The beginnings of a research giant

The beginnings of a research giant

On February 26, 2018, the Max Planck Society is celebrating the 70th anniversary of its foundation

The turbulent beginnings of what is today Germany’s largest non-university science organization were attributable to differences of opinion between the occupying powers and the long shadow cast by its predecessor organization, the Kaiser Wilhelm Society.


The Max Planck Society (MPG) celebrates its 70th anniversary on 26 February 2018.

Authors: Birgit Kolboske / Prof. Dr. Jürgen Renn / Dr. Florian Schmaltz / PD Dr. Alexander von Schwerin / Dr. Sascha Topp

A new type of science organization called the Kaiser Wilhelm Society (KWG) was established in the German empire in 1911. Its institutes would primarily focus on new, highly promising interdisciplinary research fields which did not exist amongst the university disciplines at the time. Pursuing an elitist approach, the KWG aimed to attract the “best minds” for its research activities. The researchers were provided with ideal research conditions deliberately without time-consuming lecturing duties.

The KWG’s model of success proved stable and complied with the regime after the Nazis seized power. The KWG became a willing supporter of Nazi policy on armaments and conquest and collaborated scientifically on the regime’s racial and population policies.

After the occupation of Germany in May 1945, the military governments of the Allied forces took control of the Kaiser Wilhelm Society’s budgetary resources. They also introduced measures to de-Nazify and demilitarize the leading organization of Germany’s scientific elite.

The continued existence of the KWG was called directly into question. At American initiative, the Allied Control Council – the joint and most senior occupying authority – discussed the complete disbandment of the KWG at the start of August 1946. A draft law on the matter was approved by Soviet and French delegates but not by the British. The KWG’s Administrative Headquarters, which had relocated to Göttingen in February 1945 from the bombed-out “Berliner Schloss”, was situated in the British occupation zone. News of the threatened disbandment alarmed Colonel Bertie K. Blount, the Allied Control Commission officer responsible for science and research in the British zone.

Blount vehemently supported the restoration of German science. In November 1945, the British government had given Otto Hahn the task of reorganizing the German science system and the Kaiser Wilhelm Society. On 1 April 1946, the chemist, who contributed to the discovery of nuclear fission in 1938 for which he received the Nobel Prize at the end of the war, was appointed President of the society. The 88-year-old Max Planck, who had been President of the KWG until 1937, turned down another term in office due to his age. He was nevertheless willing to lend his name to a new society.

Blount suggested re-establishing the Kaiser Wilhelm Society under a different name. Planck was regarded as an outstanding scientist internationally and his reputation was untarnished by the war. He was also ideal as a figurehead of German science as his life embodied continuity spanning three political systems. With the looming threat of the KWG’s disbandment, Hahn finally agreed after much hesitation.

At American initiative, the Allied Control Council – the joint and most senior occupying authority – discussed the complete disbandment of the KWG at the start of August 1946. A draft law on the matter was approved by Soviet and French delegates but not by the British. The KWG’s Administrative Headquarters, which had relocated to Göttingen in February 1945 from the Bertie K. Blount, the Allied Control Commission officer responsible for science and research in the British zone.

The Max Planck Society was initially founded in the British zone on 11 September 1946.

The event took place at Clementinium, the theological seminary in Bad Driburg. This step would have been inconceivable without the active support of the British military government. It ensured the continued existence of the 13 Kaiser Wilhelm Institutes located in the British occupation zone. The MPG was entered in the register of associations on 23 November 1946. The negotiations over the statutes with the British Research Branch lasted until January 1947.

Plans to extend the newly founded MPG in the British zone to the US zone had been circulating since November 1946. It was not just the American military government that was not initially convinced by these proposals. The Chancellery of the Federal State of Bavaria also criticized them because leading representatives of the Nazi regime and the armaments industry would occupy senior positions within the KWG, including Herbert Backe, the former Minister of Agriculture, Kurt Freiherr von Schroeder, the Brigadier General of the SS and banker, and Albert Vögler, the last President of the KWG and executive board member of “Vereinigte Stahlwerke”, who committed suicide in 1945. A joint appeal to retain the KWG made on 5 April 1947 by ten Nobel Prize laureates to General Lucius D. Clay, the military governor of the US occupation zone, fell on deaf ears.

However, when the prospect of the merger of the British and US occupation zones under a joint bi-zonal administration emerged, new room for manoeuvre opened up. In September 1947, Clay eventually also approved the bi-zonal amalgamation of research institutes. He stipulated that the new Max Planck Society must be independent of industry and the state and open to the incorporation of other institutes.

The Allies’ plan and the framework conditions on the founding of the organization also had a long-term impact on the MPG’s structure and self-perception as a research institution independent of the state and industry. The MPG was finally founded on 26 February 1948 in the two occupation zones which had now been united.

The question that now remained was what should be done with the Kaiser Wilhelm Society Institutes situated in the French occupation zone? The French military government and the Federal State of Württemberg-Hohenzollern supported these institutes generously and sought to incorporate them into the universities. The merger of the three western occupation zones and the foundation of the Federal Republic of Germany in May 1949 nevertheless led to the French military government recognizing the validity of the MPG’s statutes for the entire federal territory on 8 July. The Kai­ser Wilhelm Institutes situated in the French zone were incorporated into the MPG on 15 October and 18 November 1949.

Right: Otto Hahn became the Founding President of the MPG. Together with Lise Meitner and Fritz Strassmann, the chemist discovered nuclear fission in 1938.

