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History of the IEES

Das Osteuropa-Institut Bildquelle: Anna Khaerdinova

Das Osteuropa-Institut Bildquelle: Anna Khaerdinova

In its seventy-plus years, the Institute for East European Studies has mirrored Berlin’s and Germany’s changing relations with its eastern neighbours – from the turbulent founding phase to the student protests in the late 1960s and the years of system collapse and transformation since the 1990s. Along with East European Studies as a discipline, the institute changed with these massive upheavals. After the end of the Cold War and the German reunification in 1990, it had to fight for its very existence. Today, in the 21st century, the Institute is once again a crucial centre for German and international research on Eastern Europe.

Founding phase

Der erste Sitz des OEI in der Ehrenbergstraße | Fotograf: Gerd-Victor Krau / FU Berlin, UA

Der erste Sitz des OEI in der Ehrenbergstraße | Fotograf: Gerd-Victor Krau / FU Berlin, UA

The Institute for East European Studies was founded during turbulent times when all of the Berlin university landscape was being recreated. This process involved representatives of the federal government, the American occupation authorities, the city of Berlin and Freie Universität Berlin. In November 1951, three years after the university’s foundation, the Institute for East European Studies opened its doors at Ehrenbergstraße 35 in Berlin-Dahlem – as one of the first institutions of this kind in the Federal Republic of Germany. Establishing an institute for the study of Eastern Europe was a programmatic signal: the aim was to free such research from the spirit of National Socialism while also finding a place in the new academic and social context of the Cold War.

At the founding ceremony on 24 November 1951, the West Berlin mayor Ernst Reuter advocated for regarding the countries behind the Iron Curtain as a part of Europe. He expressed the hope that “the Institute should contribute to forging a bond with the peoples of Eastern Europe and pointing the way to a better future”. The Institute for East European Studies remains committed to this mission to this day.

After ten years, the IEES had grown from four to nine departments: Slavic Studies, History, Economics and Law were joined by Regional Studies and Sociology, Medicine, Education and Art History. In the summer of 1961, the institute moved into a new building in Garystraße 55.

Dealing with National Socialism

Fotograf: Reinhard Friedrich / FU Berlin, UA, Foto-Sig. RF0364-06

Fotograf: Reinhard Friedrich / FU Berlin, UA, Foto-Sig. RF0364-06

Fotograf: Reinhard Friedrich / FU Berlin, UA, Foto-Sig. RF0074-05

Fotograf: Reinhard Friedrich / FU Berlin, UA, Foto-Sig. RF0074-05

In the early 20th century, the Institute for East European Studies in Breslau and the Institute for Eastern German Economics (from 1936 the Institute for East European Studies) in Königsberg had been two important academic institutions for the study of Eastern Europe. However, the research work carried out there from 1933 onwards helped plan the German occupation of Eastern Europe and the Shoah after 1939. When the Institute for East European Studies at the Free University of Berlin was founded, the faculty was eager to follow the pre-Nazi traditions of the institutes in Breslau and Königsberg and break with National Socialist views of Eastern Europe. However, a considerable number of OEI members had actually been involved in research on Eastern Europe during the Nazi era. In 1966, Werner Philipp published a detailed analysis of East European Studies under National Socialism – and concluded that “the subject remains shameful and disgusting”. Emphasising the social and moral responsibility of researchers, he confronted his own discipline with its far-reaching guilt for the legitimising preparation of the war and genocide. What he failed to mention in his lecture was that he himself had worked at the Reich Ministry for the Occupied Eastern Territories from 1942 to 1943 as one of the policy makers and deputy head of the Eastern Office.

1968 at the Institute for East European Studies

1968 was a year of change in many respects: the protests against the Vietnam War, the anti-authoritarian movement, democratic awakening in the East, the suppression of the Prague Spring… Students from Berlin were particularly active – and the Institute for East European Studies was no exception. While it was not as much at the centre of the protests as the neighbouring Otto Suhr Institute for Political Science, two central protagonists of the student movement, namely Gretchen Dutschke-Klotz and Rudi Dutschke, studied at the IEES. Rudi Dutschke was also a student assistant at the institute’s sociology department. From 1967 to 1969, the extra-parliamentary opposition and the student university alliances repeatedly organised strikes at Berlin universities – for instance, against the introduction of tuition fees, for a greater say on the part of students and for the politicisation of teaching. IEES students also went on strike on 17 January 1969 and prevented the institute’s director, Werner Philipp, from holding his lectures, accusing the institute of living in “peaceful symbiosis with the secret services”. Strikes continued in the following weeks. In a notice, some employees of the institute expressed concern that the allegation of co-operation with the secret service could make it difficult for them to travel abroad to Soviet countries.

System Change in Eastern Europe

Bildquelle: Kateryna Gamolina

Bildquelle: Kateryna Gamolina

Perestroika triggered a landslide of changes throughout the Eastern Bloc. With the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989 at the latest, the world order of the Cold War was suspended – and the knowledge systems of East European Studies had to completely reorient themselves. The IEES responded to this tabula rasa by applying for an interdisciplinary graduate programme. “The Transformation Processes of Social Systems in Eastern and South-Eastern Europe and Their Historical Preconditions” was the first major German research network on the era of the great transformations and at the same time one of the first research training groups funded by the German Research Foundation (DFG). The group became a hotspot for encounters between East and West.

The IEES Lives On

The fall of the Iron Curtain made the raison d’être of the IEES questionable for a while. The “total dominance of the Soviet Union” in economics, sociology and philosophy and thus the unity of Eastern Europe were a thing of the past, said FU Vice President Peter Kuhbier in 1992. Was an independent Institute for East European Studies even necessary? Though he subsequently revised his statement, the public debate was already in full swing. The staff and students of the IEES reacted with protests and fought for the continued existence of the institute while agreeing that it needed reorganisation. They argued that closing the institute would destroy an important academic communication line between East and West. The closure was averted, and the institute was reformed. Today, the IEES is once again an international centre for research into Eastern, South-Eastern and Central Eastern Europe. It has also extended its research focus to Central Asia and the Caucasus.