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25 Years After the Fall

MichaelCooper_Headshot_CropIn 1989, Michael Cooper, Ph.D. received a Fulbright Fellowship and spent the following academic year in Germany, where he witnessed first-hand “what happens when scholarly pursuits collide with political tensions.”

Now a professor of music and holder of the Margarett Root Brown Chair at Southwestern, Cooper reflects, 25 years later, on his experience in Berlin the year the Wall came down.


In February 1989, I learned that I had been awarded a Fulbright Fellowship to the Federal Republic of Germany. The year of my residence there, 1989–90, was an extraordinary one in European history, witnessing the fall of Ceaușescu’s brutal regime in Romania, the emergence of the National Salvation Front that would initiate that country’s move toward democracy, and the almost entirely peaceful transformation of Czechoslovakia and Poland from Soviet satellites into liberal democracies. Perhaps most important to Western observers, East Germans, encouraged by Gorbachev’s relaxing of relations with the West, were assembling and marching in the streets demanding freedom to cross the hated Mauer—the so-called Berlin Wall that divided the two Germanies and surrounded West Berlin —in order to venture West. What happened that year was nothing less than a profound remaking of the European map—and for me it brought with it a series of lessons whose personal impact would extend far beyond the confines of that 10-month stay in Europe and the research I conducted there.

I went to West Germany with two research projects. One—the project funded by the Fulbright Foundation and the Germanistic Society of America—was ambitiously tailored to take advantage of the resources that would be available to me as a young U.S. scholar with a program of research concerning Baroque musical manuscripts housed in libraries in Frankfurt-am-Main and nearby Darmstadt. The other project, centering on the musical manuscripts of Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy (1809–47), was one whose German sources were potentially off-limits to me as a young U.S. scholar in 1989, for the vast majority of those manuscripts were housed in the Deutsche Staatsbibliothek (DSb) in East Berlin, with further significant holdings still deeper in the heart of the Soviet orbit, in the Bibilioteka Jagielloska, Cracow. But since the organizers of the German Fulbright program arranged for all the German Fulbrighters to meet for a week in Berlin, taking in the Divided City’s culture and history and hearing presentations from the small group of scholars whose work placed them there all year, I hoped and planned to manage enough time away from our official activities in order to make significant headway on my Mendelssohn research.

“I was escorted without explanation to a tiny room (perhaps 10 feet square), made to wait there for about half an hour, and then extensively interviewed (in German, of course) about all manner of things, most unrelated to my research.”Michael Cooper

I succeeded in that, but the process was grueling and, for a Westerner suffused in lore about abuses of administrative authority in the Soviet sphere, vaguely terrifying. Aware that libraries and archives must be careful in granting access to rare materials, I had written to the Music Division of the DSb several months earlier. I received no reply but I went anyway, armed with letters of introduction and copious notes about what I needed to see. After entering the library’s great outer halls, I was escorted without explanation to a tiny room (perhaps 10 feet square), made to wait there for about half an hour, and then extensively interviewed (in German, of course) about all manner of things, most unrelated to my research. After perhaps 40 minutes of this, my interlocutor left the room without explanation. Thirty minutes later I was escorted to a large reading room and informed that the director of the Music Division had granted me access to the manuscripts I needed to see.

That year, I also traveled through Poland and visited Leipzig and Prague, home to some of the most forceful demonstrations against the might of the Soviet orbit. Those locations were largely peaceful during my time there, although the tense chill of my experience in Berlin hung over them all. And, although both my Mendelssohn project and my Fulbright research were successful, yielding significant peer-reviewed publications and contributing substantially to the state of knowledge about their respective subjects, it is my Berlin experience that epitomizes the larger lessons offered by the year 1989–90 about what happens when scholarly pursuits collide with political tensions.

Berlin_3_1cThe first, and in some ways simplest, of those larger lessons had to do with the multiple simultaneous centers of the factual content of the news itself. Each day, I voraciously read coverage of the unfolding political drama in a variety of newspapers—the local Frankfurter Allgmeine Zeitung and the Bavarian Süddeutsche Zeitung, the French Le Monde and Le Figaro, the London Guardian and Times, and the Swiss Die Welt, as well as the International Herald Tribune, Newsweek and Time. So radically different were those venues’ coverage of the same content that the news was at times barely recognizable. That variety of coverage, compared and contrasted with what I and my fellow German and international dorm-mates experienced in our day-to-day lives, taught me volumes about the force of personal experience as a powerful lens through which we all, in radically different ways, experience and understand the events that generate our ideas, fuel our debates, inspire our art.

More important, however, is the daunting opacity of the future of scholarly growth, even when viewed from near the center of the sort of seismic societal changes that characterized 1989–90. For even the most visionary of the many predictions found in the British, French, German and U.S. presses during that heady year did not foretell the extent of its impact on the world of learning. To cite but a few examples: few predicted in 1990 that within three years the venerable Deutsche Staatsbibliothek, where I had been harshly interrogated before finally being granted access to essential archival resources, would merge administratively with its splendid West Berlin counterpart (the Staatsbibliothek Preußischer Kulturbesitz) to form the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin-Preußischer Kulturbesitz. Few, if any, predicted that many of the resources that served as competing collections for those two libraries would later be consolidated in one branch or the other (thus making on-site researchers’ work substantially easier). Fewer still could have known that the eastern branch of the Berlin Staatsbibliothek would eventually use the same reasonable security protocols employed by research libraries everywhere. And still within the realm of science fiction back then was this fact of life that today’s students might well take for granted: many of the very scores that I accessed only with great difficulty in 1989–90 are now digitized and available for viewing and downloading to anyone with an Internet connection.

I was just an observer that year—one of thousands who neither led nor contributed to the epoch-making changes that shaped the post-Cold War era in Europe, but simply occupied ringside seats. But if 1989–90 taught me anything, it is the importance of observers as witnesses and recorders of history. I have a responsibility to remember, and to make the younger students who depend on me in part for the benefits of my experience aware of the struggles entailed in the historical context for my now astonishingly easy access to rare manuscripts in remote libraries. More than that, though, we all need to remember the radically unstable nature of the present itself, and of the future(s) that will be born of that present. What happened in the two Germanies and Europe generally that year profoundly changed the lives of millions of individuals and families, but the consequences of that year continue to shape the landscape of scholarship and higher learning generally.


Story by Michael Cooper, Professor of Music and holder of the Margarett Root Brown Chair at Southwestern

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1 comment

  1. great article, really love it!

    greets from austria, wilfried

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