Not many people get to see history happen before their very eyes, but Angelika von Wahl watched the Cold War end from atop the Berlin Wall at Brandenburg Gate as a graduate student in 1989. It was the first time von Wahl, associate professor of international affairs, witnessed a political event of historic and global significance firsthand.
The peaceful protests surrounding the fall of the Iron Curtain were a welcome change from the ones that so often have violent and negative consequences. Living and studying in West Berlin at the time, von Wahl, who had relatives in East Germany, still remembers the euphoric atmosphere in her native country. Sitting on top of the wall with friends, she saw East German border guards 10 feet away on one side and former West German Chancellor Willy Brandt walking through jubilant crowds on the other.
“We knew the world had changed and that we were in the middle of it,” she says. “Because West Berlin was an island surrounded by a communist state, the sense of liberation sweeping the region was not just palpable in East Germany but also in West Berlin. When we hear ‘the Berlin Wall opened,’ of course, it opened in the most immediate way into the streets, squares, and stores of West Berlin. So, for some weeks, the city was in a state of emergency, but a sort of ‘elated emergency.’ There were deep feelings of solidarity, human connection, curiosity, and joy.”
It didn’t take the Berlin Wall to pique von Wahl’s interest in international affairs. Her father had a National Geographic subscription, something rare in the small northern German town where she grew up. As a child, she’d page through the magazines – even before she was able to understand the English text – and dream of faraway places. One of her favorite Christmas gifts ever was a light-up globe. After locating every country, she made bets with friends and family about finding exotic places. A quick study, she only lost once: Kamatschatka is not a country but a part of Russia.
“The desire to learn more about the world has always been a big part of me,” says von Wahl, who once aspired to be a journalist. “The social and political world is incredibly complex and yet immediately relevant for everyone.”
It’s a privilege, von Wahl says, to teach others about the world. She discovered a love for learning at Free University Berlin, where she earned master’s and doctoral degrees in political science. While she enjoys watching students grow into independent thinkers who seek answers to the questions that matter most to them, she wants them to share the feelings she had looking for new countries on her globe.
“The world is a big place – never stop exploring it,” she advises.
Von Wahl is the first faculty member hired specifically for the College’s newly restructured international affairs program. She’s already hard at work expanding some of the major’s new thematic concentrations. She has proposed two new courses for next semester: Global Perspectives on Gender and Equality in the gender concentration and Atrocities, Genocide, and Reparations in the human rights concentration.
Those areas are right in line with her current research interests. For her latest book project, von Wahl is studying reparations for human rights abuses in Japan, Germany, and the U.S., investigating why some governments are more receptive to reparations, and the role claimants have in the process. She also is researching policy reform dealing with gender equality in Europe.
“I am interested in social change and regional diversity. Why do institutions, rules, ideas, etc. change, and why are they different in different places? I am especially intrigued by the interplay between the political and social structures we live in and by people’s actions as citizens and voters,” she explains. “There continues to be many unresolved political, social, and economic problems in the world that negatively impact many people: poverty, discrimination, exclusion, human rights violations, and environmental degradation. We need to know as much as possible about these issues so we can develop ways to resolve them.”
Von Wahl’s varied background – she’s taught political science, international relations, and sociology – makes her a perfect fit for the interdisciplinary program. It is also an exciting time to be a part of international affairs. The College has announced plans to build the Oechsle Center for Global Education, made possible by a gift from Walter Oechsle ’57 and his wife, Christa, and the Grossman House, a residence hall that will provide a supportive living-and-learning environment for students interested in global topics, made possible by a gift from trustee Richard Grossman ’64 and his wife, Rissa.
“I’ve learned a lot from each discipline, so my classes will naturally integrate political, social, and cultural aspects,” says von Wahl. “Today, students need to know specific areas of the world and have specific issue knowledge and how they are interrelated. I am very excited that so many positive factors are coming together to help us build what I think could become the best global studies program of its kind at a liberal arts college in the U.S. – period.”
Von Wahl specializes in comparative politics of Western Europe and the U.S., welfare states and social policy, and gender and politics, as well as in transitional and restorative justice, global human rights, and Western European politics. The author of Equal Employment Regimes: Equal Employment Opportunities for Women in Germany and the USA (1999) and Between Heritage and Holocaust: The Perception of Germany among German Jews in New York (1992), she also has published extensively in peer-reviewed journals.