William E. Seidelman MD Science and Inhumanity: The Kaiser-Wilhelm/Max Planck Society
First Published in: If Not Now an e-journal Volume 2, Winter 2000
One hundred years ago this past December a German scientist by the name of
Max Karl Ernst Ludwig Planck gave a lecture in Berlin to the German Physical
Society. Planck’s lecture would change the world forever. Entitled “On the Law
of the Normal Distribution of Energy” the lecture marked the birth of quan-
tum physics. Quantum physics established a basis for the later development of
nuclear physics, the laser and the computer. It is the foundation of the modern
technological world extending from nuclear energy to the transistor radio.
Max Planck was to become the most influential scientist in Germany. For
26 years (1912–1938) he was permanent secretary of the mathematics and
physics sections of the Prussian Academy of Sciences. It was Planck who
brought Albert Einstein to Berlin in 1914. Planck, who was awarded the 1918
Nobel Prize in Physics for his 1900 discovery, became the president of the Kai-
ser Wilhelm Society (1930–1937), the prestigious and influential organization
established in 1911 by the German government and industry for the promotion
After World War II the Kaiser-Wilhelm Society asked the aged Planck to
again undertake the presidency of what had become a badly damaged organi-
zation. Planck also agreed to allow the Kaiser-Wilhelm Society to take on his
name; thus today’s Max Planck Society which assumed its new name in 1948,
one year after Planck’s death at age 89.
Planck’s achievements and distinctions and influence did not protect him
from tragedy. His first wife died in 1909. His eldest son was killed in World
War I. Each of his twin daughters died in childbirth. Erwin, the only surviving
child of his first marriage, was executed by the Gestapo for purported links with
Planck was admired not only as a great scientist but also as a moral and cou-
rageous individual. He criticized Hitler’s racial policies to Hitler’s face. Rather
than flee Germany Planck remained in an attempt to salvage what was left of
German physical sciences. And in the 9th decade of his life he agreed to again
become president of Germany’s preeminent research organization1 2 3 4.
While Planck the person is regarded with honor the same cannot be said of
the organization that continues to bear his name.
Established in 1911, The Kaiser-Wilhelm organization spawned some
of the most prestigious and influential scientific and academic institutes in the
world. Kaiser Wilhelm institutes encompassed such scientific and academic
disciplines as physics, chemistry, biology, cell biology, psychiatry, neuro-
pathology, genetics, anthropology, metallurgy, and law. Many of the Nobel
Laureates of the past century were associated with Kaiser-Wilhelm institutes.
Between its founding in 1911 and 1948 the Kaiser-Wilhelm organization sup-
ported 35 institutes in Germany and other countries5. The international esteem
of the Kaiser Wilhelm institutes is reflected in the support it received from the
Rockefeller Foundation. The Rockefeller Foundation made major contributions
to the construction of the Kaiser Wilhelm institutes of brain research (Berlin-
Buch) and psychiatry (Munich). It also provided financial support to other
Kaiser-Wilhelm institutes adversely affected by World War I and the ensuing
depression6. In addition to capital funding for construction the Rockefeller
Foundation supported research at the Munich psychiatric institute and twin
research at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute of Anthropology, Human Genetics and
Ironically, the three Kaiser-Wilhelm institutes that were beneficiaries of
Rockefeller largesse were to eventually play important roles in the develop-
ment, implementation and exploitation of the racial programs of the Third
Reich including murderous experiments and the exploitation of the dead.
Kaiser-Wilhelm scientists joined with the Nazi state in pursuit of the goal of
improving the people’s health (Volksgesundheit), the major emphasis being on
eugenic and racial purification. The resulting collaboration between science
and the Nazi state not only legitimized the policies and programs of the Hitler
regime it resulted in the exploitation and mutilation and murder of untold thou-
sands of innocent victims by physicians and scientists associated with some
of the world’s leading universities and research institutes. The participation of
scientists associated with the Kaiser-Wilhelm Society enhanced the credibility
of the Nazi state’s program of scientific terror and murder8.
The Kaiser-Wilhelm-Institute of Psychiatry, Munich
The Kaiser-Wilhelm Institute of Psychiatry in Munich had been established in
1917 as the German Institute for Psychiatric Research by the eminent psychia-
trist, Prof. Emil Kraepelin. A major benefactor of the Munich institute was the
American-born Jewish philanthropist, and at one time a patient of Kraepelin’s,
James Loeb9. The Munich psychiatric institute became the first and foremost
psychiatric research institute in the world. In 1924 the institute joined with the
Kaiser-Wilhelm research organization. The building of the new institute, which
opened in 1928, was the first major construction project of the KWG to be fi-
nanced by a grant from the medical division of the Rockefeller Foundation6.
