Funeral service for victims of inhumane and racist research

The human bones found during excavations on Dahlem campus were buried in a funeral service in Berlin

March 23, 2023

About nine years ago, countless fragments of human bones came to light during construction work and excavations on the Dahlem campus. ​Their scientific analysis indicated that they came from the collection of the former Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Human Heredity, Anthropology and Eugenics. The University of Berlin Freie Universität has been using the building, which dates back to 1927, since 1948. On 23rd March, 2023, the human remains were laid to rest in a public funeral service at the Waldfriedhof cemetery in Berlin-Dahlem. Freie Universität, together with the Max Planck Society and Berlin Heritage Authority, had invited the public to attend. A memorial stone  now commemorates the victims. It reads: “In memory of the victims of the crimes committed in the name of science."

As the first research campus of the Kaiser Wilhelm Society (KWG), the Dahlem campus is the historical nucleus of the Max Planck Society, which emerged from the KWG in 1948. The Max Planck Society's ties to Dahlem are still visible today: three Max Planck Institutes are located in Dahlem as the Max Planck Archives and the Harnack-Haus Conference Center. But the campus is also a reminder of the horrific crimes committed by scientists in the name of science. From 1927 to 1945, the site was home to the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Anthropology, Human Heredity, and Eugenics (KWI). It was located in the building that is now the Otto Suhr Institute for Political Science at Freie Universität.

The Institute was involved in the conduct of inhumane and unethical research, which included scientific studies in a post-colonial context and cooperation with the Nazi regime. Since 1943, the institute had even been in direct contact with the Auschwitz extermination camp, from which it obtained human preparations from murdered victims  through Joseph Mengele.

When construction workers unearthed bone fragments on the site of the former KWI in 2014, it was suspected that the remains originated from the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute of Anthropology, Human Heredity, and Eugenics, which stood on the site from 1927 to 1945, or perhaps even from victims of Nazi crimes. The university took the lead, initiated further archaeological excavations and appointed a research group to examine the excavation finds. It also set up a working group together with the Max Planck Society and the Berlin Heritage Authority.

In 2022, the research team, led by archaeologist Susan Pollock, presented its findings: about 16,000 mostly small bone fragments from men and women of all ages. The researchers also found that all bones had traces of some form of adhesive or inscription still on them. Together with the absence of modern medical interventions, this points to an origin from older anthropological or archaeological collections before 1933.

As the scientists were unable to identify a systematic approach, the could not rule out the possibility that some of the bones originate from contexts directly linked to National Socialist crimes. But the origins of the human remains could not be clearly reconstructed. In order to preserve the dignity of the victims, the working group agreed not to further invasively examine the fragments. This was done in agreement with the victims' associations, including the Central Council of Jews in Germany and the Central Council of German Sinti and Roma, as well as the Initiative Black People in Germany.  

On March 23, 2023, the human remains were buried with dignity in five small wooden caskets at the Waldfriedhof in Dahlem in a silent memorial ceremony. The ceremony was intentionally devoid of religious or European symbolism as a visible sign of solidarity with all groups of victims.

This was also emphasized by MPG Vice President Ulmann Lindenberger in his address, who reminded the audience of the responsibility of science: "There must never be research goals that are deemed so important and high-ranking that they justify the disregard of human dignity. The indispensable rights and inviolable dignity of humans set limits to the freedom of science."

In this sense, the examination of the past and the current responsibility of research continues. For the university is preparing, with financial support from the Max Planck Society, a permanent exhibition in the old building of the OSI to be open from 2024. It is expected to document the history of the site and commemorate crimes committed by scientists in the name of science.

The MPG already offers guided tours and an audio guide app around the campus, which is also  an offer for researchers to talk about the political expectations for basic research and their responsibility.

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