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An Education Researcher on the Reform Process at East German Universities (1999)

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Now that we have presented the material, we can formulate the key rules for the reform debate:

(I) The reference to democracy was ritualized. Anyone who avoided this ritual had to expect excommunication from discussion circles. The word democracy fulfilled the function of a rhetorical bracket in the debate on renewal. Attempts were thus made to preserve the compatibility of the fundamental legitimacy of the reorganization of East German higher education. This legitimacy was based on the constitutional ties on which the overarching process of university reorganization – that is, German reunification – depended. Democracy was thus the constant regulatory factor in the reform debate: it enabled actors who were otherwise extremely different to talk and act together.

(II.1) While “democracy” retained its validity as a rhetorical constant to the very end, grassroots democracy only functioned as a point of orientation in the communicative field in the first, romantic phase of the reform process.

(II.2) In the second phase – structural reorganization – the debate was essentially shaped by reducing complexity through the process of dichotomization. From then on, the discourse used binary coding: “close to the system/foreign to the system,” “burdened/unburdened,” “unfeasible/feasible.” The agents of complexity reduction argued in a Jacobin fashion.

(III) Although the constant regulatory factor of “democracy” continued to ensure the capacity for communication, also in the second phase, an oppositional thread of the debate established itself at the same time – in clear demarcation to dichotomization. This thread framed the debate in a strictly legal positivistic manner against the dominant Jacobin thread. Both threads were based on specific underlying interests.

(IV.1) Among those who took up the Jacobin thread, people who had been disadvantaged by the GDR system initially showed an interest in filing criminal charges against the representatives of the previous regime. The prerequisite for this was the delegitimation of the ancien régime. The disadvantaged met with incumbent political functionaries to discuss this matter. Their legitimation efforts aimed to increase their political power through universities that were compatible with the system and which would not become a “bulwark against democratic renewal in the eastern part of Germany.” (H.J. Meyer 1997, p. 512)

(IV.2) In contrast, the legal-positivistic discourse represented two interests that can be conveyed only in part, interests whose supporters can be clearly distinguished: on the one hand, there was the position of the old academic elite. It viewed a legal positivistic argument as the only remaining fallback position from which it was possible to react sensibly to the attack from the political sphere. On the other hand, some actors who were not individually affected by this attack also responded in a markedly legal-positivistic way. But these people felt challenged for different reasons than the old GDR elite: they viewed the dissolution of traditional legal standards as nullifying the balance of powers, which they felt threatened the institutional prerequisites of the existing political system.

[ . . . ]

Source: Peer Pasternack, “Demokratische Erneuerung”. Eine universitätsgeschichtliche Untersuchung des ostdeutschen Hochschulumbaus 1989-1995. Deutscher Studien Verlag: Weinheim, 1999, pp. 366-78.

Translation: Allison Brown

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