History of the Max Planck Society

Max Planck Society and Kaiser Wilhelm Society

The Max Planck Society (MPG) was founded in Göttingen in 1948 with a mandate to foster basic research in its own Institutes. The new Society named after Max Planck, the internationally renowned Nobel Laureate in Physics, reflected Germany’s fresh start as a democratic nation after the downfall of the National Socialist order. The Max Planck Society became the successor of the Kaiser Wilhelm Society (KWS), which was to be dissolved at the behest of the Western Allies.

In the years leading up to 1960, the institutes and assets of the KWS that had survived the war were successively transferred to the MPG and research activities were re-established. The Max Planck Society and the Kaiser Wilhelm Society existed in parallel during this period. At the same time the MPG began to emancipate itself from the KWS, setting up new Institutes and developing a mission of its own within the socio-political framework of the Federal Republic of Germany. The predecessor institution did, however, retain a strong presence for quite some time in the minds of the Scientific Members, most of whom had been part of the KWS themselves. They saw themselves as embodying direct continuity with the KWS and were keen to carry on its traditions. It was not until the 1990s that they embarked on a period of critical reflection on their own past, particularly in the context of National Socialism.

The decentralized structure of the MPG and the dynamic momentum that is the mark of the Society overall saw to it that many lines of continuity with the predecessor organization were de facto broken off, and the MPG did in fact establish its own separate identity. Today, only 22 of the 83 Institutes have historic roots in the KWS; only nine are still based at their historic location. The date of the Society’s foundation, 1948, reflecting Germany’s fresh start as a democratic nation, and the name of Max Planck himself thus grew in significance for the core values and identity of the MPG. Indeed, Max Planck’s scientific conviction that insight must precede application has been the guiding principle of the Max Planck Society since the late 1990s. The MPG has a stronger focus on basic research than did the KWS, which is facilitated by the greater financial support the Society receives from the public sector.

Nevertheless, the MPG is still governed by certain elementary principles dating back to the founding years and the influence of the first President of the KWS, Adolf von Harnack. These include the Harnack Principle, the promotion of scientific excellence and the Society’s mandate to conduct research by operating Institutes of its own.

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