Kaiser Wilhelm Society

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Former Kaiser-Wilhelm-Institut for Chemistry in Berlin, the place at which nuclear fission was first detected
Former Kaiser-Wilhelm-Institut for Biology, Berlin

The Kaiser Wilhelm Society for the Advancement of Science (German: Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gesellschaft zur Förderung der Wissenschaften) was a German scientific institution established in the German Empire in 1911. Its functions were taken over by the Max Planck Society. The Kaiser Wilhelm Society was an umbrella organisation for many institutes, testing stations, and research units created under its authority.


Opening of the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Institut in Berlin-Dahlem, 1913. From right: Adolf von Harnack, Friedrich von Ilberg, Kaiser Wilhelm II, Carl Neuberg, August von Trott zu Solz

The Kaiser Wilhelm Gesellschaft (KWG) was founded in 1911 in order to promote the natural sciences in Germany, by founding and maintaining research institutions formally independent from the state and its administrations.[1] The institutions were to be under the guidance of prominent directors, which included the physicists and chemists Walther Bothe, Peter Debye, Albert Einstein, Fritz Haber and Otto Hahn; a board of trustees also provided guidance.

Funding was ultimately obtained from sources internal and external to Germany. Internally, money was raised from individuals, industry and the government, as well as through the Notgemeinschaft der Deutschen Wissenschaft (Emergency Association of German Science).

External to Germany, the Rockefeller Foundation granted students worldwide one-year study stipends for whichever institute they chose. Some studied in Germany.[2][3][4] In contrast to the German universities, with their formal independence from state administrations the institutions of the Kaiser Wilhelm Gesellschaft had no obligation to teach students.

The Kaiser Wilhelm Institute and its research facilities were involved in weapons research, experimentation and production in both the First World War and the Second World War. During the World War I, the group, and in particular Fritz Haber, was responsible for introducing the use of poison gas as a weapon.[5] This was in direct violation of established international law.

The Holocaust[edit]

During World War II, some of the weapons and medical research performed by the KWI was connected to fatal human experimentation on living test subjects (prisoners) in Nazi concentration camps.[6] In fact, members of the KWI of Anthropology, Human Heredity and Eugenics, particularly Otmar von Verschuer received preserved Jewish bodies and body parts such as eyes for study and display from Auschwitz.[7] These were provided by his pupil Dr. Josef Mengele from prisoners in his charge. He specialized in examining twins, and their genetic relationship, especially for their eye colour and other personal qualities.[8] As the American forces closed in on the relocated KWI, the organization's president, Albert Vögler, an industrialist and early Nazi Party backer, committed suicide, knowing he would be held accountable for the group's crimes and complicity in war crimes.[9]


By the end of the Second World War, the KWG and its institutes had lost their central location in Berlin and were operating in other locations. The KWG was operating out of its Aerodynamics Testing Station in Göttingen. Albert Vögler, the president of the KWG, committed suicide on 14 April 1945. Thereupon, Ernst Telschow assumed the duties until Max Planck could be brought from Magdeburg to Göttingen, which was in the British zone of the Allied Occupation Zones in Germany. Planck assumed the duties on 16 May until a president could be elected. Otto Hahn was selected by directors to be president, but there were a number of difficulties to be overcome. Hahn, being related to nuclear research had been captured by the allied forces of Operation Alsos, and he was still interned at Farm Hall in Britain, under Operation Epsilon. At first, Hahn was reluctant to accept the post, but others prevailed upon him to accept it. Hahn took over the presidency three months after being released and returned to Germany. However, the Office of Military Government, United States (OMGUS) passed a resolution to dissolve the KWG on 11 July 1946.

Meanwhile, members of the British occupation forces, specifically in the Research Branch of the OMGUS, saw the society in a more favourable light and tried to dissuade the Americans from taking such action. The physicist Howard Percy Robertson was director of the department for science in the British Zone; he had a National Research Council Fellowship in the 1920s to study at the Georg August University of Göttingen and the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich. Also, Colonel Bertie Blount was on the staff of the British Research Branch, and he had received his doctorate at Göttingen under Walther Borsche. Among other things, Bertie suggested to Hahn to write to Sir Henry Hallett Dale, who had been the president of the Royal Society, which he did. While in Britain, Bertie also spoke with Dale, who came up with a suggestion. Dale believed that it was only the name which conjured up a pejorative picture and suggested that the society be renamed the Max Planck Gesellschaft. On 11 September 1946, the Max Planck Gesellschaft was founded in the British Zone only. The second founding took place on 26 February 1948 for both the American and British occupation zones. The physicists Max von Laue and Walther Gerlach were also instrumental in establishing the society across the allied zones, including the French zone.[10][11]


