technology
Keywords: Berlin Wall, communism, surveillance, Stasi
The opening of the Wall at Berlin Bornholmer Strasse 1989.
Credit: Courtesy of YouTube
The opening of the Berlin Wall at the Brandenburg Gate 1989.
Credit: Courtesy of YouTube
The Berlin Wall fell in 1989.
Credit: Newscom
The Berlin Wall fell in 1989.
Credit: Newscom

In the summer of 1989, just months before the Berlin Wall fell, Christoph Naumann was 19 and had no interest in serving in the military for a regime he could not stomach. Living in Dresden, then part of the former Communist German Democratic Republic (GDR), Naumann knew that his chances of studying chemistry—or any topic for that matter— at a university were slim if he didn’t do his military service.

“So I pretended to go camping in Hungary,” Naumann says. He trudged at night by foot from his campsite through a lake region to escape to the former Yugoslavia and then into West Germany. Naumann’s travels were helped along by his sister, who smuggled 20 West German deutschemarks in her underwear on his behalf, and by a Hungarian train conductor who illegally transported his academic records to the West, says Naumann, who now works as a chemist in Sydney, Australia.

As the 20th anniversary of the Berlin Wall’s collapse is celebrated worldwide on Nov. 9, poignant reminders of those who suffered deeply under the oppressive regime are not hard to find in former GDR areas. Near Berlin’s Parliament buildings, white crosses remind passersby of those shot by East German guards as they were trying to swim to freedom across the Spree River into West Berlin. In Leipzig, at a museum on the grounds of the regional headquarters of the Stasi, the GDR’s spy agency, visitors can see disguises worn by agents and glass jars containing seat covers used by interrogated individuals. The seat covers were kept so dogs could trace the interrogated by scent, should they ever try to escape the GDR.

Like the rest of the population, chemists and other scientists were also under invasive scrutiny. They practiced science in inventive ways, sometimes without essential lab equipment or with smuggled instruments. With government officials prodding them for Communist Party commitment, and with implicit threats to family and career if they did not submit, scientists also had to be creative in sidestepping politics in their work and in life. Nowadays, many researchers in former GDR areas work in offices or labs that have been revitalized by government investment and are indistinguishable from their Western counterparts. But the two decades that have passed since 1989 have not erased memories of spying, travel restrictions, and harassment by the former regime.

The GDR spies’ secret name for Uwe Rosenthal was “Nickel” because he worked with nickel catalysts. Hundreds of pages of informant reports about his daily life that Rosenthal acquired after the Berlin Wall fell reveal the extent that the Stasi had watched him. In 1989, he was a chemist in his early 30s living in Rostock. The year before, his former Ph.D. supervisor had gone to the West for a family birthday and never returned. “I was under complete surveillance,” with limited access to resources to do science, Rosenthal remembers. “The Stasi believed my supervisor was selling results he had obtained in our lab,” but in reality Rosenthal’s adviser had gone in search of academic freedom at a research institute in the West. In the surveillance files Stasi spies kept about him, Rosenthal later found evidence that colleagues, even family friends, had been reporting on his activities to the Stasi.

“My career really began in full when the Wall came down,” Rosenthal says. He now heads the coordination chemistry catalysis department of Leibniz Institute for Catalysis at the University of Rostock.

The GDR began constructing the approximately 100-mile-long Berlin Wall in 1961 to stem an exodus of East Germans into West Berlin that ramped up in the years after World War II. In late 1989, nearly three decades after the Wall had been built, increasing numbers of people like Naumann were escaping through Hungary or Czechoslovakia, which had become more open to the West. After several months of East German civil demonstrations, GDR officials planned to loosen travel restrictions on the country’s citizens.

On Nov. 9 of that year, a poorly briefed GDR official named Günter Schabowski announced this decision at a press conference. Stumbling over his notes, he said—incorrectly—that travel restrictions were immediately removed. A flood of East Germans to the border crossings in Berlin caught guards and the establishment unaware. Under crowd pressure, the guards permitted a surge of people to flow between East and West, a tide that ultimately could not be stemmed. Eleven months later, the two halves of Germany were reunited for the first time since World War II.

