History of the Max Planck Society

Faced with the imminent collapse of the Third Reich, KWS President Albert Vögler committed suicide in April 1945. The Allies were already drawing up early plans for the restructuring of Germany, which also touched upon the science system and the KWS as the country’s leading research institution. However, there were a number of different ideas circulating among the Allied forces concerning the future of the KWS. One key figure who facilitated the transition to a new set-up was Max Planck. Planck had witnessed the end of the war in the small town of Rogätz It became apparent that the Americans were going to hand the region over to the Soviet forces. Given the situation, British chemist Berty Blount, who had been put in charge of the Kaiser Wilhelm Society by the occupation authorities, decided to have the renowned Nobel Prize winner brought to the West. On 16 May, in a gruelling two-hour drive, Belgian astronomer Kuiper took the 87-year-old Planck to Göttingen in an American military jeep. Two months later, Max Planck agreed to take up the office of Interim President of the Kaiser Wilhelm Society to enable it to be restructured. more
A new research society was established in Bad Driburg in the British zone in September 1946 on the initiative of the British Allies, which was to take over the properties and the staff of the KWS. Max Planck sent a telegram to the founding assembly expressing his best wishes and agreeing to the new society being named after him. The foundation of a new society under the name of the internationally respected and politically irreproachable Nobel Prize winner offered a way out of the controversy. The opinion among the US Allies was that because the KWS as an organization had been close to the Nazi regime, it represented a threat to future peace and needed to be dissolved. The Allied Control Council agreed and began to prepare a corresponding law. But the British did not share this opinion, and leading scientists with politically unblemished backgrounds also called for the KWS to be preserved on the grounds of its many great successes and its illustrious role in the international scientific community. In Germany there were concerns about further ‘brain drain’ once it became apparent that many exiled scientists would not be returning from the countries to which they had emigrated. The ‘Max Planck Society’, a British invention, proved to be a future-proof model, which was ultimately accepted by all of the Western Allies. more
The “Kameradschaftshaus” (association house) of the Kaiser Wilhelm Society’s aerodynamic testing facility (AVA) became the cradle of the modern Max Planck Society on 26 February 1948. Two days prior to that, the first Max Planck Society, valid only in the British zone, had been dissolved to make way for the new Society. The office of President was taken up by chemist and Nobel Prize winner Otto Hahn. Göttingen was a centre of research and administration for the KWS at this time: In the last years of the war, four institutes and the administrative headquarters had already been relocated to the former premises of the AVA in Göttingen. Thanks to massive financial support from the Nazi government from 1933 onwards, the AVA had developed into a major research facility, where discoveries of great military value were made. The facility was largely dismantled after 1945, which freed up space. However, initially, the Max Planck Society founded in Göttingen was only intended for the British and American zones. Here, there were 29 institutes from the Kaiser Wilhelm Society, which were integrated into the new Society. It was only after the Federal Republic of Germany was established in autumn 1949 that the five institutes from the French zone joined them. Today, the old Kameradschaftshaus serves as a staff canteen for the Max Planck Institute of Dynamics and Self-Organization. more
By the end of the war there were only two institutes left in Berlin. The city’s special status meant that the two institutes which had remained there joined the Max Planck Society much later. When they finally did, this largely concluded the integration of the remainders of the Kaiser Wilhelm Society into the MPG. The return of staff members who had been prisoners of war and the start of the economic miracle also boosted the reconstruction of science in the MPG, whose institutes slowly became fit to work again. However, Berlin’s role would not be comparable to that which it had played in the Kaiser Wilhelm Society more
The physicist Walther Bothe won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1954. This was the first Nobel Prize for the young MPG. Bothe had arrived at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute of Medical Science in Heidelberg in 1934, where he conducted crucial research on nuclear physics and radioactivity. This new area of research developed at such a tremendous pace that Bothe’s department became an independent Max Planck Institute for Nuclear Physics in 1958. Together with Max Born, Bothe received the Nobel Prize for the development of the coincidence method, which fundamentally improved the measuring and thus the study of radiation phenomena. more
The new building erected for the Institute of Biochemistry in 1956 was one of the first construction projects of the new MPG, along with the facilities built for the MPI for Physics (Munich, 1958) and the MPI for Biology (Tübingen, 1951). The former Kaiser Wilhelm Institute had been relocated from Berlin to Tübingen in 1943, where it took up its provisional home at the university. Director Adolf Butenandt managed to get the Institute relocated to Munich, where it moved into a brand new, purpose-built building. This is an example of the Society’s expansion phase in the post-war era characterized by the sober pragmatism of the 1950s. more