Kraepelin, who had been professor of psychiatry at the University of
Heidelberg, had assembled a stellar group of clinicians and researchers in-
cluding the psychiatrist/neurologist Alois Alzheimer and the neurohistologist,
Franz Nissl10. They were subsequently joined by the Swiss-born psychiatrist/
geneticist Ernst Rüdin. Alzheimer, Nissl and Rüdin joined Kraepelin when
he moved from Heidelberg to Munich in 1903. In 1909 Rüdin succeeded
Alzheimer as senior physician at the Munich psychiatric hospital. In Munich,
Rüdin led the Genealogical/Demographic research department of the Kraepelin
Institute. The focus of Rüdin’s research was on the inheritance of psychiatric
disorders. His 1916 paper on that subject is considered a classic that continues
to be cited in the literature on the genetics of schizophrenia11. In 1928 Rüdin
became director of a “greatly expanded” genealogical department of what had
become the Kaiser-Wilhelm Institute of Psychiatry. In 1931 he ascended to the
leadership of the world’s preeminent psychiatric research institute12. Rüdin
built on Kraepelin’s relationship with the Rockefeller Foundation and James
Loeb. His research was well endowed with funding from Rockefeller and the
Loeb estate. Loeb, who died in 1933, had been a generous supporter of the in-
stitute from its inception. As his final gift, Loeb bequeathed $1,000,000 to the
After Hitler’s rise to power, Rüdin became an active supporter of the eu-
genic and racial hygiene policies of Hitler’s regime. He was an intellectual
leader of the Nazi program of enforced eugenic sterilization entrenched under
the 1933 Sterilization Law. He was honored twice by Hitler for his contribution
The 1933 Sterilization Law established diagnostic categories for enforced
sterilization. Two of the categories were for psychiatric conditions first char-
acterized by Kraepelin and investigated by Rüdin, namely schizophrenia and
manic-depressive disorder15. An estimated 400,000 German citizens qualified
for sterilization under the law. This goal was achieved16.
The Kaiser Wilhelm Institute of Psychiatry under Rüdin became a major
academic eugenic center during the Hitler period. It was to the psychiatric
institute that doctors and the courts turned for an “expert” opinion on eugenic
matters. It can be assumed that Rüdin, as an architect of the sterilization law did
not support appeals against sterilizations ordered by the court. Rüdin was such
an avid proponent of eugenic sterilization that his colleagues nicknamed him
In 1935 the Rockefeller Foundation withheld funding for genealogical and
demographic research at the Munich institute. In 1940 the executors of the
Loeb estate also ceased payment to the institute. Desperate for support Rüdin
turned to the SS terror organization for salvation. In 1939 the world’s first and
foremost psychiatric research institute came under the influence, if not the con-
trol, of the SS and its research organization, the notorious Ahnenerbe7.
The 1933 Sterilization Law to which Rüdin contributed and in which the KW
Psychiatry Institute participated established the basis for the Nazi programs
of selection and eugenic and racial purification. These programs included the
killing of handicapped children and the T-4 Aktion for the murder of adults in
The T-4 killing program was exploited by Professor Julius Hallervorden of
the KWI for Brain Research as an opportunity to augment the neuropathologi-
cal collection of brain material in one of, if not the, world’s foremost institutes
for brain research. The founding director of the institute, Professor Oskar Vogt,
had been dismissed by the Nazis and replaced by Professor Hugo Spatz20.
Hallervorden was subsequently appointed by his friend Spatz with whom he
had already achieved fame through the identification of a congenital neurologi-
cal condition known as ‘Hallervorden-Spatz Disease21.’
Hallervorden’s main collection point for specimens was the euthanasia
killing center in the town of Brandenburg. At Brandenburg the victims were
assembled in a large room disguised as a shower where they were asphyxiated
with gas. Hallervorden is known to have been present for some of the killings
and to have removed the victims’ brains shortly after their murder. Many of the
Brandenburg victims came from the nearby large psychiatric hospital known
as Görden. Hallervorden had a neuropathology facility on the grounds of the
Görden hospital where specimens were prepared and sent to the Kaiser-Wil-
helm institute in Buch22 23 24 25. Beginning in 1944, and for a number years af-
ter the war, the Kaiser-Wilhelm brain research institute and its neuropathologi-
cal collection were moved from Berlin (via Giessen) to a permanent location
near the University of Frankfurt and a newly constructed facility now known
as the Max Planck Institute for Brain Research26. The misbegotten specimens
acquired by Hallervorden remained in the collection of the Max Planck Insti-
The provenance of the Frankfurt brain specimens was not revealed until the
late 1980’s. This revelation occurred around the same time there were similar
disclosures involving the Institute of Anatomy of the University of Tübingen.
