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Press Release No. 20 | 1 June 2021
“Emergency Associations of German Science”
New Study on the History of the DFG from 1920 to 1973

Patrick Wagner traces the development of the funding organisation through three political eras / Social sanctuary for university research and basic research and the socially conservative elites involved

A recently published study entitled Notgemeinschaften der Wissenschaft (“Emergency Associations of Science”) takes a comprehensive and critical look at the history of the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG, German Research Foundation), examining science-driven research funding in Germany in the first half of the organisation’s 100-year existence. Historian Professor Dr. Patrick Wagner traces the development of the DFG from the founding of its predecessor organisation in 1920, through the Weimar Republic and the National Socialist era to its re-establishment after the Second World War and its development in the Federal Republic of Germany up until the early 1970s. Spanning a historical arc of five decades and three political systems, the study sheds light on the roots of the DFG’s role in research funding and the research system – in which it continues to be a defining force – as well as examining the relationship between science and the humanities and politics in Germany during this period.

The more than 500-page account is closely linked to the work of the former “Research Group on DFG History 1920-1970”, which compiled or initiated some 20 studies and anthologies under the direction of the historians Professor Dr. Ulrich Herbert and Professor Dr. Rüdiger vom Bruch from 2000 to 2008. Published by Franz Steiner Verlag Stuttgart like Wagner’s study, this previous work focuses on the development of individual research areas and subjects – research into language, genetics and cancer, for example – as reflected in DFG funding, while at the same time tracing organisational developments such as the “Funding Strategies of the DFG 1949-1968”. The DFG made some €5.5 million of funding available for this research group, which was set up by then president Professor Dr. Ernst-Ludwig Winnacker, though the research work itself and the publications were organised independently of the DFG.

Having been a member of this research group from 2003 to 2006 before going on to teach contemporary history at the Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg, Patrick Wagner starts his recently published study by examining the current functions of the DFG for the “academic field” in Germany, which he describes as comprising three aspects: firstly, he says the DFG mediates between academia and politics by acquiring government funding and distributing this among the academic community; secondly, he sees the DFG as establishing rules that claim validity for the entire academic community and communicating these “qua authority, though also by applying gentle pressure through the resources it makes available” – here Wagner takes the issues of scientific misconduct and equality of opportunity as recent examples; thirdly, he says that it also transfers “symbolic capital” to its funding recipients, which he sees as being potentially translated into status gains and gratifications. According to Wagner, all these functions were performed by its predecessor organisation from its founding in 1920, and they were retained and continued to be asserted under three political systems.

Against this backdrop, Wagner examines the development of the DFG as an institution and its constitutional character, as well as its relationship with political actors, regimes and those who have received funding from it, including the latter’s own attitudes. For the period of the Weimar Republic and the “Notgemeinschaft der Deutschen Wissenschaft”, he identifies a “well-meaning autocracy” in its founding president Friedrich Schmitt-Ott – a man who was firmly rooted in royal Prussian tradition – along with a close-knit network of contacts between academics, ministry officials, bankers and industrialists and an increasingly politically motivated attitude among the funded clientele, who initially believed themselves to be permanently confronted with a situation of “adversity” and “danger” as Germany shifted “away from democracy”. During the Third Reich, the Führerprinzip likewise prevailed in the DFG, based on an alliance of National Socialist functionaries and junior researchers with nationalist professors who had become established prior to 1933, as well as a far-reaching “self-mobilisation” of the funding organisation and those funded, which Wagner sees as having ultimately resulted in “research in support of genocide and expulsion”.

Also in the Federal Republic after its re-establishment in 1951, the DFG initially continued to function for a long time as a “reserve of privileged scholars” – a community primarily made up of a socially conservative elite that once again saw its academic pursuit and lifestyle as being under threat. It was not until the end of the 1960s and the early 1970s that a democratic self-image “arising from a sense of conviction” began to take hold in the DFG and be reflected in its actions, as well as in its clientele – driven by a generational change and a gradual process by which German sciences and humanities opened up internationally, the main focus here being a reform of the DFG committees, epitomised in terms such as “reviewer democracy” (then DFG President Professor Dr. Julius Speer, 1968) and “scholars’ republic” (Speer’s successor Professor Dr. Heinz Maier-Leibnitz, 1974). Wagner’s study does not continue beyond this point.

For the DFG, this study is another important contribution to a self-critical examination of its own past, not least as an affirmation of its actions in the present day. As President Professor Dr. Katja Becker said when Wagner’s study was published: “Perhaps more than ever, we are now seeing just how much research and research-driven funding are at the service of society and are able to contribute to tackling key challenges. Yet the inhuman and barbarian research conducted in the 1930s and 1940s were seen in the same way, as was its funding. As such, Patrick Wagner’s study is a vivid illustration of how such self-made claims must not be allowed to degenerate into empty formulas. Research and research funding can only be humane if they demonstrate integrity themselves – and if we as individuals and as an organisation constantly work to maintain our integrity. This is something we are very much aware of as we continue to commemorate 100 years of independent research and research funding in Germany in the months to come and promote the value of knowledge-driven basic research within politics and society.”

Further Information

Media contact:

Bibliographical reference:

Patrick Wagner: Notgemeinschaften der Wissenschaft. Die Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG) in drei politischen Systemen, 1920–1973 (studies on the history of the German Research Foundation, edited by Rüdiger vom Bruch (†), Ulrich Herbert and Patrick Wagner, vol. 12), Franz Steiner Verlag Stuttgart 2021, 505 pages, €68

Review copies can be requested from the publisher at