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Max Planck Society broke pledge to ask Jews back after war

Nature volume 409, page 443 (25 January 2001) | Download Citation



Germany's leading research organization reneged on a 1948 promise to contact Jewish scientists expelled from its laboratories during the Third Reich and offer them their jobs back, according to new research.

Einstein reaches New York in 1933: he refused entreaties to return to Germany. Image: BETTMANN/CORBIS

In fact, the research suggests, the Max Planck Society (MPS) tried only to tempt star scientists back to its fold. Most of these, including Albert Einstein, refused to return to Germany. Einstein thought his invitation was a whitewash attempt, and said he had “an irresistible aversion to being part of German public life again”.

Historian Michael Schüring has uncovered 85 cases of Jews or 'political undesirables' being expelled from the Kaiser Wilhelm Society, the MPS's predecessor. He adds that the true figure is probably higher, as documents may have been lost and witnesses are dying out. Only a small proportion of the cases he unearthed appear to have been contacted after the war, Schüring says.

Of these, only three agreed to return to work in Max Planck institutes, and one, geneticist Max Ufer, changed his mind when he learnt of the fascist past of some of the scientists he would have had to work with. Others were willing to have some level of scientific contact, for example as guest researchers or lecturers.

In the first three decades after the war, some dismissed members claimed compensation for damage to their careers, on their own initiative. Thirty-three such cases are documented in the state and MPS archives. Of the 23 claims in the MPS archives, 14 were accepted in the form of one-off payments or pensions. All payments were made on a voluntary basis, the MPS refusing to accept legal obligation.

The research was commissioned by MPS president Hubert Markl, who has said the society “must definitely ask whether everything was done in the early years of the Max Planck Society to compensate for the shameful behaviour of the mid-1930s”.

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