Public Release: 

Past lessons as an obligation to the future


This release is also available in German

A conference in Berlin marks the end of the research program of the Presidential Commission "The History of the Kaiser Wilhelm Society in the National Socialist Era", which the Max Planck Society set up six years ago. The three-day conference held March 15-17 at Harnack-Haus, Ihnestr. 16 focuses on the politics and practice of the Kaiser Wilhelm Society from 1933 to 1945, racial hygiene and genetic research, military research and forced labor at Kaiser Wilhelm Institutes, the responsibility of leading scientists in National Socialism, and the Max Planck Society's policy of coming to terms with the past; after World War II the Max Planck Society became the successor organization to the Kaiser Wilhelm Society.

The initiative for this research program came from the then President of the Max Planck Society, Prof. Hubert Markl in 1997. With approval from the governing bodies of the Max Planck Society, Markl convened a Presidential Commission to thoroughly investigate the history of the Kaiser Wilhelm Society in the era of National Socialism. The commission was headed up by two independent historians who are not members of the Max Planck Society: Prof. Reinhard Rürup from the Berlin University of Technology and Prof. Wolfgang Schieder from the University of Cologne.

"We had no influence whatsoever on the research program. The historians were free to research and publish without any institutional bias", emphasized Prof. Peter Gruss, President of the Max Planck Society since 2002.

In light of diverse institutional and personal ties, the Kaiser Wilhelm Society was re-founded as the Max Planck Society in 1948. In 2001 President Markl acknowledged the historical responsibility of the Max Planck Society for the guilt of a number of scientists who worked at Kaiser Wilhelm Institutes. These scientists burdened themselves by breaching all ethical boundaries and actively involving themselves in the racist policies of National Socialism. On behalf of the Kaiser Wilhelm Society, Markl asked the survivors of the twin experiments in Auschwitz for forgiveness for the suffering they endured in the name of science. Markl also apologized for the fact that over the years the Max Planck Society dealt insufficiently with the history of the Kaiser Wilhelm Society in National Socialism and thus faced its historical responsibility much too late.

"We owe our thanks to the research program for examining the history of the forerunner organization of the Max Planck Society in National Socialism and for dealing so thoroughly and discerningly with an often grievous aspect of German scientific history", explained Peter Gruss. The results are a constant reminder of the responsibility scientists have: "Scientists bear an important ethical and moral duty and must always be conscious of the fact that the freedom of science is limited by the rights and dignity of each and every human being". Even though younger generations are not personally responsible for the crimes committed in the past, they nevertheless have a responsibility to clarify and disclose the historical truth as a prerequisite for remembering and learning from it. Peter Gruss: "We have to see the lessons from our past as an obligation to the future".


Related links:

[1] MPS Press Release "Max Planck Society: Confession of Historical Responsibility" from 7 June 2001

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