At first Max Planck officials denied the existence of the Hallervorden collec-
tion27. The entire collection of brain specimens in the collection of the Frank-
furt institute was buried in two adjoining gravesites at the Forest Cemetery in
Munich. Munich was chosen as the burial site because it is the home of the Max
Planck Society28. It was also revealed at that time that the Max Planck Institute
of Psychiatry had in its collection brain specimens from children murdered in
the child “euthanasia” program. These specimens came from children mur-
dered at Eglfing-Haar; a psychiatric institution near Munich29.
The Kaiser-Wilhelm-Institute of Anthropology,
Human Genetics and Eugenics, Berlin-Dahlem
The third Kaiser Wilhelm institute implicated in the crimes of the Third Reich is
the Institute of Anthropology, Human Genetics and Eugenics in the Berlin sub-
urb (and Kaiser Wilhelm Society campus) of Dahlem. The official opening of
the institute in September of 1927 occurred in conjunction with the first interna-
tional scientific conference to be held in Germany after the end of World War I;
the 8th International Congress on Heredity. The founding director was the
noted anatomist/anthropologist Prof. Eugen Fischer. Fischer’s interest was in
the anthropology of natives of African territories colonized by Germany. With
the arrival of the Hitler regime Fischer declared “the institute is completely and
wholly prepared to assume the tasks of the current government30.” And it did.
Indeed, according to the Max Planck Society’s own accounting, the activities
undertaken by institute scientists on behalf of the Nazi state “. reflected the
conviction of most of the researchers, who believed that they might thereby
come closer to achieving the racial hygiene goals they shared30.”
A major proponent of the racist goals of the Hitler state was an institute
scientist from Tübingen, Freiherr Dr. Otmar von Verschuer. Verschuer was a
noted expert on the genetics of twins. His early twin research at the Dahlem
institute was funded by Rockefeller7. In 1936 Verschuer was called to Frankfurt
to head the newly established Institute of Genetics and Racial Hygiene at the
University of Frankfurt. The largest institute of its kind, the Frankfurt institute
was responsible for the compulsory medical curriculum on eugenics and racial
hygiene. Institute staff provided expert opinions to the court on decisions under
the 1933 sterilization law and the Nuremberg racial laws (race having being
made a medical diagnosis). Verschuer’s first assistant in Frankfurt was a medi-
cal student Josef Mengele. Mengele had recently received his PhD from the
same university as had Max Planck, the University of Munich.
Verschuer exploited his position as a noted geneticist to expound his racist/
anti-Semitic views which included “a new total solution (Gesamtlösung) of
the Jewish problem.” In a 1942 editorial published in a journal he edited (Der Erbarzt) Verschuer called for a “final solution” (endgültige) to the Jewish ques-
tion. In the second edition of his textbook on race hygiene (1942) he repeated
his provocative statement, “The political demand of our time is the new total
solution (Gesamtlösung) of the Jewish problem31.”
In 1942 Verschuer succeeded Fischer as Director of the Dahlem institute.
Verschuer as institute director took advantage of the endgültige to exploit
helpless human beings captive in Auschwitz to pursue his research objectives
including the study of twins. Verschuer took advantage of the appointment of
his former Frankfurt assistant, Dr. Dr. Josef Mengele (PhD, MD) to Auschwitz
where Mengele served as an agent of the institute and as his, Verschuer’s,
research assistant. Jews and Gypsies (Roma) in Auschwitz were studied, mur-
dered, dissected and their body parts sent by Mengele to Verschuer in Berlin.
Specimens included eyes of hapless victims who happened to have eyes of a
different color (known as heterochromia of the iris)32.
Studies carried out on Auschwitz victims included an examination of their
blood for certain elements that were believed to be formed in response to infec-
tion. Verschuer’s institute lacked the capacity to do the required blood testing.
The blood of the Auschwitz victims was sent to the neighbouring Kaiser-
Wilhelm Institute for Biochemistry headed by the Prof. Adolf Butenandt. The
tests themselves were performed at the biochemistry institute by Dr. Günther
Hillmann31. The institute director, Butenandt, was a pioneering biochemist who
discovered the male and female hormones in humans. His work, for which he
received the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1939, led the way to many modern
therapies including the birth control pill33.
