The Kaiser Wilhelm Society

Founded in 1911

The Kaiser Wilhelm Society was founded on 11 January 1911 and renamed the Max Planck Society for the Advancement of Science in 1948.

Adolf Harnack (1851-1930), a German Lutheran theologian and historian, was the twin brother of the mathematician Axel Harnack. Adolf Harnack was an advisor to Kaiser Wilhelm II and director of the Royal Library. In 1909 Adolf Harnack made a proposal to Kaiser Wilhelm II to reform German science by setting up independent research institutes to complement the work done in the universities. He proposed founding new type of research association for the advancement of science, namely The Kaiser Wilhelm Society. In 1910 the University of Berlin celebrated its 100th anniversary and, on that day, Kaiser Wilhelm II announced the creation of the new Society. On 11 January 1911, 83 members of the new Society attended the meeting to mark its founding in the Berlin Academy of Arts. Adolf Harnack was elected as the first President and Kaiser Wilhelm II was its patron.

The Kaiser Wilhelm Society build accommodation for Institutes in various scientific disciplines, the first being the Chemistry Institute which opened in October 1912. In August 1914, however, World War I began and many members of the Kaiser Wilhelm Society added their names to the nationalist feelings which swept across Germany. A propaganda document "Appeal to the Cultural World" in October 1914 was signed by leading members of the Society, including Adolf Harnack and Max Planck. This document, among other claims, denied that the German army had breached Belgium neutrality and justified the destruction of Leuven. The Society supported the German war effort, in particular by developing gas warfare which was led by Fritz Haber, director of the Chemical Institute. Other Institutes of the Society tried to continue their peacetime work but this proved difficult. The Kaiser Wilhelm Institute of Physics in Berlin had been proposed in 1914 but was not officially founded until 1 October 1917 with Albert Einstein becoming its director. Max Planck had become a committee member of the Kaiser Wilhelm Society in 1916 and, as secretary of the Society, succeeded in persuading Einstein to accept the role of director.

World War I ended with the Armistice on 11 November 1918. Kaiser Wilhelm II abdicated, but the Kaiser Wilhelm Society decided in 1919, however, not to change the Society's name. At this stage even the statute with Kaiser Wilhelm II as patron remained in place but his name as patron was removed from the statutes in 1921. The Society continued to thrive and in 1922 moved into new headquarters, the Berlin Palace, which, with the end of the monarchy, had to find a new role. The Berlin Palace became the administrative centre for the Society but the annual general meetings were also held there and it also housed some of the Society's Institutes. By 1927, however, the Society was extending its reach outside Berlin with the holding of its annual general meeting in Dresden. Over the following few years meetings took place in Munich, Heidelberg and Frankfurt.

In 1930 Max Planck was elected as President of the Society. He had received the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1918 and, by the time he was elected President, there were seven Nobel Prize winners who were members of the Society. On 30 January 1933 Hitler had came to power and on 7 April 1933 the Civil Service Law provided the means of removing Jewish teachers from the universities, and of course removing those of Jewish descent from other roles. All civil servants who were not of Aryan descent (having one grandparent of the Jewish religion made someone non-Aryan) were to be retired. The impact of this Law on the Kaiser Wilhelm Society was clear to the President, Max Planck, so he met with Adolf Hitler in an attempt to have him reverse the policy [3]:-
Since Planck, like many other German intellectuals, was utterly unpolitical in his outlook, he felt that the best way to assist the Jews was to intercede with Hitler on their behalf and thus to keep the matter on a personal rather than on a political plane. In such a way the stage was set for the meeting which was to cast its shadow over Planck's life for a dozen years.
In particular, Planck argued in favour of Haber who had done important war work for Germany in World War I. Hitler, as one might expect, totally rejected Planck's plea to allow top Jewish scientists to continue their work [3]:-
... and finally worked himself up into such a rage that there was nothing left for Planck to do but to be silent and to withdraw.
Planck's unsuccessful meeting with Hitler was followed by dismissals [1]:-
A wave of dismissals began in the Kaiser Wilhelm Society after Max Planck's audience with Hitler was unsuccessful. The Kaiser Wilhelm Society dismissed a total of 126 staff members, 104 of them scientists. Some were able to continue their careers abroad, others lost their livelihoods when they emigrated and failed to find their footing in their new country. Four of the expelled scientists were murdered in concentration camps.
Haber resigned before being sacked and died in 1934. The Kaiser Wilhelm Society was one of the organisations behind a commemoration of Haber which was arranged in 1935. The event was not banned by the Nazis but all professors and civil servants were banned from attending. The event went ahead attended by wives and foreign scientists. In addition to removing those of Jewish descent, the Society was forced by the Nazis to introduce other changes to the way it operated. Beginning before the German invasion of Poland in September 1939, the Society was required to undertake scientific work related to the war effort. By 1941 the President of the Society was appointed by the Nazi government. As the situation in Berlin worsened with Allied bombings from 1943 onwards, the Society's Institutes were moved out and the headquarters moved from the Berlin Palace to Heidelberg.

As Germany faced defeat in 1945 the President of the Kaiser Wilhelm Society, Albert Vögler, a Nazi appointment and sympathiser, committed suicide. The Society was largely destroyed and after the war ended the Allies began to reorganise the German science research base. Max Planck agreed to become an interim President to allow restructuring to take place [2]:-
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 Kaiser Wilhelm Society. 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 Kaiser Wilhelm Society 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 Kaiser Wilhelm Society 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.
The continuing history of the society can be found under the name of the Max Planck Society at THIS LINK.

Visit the society website.

References (show)

  1. History of the Kaiser Wilhelm Society, Max Planck Society.
  2. History of the Max Planck Society, Max Planck Society.
  3. J C O'Flaherty, Max Planck and Adolf Hitler, American Association of University Professors Bulletin 42 (3) (1956), 437-444.
  4. Max Planck Institute for Mathematics.
  5. Max Planck Institute for Mathematics in the Sciences.

Last Updated September 2018