Max Planck Society concludes general audit - victim research project to commence in June 2017

May 02, 2017

Last year, a general audit of human specimens was conducted at the Max Planck Society and concluded with no further finds. The “Victims of Euthanasia” Committee set up by the President under the leadership of Professor Heinz Wässle has succeeded in recruiting four international experts in the persons of Patricia Heberer-Rice (US Holocaust Memorial Museum), Gerrit Hohendorf (Technical University of Munich), Paul Weindling (Oxford Brookes University) and Herwig Czech (Medical University of Vienna), who have submitted a funding application for an independent victim research project. The project commences in June 2017 and will be funded by the Max Planck Society over a period of three years in the amount of 1.5 million euros.

In 1989, the Max Planck Society resolved to inter all of the human specimens dating from the National Socialist era which were suspected of being derived from the victims of the euthanasia programme and other Nazi victim groups such as forced labour, concentration camp inmates, prisoners of war and victims of Nazi justice. The specimens were duly interred in 1990 at the Waldfriedhof in Munich. At a memorial ceremony on 25 May 1990, Max Planck President Heinz Staab called for “responsible self-limitation in research”.

Whereas the Max Planck Institute for Brain Research in Frankfurt took the decision to part with all specimens dating from between 1933 and 1945, the Max Planck Institute of Psychiatry in Munich removed only those items from its collection which were unambiguously documented as victim-derived or whose origins were uncertain: around 30 percent of the overall inventory. In 2015, a new employee at the Max Planck Society archive in Berlin came across a shoebox-sized wooden card index case containing slides bearing human brain sections (press release of 9 April 2015). The 100 or so specimens relating to 35 cases dating from between 1938 and 1967 were part of the legacy of the former head of the Histo-pathological Department of the KWI and later MPI for Brain Research, Julius Hallervorden, and did not reach the Archives of the Max Planck Society until 2001 with a donation from the Neurological Institute at the University Clinic in Frankfurt/Main (the Edinger Institute).

Overview of the specimens held at the Max Planck Society

An expert inspection of the Historic Archive at the Max Planck Institute for Psychiatry at the beginning of 2016 (following on from an initial random sampling initiated by the Archives of the Max Planck Society in 2015) brought to light some additional brain sections and preserved specimens, which possibly originated from victims of euthanasia. They had been identified in the 1990s as being suspicious and should therefore already have been interred.

Against this background, in December 2015, Max Planck President Martin Stratmann established a Presidential Committee headed by Professor Heinz Wässle, Emeritus Director at the Max Planck Institute for Brain Research. The Committee was tasked with preparing a general audit and nominating experts for an independent research project (press release of 14 March 2016). However, a written survey addressed to all Max Planck Institutes, with particular attention to the MPIs for Brain Research, Neurobiology, Heart and Lung Research and Metabolism Research (formerly Neurological Research), yielded no indications of specimens derived from Nazi victims.

The recent finds and the fact that not all of the specimens due to be interred in 1990 were in fact buried, and that the precise origins of the specimens buried and the identities of the victims remained unclear, raise various questions:

  • Is it possible to reconstruct the identities of the victims from whom the recently discovered and already interred specimens derived?
  • Is it possible to reconstruct the trail of the specimens since the death of the victims, in particular their use within the Kaiser Wilhelm and later Max Planck Society during World War II and in the post-war era through to the 1990s?
  • To what extent were the specimens used for publications and research purposes?
  • And above all, who were the victims of brain research in the context of the National Socialist execution of the ill and other Nazi crimes committed in cooperation with scientists and KWG/MPG Institutes?

Organization and supervision of a victim research project

The Committee set up by the President has identified several international external researchers to carry out the research project: Four noted experts have been found in the persons of Dr. Patricia Heberer-Rice of the US Holocaust Memorial in Washington D.C., Professor Gerrit Hohendorf of the Institute for History and Ethics of Medicine at the Technical University of Munich, Professor Paul J. Weindling of the Department of History, Philosophy and Religion at Oxford Brookes University and Magister Herwig Czech of the Medical University of Vienna.

Patricia Heberer-Rice, for example, has investigated the killing of patients at the psychiatric institute in Kaufbeuren and the connection with the KWI for Psychiatry in Munich. Gerrit Hohendorf, as leader of a German Research Foundation project to scientifically analyse and evaluate the medical files kept by the National Socialist euthanasia programme T4, has extensive experience in the quantitative evaluation of such documents. Paul Weindling and his working group in Oxford have developed a database to compile information from a wide variety of sources covering over 28,000 victims of forced medical research in the National Socialist era. And Herwig Czech has studied Nazi medical crimes in Vienna and their post-War history.

The project entitled “Brain research at Institutes of the Kaiser Wilhelm Society in the context of National Socialist injustices: Brain specimens at Institutes of the Max Planck Society and identification of the victims” will also be assisted in an advisory capacity by Professor Volker Roelcke of the Institute for the History of Medicine at the University of Gießen. The Max Planck Society will finance the project in the amount of 1.5 million euros over a three-year term. The project is due to commence in June 2017.

In preparation for this research project, the MPI of Psychiatry has already commissioned an external service provider specializing in archive indexing to make a rough inventory of the historical collections (documents and brain sections) at the Institute. Thus far, the Institute has had no systemized overview of the overall material in its possession; the only elements to have been systematically recorded are those that have been the subject of scientific publications. The inventory of 24,500 specimens from the 1920s through to the 1980s was completed in February 2017.

Research project goals and procedures

In the course of the project, a database will be created listing all the victims’ names. It will include basic biographical data on the victims, their institutional treatment, and the criteria used to select the victims. The manner of their death will also be documented along with data on the removal of the brain, the trail subsequently followed by the specimens and the research carried out on them. “It will not be possible in course of this project to undertake a more extensive reconstruction of every victim’s biography in view of the large numbers of victims (of whom there may potentially be several thousand), and it would appear realistic at best to recreate the life stories of just a few by way of example,” according to the participating researchers.

In order to clarify the identities of the victims and reconstruct the network of neuro-pathological research, the research work will take two different directions: Starting with the specimens, lists and receipt books held at Max Planck Institutes, one line of research will be directed towards the originating institutions and the patient-related sources to be found there (particularly medical records, as well as distribution lists of brains / brain sections, etc.) An opposite line of research will start with the hospitals and asylums and the T4 headquarters to identify which Institutes of the Kaiser Wilhelm Society (and in the post-War era, the Max Planck Society) cooperated with these institutions, and to which Institutes brains / brain specimens were issued.

Go to Editor View