In 1957, 18 distinguished German nuclear scientists signed a joint manifesto addressed to the federal government. In view of the proposed acquisition of atomic weapons by the Federal armed forces, the scientists warned of the dangers of atomic weapons and urged that Germany voluntarily desist from developing atomic weapons. From the Max Planck Society, the following scientists signed the manifesto: Otto Hahn, Werner Heisenberg, Max von Laue, Josef Mattauch and Carl Friedrich von Weizsäcker. more
MPG President Otto Hahn’s trip to Israel heralded the start of a new chapter of political and scientific cooperation in 1959. The aim of the trip was not just scientific networking, but also the normalization of the relationship between Germany and Israel. In the process, which was initiated by Israeli Prime Minister David Ben Gurion and German Federal Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, science was to contribute to healing the wounds left by the Shoah (holocaust). Josef Cohn, who had emigrated from Germany in 1933 and who played a crucial role as a mediator and scientific organizer for Israel, was committed to the cooperation. Upon receiving an invitation from the Weizmann Institute, a publicly funded institution for basic research like the MPG, Hahn set out on the trip accompanied by a number of outstanding scientists. Hahn’s son Harro, an art historian from the Bibliotheca Hertziana, represented the human sciences in the Max Planck Society; Wolfgang Gentner, Director at the MPI for Nuclear Physics, and biochemist Feodor Lynen from the MPI for Cellular Chemistry represented the two natural sciences Sections. During the ten-day trip, the delegation visited the Weizmann Institute and other scientific institutions in order to explore the possibilities for cooperation. Hahn later said of the trip that a certain awkwardness among the German guests was soon dispelled by a very “warm and friendly atmosphere”. The successful trip marked the start of an active exchange of scientists between the two nations: as early as 1961, the first German scientist, Lorenz Krüger, was able to go to the Weizmann Institute for an extended research residency. more
The Kaiser Wilhelm Society existed side by side with the Max Planck Society for twelve years. It was not until 21 June 1960 at the last extraordinary General Meeting of the Kaiser Wilhelm Society that Adolf Butenandt announced that the dissolution of the Society, announced back in 1951, had been completed. He underscored how much it pained the older members to see the final dismantling of their Society. The remaining assets were transferred to the Max Planck Society. At around the same time, a commission started to give the Statutes of the MPG a thorough overhaul. Introduced in 1964, the modified text contains the passage: “The Society carries on the tradition established by the former Kaiser Wilhelm Society”. At the same time, the MPG began to grow extensively under Butenandt, who became President that same year. Many new institutes were founded. And when the administrative headquarters moved to Munich in 1960, this heralded a new era for the administrative staff, too. more
The Max Planck Institute for Brain Research moved into a new building in Frankfurt in 1961, marking the end of its period of temporary accommodation in the post-war years. The Institute had been founded as the KWI for Brain Research in Berlin-Buch, from where it had been relocated in the last years of the war, its five Departments finding emergency accommodation in five different West German cities. They were now being reunited. Among those who moved into the new facilities, however, were the former Department Heads Julius Hallervorden and Hugo Spatz, who had made their careers at the Institute during the Third Reich, and who had benefited from the inhuman system. They brought to the Institute a large collection of brain slices, which would later turn out to stem from victims of Nazi euthanasia, which Spatz and Hallervorden were themselves involved in. more
In 1969, the young Max Planck Campus in Tübingen saw a new laboratory built which not only offered more working space, but also introduced a new principle of research support, which transferred more responsibility to young scientists. This laboratory was to house the first Independent Junior Research Groups of the MPG. Junior Research Groups are independent research teams, responsible for their own work and headed by postdoc scientists, who are able to gather their first experience as leaders of large scientific projects with several members of staff. more
The Max Planck Institute for the Study of the Scientific-Technical World was founded on 1 January 1970 and headed by physicist and philosopher Carl Friedrich von Weizsäcker, the second Director being Jürgen Habermas, who joined in 1971. This Institute was a first for the MPG. The idea behind its foundation had come from questions surrounding the scientific world’s responsibility to society. Espousing a socially critical approach compatible with many of the ideas from the ‘68 movement, the Institute quickly became legendary. As a young physicist, Weizsäcker had himself experienced nuclear fission at close hand in 1938 and immediately perceived its dangerous military potential. He came to hold the belief that scientists were responsible for the consequences of their discoveries and lobbied politicians in the 1950s for the peaceful use of nuclear power. It was in the intellectual climate of the 1960s that the idea for an Institute developed, which was to be dedicated to peace and future research within the context of political consultation. Upon Weizsäcker’s retirement in 1980, the Institute was transformed into an Institute for Social Research and closed not long thereafter. more
The Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy in Bonn inaugurated a new large instrument on Effelsberg in the Eifel mountain range. With a diameter of 100 metres, the Radio Telescope Effelsberg is still one of the largest fully steerable radio telescopes on earth. It made Germany an important part of the worldwide network for observing the cosmos. more
