Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin

Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin | Über die Universität | Geschichte | Rektoren und Präsidenten | Christoph Markschies | Reden des Präsidenten | Greeting of the Fellows and Distinguished Visitors of the American Academy

Greeting of the Fellows and Distinguished Visitors of the American Academy

Berlin-Wannsee, January 21st 2008

I have been asked to welcome you, dear fellows and distinguished visitors of the American Academy, at the beginning of the memorable evening on which you will all introduce yourselves in the Villa Arnhold. It is of course a great pleasure for me to welcome you to Berlin and what’s more, to welcome you on behalf of Berlin’s scientific, cultural and media communities, all of which are, I am pleased to see, well represented here this evening. But what does one wish the new group of fellows on such an occasion? First and foremost one naturally wishes each and every one of you that you will be able to finalise the great book projects for which you have been selected and invited to this house, not least because these are all books most of us would dearly like to read as soon as possible. Please don’t feel that I am exerting any pressure when I say that: I am personally quite uninvolved when I make this remark, because, as a German university president, I spend all my time in committees and can therefore hardly find the time to read books anymore. But allow me to phrase my point more concisely: the planned compositions of your highly interesting books – the books we would all like to read – are the reason you were called to Berlin in the first place. Those of us who represent Berlin’s cultural and academic environment here tonight therefore have a sustained interest that you will not venture outside this elegant house in Berlin Wannsee. This is well-meant on our part, because we all know how one can ruin one’s time as a fellow of such an institution well and proper:  one begins by writing those one hundred and fifty little encyclopaedia entries which simply couldn’t be finalised before one’s departure, then one follows the recommendations for the ten best restaurants from various friends and relatives and finally, one decides to visit all opera houses at least once (and let me warn you, we currently have three of these in Berlin, though in the interest of the American Academy’s book projects, we intermittently discuss closing down one or two; the same can be said about our theatres) and so on and so forth – the upshot is that one has to hope imploringly that an invitation to Princeton, Stanford or some other place will allow one to finish the book that should actually have been written during one’s stay in Berlin.

Looking at these dangers, which are lurking around every corner for the fellows of such an institution, you may have guessed what I am obliged to do if my heartfelt wishes for a lucrative stay here in Wannsee are to be regarded as genuine: I have to make the city of Berlin as unattractive as possible, so that you will not be tempted to ambulate into this loud and rackety metropolis (a metropolis that is, by the way, also miles and miles away from Villa Arnhold). I don’t really have to tell you that a trip to the Berlin Philharmonie is hardly fruitful for writing a book about the Communist regime in post-War Europe, all the more so as the orchestra played much better music under the direction of Artur Nikisch, Wilhelm Furtwängler and Herbert von Karajan than it currently does now that Sir Simon Rattle is in charge; the same can, incidentally, be said for the theatre: the path from Max Reinhardt and Gustav Gründgens to Klaus Peymann can hardly be regarded as a persistent rise and a visit to the Volksbühne, which is infamous for its assaults on the audience’s taste and nerves, is only moderately useful for writing a monograph with the title “The Art of the Puppet” and it is certainly not at all suitable for studies under the heading “A Contractarian Theory of Law”. There is, of course, a branch of the banking house Warburg right in the centre of the city, opposite Humboldt-Universität in fact, but we all know that it was precisely the financial separation from the banking house which was the precondition for Aby Warburg to do what Elizabeth Sears is considering to research.

