New questions raised by discovery in archives

April 09, 2015

In the course of recent investigations, human brain sections have again been discovered in the archive of the Max Planck Society in Berlin, which have not yet been fully investigated as far as their scientific and medical history is concerned. The brain sections belong to the estate of the doctor and brain researcher Julius Hallervorden and were donated to the archive in 2001. At that time the controversial nature of the material was apparently not recognised. Current investigations have now raised the suspicion that these brain sections might well be connected with the Third Reich’s 'euthanasia' programme. The President of the Max Planck Society, Martin Stratmann, has therefore ordered an immediate investigation.

From 1940 to 1945, hundreds of brains stemming from the mass murder of psychiatric patients and patients with impaired mental capacity were scientifically examined at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Brain Research (KWI) in Berlin. Researchers at the KWI for Brain Research like Julius Hallervorden (1882 -1965), who worked at the KWI from 1938, made themselves complicit in the organised murder of patients in an unbelievable manner.

External researchers discovered in the 1980s that about 700 brain preparations from 'euthanasia' victims reached the collections of the Max Planck Institute for Brain Research in Frankfurt via the KWI  - and later Max Planck - researchers Hallervorden and Spatz. Since it was not clear which preparations came from 'euthanasia' victims and which from patients who had died a natural death, the Max Planck Society decided that all brain sections prepared during the Nazi era, which were in the collections of Max Planck Institutes at that time, should be given a burial. A memorial for the victims was therefore erected in the Munich Waldfriedhof in 1990.

In 1997 the Max Planck President Hubert Markl set up an independent research committee to comprehensively investigate and document the connections of the Kaiser Wilhelm Society and its institutes with the “Third Reich”. The history of the Max Planck Institute for Brain Research was also investigated.

In a personal statement, the Directors of the Institute, which has been located in Frankfurt since 1962, made clear once more that they utterly condemn the abhorrent research at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Brain Research, and called for complete transparency in the light of the fact that the brain sections were used in research right into the 1960s.

The recent finding in the archive reveals that it appears that not all brain sections had been discovered and buried in 1990. The around 100 microscopic brain preparations from 35 cases dating from the years 1938 to 1967 reached the archive of the Max Planck Society in 2001 from the Edinger Institute (Neurological Institute of the Frankfurt University Clinic). Checking and categorisation of the sections was indeed performed in the transfer, but the need for action was not recognised. The investigation mandated now should reveal more about the possible victims as well as scientific evaluations which have been performed. In addition, the brain sections dating from the Nazi era should be buried. It has yet to be decided where the sections which arose after 1945 will remain.

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