History of the Kaiser Wilhelm Society

In 1909, Berlin theology professor Adolf Harnack issued an appeal to Kaiser Wilhelm II. As a close adviser to the Kaiser, a member of the Academy of Sciences and director of the renowned Royal Library, Harnack was one of the most innovative and influential science managers of his time. His memorandum outlined a comprehensive reform of the science system. It centred on Harnack’s call for Germany to establish independent research institutes to co-exist alongside the universities. He proposed that they should conduct specialized basic research, predominantly in the natural sciences, and explained that the rapid pace of industrialization since the mid-19th century had demonstrated that many new technical problems could only be solved with greater knowledge of chemical or physical principles. Advances were also being made in the fields of biology and medicine, he wrote. Harnack’s memorandum paved the way for structures that still characterize the German science system to this day and facilitated specialized research and Big Science as we know them today. In the interests of implementing these structures, Harnack proposed the foundation of a brand new type of research association for the advancement of science: The Kaiser Wilhelm Society. more
Advancement of Science took place at the Berlin Academy of Arts on 11 January 1911. A total of 83 voting members of the new association attended the meeting. The list of founding members reads like an extract from the “Who’s Who” of German industry. The Kaiser had announced its foundation a few months prior, on Berlin University’s 100th anniversary. The new Society was to complement the work of the universities and academies with research into the natural sciences and thereby keep Germany competitive in the international arena. Influential science manager and scientist Adolf Harnack was appointed President. The Kaiser himself was the patron, thus granting the new institution a great deal of prestige and attracting numerous powerful donors, including many members of the Jewish middle classes. Minerva was chosen as the Society’s symbol, the Roman goddess of science being the embodiment of wisdom, valour and endurance. more
The first of the KWS’s institutes were able to move into their own purpose-built accommodation in October 1912. The Institute for Chemistry with Director Ernst Beckmann and the Institute of Physical Chemistry and Electrochemistry with Director Fritz Haber were both inaugurated in Berlin. They formed the core of the new research campus at Dahlem, which went on to grow rapidly: the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Experimental Therapy was opened as early as 1913, followed by the Institute for Biology in 1915. But the KWS was also active beyond the capital: In 1912, Jewish art collector Henriette Hertz bequeathed the KWS the Palazzo Zuccari in Rome, along with a significant library of books on the history of art and a substantial sum in the form of endowment capital. It was there that the KWS set up a research institute dedicated to the study of the history of art under the name Bibliotheca Hertziana. As a result, the human sciences had a place within the KWS right from the start. Even though this had not been formulated as a key element in the Society’s original mission, many other institutes dedicated to the human sciences were to follow. more
Germany, Russia and France declared war at the beginning of August 1914. The public was whipped up in a frenzy of nationalist fervour, and many of the KWS’s scientists shared those feelings. Furthermore, the intellectual elite themselves endeavoured to influence public opinion with the publication of an appeal “To the cultural world” in October 1914 to refute accusations of atrocities committed by the German Army in occupied Belgium. Among the 93 intellectuals and artists who signed the appeal were also scientists connected with the KWS: Max Planck, Adolf von Harnack, Fritz Haber, August von Wassermann and Richard Willstätter. more
Richard Willstätter was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1915 - the first scientist from the KWS to win the coveted prize. Willstätter worked at the KWI for Chemistry where he researched chlorophyll but also developed a respiratory filter for gas masks in 1915 at the request of his friend Fritz Haber. The circumstances of war meant that the Nobel laureate’s speech was not delivered until 1920 in Stockholm. Willstätter had gone to Munich to work at the Ludwig Maximilian University in the interim, where he became the subject of anti-Semitic harassment in the 1920s. As a result, the chemist resigned his post as professor in 1924 and went to work in industry. He emigrated to Switzerland in 1939 and lived out the remaining years of his life there. Willstätter was the first of a total of 15 Nobel Prize winners to emerge from the KWS, including Albert Einstein, James Franck, Otto Hahn and Werner Heisenberg. more
Fritz Haber directed his Institute of Physical Chemistry and Electrochemistry in Berlin-Dahlem to focus fully on military research into war gas from the very first year of the war. The institute reported directly to the Supreme Army Command from 1916. Haber himself became known as the father of gas warfare, which was to have a lasting impact on the Kaiser Wilhelm Institutes in Berlin, where the workforce amounted to as many as 1500 staff. The KWI for Chemistry was also involved in the work, and scientists at the KWI for Experimental Therapy were working on the refinement of vaccines to protect German soldiers against typhoid and cholera. Most of the KWIs endeavoured, however, to continue their pre-war work, especially the institutes outside Germany, though this proved difficult. more
The Armistice on 11 November 1918 brought the First World War to an end for Germany. Within a few days of this date, the KWS’s two Italian institutes were impounded. The Bibliotheca Hertziana in Rome was only able to resume its research in 1920. The marine biology research station in Rovigno continued to operate under Italian leadership and did not return to the KWS until 1931 when it was the German-Italian Institute for Marine Biology. more
