A Bridge of Ideas

For 25 Years, the Vienna Institute for the Human Sciences has United Scholars of East and West; An Anniversary Conference, Nov. 9-11 at the MAK

News | Dardis McNamee | November 2007

Philosopher Klaus Nellen, one of the three founders of the IWM (Photo: Courtesy of IWM)


Shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall, historian Timothy Garton Ash of the Vienna Institute for the Human Sciences placed a call to Jack Kuron, the former Polish opposition activist turned Minister for Labor and Social Policy. At the other end of the line, a female voice answered.

"May I speak to Minister Kuron please?" he asked.

"But this is the Censorship Office," explained the woman politely. (The two phone numbers differed by only one digit.)

"I thought censorship had been abolished," Garton Ash replied.

"Yes, that’s true, but our employment contracts run through the end of July, so we’re still here."

"Well, then I wish you most pleasant inactivity."

"Thank you, all the best to you as well!" She sounded utterly charming.


Former censors, former border guards, former apparatchiks, former secret police officers: What was to happen to all these people, Garton Ash wondered, in the inaugural issue of the IWM journal Transit in 1990? What was better – a compromised but halfway professional public servant, or an uncompromised complete amateur? A pragmatist or a naïf?

Into this world of transition and blurred values, the fledgling Institute for the Human Sciences set out to repair the broken lines of communication and ideas between the two halves of a divided Europe.

They were three originally: Krzysztof Michalski, Cornelia Klinger and Klaus Nellen, three philosophers who met at the Edmund Husserl Archives in Cologne in the 1970s, absorbed in the of phenomenology, the study of intuitive and conscious experience.

But politics was never far from sight for Central European intellectuals, particularly for Michalski, still completing his "Habilitation" at the University of Warsaw in communist Poland. He launched a summer school in Dubrovnik as a meeting place for intellectuals from East and West,

"We had accepted the political division – we had to – but never the cultural one," Klaus Nellen said in an interview with The Vienna Review. "The East was still a part of Europe and a very interesting one, and we wanted to keep the dialogue alive."

They made it permanent in 1982, with the founding of the Institut der Wissenschaften vom Menschen (Institute for the Human Sciences) in Vienna. Though none were Austrian (Klinger and Nellen were German), Austria’s neutrality eased the visa problems for those coming from Eastern Europe.  They would bring in "the most interesting people" and hold conferences, write books, share ideas.

They had not intended to focus on dissidents – at least not directly.

"The people we invited, most were on the margins in their own countries, too independent, too…," Nellen paused, then smiled. "Almost by definition, the good people, the best scholars, were critical."

Among its first projects, the IWM began smuggling out of the papers of Czech philosopher Jan Patocka, who with Vaclav Havel and others had been a founding member of the Charter ‘77 human rights organization, and who had died under interrogation by the Communist secret police.

Then came the big surprise: 1989, and the fall of the Berlin Wall.

"We were not prepared for this," Nellen admitted. "We thought the division would last a long time."

For the Institute, this meant a huge adjustment. They had built their entire mission around bridging the political divide. And then suddenly, it was over.

"We could have said ‘mission accomplished,’ you know, ‘The End of History,’ " he said, referring to Francis Fukuyama’s famous essay, "or we could say, this is the beginning of history."

Suddenly, they were at the heart of Europe. With the political tables turned, many of the scholars from the IWM became leaders in their new governments; Tadeusz Mazoviecki, for example, became the first prime minister of a democratic Poland. And the Patocka archive could come out of hiding, to become a shared project with the Czech Academy of Sciences.

And the Institute changed with the times, initiating programs that were more policy oriented, beginning with the reform of higher education. They brought people in who could give advice to the ministers of education; the established the Hannah Arendt Prize to be awarded to an institution who was a model of reform. It was given five times, and never to existing universities.

"It can be very difficult to change an entrenched academic culture," Nellen said, "so often it was new institutes – like the School for Social Research in Warsaw, or the Invisible College in Hungary. It was about raising standards, about excellence, so they could catch up to the West."

They also launched the bi-annual journal Transit, whose first issue in the fall of 1990 recorded the intellectual currents of the enormous transition taking place all around them. Its original roster included many of the names it carries to this day: Timothy Garton Ash, Ralf Dahrendorf, François Furet, János Mátyás Kovács, Jacques Rupnik, Adam Michnik, Jeffrey Sachs, George Soros, and the Czech novelist Bohumil Hrabal.

Of the IWM’s many initiatives, Nellen cited the Translator’s Program as one of the most important. "The decades of communism had cut off many of the connections, so many important works had never been translated, in both directions," Nellen said. The biggest deficit was West to East – works by leading economists like Josef Schumpeter or John Kenneth Galbraith were two IWM projects –  and so that became the Institute’s concentration. Recently, the institute has contracted for a translation of Jürgen Habermas into Albanian.

A further concentration has been the crisis in trans-Atlantic relations, that led in 2000 to the launching of a branch at Boston University, in Massachusetts, where Irena Grudzinska Gross, Professor of Modern Languages and Literatures, serves as executive director and whose board members include Timothy Garton Ash, Director of the Center for European Studies, St. Antony’s College, Oxford, and James Hoge, editor-in-chief  of Foreign Affairs. Discussions were heated, particularly following Sept 11, 2001, and people like Middle East scholar Bernard Lewis gave his lectures on Islam and the threat of terrorism at IWM forum.

"There was a strong belief that this was a temporary crisis, and that one should not identify this administration with America," Nellen said.

A further focus has been the new challenge of the expanded EU, and the Union’s constitutional crisis – which led then EU Commission President Romano Prodi to establish a reflection group to study the necessary conditions for European solidarity, whose results have been published in two volumes in English by the Institute.

"It’s a question now of what factors will hold this new Europe together," Nellen said. "You can’t rely on the economic factors any more."  This includes an examination of the role of religion – "with Islam, you cannot avoid it" – and a search for common roots. "It is a great tradition; civil society, and the welfare state, which should be preserved – modernized, of course, but also defended.

"But we must answer the question of why we want to have a European Union. Yes, there is a shared Christian heritage, but there is also a history of its divisions and the many bloody wars fought in its name. "

All in all, a distinguished history, but also a preamble to an equally vigorous present.

"I don’t want to be too nostalgic and talk about the glorious past," Nellen said. "The future of Europe is our time." And bridges are still needed across the East-West divide. "Even after all these years, Austrians are still very reserved, very ill at ease about the East," Nellen commented. "It’s populism – in politics, it’s always very helpful if people are in fear."

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