There were also some Kaiser Wilhelm Insti­tutes located in Berlin. The western powers had limited influence over these. The complicated situa­tion of the city being divided into four zones worsened with the Soviet Berlin blockade in 1947/48. The Soviet-controlled City Council of Berlin had already appointed its own acting head of the MPG in 1947 in the chemist and resistance fighter Robert Havemann.

The Administrative Headquarters in Göttingen vehemently rejected this rival and froze him out administratively. It took until the early 1950s to incorporate the  remaining institutes in West Berlin into the MPG.

The KWG was finally legally dissolved in 1960 after asset issues had been resolved. The gradual process of founding the Max Planck Society, which had begun on 11 September 1946 in the British zone, was finally completed in 1953 with the incorporation of the remaining institutes in West Berlin.

The MPG could now begin expanding under the new framework conditions of a federal and democratic state. However, the society was initially deprived of private donations owing to the currency devaluation related to the currency union.

During the pre-war decades, individual donors and money from industry had covered half of the Kaiser Wilhelm Society’s budgetary requirements. A return to this situation was out of the question for political reasons. In contrast to its predecessor organization, the Max Planck Society was to have greater independence in deciding its scientific direction. The federal states now took the place of private donors and industry.

Shortly before the foundation of the Federal Republic, an agreement ratified in 1949 in Königsstein, Taunus, provided for the cultural and financial sovereignty of the community of federal states over supra-regional research organizations. These also included the Max Planck Society. This basis and the subsequent involvement of federal government through a supplementary administrative agreement in 1964 heralded an enormous period of structural growth for the MPG until the early 1970s. Its budget rose from an initial 17 million Marks to 454 million Marks in 1971.

The Kaiser Wilhelm Institutes for Cell Physiology and for Physics in Berlin-Dahlem were incorporated into the Max Planck Society during the 1950s.

In the early 1950s, the scientific landscape of the emergent Federal Republic was in a state of upheaval. Times had changed. The nuclear researchers were worst affected. Under the Nazi regime, they had belonged to the scientific elite who were supportive of the state and who were denied hardly any request by the regime. However, any research related to military activity was prohibited under Allied occupation. The numerous eminent nuclear physicists at the Max Planck Society had to temporarily focus on other tasks.

That was easier said than done as even then modern experimental physics relied heavily upon highly complex and expensive equipment. The situation was different for researchers who had organized radiation protection under the Nazi nuclear programme, such as Boris Rajewsky, Director of the Max Planck Institute of Biophysics. In the context of bloc confrontation, the federal government began to set up civil protection in the early 1950s.

Boris Rajewsky and other former members of the Nazi nuclear programme were heavily involved here. When the Allies handed over sovereignty to the Federal Republic in May 1955, the federal government not only announced the launch of atomic energy buy finally also involvement in European nuclear physics. 18 highly regarded nuclear physicists, including a number of MPG scientists and its President Otto Hahn, protested in a very personal way against the federal military having nuclear weapons.

Federal Chancellor Konrad Aden­auer was indignant about this new political awareness of German scientists who had expressed their views right in the middle of a federal parliamentary election campaign.

The MPG radiation researcher Boris Rajewsky (pictured right) was asked by Franz Josef Strauß (next to him), the then Federal Minister for Nuclear Affairs, in 1956 to set up a special radiation protection committee. Rajewsky was involved in the nuclear programme during the Nazi period

The call for a science system that serves peaceful objectives can be seen as an expression of an enforced learning process. This was not just a response to experience of the destructive potential of science unleashed under the Nazi regime and as part of war research during the Second World War but it was also influenced by the framework conditions that the Allies had set for the foundation of the MPG. They would gradually be reflected in a new self-perception of the society which places much greater emphasis on “pure” basic research which also departed from the traditi­on of the Kaiser Wilhelm Society.

The newly founded MPG not only took over the KWG’s Institutes but also its scientific staff. Many of the – predominantly male – MPG scientists were, as we now know, involved in Nazi armaments, conquest or racial policy. Some of them had collaborated on inhuman experiments which the world became aware of after 1945. There were only individual consequences in very rare cases. The emphasis was placed on colleagueship, loyalty and avoidance of reputational damage at the MPG upon its foundation and during the subsequent decades.

The exceptions included Otmar Freiherr von Verschuer, the human geneticist highly regarded internationally and staunch racial hygienist, who had gone beyond just supporting Nazi racial policy in word and deed. As the Director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for An­thropology, Human Heredity and Eugenics, he had also worked closely with the infamous SS doctor Josef Mengele in Auschwitz.

His former KWG colleagues stood up for him after 1945 but allowing him to continue as an In­stitute Director was untenable. Verschuer obtained a chair at the University of Münster. KWG brain researchers, such as Julius Hallervorden and Hugo Spatz, were never brought to justice despite their notorious examination of brains that came from the Nazi programme to kill the sick.

It took 50 years before Hubert Markl, the former President of the Max Planck Society, assumed historic responsibility in a representative capacity and made an apology in 2001 for the crimes committed on humans by scientists of the Kaiser Wilhelm­ Society during the Nazi regime. He addressed the survivors of the Auschwitz concentration camp with the following words: “Only a perpetrator can actually ask for forgiveness. I nevertheless ask you, the surviving victims, from the bottom of my heart for forgiveness on behalf of those who, for whatever reason, failed to do so themselves.”   

This article was first published in the history magazine DAMALS (2-2018)

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