Kaiser Wilhelm II abdicated in 1918, resulting in Germany getting a democratic constitution for the first time in its history. The KWS Senate decided in 1919, however, not to change to the Society’s name. During the Weimar Republic, Reichstag deputies, particularly members of Germany’s left-wing fractions, attempted repeatedly to have the name changed. Presidents Harnack and Planck managed to prevent the Society from being renamed until the late 1930s. The vast majority of scientists were ‘republicans by reason’ and accepted the new democracy while remaining ‘monarchists at heart’. Particularly the sponsors and Prussian civil servants mourned after the bygone splendour of the imperial era. The Kaiser’s name as patron was not removed from the Statutes until 1921. more
In 1922, an expanding administrative headquarters moved into new and prestigious offices in the Berlin Palace, which had been repurposed after the end of the monarchy. From then on, the Senate also met in the offices and meeting rooms there. In the years that followed, the annual general meetings were held in the Berlin Palace too, and it soon became home to the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute of History and the KWI for Private Law and International Law. more
In 1924 the KWS bestowed the Harnack Medal to honour individuals who rendered special services to the Society. The tradition is continued to this day with the medal having been awarded 32 times. Its introduction was the expression of a growing professionalism being brought into the KWS’s management by Secretary General Friedrich Glum, who had been systematically canvassing for new members since 1924 and who ultimately tripled the Society’s membership by 1930. Not only did this open up new sources of funding for the KWS, it also facilitated access to new networks. The Senate grew in number as a result, and the KWS published annual reports on its activities from 1924 onwards. more
In 1927, the Kaiser Wilhelm Society invited delegates to its general meeting in Dresden – a first. Up until then, the annual general meeting had always been held in Berlin. This changed as the number of Scientific Members coming from outside Prussia increased and the KWS was keen to increase its visibility there. In 1928, the Kaiser Wilhelm Society was hosted in Munich and then in Heidelberg in 1930. The general meeting in Frankfurt was attended by as many as 1,400 people. The location was often chosen to coincide with the inauguration of a new institute. The programme of activities included steamboat trips, concerts and receptions organized by the host city. more
Harnack House opened in Berlin-Dahlem in May 1929. It served as a club house for the staff of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institutes on campus and as a guest house for foreign scientists visiting the Dahlem institutes for research residencies. Boasting tennis courts, a library and a dining hall offering reasonably priced lunches, Harnack House quickly became a key communication hub. The general public also attended lectures and concerts at the house, and the President of the KWS would invite selected policymakers, business leaders and media representatives to join renowned scientists as his dinner guests. more
Max Planck was appointed President of the Kaiser Wilhelm Society in 1930. The Society was highly renowned at that time and its seven Nobel Prize winners made it one of the country’s key research institutions. Nevertheless, the 72-year-old physicist took office at a difficult time. Membership dues were in decline as a result of the global economic crisis. The Reich and Prussia were cutting their grants. Planck had formulated his quantum theory in 1900 and achieved international fame as a result. He later played an instrumental role in structuring the German science system. As secretary to the Academy of Sciences, he was tasked with helping to ensure the advancement of physics research in Berlin. He had succeeded in bringing Albert Einstein to Berlin in 1914 to head the new Kaiser Wilhelm Institute of Physics there. more
By 1931 the Kaiser Wilhelm Society had 32 institutes. Following the First World War, a whole series of industry- and agriculture-related research facilities – among them institutes for iron research, fibre chemistry, metal, leather, silicates and breeding research – sprang up in quick succession. The Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Medical Research in Heidelberg was one of the Society’s most innovative research facilities when it took up operations in 1930. The KWS also invested abroad, one example being the Research Centre for Microbiology in São Paulo. This all resulted in the emergence of modern buildings with first-class laboratory facilities and libraries, which allowed scientists to work at world-class level. more
Adolf Hitler was appointed Reich Chancellor in January 1933. Within the space of a few weeks, the Nazi Party – with broad-based support from the population at large – had transformed Germany into an anti-Semitic ‘Führer state’ which radically persecuted its opponents. The ‘Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service’ was passed in April 1933 as the basis for expelling staff members of Jewish descent from government agencies. A wave of dismissals began in the KWS after Max Planck’s audience with Hitler was unsuccessful. The KWS dismissed a total of 126 staff members, 104 of them scientists. Some were able to continue their careers abroad, others lost their livelihoods when they emigrated and failed to find their footing in their new country. Four of the expelled scientists were murdered in concentration camps. more
The chemist and Nobel laureate Fritz Haber was one of the key protagonists of German research in the eyes of his contemporaries. After 20 years directorship, he resigned the office of Institute Director in protest against the anti-Semitic agitation and died a broken man in Basel in 1934. One year later, the Kaiser Wilhelm Society, together with the German Chemical Society and the German Physics Society, organized an event to commemorate Haber in Harnack House. The Nazis summoned President Planck to the Ministry. Minister Rust did not dare to ban the event but instead banned all professors and civil servants from attending. However, they were represented at the ceremony by their wives, foreign diplomats, journalists and Supporting Members of the Society. more
