History of the Kaiser Wilhelm Society under National Socialism

In 1997, the Max Planck Society appointed a committee of independent historians to comprehensively address the history of its predecessor organization, the Kaiser Wilhelm Society (KWS), in the National Socialist era. The project was completed in 2007: 17 volumes of research and 28 preprints now attest to the part played in the NS state by scientists and research managers at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institutes (KWIs) and KWS administrative headquarters. In addition, a commemorative book documents in biographical form the fates of 104 scientists who, commencing in 1933, were driven out of Germany on grounds of race or politics.


It was not until after the Auschwitz trials in Frankfurt and in the course of the student movements of the 1960s and 1970s that Germany began to fully and publicly come to grips with National Socialism. It took a particularly long time for research organizations and universities to face up to their past in the Third Reich.  At the Max Planck Society, a tradition persisted until the 1980s of remembering the scientific achievements and Nobel Prizes won by the Kaiser Wilhelm Society while disregarding the prominent role of the KWS in the National Socialist system. Instead, a myth developed surrounding the apparent remoteness of basic research from any political considerations. This policy of collective displacement was supported by the fact that after 1945 neither active participants in the Third Reich nor hangers-on were called to account, and scientists who had been expelled generally did not return to the Max Planck Society.

Only in the 1990s did the Max Planck Society, which from 1948 onwards had continued to run almost all of the KWS Institutes remaining in the western occupation zones under a new name, begin to take a critical look at its predecessor organization. This delay was augmented in the 1950s and 1960s with the establishment of a plethora of new institutes and the closure or transformation of historical institutions dating from the time of the Kaiser Wilhelm Society. These changes encouraged the idea within the Max Planck Society of belonging to a new institution, having at most limited connections with the Nazi past of the KWS.

At the same time, the general public was demanding ever more urgent answers. Historians and journalists such as Ernst Klee, Götz Aly, Benno Müller-Hill and Kristie Macrakis began to publish their initial findings regarding the role of the KWS in the Third Reich. Members of staff at some of the Max Planck Institutes also began to wonder whether their inherited body of research might in fact be tainted by National Socialism. The Max Planck Institute for Brain Research, as successor to the Berlin-based Kaiser Wilhelm Institute of the same name, held collections of specimens dating from the 1920s and 1930s, some of which derived from victims of Nazi euthanasia programmes. In 1990, the Max Planck Society decided that these preserved brain specimens should be interred following a service of remembrance at the Waldfriedhof Cemetery in Munich. And it was around this time under Presidents Heinz Staab and Hans Zacher that the idea began to take concrete form that a comprehensive review of the Society’s Nazi past was called for.

The work of the Presidential Committee

Finally, in 1997, then Max Planck President Hubert Markl appointed a committee of independent historians to investigate the history of the KWS during the Third Reich. Reinhard Rürup of the Technical University Berlin and Wolfgang Schieder of the University of Cologne were charged with heading the project. Neither of these historians was a member of the Max Planck Society. As acknowledged experts in research into anti-Semitism, institutional history and the history of the Nazis, they began to reconstruct the story of the KWS between 1933 and 1945. They and numerous staff members engaged in the research project were given access to all archives and legacy collections.

The investigation focused on the politics prevailing at the administrative headquarters of the Kaiser Wilhelm Society, the bioscientific, medical and psychiatric research conducted at the corresponding institutes, as well as armaments and agricultural plant breeding research in the context of war and the eastward expansion of the Third Reich. The project also looked at the role played by influential protagonists of the KWS, among them the Nobel Laureate and later long-time President of the Max Planck Society, Adolf Butenandt.