Verschuer fled Berlin toward the end of the war. There are no surviving
specimens or documentation from the Dahlem institute. It is believed that
Verschuer had those destroyed. Soon after the end of the war accusations were
made against Verschuer concerning Auschwitz research. A committee of Kai-
ser-Wilhelm scientists was formed to review the case against him. The com-
mittee report, which was not made public, was critical of Verschuer’s wartime
activities and made it impossible for him to be re-appointed to a university
Butenandt, in addition to directly or indirectly assisting Verschuer with his
studies on the blood of Auschwitz victims, helped restore Verschuer’s postwar
standing in the scientific community. Butenandt was the member of a commit-
tee that re-examined the Verschuer case. Despite the evidence, the new commit-
tee concluded that Verschuer was not a Nazi, was not a race fanatic, was toler-
ant with his collaborators and that he did not know what went on in Auschwitz.
The committee stated that “von Verschuer has all qualities which destine him to
be a researcher and teacher of the academic youth31.”
Having been exonerated by his colleagues, Verschuer went on to assume
the position of professor of genetics at the University of Münster and the direc-
tor of that university’s genetics institute. In that position Verschuer became the
most prominent geneticist in (West) Germany. He died in 196932.
As the preeminent scientific and research organization in Germany, it is not
surprising that Kaiser-Wilhelm scientists and institutes were involved in the
eugenic and racial programs of the Third Reich. What is perplexing is the
difficulty the present day Max Planck Society has had in confronting its own
history. Despite the evidence linking scientists and researchers of the Kaiser-
Wilhelm/Max Planck (KW/MP) Society with the crimes of the Third Reich, it
has taken the KW/MP Society over a half a century to begin an examination of
its own history. In spite of the documented involvement of KW/MP scientists
and researchers in various nefarious scientific activities during Hitler’s regime,
the organization has yet to formally apologize for the suffering and death in-
flicted by its scientists and researchers on untold numbers of innocent human
beings. Hiding under the veneer of academic and scientific objectivity, officials
suggest that an apology would be premature and should await the completion
of the much belated investigation that would document exactly what the Max
Planck Society should apologize for34 35 36. It is expected that this investigation
Evidence of the complicity of Kaiser-Wilhelm/Max-Planck scientists has
been in existence for over a decade. That evidence documents activities that
include the scientific legitimization and advancement of eugenics and racial
hygiene by the Kaiser-Wilhelm Institute of Psychiatry (Rüdin) and the Kai-
ser-Wilhelm Institute of Anthropology (Eugen Fischer, Fritz Lenz, Otmar von
Verschuer); the exploitation of the euthanasia killings to acquire brain speci-
mens of the murdered victims by the Kaiser-Wilhelm Institute of Brain Re-
search (Hallervorden); and genetic research on Jews and Roma (Gypsies)
in Auschwitz by the Kaiser-Wilhelm Institute of Anthropology (Verschuer/
The Max-Planck Society has publicly acknowledged its moral responsibil-
ity (in the absence of any preceding investigation) for the exploitation of the
“euthanasia” murders to acquire the brains of the victims37. The connection
between Verschuer and Josef Mengele has been well known since it was first
reported by Professor Benno Müller-Hill in 198438. In the words of a German
social scientist published over a decade ago, “In fact, through Verschuer the
institute (Kaiser Wilhelm Institute of Anthropology) was to become directly
connected with the murderous ‘experiments on humans’ at Auschwitz. Even
though this connection was never substantiated in a court of law, evidence ac-
cumulated over the years leaves little doubt39.”
Despite this evidence, the Max Planck Society appears to be demonstrat-
ing signs and symptoms of disordered memory and conscience. This disorder
of memory is exemplified by the Society’s own 1998 descriptive history of the
Berlin institutes of the Kaiser Wilhelm/Max Planck Society. Despite the previ-
ously mentioned honest accounting of the anthropology institute during the
Hitler period, the monograph disputes the wording of a commemorative plaque
on the building that formerly housed the anthropology institute. According to
the 1998 document, “The text of the plaque, which was revised many times,
however, falsely suggests that the concentration camp doctor Josef Mengele
was a member of this Kaiser Wilhelm Institute. He did, however, send blood
and organ samples for testing. The statement that the staff of the institute made
an ‘active contribution to selection and murder’ by virtue of issuing profes-
sional opinion, seems exaggerated, however30.”
The formal examination of the history of the Max Planck Society was under-
taken one year after the publication of the aforementioned deceiving statement.