Institutes, testing stations and units[edit]

Kaiser Wilhelm Institutes[edit]

Kaiser Wilhelm Society organisations[edit]

  • Aerodynamic Testing Station (Göttingen e. V.) of the Kaiser Wilhelm Society. The testing unit Aerodynamische Versuchsanstalt (AVA) was formed in 1925 along with the KWI of Flow (Fluid Dynamics) Research. In 1937, it became the testing station of the KWG.
  • Biological Station Lunz of the Kaiser Wilhelm Society
  • German Entomological Institute of the Kaiser Wilhelm Society
  • Hydrobiological Station of the Kaiser Wilhelm Society
  • Institute for Agricultural Work Studies in the Kaiser Wilhelm Society
  • Research Unit "D" in the Kaiser Wilhelm Society
  • Rossitten Bird Station of the Kaiser Wilhelm Society, founded 1901 in Rossitten and integrated into the Kaiser Wilhelm Society in 1921. The ornithological station was ceased at the end of the Second World War, but work continues at the ornithological station Radolfzell which is part of the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology.
  • Silesian Coal Research Institute of the Kaiser Wilhelm Society, in Breslau.

Institutions outside Germany[edit]

  • Bibliotheca Hertziana, founded 1913 in Rome. It is now the Bibliotheca Hertziana - Max Planck Institute of Art History in Rome.
  • German-Bulgarian Institute for Agricultural Science founded in 1940 in Sofia.
  • German-Greek Institute for Biology in the Kaiser Wilhelm Society founded in 1940 in Athens.
  • German-Italian Institute for Marine Biology at Rovigno, Italy.
  • Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Cultivated Plant Research founded in 1940 in Vienna, Austria.


  • Institute for the Science of Agricultural Work—founded in 1940 in Breslau.
  • Institute for Theoretical Physics
  • Research Unit for Virus Research of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Biochemistry and the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Biology

See also[edit]



  1. ^ "Chronik des Kaiser-Wilhelm- / Max-Planck-Instituts für Chemie" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 2016-03-04.
  2. ^ Macrakis, 1993, pp. 11–28 and 273–274.
  3. ^ Hentschel, 1996, Appendix A; see the entries for the Kaiser Wilhelm Gesellschaft and the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Fluid Dynamics Research.
  4. ^ List of Kaiser Wilhelm Institutes Archived 2013-09-09 at the Wayback Machine in summary of holdings, Section I (Bestandsübersicht, I. Abteilung), on the website of the Max Planck Gesellschaft Archives (in German). Retrieved 2015-08-29.
  5. ^ "History of the Kaiser Wilhelm Society". www.mpg.de. Retrieved 2019-07-28.
  6. ^ Müller-Hill, Benno (1999). "The Blood from Auschwitz and the Silence of the Scholars". History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences. 21 (3): 331–365. JSTOR 23332180. PMID 11197188.
  7. ^ "History of the Kaiser Wilhelm Society". www.mpg.de. Retrieved 2019-07-28.
  8. ^ "History of the Kaiser Wilhelm Society". www.mpg.de. Retrieved 2019-07-28.
  9. ^ "History of the Kaiser Wilhelm Society". www.mpg.de. Retrieved 2019-07-28.
  10. ^ Macrakis, 1993, 187-198.
  11. ^ Hentschel, 1996, Appendix A; see the entries for the Kaiser Wilhelm Gesellschaft and the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Fluid Dynamics Research.
  12. ^ Kunze, Rolf-Ulrich (2004). Ernst Rabel und das Kaiser-Wilhelm-Institut für ausländisches und internationales Privatrecht 1926-1945. Göttingen: Wallstein. p. 13.
  13. ^ Kunze (2004), p. 47-48.

General bibliography[edit]

  • Schmuhl, Hans-Walter: Grenzüberschreitungen. Das Kaiser-Wilhelm-Institut für Anthropologie, Menschliche Erblehre und Eugenik 1927–1945. Reihe: Geschichte der Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gesellschaft im Nationalsozialismus, 9. Wallstein, Göttingen 2005, ISBN 3-89244-799-3
  • Hentschel, Klaus, ed. (1996). Physics and National Socialism: An Anthology of Primary Sources. Basel, Boston: Birkhäuser Verlag. ISBN 0-8176-5312-0.
  • Macrakis, Kristie (1993). Surviving the Swastika: Scientific Research in Nazi Germany. New York: Oxford Univ. Press. ISBN 0-19-507010-0.

External links[edit]