Sabine Pannen

Beyond the Iron Curtain: The Niels Bohr Institute during the Cold War

During the Cold War, physics held a distinct position among scientific disciplines. In the face of the threat of nuclear war and technological rivalry between the competing East and West, it was this academic discipline that generated significant attention. In contrast to this narrative of confrontation, from the mid-1950s onwards, Niels Bohr’s Institute for Theoretical Physics (since 1965 known as the Niels Bohr Institute or NBI) was the setting for encounters and scientific collaboration between East and West. Soviet scientists and many other researchers from the Eastern Bloc met there with colleagues from Denmark and other Western countries to share knowledge and discuss their research. This policy was largely due to Niels Bohr, who already after World War I had attracted scientific talent irrespective of geo-political tensions. This principle of collaboration continued after Niels Bohr’s death, and the Institute remained a hub for scientists from both sides of the iron curtain.

The project seeks to analyze this phenomenon on two levels. Firstly, it aims to systematically explore the numbers, the development, and scientific profiles of visiting scholars from the East, as well as the activities of decision makers in undertaking this strategy of collaboration from the end of World War II until 1989. It explores the objectives, the forms of collaboration, the scopes of activity, and the limits of political rapprochement. Secondly, the project focuses on the special relations between the NBI and the GDR. In 1977, four years after the establishment of diplomatic relations between Denmark and the GDR, an agreement was signed by the Danish and East-German governments, which included provisions for annual exchange visits of scientists from the NBI and the centre for nuclear research at the GDR Academy of Sciences. What were the political objectives behind this treaty and how was it put into practice?

By investigating formal and informal cooperation between the NBI and the Eastern Bloc, the project seeks to analyze the role and perception of the NBI during the Cold War both within the scientific community and beyond. To what extent was NBI pursuing not merely an academic but also a political agenda? How was its collaboration strategy linked to the Institute’s expansion, and to what extent was the Institute perceived as a pioneer in establishing contacts to the East?