In 1999, the Max Planck Society established an “autonomous” Presidential
Commission (“History of the Kaiser Wilhelm Society in the National Socialist
era”)5 36. With two co-chairs and nine members (one from the United States and
one from the United Kingdom), and a staff of resident and visiting researchers,
the Commission has embarked on a major research program encompassing:
l The organization, policy and administration of the Kaiser-Wilhelm
l Racial hygiene, genetic, medical and psychiatric research in Kaiser-
l Military Research: war-related and applied science in Kaiser-
Wilhelm Institutes under the supervision of the Four-Year-Plan and
l Osforschung (research on the east) and Lebensraumforschung (re-
search on living space) at Kaiser Wilhelm Institutes in the context
of expansionistic and occupation politics.
One commission researcher, Prof. Volker Roelcke of the University of
Lübeck, has documented that Ernst Rüdin provided intellectual and financial
support for murderous experiments on children performed by the Heidelberg
psychiatrist, Julius Deussen35. Another commission researcher, Robert Proctor,
has been given access to the archives on Professor Adolf Butenandt which
show that “ Butenandt was aware of and supported a research project involving
blood samples from Auschwitz in an unsuccessful effort to find disease-fighting
There is no question that the Presidential Commission will add greatly to
the body of knowledge of the history of science and medicine during the Third
Reich. However, the issuance of an explicit apology on the basis of what is
already known should in no way prejudice the research into what is not yet
known. The half-century of delay into documenting its own history is of itself
deserving of a public apology. The moral imperative is emphasized by the
fact that the Max Planck Society today encompasses 81 institutes embracing
such areas as human development, criminal law, and foreign and international
private, public and social law. The Max Planck Society is now more than an
organization for basic or applied scientific research; it is also an organization
with an explicit moral mandate to study the human condition. In so doing, it
also has a moral responsibility for its own actions, and those of its members,
past and present. What the Max Planck Society appears to continue to ignore,
or avoid facing, is the fate of the victims, those who perished and those who
survived. Given the fact that 59 years will have elapsed between the end of the
Third Reich and the end of the mandate of the “Presidential Commission,” few
of the survivors will still be living. If a formal apology should be forthcoming
few, if any, will be alive or capable of receiving it. By the time the Max Planck
Society has recovered its own institutional memory, there will be few survivors
The esteemed scientist after whom Germany’s foremost scientific organiza-
tion is named would probably have been very distressed had he been aware of
the behavior of scientists associated with the organization that now bears his
name. Given his own example of moral recititude he most likely would have
been dismayed by the behaviour of the leadership of that organization which
for over one half century after the end of the war demonstrated moral amnesia
and paralysis in addressing the questions of its own history and moral respon-
The word “quantum” when first used by Max Planck referred to an in-
finitesimally small measure of change at the level of the atom. The collective
impact of those infinitesimally small changes have changed the world forever.
“Quantum” as adjective refers to a significant quantity. The future impact of
the heretofore tepid efforts of the Max Planck Society will depend on that
organization’s ongoing commitment to an honest historical examination of
the role of German science and medicine during the Hitler period and after.
The Max Planck Society has a moral obligation to set an example for German
academia and industry in urging those universities and industrial concerns such
as the chemical and pharmaceutical companies who wittingly and unwittingly
joined in the programs of scientific terror and have yet to reveal the truth. That
truth requires a proper objective and full examination of the archives and other
historical records and collections of the universities and companies that share
the same moral responsibility as the Kaiser-Wilhem/Max Planck Society for
the design, implementation and exploitation of some of the worst crimes in the
On the basis of current evidence the Max Planck Society should make a full
and public apology to the surviving victims and the families of the deceased
for their suffering at the hands of scientists of the Kaiser-Wilhelm/Max Planck
Society. The Max Planck Society should undertake, together with institutions
providing care to Holocaust survivors, a study of the impact of the Holocaust
and the trauma of experimentation and scientific abuse on the surviving vic-
tims. In contradistinction to the research undertaken in pursuit of state defined
Volksgesundheit, this research would be based on the goal of improving the
quality of life of the surviving victims; an effort to which the Max Planck
Society should become party. As Germany’s (and one of the world’s) leading
scientific and research organization, the Max Planck Society should explicitly
address the issue of the moral responsibility of science based on its own tragic
Max Planck, having come from a family of theologians would have prob-
ably been acquainted with the source of the title of this journal (If Not Now an e-journal) which is taken from The Ethics of the Fathers by the great sage
Hillel. The complete aphorism of Hillel is an admonition that applies to the
society that continues to bear Max Planck’s name:
If I am not for myself who will be for me? But if I am only for myself,
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Department of Family and Community Medicine
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