A university delegation every day

At the time of the reunification, FHWS was an important contact for higher education institutions in former East Germany

 © Archive of Prof. Krah

Reunification meant more than just the wall coming down, the higher education system in the new Federal states also had to be restructured. An enormous challenge for which the higher education institutions from the east could rely on support from FHWS.

The year is 1989. The fall of the Berlin wall is imminent – and therefore also a new era for higher education institutions as well, like the one in Mittweida in Saxony which, at this time, is still called an engineering college and is on an equal footing with universities in former East Germany. It has the right to award doctorates in the technical field and trains skilled personnel who are sought-after in industry. These skilled personnel are also valued in Schweinfurt almost 220 kilometres away, for example, where Kugelfischer has its headquarters. Since the end of the Second World War, the bearing manufacturer has recruited some of its employees from Mittweida engineering college and maintains close ties with it.

These contacts extend to FHWS when Mittweida engineering college organises an international learning conference in September 1989. Such international conferences have taken place in Mittweida before – during Cold War, however, international aspect was limited to countries which were part of the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (COMECON). But there was then a complete turnaround for the conference in question in September 1989: then rector Prof. Dr. Gerhard Zscherpe pushed a motion through the higher education institution’s senate for western countries to also be offered the opportunity to participate.  

This invitation also reached the University of Applied Sciences Würzburg-Schweinfurt. Then president Prof. Dr. Wolfgang Fechner and chancellor Dr Jürgen Herzog registered owing to the existing industrial contacts between Mittweida and Schweinfurt. At the same time, in Mittweida, Prof. Dr. Lothar Otto was given the task of looking after the guests during the conference. “I was Director of Administration at the time and was assigned to FHWS,” explains Otto, who was later chancellor of Mittweida University of Applied Sciences. He immediately felt very well understood by the FHWS delegation. Otto, who is now 74, remembers: “When they were leaving, Fechner said to me: ‘Now you have to come and visit us!’ I smiled and said: ‘Yes, of course! I’ll visit as soon as I can!’ But I didn’t really believe it.”

But the course of history would teach Prof. Dr. Otto better: it wasn’t even two months after the conference when the wall at Germany’s interior border fell on 9 November 1989. Just nine days later, Prof. Dr. Otto stood in front of FHWS in Schweinfurt and was welcomed by Prof. Dr. Fechner and Dr Herzog in his turn. “That was the beginning of a friendship which still endures today, even after Fechner’s death,” Otto says with pride in his voice. 

Development work for the higher education institutions started in parallel with the friendship. Prof. Dr. Norbert Krah, former director of Schmalkalden engineering college, explains: “At that time, the system in the Federal Republic of Germany was superimposed over the East German system. It was a very challenging time.” Schmalkalden, which is a good 80 kilometres north of Schweinfurt, now also had to fight for the status of a university of applied sciences. Prof. Dr. Krah had already been establishing contacts with FHWS since 1987 which shaped up well, particularly through the Dean of the Faculty of Mechanical Engineering, Prof. Dr. Rolf Schneider: “Looking back, the human interaction was particularly valuable. A different perspective helped me to develop the self-awareness that was needed to overcome this challenging transition period.” The university of applied sciences was founded in its modern form in Schmalkalden on 1 October 1991.

The Director of Schmalkalden engineering college Dr.-Ing. Norbert Krah (right) with the Dean of the FHWS Faculty of Mechanical Engineering, Prof. Rolf Schneider (centre) working on a Japanese RM 501 robot in the Schmalkalden engineering college CAD/CAM laboratory in 1988 (source: archive of Prof. Dr.-Ing. Norbert Krah)
Quote by Prof. Dr. Lothar Otto: “The sparks of an exciting idea are kindled not through virtual contact, but rather face-to-face. These beer-garden table ideas are the driving force for change!”

The former Würzburg chancellor Dr Herzog looks back with a smile, particularly on the time immediately after reunification: “In the period from January to the beginning of July 1990, there was a delegation from one of the Thuringian higher education institutions arriving unannounced in Schweinfurt every day. Just imagine it!” Since there were no reliably functioning telephone connections in former East Germany at the time, the guests had to quickly learn how to restructure administration and the university budget. For Otto, personal contact above all was and is essential for good collaboration: “The sparks of an exciting idea are kindled not through virtual contact, but rather face-to-face. These beer-garden table ideas are the driving force for change.”

Prof. Dr. Krah from Schmalkalden also emphasises that the focus at the time was not on material support, but rather on the intangible value of contact: respect, openness and cooperation between people became the key building blocks of the German-German higher education institution relationship. Looking back, Prof. Dr. Otto adds: “If these values had also played a bigger role politically, then there would have been significantly less resentment against accession, particularly in my generation.” Dr Herzog from FHWS underlines this: “We didn’t get any money back then for our help. But we didn’t want any! We were so full of the idealism and euphoria of the time.” 

Quote by Dr. Jürgen Herzog: "In the period from January to the beginning of July 1990, there was a delegation from one of the Thuringian higher education institutions arriving unannounced in Schweinfurt every day. Just imagine it!"

At the time, it was definitely a question of strategic matters in particular as well as the administrative issues such as financing: Mittweida gave up its right to award doctorates on FHWS’ advice and integrated media education into the university of applied sciences, which was actually designed for technical degree programmes. Prof. Dr. Otto laughs when he thinks back to the introduction of media education: “It is important to understand that media education couldn’t actually officially be taught at universities of applied sciences. Fechner said to me: ‘But no-one knows that in the east… just hide it in one faculty or another!’ So we did that and initially added media technology to the Faculty of Electrical Engineering.” Successfully: by now, this field has become its own faculty with more than 1,000 students in the traditional media professions. In total, Mittweida University of Applied Sciences has grown from 2,000 students at the time of the reunification to 7,000 students today.

The personal relationships from this time have endured today for more than 30 years: Prof. Dr. Otto and Dr Herzog are still friends and see each other regularly. By contrast, the connections between the higher education institutions are no longer intact. Contact with Schmalkalden broke off shortly after the reunification. Contact with Mittweida lasted a little longer, but also collapsed after several years owing to a change of leadership at the higher education institutions. For the future, Prof. Dr. Otto and Dr. Herzog are unanimous in wishing for the exchange to be resumed because people can only benefit from the experiences. Herzog qualifies the desire with a smile: “Daily visits from delegations are no longer necessary today though, I don’t think.” 

Portrait photo of Manuel Fröhlich

Manuel Fröhlich