Berlin at night

From West to East and East to West

Professor Helmut Kettenmann, Head of the Research Group on Cellular Neurosciences

On the historic November 9, I was sitting on a Lufthansa plane over the Atlantic on my way back to Germany from a conference in the U.S. The captain of the flight came over the intercom to announce that the Wall had fallen in Germany. No one could quite believe it. Shortly afterwards, flickering images of the scenes appeared on the onboard monitor – the only available technology at that point. When we landed, the world had changed.
What exactly attracted me? It was the freedom, the feeling of starting afresh.
Prof. Dr. Helmut Kettenmann
Helmut Kettenmann Head of the Research Group on Cellular Neurosciences

I had no connection to the GDR prior to the fall of the Wall; I had never visited East Germany and had only been to West Berlin once. I did, however, travel frequently to Eastern Europe, as I worked closely with glia researchers in Kiev in the Ukraine. I had also been to Prague, in what was then Czechoslovakia, and to Hungary, Poland, and Russia to meet with colleagues with whom we worked and published. 

There was noneuroscientific society in West Germany at that time, whereas there was in the East. So, very soon after the border opened, the discussion in the West began as to how we should approach the situation. I was 34 years old at the time, a qualified professor, and the recipient of a Heisenberg fellowship. I managed to convince the Federal Ministry of Education and Research to bring neuroscientists from the East and West together and to finance a first German-German meeting of neuroscientists. In preparation for this conference, I visited the Charité in East Berlin as well as institutes in Leipzig and Magdeburg. The conference took place in December 1990 in Heidelberg – shortly after official reunification. Inspired by this event, the Federal Ministry of Education and Research launched a program to promote German-German collaborations in the field of neuroscience. Funding was provided for ten working groups in the East and ten in the West. I submitted a successful proposal myself, together with Christian Steinhäuser – my collaborator at the time and with whom I still work today. Back then he worked in Jena, today he is in Bonn. 

He went from East to West – and I went from West to East

Kettenmann lab: form left to right: Christiane Gras, Birgit Jarchow, Brigitte Haas, Hannes Kiesewetter, Joo-Hee Waelzlein, Rainer Glass, Sören Markworth, Juliana Bentes Hughes, Susanne Arnold, Katrin Färber, Ulrike Pannasch, Christiane Nolte, Jochen Müller, Antje Heidemann, Liping Wang, Susann Härtig (now Horvat), Helmut Kettenmann

At that time, I was conducting neurological research in Heidelberg – right next door to Detlev Ganten, the later founding director of the MDC. When Ganten started working in Berlin-Buch in September 1991, he called and invited me to join him: “You absolutely have to come and take a look at this. It’s really interesting.” Less than four weeks later, I was there – and it was indeed interesting! My application was not even considered in the first round of calls as there was no neuroclinic in Buch, which meant I did not fit into the concept of connecting basic research with clinical care.

Regardless, I was still eager to set up a research group. This was a big challenge for me; it was uncharted territory. I withdrew money from the Heidelberg part of the Jena-Heidelberg project, and transferred it to Berlin-Buch. Meanwhile, I kept my position in Heidelberg. This meant flying back and forth twice a week for three years, setting up a research group in Berlin-Buch while still leading my research group there.

What exactly attracted me? It was the freedom, the feeling of starting afresh. Heidelberg was so established – everything was well-organized, well-rehearsed, well-known. My commute gave me insight into a new world and meant I was able to directly experience the two different worlds alongside each other. Out in the deep West, there was a real lack of understanding for the scientific situation here in the East. You had some people saying: “Throw the Ossis out! What do you want with them?”

But it was the same the other way around. Many East German scientists did not understand the situation in the West. The fact that young researchers and postdocs have no permanent contracts, for example, and are therefore under enormous pressure to perform, with no regular working hours and no security, was frightening and new for many. 

As a constant commuter between East and West, I experienced this mutual unfamiliarity, this lack of understanding, very closely – and I also tried to bridge it.

I took my people from Berlin to Heidelberg and vice versa. This way, researchers from the East were able to learn the latest techniques and receive better training, while those from Heidelberg helped us establish the new facility. There was a constant exchange. I was strongly committed to promoting neuroscience at the MDC, and Detlev Ganten supported me in this. When I was given the option at one point to go to Tübingen as director of an institute, the decision was finally made that I could properly establish neuroscience as a research field in Buch, and my position here was made permanent.

It was a difficult time in those early days. Some 2,000 people had worked on the campus before the fall of the Wall, and they were all let go on December 31, 1991. The newly founded Max Delbrück Center offered only 350 jobs, so the majority of these former employees could not be taken on. Some people started companies;some of those with a Stasi past had left before. Only a few of the old research group leaders were able to stay on, and new ones were recruited from the West.

As such, there was certainly unfair and unequal competition between experienced scientists from the East and the West – and the Eastern scientists did not stand much of a chance.
Prof. Dr. Helmut Kettenmann
Helmut Kettenmann

Looking back today, I don’t think there was any other way for this situation to play out – the situation in which the Western science system was completely imposed on the East. The institute needed scientists who were familiar with the system. We had to think of the next generation that we wanted to train here, to prepare for the international level. Of course, researchers from the East were just as intelligent and often more broadly trained. But, for many years, their access to international specialist literature had been restricted, they lacked the constant sharing of information provided by conferences and the possibility of international scientific exchange. They therefore lacked contacts as well as technology and materials. The pressure to publish constantly and intensively in order to receive further funding was an alien concept to the East German scientists. They also had little experience in raising third-party funds for scientific work, and were not familiar with the possibilities nor the structures. Yet this is an essential part of Western scientific culture. As such, there was certainly unfair and unequal competition between experienced scientists from the East and the West – and the Eastern scientists did not stand much of a chance. 

Today, the MDC is an international research center. The doctoral and postdoctoral students are located neither in the East nor in the West, and the number of people working at the Berlin-Buch campus has gone back up to more than 1,500. I have now lived in Berlin for over 25 years. On November 9, 1989, I could never have imagined that I would spend the next phase of my life, including my working life, in East Germany, and that my two sons would be born and raised here.The world really did change in 1989. 


© NASA/ESA/Chris Hadfield