Max Planck Society to carry out complete review of its specimens collection

March 14, 2016

The investigations into the brain sections belonging to the estate of the doctor and brain researcher Julius Hallervorden, rediscovered in the spring of 2015, have prompted the President of the Max Planck Society to launch a total review of all those Max Planck Institutes that still own collections of human specimens. Initial investigations at the Max Planck Institute of Psychiatry had shown that the Institute still possesses brain sections which actually should have been interred in Munich's Waldfriedhof in 1990. The Max Planck Society will also appoint a project with a view to establishing the identities of the victims based on the available files and records. The human specimens discovered as part of the total review should, wherever possible, subsequently buried with names.

It was not until the late 1980s that the Max Planck Society, partially also as a result of political pressure, began to investigate its specimen collections at its Institute sites in Munich, Cologne and Frankfurt. In 1989, the decision was made that all those preserved specimens whose origins could not be clearly established as unsuspicious should be interred. This included hundreds of thousands mostly microscopic brain sections of suspected victims of the so-called 'euthanasia' campaign. Such specimens prepared in the Nazi era had apparently been still widely used after 1945 for research and teaching purposes. The vast majority of scientists had too little or no moral concerns about using the specimens.

While the Max Planck Institute for Brain Research in Frankfurt decided to give up all brain slides that been prepared between 1933 and 1945, the Max Planck Institute of Psychiatry in Munich only gave up about 30 percent of its collection - those slides that could clearly be established of having suspect origins on the basis of available records. The specimens were buried in Munich's Waldfriedhof.  The victims were remembered in a commemoration ceremony on 25 May 1990, and a memorial stone was unveiled. Today, historians such as British researcher Paul Weindling from Oxford Brookes University, rightly criticize the fact that at the time no documentation of the brain specimens and wet specimens were in the public domain, and that no clarification of the identities of the victims took place (see news release dated October 30, 2015.

Apparently, however, not all brain sections had been discovered in Frankfurt and buried in 1990. The around 100 brain preparations from 35 cases dating from the years 1938 to 1967 reached the archive of the Max Planck Society in 2001 from the Edinger Institute (Neurological Institute of the Frankfurt University Clinic). Checking and categorisation of the sections was indeed performed in the transfer, but the controversial nature of the material and the need for further action was apparently not recognised as the Max Planck Society reported in spring 2015.

The investigation ordered by the President of the Max Planck Society, Martin Stratmann showed that the classification of the brain sections was carried out too superficially in 2001. In fact, individual brain sections could clearly be allocated to 'euthanasia' victims, as further research in the Federal Archives has confirmed. As two brain sections as well as photographs of sections of internal organs and, in one case, the neuropathological records went missing at some point between 2001-2009, the Max Planck Society filed a criminal complaint against persons unknown in May 2015. The Berlin public prosecutor, however, decided not to proceed with a criminal investigation, given that the statutes for theft or embezzlement had already run out and that there was no sufficient evidence for a criminal offense.

Random examinations at the Max Planck Institute of Psychiatry in Munich revealed further brain slides that should have been buried in Waldfriedhof in 1990. Against this background, President Martin Stratmann set up a presidential committee headed by Heinz Wässle (Director Emeritus at the Max Planck Institute for Brain Research), which should prepare an overall review and identify relevant experts. In mid-February, all Max Planck Institutes in possession of collections of human specimens were asked in writing to provide unrestricted access to such collections and all relevant documents and to actively support the committee's work. "The Max Planck Society has a special ethical responsibility," states President Stratmann. "We therefore have to be very responsible in the manner in which we deal with all human specimens and critically question their origins."

At the Max Planck Institute of Psychiatry, an initial investigation has already taken place at the insistence of the Institute's directors. Both brain sections and wet specimens were discovered, which the Tübingen neuropathologist Jürgen Peiffer had already classified as suspected cases of Nazi euthanasia as early as early as in the 1990s. At that time, Peiffer began analyzing the involvement of researchers in Nazi 'euthanasia'. This was fully documented by the Independent Research Commission 'The History of the Kaiser Wilhelm Society in the National Socialist Era', which had been appointed by Max Planck President Hubert Markl in 1997.

In the meantime, the Presidential Committee has recommended appointing Gerrit Hohendorf of Munich Technical University as the scientific coordinator for the overall review. On the the basis of his scientific work, the medical historian and specialist in psychiatry and psychotherapy is very familiar with the subject. Among other things, he oversaw the DFG project Wissenschaftliche Erschließung und Auswertung des Krankenaktenbestandes der nationalsozialisti­schen ‘Euthanasie’-Aktion T4 ('Scientific development and evaluation of medical patient records of the National Socialist 'euthanasia' Action T4'). Due to the large number of specimens, the overall review will take some time to complete.

All human specimens which are to be found as part of the overall review, and which are connected to criminal research in the Third Reich, should be provided with a dignified burial. In this context, the inscription on the stone slab at Waldfriedhof is also to be revised. "We must acknowledge our responsibility," explains Martin Stratmann and emphasizes: "It is our duty to give an identity to the dead." The Max Planck Society will therefore appoint a research project in the coming months with a view to identifying as widely as possible the identities of all victims on the basis of available files and records.

These investigations are also linked with the research programme 'History of the Max Planck Society 1948–2002', which was initiated by the then Max Planck President Peter Gruss in 2014 and is headed by Jürgen Renn (Max Planck Institute for History of Science), Carsten Reinhardt (President of the Chemical Heritage Foundation, Philadelphia / University Bielefeld) and Jürgen Kocka (Social Science Research Center Berlin). Following on from the work of the Presidential Commission appointed to study the 'History of the Kaiser Wilhelm Society under National Socialism', the new programme will also investigate the encumbrances left over from the National Socialist past that have weighed on the history of the Max Planck Society, and how the involvement of the Kaiser Wilhelm Society in Nazi crimes was dealt with. 

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