The structural reform of 1973 brought a greater right of codetermination for the staff and finally implemented the amendments to the Statutes which had been made back in 1964. The new clause was now successively embedded in the By-Laws of the Institutes. It raised the Department Heads to the status of Directors, corresponding to their academic achievements. Structurally, the MPG therefore obtained a more democratic form, with all Department Directors of an Institute now being equal and regularly taking seats on the Institute’s Board of Management. The change thus brought in an administrative correction to the Harnack principle, which is the most important principle of the Society and which stems from the very inception of the KWS: It provides for the support of especially creative and innovative scientists and their ideas, which may even be diametrically opposed to established research tenets. more
When the MPI for Human Development moved into its new building in Berlin in 1974, the design by architects Fehling and Gogel illustrated the way the student movement of 1968 had steered science into a new era. The star-shaped construction which forewent both representative pomp and anonymous internal structures was something altogether new in architecture. It focused on communication and let the external form be a consequence of the internal needs of the scientists. “Think and read alone” and “communicate with others” – these were the basic needs that the new building had to fulfil. At the same time, it was an expression of the new tendency in the scientific community to allow members of staff below Director’s level to influence decisions. It also coincided with the specific research field of the Institute. The Institute had been founded in 1962 and was working with a research topic that concerned society at large: the conditions for the acquisition of knowledge. The unusual architecture was intended to promote this work and was therefore seminal in every aspect. more
The Executive Committee of the Max Planck Society laid the foundations for the Otto Hahn Medal. The new award honours junior scientists for their extraordinary work and is given to a maximum of 30 scientists each year. more
The Max Planck Institute for Quantum Optics was founded in 1981 to study the interaction of light and matter, especially concentrating on laser chemistry, laser physics and laser plasma. It emerged from a Laser Research Group, which had been set up at the MPI of Plasma Physics in Garching, Munich, in 1976. The new building reinforced the MPG’ technological presence in Garching in the north of Munich. This process of expansion had begun as early as 1963, when the MPG set up the Sub-Institute of Extraterrestrial Physics and Astrophysics there. Since then, Garching has increasingly grown in importance: besides the MPG, many other renowned research establishments have set up shop here, including the Technische Universität München, the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München and the Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft. more
When the Berlin Wall came down on 9 November 1989 the consequences were also felt in the German science system. The MPG embarked on a programme of immediate action to establish fixed-term research posts and encourage scientist exchange. Six months after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the two German states came together for a “Science Summit” in Bonn. The Science Minister for the Federal Republic of Germany, Heinz Riesenhuber, and his East German counterpart, Frank Terpe, participated. They discussed the future of the scientific community in a unified German state and came out of the meeting with an undertaking to construct a “unified research environment” in future “with the elements that characterize the Federal Republic of Germany today”. The MPG subsequently began establishing new institutes in the eastern part of Germany. The majority of the GDR’s research institutions became part of the Leibniz Association as a consequence of the unification process. The principles of the Science Summit were also recorded in the German Unification Treaty, which came into force on 3 October 1990. more
A memorial stone from 1990 at Munich’s Waldfriedhof Cemetery serves as a commemorative monument and reminder of the victims of National Socialism and their misuse in medical research. This is where brain specimens from the scientific collections of the Max Planck Institutes for Brain Research and Psychiatry were buried – specimens which are presumed to have been taken for scientific purposes from the brains of victims of the Nazi’s euthanasia murders. From 1940 onwards, mentally handicapped people from numerous German medical institutions and nursing homes had been intentionally killed as part of the so-called T4 Programme. At the KWI for Brain Research, the Head of the Department of Neuropathology, Julius Hallervorden, represented a direct connection to the death clinics: he held the position of prosector at the Brandenburg Regional Psychiatric Offices in Görden and Brandenburg and as such had a hand in the murderous work there. The complete collection of known brain specimens that was brought to the Max Planck Institute in Frankfurt as part of the material transferred from the old Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Brain Research was buried at the instigation of Directors Wolf Singer and Heinz Wässle in 1990. At the MPI of Psychiatry, all the specimens from the Third Reich era were separated out and buried. On the occasion of the burial ceremony, Heinz Staab, the President of the MPG at that time, called for scientists to exercise “responsible self-constraint”. more
