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The origins of the Notgemeinschaft

“In order to avert a complete collapse of German science and scholarship”

Extract from the statutes of the Notgemeinschaft, 1920
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Extract from the statutes of the Notgemeinschaft, 1920

© aus Nipperdey, 50 Jahre Forschungsförderung in Deutschland, 1970

In October 1920, five German academies, 35 universities and higher education institutions represented in the Verband der Deutschen Hochschulen, the Kaiser Wilhelm Society (KWG, predecessor to the Max Planck Society), the German Federation of Technical and Scientific Organisations (DVT), and the Society of German Researchers and Physicians (GDNÄ) founded the association “Deutsche Gemeinschaft zur Erhaltung und Förderung der Forschung – Notgemeinschaft der deutschen Wissenschaft – E.V.” in order to “avert the danger of the complete collapse of German scientific and scholarly research posed by the present economic crisis”.

The situation of science and scholarship in Germany after the First World War

The financial situation of the universities and scientific institutions was indeed very serious after the First World War. Their budgets had not been increased since 1913; at the same time an increase in civil servants’ salaries and the inflation that had already begun during the war were straining the budgets of universities, libraries, museums and research institutions. It was precisely in this period following the war, however, that an increase in funding was most needed. After all, the war had been responsible for the interruption of scientific and research activities – young researchers were called up for military service, and research projects were postponed. In addition, basic research was almost completely discontinued in favour of research critical to the war.

This situation was further exacerbated by the international isolation of German research. As a result of the Treaty of Versailles, which ascribed sole guilt to Germany for the First World War, a boycott took place. Germany was excluded from international scientific and scholarly events,and German research articles were no longer included in international bibliographies. However, German research was not completely without blame for its isolation, having brought discredit on itself in the international academic community at the very beginning of the war with militaristic pamphlets by well-known German scholars.

Friedrich Schmidt-Ott, President of the Notgemeinschaft from 1920 to 1934
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Friedrich Schmidt-Ott, President of the Notgemeinschaft from 1920 to 1934

© aus Schmidt-Ott, Erlebtes und Erstrebtes 1860-1950, 1952

In this situation, it became clear to the universities and research institutions that those German states where political power over science and scholarship essentially resided, even in the Weimar Republic, could not by themselves manage to remedy this difficult situation. In 1920, leading representatives of science and scholarship established a working committee, which subsequently adopted the name Notgemeinschaft (“emergency foundation”). Its task was to coordinate joint action in the form of memoranda and proposals to the parliaments, governments and also potential sponsors in industry in order to secure the provision of the necessary financial resources.

Friedrich Schmidt-Ott, Fritz Haber and Adolf von Harnack played a leading role in the formation of this working committee, and also in lobbying the government for funding.

Friedrich Schmidt-Ott was active in numerous areas relating to research and cultural policy and was the Prussian Education Minister from 1917 until November 1918. In 1920, at the inaugural meeting of the Notgemeinschaft, he was elected as its president, a position which he occupied until he was dismissed in 1934. Fritz Haber was director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute of Physical Chemistry and Electrochemistry in Dahlem, and was also a member of the Prussian Academy of Sciences. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1919. Adolf von Harnack was the President of the Kaiser Wilhelm Society (KWG). He, and also Fritz Haber, became members of the Executive Committee of the Notgemeinschaft in 1920.

Adolf von Harnack
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Adolf von Harnack

© Deutsches Rundfunkarchiv

The concerns of the Notgemeinschaft fell on sympathetic ears in government and in society; a decline in the standard of German research compared with other nations was seen as a slur on the national honour. In addition, there were concerns about a negative impact on Germany's further economic development. In an application by the Notgemeinschaft for financial support from the Reich Government in 1920, Adolf von Harnack stressed the importance of science and research for Germany's overall development:

“The vital necessities of the nation include the preservation of the few assets that it still possesses. Among these assets, German science and research occupy a prominent position. They are the most important prerequisite not only for the preservation of education in the nation and for Germany's technology and industry, but also for Germany's reputation and its position in the world, on which in turn prestige and credit rely.”

In the debate on the allocation of Reich funds to the nascent Notgemeinschaft, members of the Reichstag described the catastrophic situation of science and scholarship. For example, communist Clara Zetkin, in her speech in the session on 24 January 1921, said:

“Academic research is under severe threat and cannot go on. [...] The individual states have barely remitted the funds that are required to maintain teaching activities at the universities. There are no funds for the upkeep and continuation of academic research. Research materials have been used up, the instruments are worn out. Their replacement is not possible because materials and instruments have risen tremendously in price. The publication of scientific and scholarly journals and books has been called into doubt because of the exorbitant prices of production. [...] It is a scandal that science and scholarship must go around begging.”

Fritz Haber
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Fritz Haber

© Creative Commons

Reich Minister of Finance Wirth drew attention to the adverse working conditions of researchers in his speech to the Reichstag on 1 July 1920:

“It cuts one to the quick to hear today that many a scholar, young or old, is no longer in the position even to have a major work, on which he has worked for decades, printed. I have been told that great scholars in Germany have placed their finished work in the university library in manuscript form, as they are no longer in a position to arrange for it to appear in print.”

In October 1920, the Reich Ministry of the Interior decided to make 20 million marks available for the 1921 budget year “for the advancement of the goals pursued by the Notgemeinschaft der Deutschen Wissenschaft”. In the same month, the members of the Notgemeinschaft agreed on its legal form and operating methods, and it was finally founded as an association on 30 October 1920.

The foundation of the “Stifterverband” (Donors’ Association), December 1920

Appeal “To German farmers, merchants, tradespeople and industrialists”, 01/12/1920
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Appeal “To German farmers, merchants, tradespeople and industrialists”, 01/12/1920

© Aus: DFG (Hrsg.) (1985; unveröffentlicht): Vor 65 Jahren: Gründung der Notgemeinschaft der deutschen Wissenschaft. Erinnerungen an die ersten Jahre der Forschungsgemeinschaft

The Notgemeinschaft hoped that it would also be able to win over German industry to contribute financially to the support of research, science and scholarship. To this end, the “Stifterverband der Notgemeinschaft der Deutschen Wissenschaft” was founded in December 1920, its Executive Board and Supervisory Board consisting mainly of industrialists, merchants and bank directors. Its purpose was to obtain funds, principally from industry and commerce, in order to support research and teaching.

As a preliminary measure, seven leading bodies of German industry launched a fund-raising campaign “To the German farmers, merchants, tradespeople and industrialists”. This appeal appeared in the press, and 44,000 copies were sent out. Although it was very successful, donations in the years that followed were less than anticipated; furthermore, only the interest payments were paid out to the Notgemeinschaft. It used the money almost exclusively for research fellowships.

Further information

Information on literature used and sources