“It is a bit like speed-dating”. That is how Gesche Schifferdecker introduced the fourth WeberWorldCafé (WWC) on November 16, 2015, hosted by the Max Weber Stiftung and Forum Transregionale Studien in cooperation with the Centre for Area Studies Leipzig and GIGA German Institute of Global and Area Studies Hamburg. After the first three WeberWorldCafés took place in Bonn and Berlin, this edition was hosted in the café of Leipzig’s house of literature, the “Haus des Buches”.

The topic of the fourth edition was “Globalisation during the Cold War: Culture, New Geopolitics and Che Guevara”. But to get a better understanding of what happened there I would like to introduce the concept.

The Concept

The WeberWorldCafé is an event hosted by the Max Weber Stiftung and the Forum Transregionale Studien. International experts are invited to be the hosts of different tables that cover several subtopics and aspects. Participants choose the table they want to participate at for 25 minutes. After that they move on to a different table. The experts started with an introduction of their respective topics but as the event is explicitly hosted for scholarly exchange there is always the opportunity to ask questions and start discussions on the topics, illuminating different aspects of them.

The table cloths on each table function as a large notebook on which relevant aspects or contributions can be noted, either for oneself or as a stimulus for the next group coming to the table.

For the event in Leipzig, there were 16 experts hosting eight different tables of which in the short time span of one afternoon (16:30-20:00) is was possible to visit four.

The Tables

The tables at the fourth WWC were (links are pointed to the official table-description):

  • Educational “Aid” during the Cold War (Link)
  • Social Movements and Cultural Icons (Link)
  • Ideologies, Geopolitics and the Search for New Allies during the Cold War (Link)
  • New Political Agendas: Human Rights, Gender and Environment (Link)
  • Youth Movements, the “Third World” and the Radical Left (Link)
  • International and Regional Organisations (Link)
  • Art, Literature and Propaganda (Link)
  • Decolonization and Postcolonial Solidarity (Link)

The Event

It took me some time to figure out how to write about the event’s main part, the discussions at the different tables. Although the tables all have an overarching topic, each participant contributes his or her own knowledge and experience as well as information and discussions that were held at other tables beforehand. This leads each round to address entirely different aspects and specifics of the respective topics.

While this is one of the aspects which made the WeberWorldCafé a great experience for me, it also makes it difficult to give more general information for each of the tables as most of the other participants might have had an entirely different experience at that particular table.

The Topics

My first table at the WWC was „Social Movements and Cultural Icons“ at which the competition of cultures between the two superpowers and ideologies served as a topic. The exchange shifted from talking about Socialist Realism, one of the dominant styles of art in the Soviet Union which is known for the big, monumental statues and buildings, promoting socialism and its ideals to Africa, which was a big part of Soviet cultural promotion of western art. This also became a problem because much of these cultural diplomacy efforts were financed by the CIA.

At the next table „International and Regional Organisations“ our discussion switched between the different organizations that were founded during the Cold War and do – in most cases – still exist today.

The interesting part of it was that we did not focus on the well-known organizations like the UN, NATO or the Warsaw Treaty Organization. We concentrated more on organizations which are not as famous but were (/are) still very relevant during (/after) the Cold War. One is, for example, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Established as a reaction to the Vietnam War and against the propaganda and possible dangers from the Eastern bloc, ASEAN is still an important organization which even decided to create a common economic area in 2009.

I found it particular interesting that some of the organizations completely switched their field of responsibility since their foundation. This might be the reason they still exist today. What would have happened to international cooperation on any policy field if the Cold War would not have been there to promote state-cooperation and alliances?

At the table „Educational ‚Aid‘ during the Cold War“ we discussed the role of the superpowers and their ideologies in shaping educational aid. One of the major concerns was the focus of the Soviet Union and other states of the Eastern bloc towards the Third World to which they gave much educational aid. This of course did not come without particular interests: they wanted to spread their ideology. Both superpowers trained students from Africa as well as Asia and Latin America to become opinion leaders, even possible heads of state in their home country. Education was tool for geopolitics. But did that, on the other hand, help to establish a better educational system?

The last table I visited, „Ideologies, Geopolitics and the Search for New Allies during the Cold War“, focused on Africa but more on ideology. The guiding question was how African states decided on their alliance with one or the other ideology. But we soon moved on to the perspectives of today and how the political dependencies of African states possibly just switched to economic dependencies through processes of globalization after the Cold War. We also talked about today’s dominance of US-American culture („I flew from Istanbul to Berlin and the last and first thing I saw was a Starbucks“). Where are the ideologies of the past in today’s world? What can we make of the extreme market economy in China under a (theoretically still) socialist regime? Is there a mixing of ideologies?

The Format

As it may been obvious each paragraph about the different topic tables closed with one or more questions. This is exactly how I think about the WeberWorldCafé. It was a highly inspiring event which led to many new perspectives on the world of the past and the world of today. Each table brought up new questions and thoughts which on the one hand were enlightening themselves but on the other hand gave impetus to new research and discoveries.

The WeberWorldCafé is not a format for highly profound discussions on scientific aspects and problems. It is an instrument of discovering new aspects of historical issues: Fast, inspiring and demanding. And the format achieves that in an outstanding manner.

The author was given the possibility to attend the event as a Science Reporter and wants to thank the Max Weber Stiftung and the Forum Transregionale Studien for that possibility.

Photos: All Photos were thankfully provided and are copyrighted by the Max Weber Stiftung.