Entrance to the GDR Academy of Sciences’ Berlin-Adlershof campus, as it looked in the 1970s.
Credit: AFM-Archiv
Entrance to the GDR Academy of Sciences’ Berlin-Adlershof campus, as it looked in the 1970s.
Credit: AFM-Archiv

Scientists working in the GDR could do science, as long as they didn’t do anything provocative, says Joachim Sauer, a computational chemist at Humboldt University who used to work at the GDR Academy of Sciences, in the Adlershof district of Berlin. But unless they were strongly committed to the Communist Party, researchers were often not promoted. Sauer remembers a friend saying that an extra 1.5 g was needed to get a promotion. “This was the weight of the party sticker,” he says.

“It was not enough to stay quiet and keep to yourself,” Sauer adds. “You were asked to be submissive.” He recalls a Friday afternoon in 1986 when the party secretary of the institute asked him to write an opinion article that would be posted on the institute’s notice board about a multihour speech given at a Communist Party congress. Sauer found himself in a catch-22. “If you were to write what you thought, you were in trouble,” he says. “If you wrote what they wanted you to write, then you had to deny yourself.” In the end, he spent the weekend composing a commentary that “was okay on the surface but that had a double meaning, a small hammer that gave a message,” Sauer says. The experience “seems almost funny now, but it was not at all funny then,” he adds.

Indeed, restrictions on free speech in avant-garde Berlin now seem inconceivable, particularly given the recent democratic election of German Chancellor Angela Merkel. She worked as a theoretical chemist at the same institute as Sauer during the GDR era and is also his wife.

In the former GDR, the Stasi also interfered in the lives of up-and-coming scientists. For example, when Beate Koksch, then 17, was applying to the university in Leipzig in 1985, “All I really wanted to study was biochemistry,” she says. Given her top marks at the GDR’s equivalent of high school, “it was a total shock” when school authorities told Koksch—in front of her classmates—that her university application was rejected. It turns out that the authorities had a different plan for her future.

An hour after the announcement, Koksch was called to her school’s main office, where the school director sat with a woman she didn’t know. “They told me that they knew I hadn’t been accepted into university biochemistry,” Koksch says. Then they told her they could offer her a better, “more prestigious” opportunity to study at the school that trained Communist government workers, including the Stasi, Koksch recalls. “I just felt sick. I told them I wanted to go home and speak with my family,” she says.

Koksch was in a bind. Saying no to the authorities could lead to blacklisting not only for her but also for her family and friends. She spent a tense evening with her father trying to brainstorm reasons to decline the “prestigious” invitation without landing the people she cared for in trouble.

In the end, she delivered a variety of watery excuses, including the claim that government affairs were too socially oriented for a science-minded, left-brained individual. Her excuses worked, and the following year she was allowed to study chemistry at a university. Koksch eventually pursued a Ph.D. in biochemistry and is now a professor of bioorganic chemistry at the Free University of Berlin.

Because of the economic problems of the GDR, as well as Western embargoes, obtaining research equipment in the GDR was often slow and difficult. As a computational chemist, Sauer found it frustrating to be behind the Wall during the 1970s and ’80s, when computers were being scaled down from building-sized to desk-sized machines.

“But sometimes equipment was unofficially available,” Sauer says. For example, university authorities managed to get embargoed computers into the GDR via Austria, Sauer remembers, but they kept the machines in a secure room, “where we were not allowed to go, and they only gave us access to the machines via external terminals.” Although the authorities tried to hide the system specifications from researchers, the widely available Gaussian quantum computing software being used would list the hidden computers’ system information on printouts, he adds.

The dearth of analytical equipment also spurred chemists to find inventive ways to characterize the compounds they were constructing, says Rüdiger Beckhaus, who studied at the University of Merseburg and is now an inorganic chemistry professor at the University of Oldenburg. “It was much more difficult to do a Ph.D. in the former East because there were few X-ray crystallography and nuclear magnetic resonance machines,” he says. Therefore, “we had to be very creative. For example, when I wanted to figure out the structure of a carbene complex, I’d have to look for subsequent reactions instead of using analytical tools.”

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Some researchers in the GDR were also pushed to cooperate with industry “to extreme degrees,” says Ernst Schmitz, the former head of organic chemistry at the Academy of Sciences, in Berlin-Adlershof. “We were given industrial goals for sometimes up to 80% of our work,” he says. The research plan was considered “a holy thing,” he adds.