The committee found that many scientists working for the Kaiser Wilhelm Society and those responsible at administrative headquarters had participated in diverse ways in the Nazi system. Researchers often cooperated willingly and without compulsion with the Nazi state, by combining their own scientific interests to mutual advantage with the political and military goals of the regime. At most of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institutes, the interfaces between scientific interests and integration into the politics and ambitions of the Nazi regime were blurred. Above all, in the biosciences, researchers clearly exceeded ethical boundaries. The Kaiser Wilhelm Institutes for Brain Research and Psychiatry obtained human body samples from establishments engaged in forced euthanasia. Scientists at the KWI for Anthropology, Human Heredity and Eugenics, chief among them Founding Director Eugen Fischer, as early as 1933 expressed their ideological solidarity with the racial policies of the National Socialists, and supported these through their participation in drafting corresponding legislation and by actively promulgating this racial ideology among lawyers, doctors and nursing staff. Otmar von Verschuer, who was later to become Director at the KWI for Anthropology, maintained close contacts from 1942 onwards with Auschwitz camp doctor Joseph Mengele, from whom he obtained specific blood samples and specimens from individuals murdered at the camp.

However, the technology- and physics-oriented Kaiser Wilhelm Institutes also assimilated themselves into the Third Reich system. From 1933 onwards, the KWI of Fluid Dynamics (Flow Research) was developed into a large-scale facility engaged in armaments research on behalf of the Reich Ministry of Aviation. The KWIs for Metals Research, Silicate Research and Leather Research worked on the development of alternative materials and the improvement of materials of importance to the war effort; their Directors were personally sympathetic towards National Socialism. Scientific research also profited from the conquests of the German army. Staff at the KWI for Plant Breeding Research developed new cultivars, which were particularly suited to the occasionally harsh climatic conditions in the occupied territories, and in so doing lent support to the Nazi objective of creating “Lebensraum in the East” and the concomitant plans for world domination. From 1944, the institute also operated a rubber tree breeding station at Auschwitz which employed female forced labour from the camp.

Moves from 1933 onwards to expel Jewish scientists working for the KWS met with little serious resistance either from senior staff at administrative headquarters or at the institutes, or indeed from the majority of employees. Some of these scientists were of sufficient renown and possessed enough international contacts abroad to be able to continue their careers. However, many others failed to integrate themselves into the scientific organizations of their countries of exile and were unable to replicate former successes. Among the 126 KWS scientists who were driven out, Fritz Epstein and Fritz Duschinsky as well as two female headquarters employees met their deaths in concentration camps.

Whereas during Max Planck’s period of office (1930-1937) KWS administrative headquarters endeavoured to preserve at least some degree of independence, under his successors and especially during the war, the KWS acquiesced more and more to the expectations of the Nazi state. In the persons of Carl Bosch and above all Albert Vögler, Presidents were appointed who were accepted by the regime and who – as in the case of Vögler – were active supporters. Those scientists and employees who remained sceptical or even opposed to the Third Reich ceased to appear in public and avoided any altercation with the governing regime. Among these were figures such as Max von Laue, Otto Hahn and even Max Planck.

An apology to the victims

As the successor organization to the Kaiser Wilhelm Society, the Max Planck Society has assumed historical responsibility. In 2001, the Max Planck Society, together with the historical research committee, held a symposium entitled “Biosciences and human experimentation at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institutes”, which was attended by historians, representatives of the Society and surviving victims. The then President Hubert Markl apologized to the survivors of such criminal human experimentation and experiments on twins that took place in Auschwitz in connection with research at the KWI of Anthropology. His words were as follows:  “In truth, only those who are guilty can beg for pardon. Nevertheless, I ask you, the surviving victims, most sincerely to forgive those who, for whatever reason, have themselves failed to beg your pardon.” Markl also apologized for the fact that the Max Planck Society had for too long done too little to reveal the history of the KWS under National Socialism and had only belatedly faced up to its historical responsibility. He concluded: “The most honest form of apology lies in the disclosure of guilt.”

Future outlook

In a seven-year research programme, the Max Planck Society intends to investigate every facet of its own history from 1948 onwards. The research will shed light on both the dynamic ethos of the Society, as well as its ethical lapses, its blind alleys and its brilliant successes. The programme is based at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, where the Scientific Advisory Board – with the integration of independent external scientists – is now in place and the majority of operational management posts filled, allowing work on the project to begin.

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