Signing the charter for the foundation of IIASA in Vienna
At the height of the Cold War, 12 nations from the East and West meet in London in autumn 1972 to sign the charter establishing IIASA in the neutral setting of Austria. (Center: Government advisors Solly Zuckerman, UK (left) and Dzhermen Gvishiani, USSR) © IIASA

During the Cold War, this idea proved successful: in the 1960s, against the backdrop of the nuclear threat, the USA and the Soviet Union made plans for an "East-West Institute" with the underlying idea of having a scientific network and relations that should reach across ideological boundaries. The intention was to jointly address major future issues, including the environment, health and technology. The launch came in 1973, when the “East-West Institute” officially became the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA), located in Laxenburg near Vienna. From that moment, Moscow and Washington were linked by the first transatlantic computer link, which passed through IIASA. The developers had accomplished pioneering work.  

Over the years, more and more countries joined the two great powers in championing the idea of a hub for scientific expertise, where the foundations were laid for political and economic decision-making processes on both sides of the Iron Curtain. Task forces composed of the best experts worldwide were set up on neutral ground. The players were well networked, and there were lively exchanges between research, politics and business. Many made a career on the basis of this system. One of them was Petr Aven. From the 1980s onward, this Russian economist conducted research at IIASA. He played a leading role in the transformation of the Soviet Union in the 1990s and became a key figure at Alfa-Bank, Russia’s largest private bank. On the U.S. side, Howard Raiffa came to Vienna directly from Harvard University. The founding director of IIASA, Raiffa was instrumental in building the institute. His contact in Moscow was Dzhermen Gvishiani, the deputy chairman of the State Committee for Science and Technology. As the son-in-law of Soviet Prime Minister Alexei Kosygin, Gvishiani also occupied a high rank in the Communist Party leadership.

Historical network analysis

“Elite, ideas and transfers played a significant role at IIASA,” says Oliver Rathkolb. Together with his team (Petra Mayrhofer and Pavel Szobi), historian Rathkolb is undertaking the first analysis of the history of IIASA and of the Institute for Human Sciences (IWM), which was also founded in Vienna in 1982, in a project supported by the Austrian Science Fund FWF. The researchers are interested in identifying how this unique model of exchanging ideas and knowledge contributed to a policy of détente during the Cold War and what were its long-term effects beyond the end of the Cold War from 1989 onwards. After an intensive research phase, Rathkolb’s team is currently conducting a network analysis of more than 700 personal data records from the archives of IIASA and IWM together with data experts from FAS Research.

The researchers hope that the network data and visualizations will furnish new insights into the actors, their networks, stays and professional stations, as well as into the content-side of the collaboration. In addition, the team is conducting numerous interviews with experts who have worked at the institutes. One of the best-known living interlocutors of the research team is Karel Schwarzenberg, a native of Prague and the former foreign minister of the Czech Republic, who was closely associated with the IWM. “Prince Schwarzenberg applied a lot of ideas from this discourse at the IWM to his political life,” Rathkolb reports. “People underestimate how important it is to network and exchange ideas with colleagues from different environments. That's one of the reasons why it was worthwhile to maintain discourse during the Cold War.”

Personal details

Oliver Rathkolb, who studied history and law in Vienna, served for many years as the director of the Department of Contemporary History at the University of Vienna. His research interests include the history of the Austrian Republic, the perceptual history of the Nazi era, 20th century European history and Cold War history.

A member of numerous committees and academic advisory boards, Rathkolb has been a visiting professor at Harvard University and the University of Chicago, and he is the author of a number of monographs and anthologies, most recently including The Paradoxical Republic. Austria 19452020, Berghahn Books New York-Oxford 2021 and Baldur von Schirach. Des Jeunesses hitlériennes à la déportation des Juifs de Vienne, Tallandier Paris 2023.

IWM Conference "Central Europe on the Way to Democracy" in 1990
In 1990, IWM organized the landmark conference Central Europe on the Way to Democracy, bringing together leading intellectuals and politicians from across Europe, North America and the Soviet Union to discuss Europe’s future prospects at a time of dramatic change. (From left: Jurij N. Afanasiev, Erhard Busek, Timothy Garton Ash, Karl Schwarzenberg, Lane Kirkland, Aleksander Smolar) © IWM/Renate Apostel

Political discourse at IWM

Although the two Vienna “East-West hubs” are based on different concepts, one element they do have in common is the scientific diplomacy on both sides of the Iron Curtain. While IIASA, being an NGO, is supported by its state members and focuses on basic research, IWM's network is shaped by common ideological ground and political discourse. Founded by Polish philosopher Krzysztof Michalski (1948-2013), who had close ties to the U.S. and Pope John Paul II, discussions at the IWM relate to ideas from social science and the humanities, and to the development of new models. Many of the IWM Fellows in Vienna played important roles in the politics of Eastern Europe at a later point and were involved in debates in the late 1980s when the path from communism to democracy was being negotiated.

“The problem – which the West did not see – was the fact that the social dimension of this transformation did not have the same success everywhere as the Marshall Plan did after 1947,” says Rathkolb. While this aspect was much discussed at the IWM, it ultimately fell victim to the onset of turbo-capitalism in 1989, which left large parts of the population to their own devices and resulted in a massive brain drain to the West. “We still notice the consequences today and these are also one of the reasons for the situation in Russia today,” says the historian.

Science diplomacy for the present

Political interventions and failures notwithstanding, the IWM and IIASA survived the post-Cold War period. Networks and social contacts were kept alive and the important building of relationships across national borders is still maintained today. Nowadays, more than 400 researchers from 53 countries are working side by side at IIASA, and both IIASA and IWM have become role models for scientific exchanges in the 21st century. The independent basic research at IIASA on fields such as the climate crisis, demography, energy security or economics not only provides globally unique empirical knowledge, but also important potential solutions for the political discourse. Through its work that started in the1980s, the IWM has succeeded in making the West aware of the historical heritage of Eastern Europe and in expanding contacts globally.

Incidentally, both institutions are very much aware of their historical role. “Now is the time for the global community to strengthen international scientific cooperation in response to current challenges, including climate change, global pandemics, and armed conflict, and not to withdraw from this informal diplomatic arena,” says the Vienna Statement on Science Diplomacy that IIASA published on the occasion of its 50th anniversary in 2022. Taking an even more proactive role in political and public discourse is something that Oliver Rathkolb considers to be a central task for these two role models for international research cooperation. “The Cold War is over, but we now have completely new geopolitically controversial situations. In this context we need solid research and a social science-based global discourse that keeps parliamentary democracy alive even in periods of massive international upheaval,” Rathkolb concludes.

The research project “’Expert Clearing Houses’ in Vienna as Transfer Hubs of Ideas” (2020–2024) has been awarded EUR 370,000 in funding by the Austrian Science Fund FWF.

Project website