Direct professional contacts between the GDR and colleagues outside the Iron Curtain were not permitted. Some East German scientists, however, were able to contact West German colleagues at conferences held in Poland, Hungary, or the Czech Republic, which did not have as many travel restrictions for West German visitors as did the GDR, Rosenthal says. The Stasi knew this was happening, but as long as the East Germans were careful not to speak with their Western colleagues too much, things were okay, Sauer adds. He recalls having his travel outside the GDR blocked, and when he asked why, he was told by a Stasi agent that he was being protected from a suspected approach by a West German spy.

In the year before the Wall came down, the GDR loosened restrictions on travel between East and West Germany. In fact, Schmitz was in West Germany when the news broke on Nov. 9. “I had just given a talk at the University of Mainz,” Schmitz says. He and his host were relaxing afterward with a glass of wine when they turned on the evening news and found out. “I was 61 years old, and I can say that tears came,” he says.

After the changeover, many chemists spent sabbaticals with their colleagues in West Germany or even farther afield. Sauer, for example, went to work for a software company in San Diego before being lured back to Germany with funding offered to promising former GDR scientists by the Max Planck Society. Also during this time, teams of West German evaluators went to GDR research universities and institutes to assess who would be culled from the ranks for political and budgetary reasons.

“They had to get rid of a few professors for political reasons,” Sauer says. For example, some people had gotten professorships as rewards for spying or primarily as a result of their commitment to the party, he notes. The GDR also had more scientists than it could afford, he adds.

“There were so many evaluations,” Rosenthal says. Although he thinks the evaluations were mostly fair, many people lost jobs. In some institutes, one-third to two-thirds of scientists were let go, and sometimes entire institutes were closed or merged elsewhere. “My institute has changed names five times since 1989,” Rosenthal points out.

For industrial chemists, the challenge was to operate under a new set of business rules. For example, Heinz Mustroph was a chemist at a GDR company that produced color film, primarily for India’s Bollywood film industry. After the Wall came down, clients were forced to pay in West German currency and at higher prices to make the business work. The company lost money and was eventually liquidated by the government. Mustroph and some of his colleagues formed a contract research company in the late 1990s and then turned it into a specialized dye manufacturer called FEW Chemicals, based in Wolfen.

Scientists who were young enough at the time of the Berlin Wall’s fall to adapt to new circumstances had an opportunity to do well, Sauer says. However, older scientists who were close to retirement when the Wall came down have had a hard time making ends meet on professorship pensions based on the low GDR salaries they made throughout their working lives, he says. Some have been forced to make ends meet on the equivalent of a Ph.D. student’s salary.

But in the past 20 years, billions of dollars of investments have revitalized scientific capacity in the former GDR, which lagged behind when Germany was divided. For example, the Max Planck Society alone has spent more than $1 billion in government funding to build 20 of its prestigious new institutes in former GDR regions, such as the Max Planck Institute of Colloids & Interfaces, in Potsdam. Other German organizations have also opened research facilities, such as the Leibniz Institute for Catalysis.

The massive investment by the German government in the former GDR has led to strong research groups there, but palpable differences still exist between Germany’s former East and West. For example, this fall, when the country’s main science-granting agency, the German Research Foundation, released data on research dollars that institutions had garnered from 2005 to 2007, only one university in the former GDR—Berlin’s Humboldt University—figured in the top 10, prompting a German journalist at the press conference to ask, “What’s with the East?”

Many answers are possible. Universities are smaller in the former GDR, but even when funding per professor is considered, the West is still ahead. “Connections are important for good collaborative science,” Rosenthal says. “West German scientists have been making these connections for many decades, but we’ve been doing it only since 1989,” he says. “But year to year, the differences between East and West become less and less.”

Sauer notes that German universities are supported by the states in which they are located. Some former GDR states that are poorer than their Western counterparts face problems recruiting top people. But Sauer is also optimistic about the state of science in the former GDR. He points to his workplace, whose location has not changed since before the Wall fell. He used to be at the GDR Academy of Sciences’ physical chemistry institute, located with several other science research facilities across from Stasi military barracks. The area has since been revamped to house Humboldt University chemists as well as other science departments and start-up companies. The site is employing more scientists now than when it was part of the former GDR, he says.

As for Mustroph, the industrial chemist, the time since 1989 has sometimes been rough, but he would not exchange his current life for his previous one behind the Wall. Just before the Wall fell, Mustroph was 38. “Although I worked much harder in the years after the Wall came down than before, life is better for me now. Now, if someone wants to try something new with their lives, they make their own limits,” he says, instead of having them imposed by the state.

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