The Greater Berlin area developed into a new centre of the Max Planck Society from 1992 onwards. As a consequence of reunification, the Max Planck Society relocated its registered office from Göttingen to Berlin in 1992. The Administrative Headquarters remained in Munich. The “Förderungsgesellschaft Wissenschaftlicher Neuvorhaben mbH” began its work in 1992 by setting up seven centres for human sciences research to employ the scientists from the institutes of the Academy of Sciences of the GDR. The institutes focused on the topics “European Enlightenment”, “Literary Research”, “Modern Orient”, “Eastern and Central European History and Culture”, “General Linguistics”, “History and Theory of Science” and “Research on Contemporary History”. The new Max Planck Institute of Colloids and Interfaces and the MPI of Microstructure Physics based in Teltow and Halle also took up their work on 1 January 1992. more
In 1997, MPG President Hubert Markl appointed an independent commission of historians to study the history of the KWS during the National Socialist era. The commission was chaired by historians Reinhard Rürup and Wolfgang Schieder, who had made a name for themselves as experts on anti-Semitism and the history of National Socialism. The independent research project was financed by the Max Planck Society and all documents and archived materials were made available to the historians. The first ideas that the Society should revise its view of its role in the past had begun to form back in the 1980s. The project focused on examining the policy of the administrative headquarters of the Kaiser Wilhelm Society, the research on race and genetics conducted at the KWS institutes, and armament research and agrarian research carried out in connection with the National Socialist expansion policy; also under scrutiny was the expulsion of Jewish scientists and the role of individual staff members, including the Nobel Laureate and longstanding President of the Max Planck Society, Adolf Butenandt. The commission’s work resulted in a total of 19 monographs and 28 preprints. more
Three new Institutes moved into new buildings in Potsdam-Golm, on the outskirts of the old Prussian military city, in 1999: the MPI for Gravitational Physics, the MPI of Colloids and Interfaces and the MPI of Molecular Plant Physiology. This turned Golm into a new centre of science in Greater Berlin, as the Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft and the University of Potsdam also erected new greenfield research facilities in the structurally undeveloped March of Brandenburg. New Max Planck Institutes were also founded in Rostock, Dresden, Leipzig, Halle, Greifswald, Jena and Magdeburg. In parallel to the establishment of new Institutes in former East Germany, sites in the West were being closed, including the MPI of Biology, the MPI for Behavioural Physiology and the Gmelin Institute of Inorganic Chemistry and Interfaces. more
The symposium on biological research and experiments on humans at the Kaiser Wilhelm institutes, held in Berlin, was a way for the Max Planck Society to deal with the past in an, admittedly, tardy but decisive manner. This conference brought together surviving victims of the National Socialist era, historians and representatives of the MPS around one table. On behalf of the MPS, President Hubert Markl opened the dialogue with the guests who had survived the inhuman biological experiments during the National Socialism. The commission of historians, appointed in 1997, had previously clearly proved that scientists from the Kaiser Wilhelm Society had taken part in the crimes of the Third Reich, either actively or by legitimising its ideology through scientific actions. In his speech, Markl emphasised that “the most sincere apology is the disclosure of guilt”. He thereby pointed the way for the MPS to assume responsibility for its past. However, Markl not offered a scientific perspective, he also found moving words to apologise personally to the survivors of the experiments on twins: “Only the perpetrator can really ask for forgiveness. Still, from the bottom of my heart I ask you, the surviving victims, for forgiveness on behalf of those who, irrespective of their reasons, failed to do so themselves.” more
The first four Max Planck Partner Groups in India were inaugurated in a gala ceremony at the Indian Institute of Technology in Delhi in 2004. The aim was to cement relationships between Max Planck Institutes and their former Indian guest scientists. One year later, the MPG also intensified its cooperation with the Chinese Academy of Sciences and founded a Partner Institute for Biological Sciences in Shanghai in 2005. The Institute conducts research into biological networks and works closely with Institutes of experimental science and biomathematics research. more
The Max Planck Institute for the History of Science moved into a new building in Berlin-Dahlem in 2006. This concluded the MPG-funded reconstruction of the scientific environment in former East Germany, a total of 18 Institutes having been established there. The Institute was founded in central Berlin in 1994 during the reconstruction of the unified German research environment and soon developed into a centre for research on the history of science, which studies the emergence of new categories of thought and the gaining of insight into different periods and cultures. It was initially housed in the Czech Embassy in the former Eastern zone of central Berlin. more
The Senate decided in 2007 to establish the first international Max Planck Institute outside Europe. It opened in 2012 on the Jupiter campus of Florida Atlantic University. The Institute, financed with US funds, observes the MPG’s guidelines and rules for quality assurance and focuses on research in the life sciences. The foundation of the Institute marks a further step towards increased internationalization of the MPG, which has already been achieved in the existing Institutes through the high number of foreign scientists working there and the global interconnectedness of their research endeavours. more
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