Adolf von Harnack

President of the Kaiser Wilhelm Society from 1911 to 1930

"Adolf von Harnack was one of the most admired and, at the same time, one of the most fiercely challenged theologians of his era," begins Harnack's biographer Kurt Nowak in his portrait of the life of the church historian and scientific organiser. A strong Protestant work ethic coupled with huge working capacity and stupendous knowledge enabled Harnack to adopt an exceptional position in academic life, both in the Kaiser's empire and in the Weimar Republic. Harnack became the first President of the Kaiser Wilhelm Society in 1911. He exercised the office on a part-time basis until his death in 1930. Harnack taught ecclesiastical history and the history of dogma at Berlin University until 1921. In parallel, he modernised the Prussian library system as Director General of the Prussian State Library and advised the Prussian Education Ministry on university and school matters as a sought-after expert. In the Weimar Republic he also played a decisive role in establishing the Notgemeinschaft der Deutschen Wissenschaft (the Emergency Association of German Science), the predecessor of the German Research Foundation.

The Kaiser Wilhelm Society could hardly have found a more suitable President for its start-up phase. Being a descendant of the Baltic upper classes and related to the Delbrück, Liebig and Thiersch families, he moved just as comfortably in court circles as among the leading scientists of his age. The Harnack residence in Berlin-Grunewald was an open house – not least because of his seven children. Having enjoyed the personal support of Wilhelm II in the days of the empire, he viewed the Republic as the natural political progression. In the Weimar Republic he showed a tendency towards liberalism without allowing himself to be co-opted for any side's political purposes. "My position as President of the Kaiser Wilhelm Society and in the service of the needs of German science makes it my supreme duty to stand back from politics," is how he described his principle.

He exercised the office of President confidently and authoritatively with his unique verbal wit. As a church historian he was above any thoughts of raising the profile of his own subject in the science-orientated Kaiser Wilhelm Society. On the contrary, he was a sort of elder statesman of science. In a 1929 speech to mark the inauguration of Harnack House in Berlin-Dahlem, Fritz Haber referred to Harnack as "our natural leader". Under Harnack's presidency the number of institutes rose to more than thirty, though initially directed at the needs of industry. As such, the Kaiser Wilhelm Society was predominantly supported, and generously so, by wealthy society, merchants and the banking world – a novelty for the period.

Thanks to Harnack's undisputed position in academic life, the Kaiser Wilhelm Society's scientists were initially able to go about their research largely free from political and economic influences. This was also indicated by what later became known as the Harnack Principle, which stated that a new Kaiser Wilhelm institute should only be established if an outstanding scientist with an innovative research field had been found to lead it. The Scientific Council, which was installed in 1929, gave the Directors greater political weight with the President through the three Sections. During the Great Depression and the emerging criticism of the Prussian Education Ministry, Harnack managed in the last months of his life to maintain the KWG's existing structure.

"We need research institutes, not one but several of them together as Kaiser Wilhelm institutes for scientific research," Harnack had noted in his memorandum to the Kaiser in 1909, in which he aptly summarised the various ideas of leading science policymakers of the day. His prominent position in the Prussian Academy of Sciences over many years came in useful in helping the Kaiser Wilhelm Society to come into the world. On behalf of the Academy he had taken on the management of the Office of the Greek Church Fathers and published 27 volumes by 1915. He also chaired the Evangelical Social Congress between 1903 and 1911. Upon Harnack's appointment, the Prussian Academy threw its full weight behind him. The young Baltic theologian had not only risen rapidly through the academic ranks, with professorships in Leipzig, Giessen and Marbach. The History of Dogma, his textbook in three volumes, had also sparked a storm of outrage in parts of the conservative Protestant church, which was otherwise known as the Protestant cultural struggle. In 1888 the intervention of Kaiser Wilhelm II led to Harnack being given the most prestigious Chair in Theology in the whole of the empire. In his textbook, Harnack placed the history of dogma in the church on a historical and philological footing, and thereby drew conclusions that ran counter to the understanding of the Orthodox Protestant church, at least.

"Dogmas originate, evolve and are made to serve new purposes," wrote Harnack in Volume 1, Ideas, which he elaborated on years later in layman's terms in his high-profile book What is Christianity?. Theological infighting accompanied Harnack for many years as a theologian of the early church, for example the 1892 controversy over the Apostles' Creed and in the dispute with Karl Barth. The public perceived Harnack first and foremost as a church historian and theologian, which gave him a special position among the scholars of his day. Harnack's "worldly piety with no religious doubts" had its origin in his deeply Protestant parental home in Dorpat. Born the second of five children to a famous Luther researcher and theology professor in 1851, Harnack made the decision to study theology at an early age. Harnack studied theology in Dorpat and Leipzig from 1869 to 1872, and in 1873 obtained his doctorate in Leipzig, where he began a glittering career as a theology professor in 1874 at the age of just 23.

When he died in 1930, ennobled and highly decorated, including with the Order Pour le mérite, in Heidelberg, a significant epoch came to an end for the Kaiser Wilhelm Society. "From the power of concentrating on the history of the early church grew the ability to grasp, present and organise the intellectual in general. Thus, this church historian was capable of serving the whole of science without being disloyal to his own science. He was thereby able to obtain a field of work more ambitious than that bestowed upon any modern scholar," wrote Harnack's student Martin Dibelius, summarising his life's work.

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