The world of Max Planck - torn between tradition and modernity

The society in which Max Planck grows up is marked by profound changes in the economy, working life, politics and public life

The advent of big industry had given rise to a new working class. Owing to industrialization, the latest scientific advances and technical progress became close companions. This in turn led to educational reforms and to the founding of new scientific institutions. The emergence of the nation state went hand in hand with that of a new national identity informing every aspect of life, including the sciences. Despite the economic upswing and growing self-esteem, however, the involvement of the German middle classes was limited. Popularization of science on the one side, and hopes for political progress on the other, became linked. Science, by this time, had become a productive force and cultural commodity.

The Kaiser and modernity

Kaiser Wilhelm II was an autocratic monarch with a traditional understanding of his role as ruler. This did not preclude an interest in technical progress, however: Wilhelm II became actually a promoter of scientific institutions and was, not least, patron of the “Kaiser Wilhelm Society for the Advancement of Science”, the precursor of the Max Planck Society.

Social issues

Migration into towns and cities and the rise of the working class resulted in the loss of traditional structures of welfare. As the workers gradually became politically organized, Chancellor Otto von Bismarck signed legislation in 1878 outlawing all social-democratic and socialist organizations. Bismarck’s modern social policies were actually intended to improve the workers’ situation to prevent them siding with the social democrats. Health insurance was introduced in 1883 and accident insurance in 1884.

Transformation of the economy

The economy had traditionally been dominated by farming and crafts. The nineteenth century, however, saw the development of industries based on engineering and technology, such as the chemical and electrical industries. These often took the form of joint-stock companies, which were a novelty in those days. Markets began to develop worldwide and the German Reich became one of the leading industrialized nations.

Traditional culture and technological take-off

Electricity and transportation are two obvious examples of the modernization that took hold in the latter years of the nineteenth century, bringing with them great hopes for the future. Electric streetcars took over city streets, while the increasing pace of life is underscored by new speed records. Yet this technical revolution was taking place in cultural “frames” still bound by tradition - as is evident, for example, from the architectural facades dating from this period.

Science for peace, and for war

“Bread out of thin air!” is how some responded to the production process which Fritz Haber, Director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physical Chemistry and Electrochemistry, and Carl Bosch of BASF brought to the breakthrough. Yet the ammonia they had found a way of producing was to go down in history not primarily as a base chemical for fertilizers (e.g. ammonium nitrate), but as the raw material for the explosives without which Germany could not have gone on fighting in World War I for as long as it did.

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