On the basis of what I have said so far, you may have got the impression that I am finding it too easy to criticise Berlin and to warn you not to leave the Villa Arnhold – maybe that is because as a very busy president of a big university, I don’t actually know anything about Berlin, but always remain well inside my own abode – an abode that is, by the way, I hope you will pardon me for gloating a little, at least on the exterior a stunning baroque palace on the street Unter den Linden. Then again, it could also be that I am a philistine and don’t really know anything about Berlin’s cultural life. I am not really inclined to contradict the theory that I am a very important and therefore very busy man, but I would like to allay the impression that I am a philistine, if only to ensure that you will take my warnings seriously. I will do so by casting a glance at what is intellectually possibly the most engaging phase that Berlin has ever experienced – the very end of the eighteenth and the nineteenth century, the time when the Prussian reforms set the benchmark for Berlin and also the time when my Humboldt-Universität was founded under the name Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität. Let me begin by citing from a poem by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, who spent seven years in Berlin in total and grieved about the fact that politicians here paid very little attention to culture:  „Die goldne Dose – denkt nur! Denkt! – / Die König Friedrich mir geschenkt,/ Die war – was das bedeuten muß? –/ Statt voll Dukaten voll Heleborus“ (d.i. Nieswurz). („The golden tin – just imagine! – / which king Frederick gave to me,/ It was – what must that mean? –/ Not filled with ducats but with hellebore”. Similarly, the architect Friedrick Wilhelm Erdmannasdorff, who constructed the interior of Berlin’s destroyed chateau á la mode in the most delicate classicistic style, complained about “scrawny, flat, cold Berlin”, “where no one asks about the lore as the ‘nouvelle du jour’” and where actually “there is more gossiping than doing”.  Another object that was always a target for criticism was the rough tone of Berlin’s citizens, which was particularly directed at guests: on 12th January 1801, the poet Jean Paul wrote to Karoline Herder, the wife of Johann Gottfried Herder a letter from Berlin, wherein he wailed: “I shan’t stay here. – The tone here exceeds the unselfconsciousness one in Weimar. The nobility blends in with the commoners, not like fat does with water, the former always swimming on top of the latter, but they are deeply amalgamated as if through alkali, wherefrom soap is made. The educated, the Jews, the officers, the secret counsellors, the noblemen, in short, everything which breaks each other’s necks in all other places (with the exception of Weimar) is here flinging its arms around those necks, and lives amicably together at least at the tea and dinner tables”. It was observed time and time again that the city of Berlin lived beyond its means and could therefore not provide elementary services like the sewage system: as early as 1848, flyers could be bought for a penny with the clairvoyant title: “God the Just! Berlin is going bust!”. As a result of the somewhat authoritarian conditions in Prussia, the author of this flyer probably assumed a pseudonym – at least, that is the conclusion I came to when I read his name „Jakob Leibche Tulpenthal, emanzipierter Israelit aus dem Großherzogthum Baden“ (Jakob Leibche Tulpenthal, emancipated Israelite from the Grand Duchy Baden). I could also cite from various novels, newspaper reviews and letters of Theodor Fonane, to deliver a precise image of Berlin in the second half of the nineteenth century for hours. But I will limit myself to one ugly commentary of this author about a particular kind of tenement construction of the time, a construction which was designed to offer cheap accommodation to Berlin’s exorbitantly growing population. In the curvature between front building and rear building, there always existed a ludicrously shaped so-called “Berliner Zimmer”, which was characteristic for the city, and which Fontane referred to as an “in the whole world impossible harbourage for darkness, within which I myself would have perished”. Further, Heinrich Heine visited the Lustgarten of Berlin’s chateau in Mitte. In the face of no more than two lawns, which make up the Lustgarten, he posed what is even today a highly legitimate question: “Where is the garden meant to be?”. Heine even went as far as calling the city “greatly overrated”, (einen „großen Krähwinkel“) which is why not a single street was named after him until the end of the Second World War, nor was a monument erected in his honour for a very long time.

You may have guessed that I could continue this promenade through clairvoyant warnings of a visit to Berlin without a great deal of effort for a long time. I will nonetheless draw to a close at this point, because we will now hear what it is you will actually be working on in Wannsee. All I wanted to do was to underlay our well-meant wishes for the accomplishment of these projects with a couple of warnings – warnings which are not meant entirely seriously – not to get sidetracked by the colourful and dazzling metropolis and not to let one’s head be turned too much. In this sense, I wish you agreeable days and weeks in Berlin!

Prof. Dr. Dr. h.c. Christoph Markschies
Präsident der Humboldt-Universität


Abteilung Kommunikation, Marketing und Veranstaltungsmanagement (VIII)