The Max Planck Society commemorates foundation of the Kaiser Wilhelm Society

100 years of history: Breaches and continuities

December 23, 2010

On 11 January 2011, the Max Planck Society (MPS) will commemorate the foundation of the Kaiser Wilhelm Society (KWS) with a ceremony in the Akademie der Künste (Academy of Arts) in Berlin. Special speeches will be given by former German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt and Prof. Rogers Hollingsworth from the University of Wisconsin. On that same day, 100 years ago, the same venue hosted the constituent assembly of the Kaiser Wilhelm Society, the precursor of the Max Planck Society. "With this ceremonial act, we want to remember the history of the two societies, which is characterised by both breaches and continuities", explains Prof. Peter Gruss, President of the Max Planck Society. "But we also want to look to the future, from the perspective of 100 years of successful basic research."

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Academy of Arts in Berlin
Academy of Arts in Berlin

The Max Planck Society was intentionally founded as a new organisation in Göttingen in 1948, in order to ensure its integration into the democratic structure of the Federal Republic of Germany. However, the young Max Planck Society stood firmly on the shoulders of the Kaiser Wilhelm Society; a society which had become an elite research organisation since its establishment in 1911. With 15 Nobel Prizes to its name, the Society wrote scientific history. However, during the National Socialist era, some of its scientists crossed ethical boundaries. Therefore, the celebrations of the anniversary year are also intended to encourage reflection on the past with regard to the future of basic research. This is the purpose of the photography and essay volume "DenkOrte", published by the MPS for the occasion. The publication provides a historical résumé of the ties between the KWS and the MPS. Starting in March, a national series of events are intended to promote debate on the topical issue of scientific responsibility in society.

The MPS assumed the legacy of the KWS with regard to material, personnel and structural aspects. As scientists from the KWG had cooperated with the Nazi regime, the Allies chose to disband the KWS in 1945. In 1946, its successor, the Max Planck Society, was founded with the Nobel Prize winning physicist who lent the new organisation his name as President. Already 87 years old at the time, Max Planck was held in high esteem the world over. He also embodied those German scientists whose reputation remained unscathed by National Socialism. With the help of the allies, a new Society carrying his name could be shaped from the ruins of its predecessor and placed on a democratic foundation.

On such a solid basis, the MPS was able, from the 1960s onwards, to create a completely independent profile for itself, particularly by establishing new institutes and through internal restructuring reforms. When the older generation of scientists was successively replaced by a younger one in the 1980s, this paved the way for comprehensively revisiting the history of the Kaiser Wilhelm Society and its role during the National Socialist era. This process was concluded by an independent commission of historians, which was appointed by the President of the Max Planck Society.

Today, against the background of the new findings by the historians, the relationship between the Max Planck Society and the Kaiser Wilhelm Society can be characterised by great continuities and discontinuities. Internationality, the advancement of high-calibre top scientists, their exemption from teaching duty, interdisciplinary cooperation and bridging traditional disciplinary boundaries are all central principles of the modern MPS that have been carried down from the era of the first KWS President, Adolph von Harnack.

However, in many respects, the MPS has come a long way from its predecessor. The Max Planck Society relies on different forms of funding than the KWS, which was mainly financed by industry and banks. The Königsteiner Agreement, which was signed in 1949, ensures that the MPS has complete financial support from the Federal government and the states, and that it is thus able to conduct basic research without being bound by industrial demand or state contracts. In line with Harnack’s principle, the MPS tries to find the best individuals from each field, in order to appoint them as Directors of the institutes. However, since the 1960s, many institutes are managed by a Board of Directors. Nowadays, only about a quarter of the 80 Max Planck Institutes have historical roots. Only eight per cent of MPG property consists of buildings that were erected before the Second World War.

The findings of the commission of historians about the often enthusiastic cooperation of scientists with the National Socialist regime in many areas of research, has raised awareness about ethical issues in the MPS and has encouraged further distancing from the KWS. As a successor organisation, the MPS must assume responsibility for the transgressions of its predecessor. Since 2007, the Max Planck Society has an Committee for Ethics in security relevant Research.

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