The Senate elected Carl Bosch the new President of the Kaiser Wilhelm Society in 1937. Bosch was a Nobel Prize winner in Chemistry and Chairman of the Board of IG Farben, the company which had bankrolled the Nazi Party since 1932. He succeeded Max Planck, who had not put himself up for re-election, partly on the grounds of age. Secretary General Friedrich Glum was also replaced. He was sent into retirement at the age of 46 to make way for Ernst Telschow, who enjoyed the confidence of the Nazi Party. The Senate decided in parallel to follow Statutes prepared by the Ministry and introduce the ‘Führerprinzip’, or leader principle, in the Kaiser Wilhelm Society, too. The new Statutes also granted the responsible Minister extensive powers of intervention. The provisions of the Nazi state were now also implemented in the KWS. However, Bosch was not destined to hold office for long. He was critical of Hitler’s Jewish policy, suffered progressively from depression and increasingly withdrew from the Presidential office after the outbreak of war. He died in 1940. more
Without a valid passport and carrying only hand luggage, Lise Meitner managed to flee Germany on 13 July 1938. As a foreigner, the Viennese scientist of Jewish descent had not initially been affected by the anti-Semitic laws in the early years of the Third Reich. This had changed in March 1938 with Austria’s annexation to the German Reich. Meitner’s flight ended almost thirty years of fruitful scientific cooperation. Meitner and radiochemist Otto Hahn had done pioneering work in the field of radiometry and, with Hahn, had led the Department of Radioactivity Research at the KWI for Chemistry since 1913. She had established her own Radiophysics Department in 1918. A few months after Meitner fled, Hahn and Fritz Strassmann discovered nuclear fission and informed Meitner about it. Together with her nephew, the physicist then developed the theoretical explanation. The Nobel Prize for this discovery later went to Otto Hahn alone, however. more
The German armed forces’ invasion of Poland started the Second World War in September 1939. But even before that, research conducted in accordance with the Nazi state’s military strategy and ideological interests had enjoyed financial support. Defence research and biomedical projects benefitted in particular from the dictatorship’s ideological agenda: In Göttingen, the aerodynamic testing facility (AVA) developed into an early institution for Big Science. Researchers here experimented with water and wind tunnels to investigate flying and flow behaviour for aircraft construction and torpedo design. The German Army Ordnance Office took command of large parts of the KWI of Physics in 1940. The field of agronomic research, tasked with providing practical assistance for Hitler’s plans for new ‘lebensraum’ in the East, profited the most from the German armed forces’ conquests in Eastern Europe. From 1943 onwards, Otmar von Verschuer was receiving specimens from the Auschwitz extermination camp from Josef Mengele for the KWI for Anthropology, Human Genetics and Eugenics. Between 1940 and 1945, the KWI for Brain Research in Berlin examined around 700 brains taken from mentally ill and mentally handicapped victims of the Nazi euthanasia that was happening at the same time. more
Minister Rust appointed steel industrialist Albert Vögler as President in 1941 after much political scheming. As Chairman of the Board of the United Steel Works, Vögler stood at the helm of one of the world’s leading mining corporations. In this capacity, he had provided generous financial support to the Nazi Party as far back as 1932. He had long been closely involved with the Kaiser Wilhelm Society as Senator, Treasurer and Member of the Administrative Committee. Vögler put his excellent political contacts within the leadership of the Nazi regime to good use in the interests of the Kaiser Wilhelm Society. more
Following the invasion of the Soviet Union by German troops in 1941 and the course that the war was taking in the summer of 1942, the war entered a new phase. Armaments Minister Albert Speer was seeking new weapons as a result, and got in touch with the nuclear physicists of the KWI of Physics. However, at the decisive working session in June 1942, Werner Heisenberg, head of the German nuclear project, expressed his scepticism to the military delegation. The idea of a German atomic bomb was therefore abandoned. more
The German troops found themselves in increasingly dire straits from 1943 onwards, and air raids on the cities grew in intensity. The worsening war situation also became palpable in the Kaiser Wilhelm Society itself. Almost all institutes were moved from Berlin in 1943 owing to the threat of bombing raids on the city. They found temporary accommodation in the West and South-West of Germany. The KWI for Physics moved to Hechingen and Haigerloch; the KWI for Biochemistry went to Tübingen. Following a heavy bomb attack on the Berlin Palace, administrative headquarters also moved its offices to Göttingen. Bomb damage and the loss of staff restricted research even further. more
KWS President Albert Vögler committed suicide in April 1945 faced with the imminent arrival of the American troops and the collapse of the Third Reich. The crisis of leadership was also reflected in the general breakdown of the KWS at the end of the war: many Kaiser Wilhelm Institutes in Eastern Europe had been lost through the course of warfare. The approaching Allied armies occupied certain institutes that had remained at their original locations. Others had been destroyed, fully or partially, or temporarily relocated, and their workforce decimated. Despite the chaos, the few staff members who remained tried to keep the work going. Following Germany’s capitulation in May 1945, the Allies began to reorganize the German research system. more
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