Press Release No. 6 | February 1, 2008

A Painful Truth

DFG sees the findings of the independent Research Unit on the "History of the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft 1920-1970" as a warning and a moral obligation

DFG sees the findings of the independent Research Unit on the "History of the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft 1920-1970" as a warning and a moral obligation

"This is a profoundly uncomfortable truth for the DFG. It is unable to let us go. It has to give us nightmares, has to hurt." This was how the President of the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG, German Research Foundation), Professor Matthias Kleiner, described the findings of the independent Research Unit on the "History of the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft 1920-1970", which was presented at an international final conference, concluding seven years of work on the topic, at the Harnack House in Berlin on 30 and 31 January 2008.

Since 2001, the Research Unit, led by Professor Rüdiger vom Bruch from the Humboldt University of Berlin and Professor Ulrich Herbert from the University of Freiburg, systematically studied the history of Germany's largest research funding organisation, from when it was founded, originally as the Notgemeinschaft für die Deutsche Wissenschaft (the legal predecessor of the current organisation), in 1920 until the reform of the German university and scientific systems in around 1970. The creation of the Research Unit was prompted by the former President of the DFG, Ernst-Ludwig Winnacker in 2000, after the DFG, as indeed large sections of German society as a whole, had spent decades having a difficult time coming to terms with the nation's past. The Research Unit was broken down into five areas and comprised 20 individual projects, which studied the history of the DFG as an institution as well as the development of the organisation and the researchers and projects it funded in the fields of medicine, humanities and social sciences, natural sciences and engineering and in biology and life sciences.

The main tenor of the findings was that the DFG, and the vast majority of the scientists funded by it, also succumbed to serving the Nazi regime almost completely without scruple after its rise to power in 1933. This started with the expulsion of democratic and Jewish scientists from the universities and from the DFG and reached its gruesome climax in the experiments conducted on human subjects by Josef Mengele at Auschwitz that were supported by the DFG, which provided funding and apparatus. Science and research funding were not first and foremost instrumentalised, let alone abused, by politicians in the Third Reich. Rather, the scientific community and the politicians saw each other as "resources for each other", as the historian Mitchel Ash, who teaches at the University of Vienna, put it. And the scientists, who were in fierce competition with each other, were often presented with great opportunities for personal and scientific progress - which they perceived as such and took advantage of.

The way in which science and the DFG were put into its service for and under the regime took place in an extremely complex web of relationships between science, ideology, politics, the administration, economy and society, as well as personal implications and institutional conditions. This was characterised - as has now also been clearly demonstrated at the final conference in Berlin - by different patterns of development in different subjects, for instance when it came to the question of whether or not the DFG contributed towards scientific progress through its funding under National Socialism. In certain fields such as cancer research, for example, studies were funded that were not only state of the art scientifically, but were also innovative at an international level. In other areas such as scientific computing, for example, progress left the DFG, and the researchers it funded, behind. In yet other areas there were times when it was only possible to oppose the "obscure" research that was purely ideologically motivated.

However, the Research Unit did not focus solely on the period between 1933 and 1945, but broadened the range of its work to cover the entire period from 1920 until 1970, enabling it to get a good overall impression of the continuities and discontinuities in that time. It was possible, for instance, to prove that the symbiosis of science and politics witnessed after 1933 had its roots in the period immediately after Germany's defeat in the First World War, when German scientists compared the crisis of the nation to the crisis in science, and exalted serving the nation to the position of being the supreme duty of science. And for the period after 1945 it was found that, although the DFG, which was re-established in 1949, was involved in gradually bringing Federal German science closer to the West, it also remained a reservoir of conservative beliefs and the "reserve of tenured professors and universities controlled by tenured faculty" up until 1970. "These findings give us food for thought", said the President of the DFG, commenting on the study.

The Research Unit was funded by the DFG since 2001, during which time it received a total of approximately EUR5.5 million. This included the cost of four major conferences as well as the publication of the resulting monographs and anthologies in two series of books, with eight volumes having been published to date, in addition to the 20 individual projects. "Some people have expressed astonishment that the organisation that is the subject of a study should also be paying for the study", Kleiner said at the final conference, "but to us it was only natural that this would not allow us to interfere in any way, let alone impose restrictions." On the contrary, the DFG did everything it could to boost the independence of the Research Unit, as was also emphasised by the leaders of the study, Rüdiger vom Bruch and Ulrich Herbert.

The DFG will examine the findings of this study thoroughly, said Kleiner. "We will consider, for example, what consequences we can draw from this for the future strategy of the DFG's work." For instance, the studies published by the Research Unit included insightful revelations on the relationship between universities and non-university research institutions as well as on science-driven and politically motivated research funding. As far as this question is concerned, it will also be necessary to investigate the developments within the DFG in the recent past, in addition to looking at the period from 1920 until 1970.

First and foremost, however, the findings presented by the Research Unit are a "constant warning and a great moral obligation", said Kleiner. The DFG fully intends to meet this obligation. In this context, Kleiner also highlighted the travelling exhibition on the topic of the Generalplan Ost (General Plan East) designed by the DFG, the realisation of which would have meant expulsion and extermination for millions, as well as the memorial in the garden at the DFG's Head Office in Bonn, which was inaugurated in 2006. Mounted on two simple glass columns, two documents bear witness to the complicity of German science in the atrocities of the Nazi regime- as well as of the "great and unexpected opportunity", as the German-American historian Fritz Stern put it, which this gave science in a new, free Europe. "We intend to take this opportunity time and time again", the President of the DFG emphasised.