Research as ‘normal’

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Die Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft in der Weimarer Republik und im Dritten Reich — Wissenschaftspolitik in Republik und Diktatur 1920–1945

Beck: 1999. 582 pp. DM98

For a long time — far too long — a veil of silence lay over German science and research under the Third Reich. After 1945, many scientists suppressed or hushed up their involvement in the National Socialist regime and instead made careers for themselves in the new German republic. Even subsequent generations showed little interest in examining the past — out of loyalty to their teachers, disinterest, or as a means of protecting themselves. And for many years, the history of science was a subject more or less ignored by (West) German historians.

At last, however, a change seems to be taking place. Young historians, in particular, are beginning to examine the mainly cultural and humanistic research assignments that were carried out under the Nazis. Scientific associations are starting to talk openly for the first time about their activities before 1945 and their refusal to examine these activities since. The Max-Planck-Gesellschaft has commissioned a committee of historians to investigate the history of its predecessor, the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gesellschaft, under National Socialism. And an initial study has recently been published on the role of the biggest, most influential German scientific organization, the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG), in the Third Reich.

Because of its unusual past, this study has been awaited with particular anticipation. When the DFG celebrated its seventy-fifth anniversary in 1995, it decided not to mark the occasion with a big jubilee celebration. Instead, at the request of former president Wolfgang Frühwald, the DFG commissioned an independent historian, Notker Hammerstein, of the Goethe University, Frankfurt, to examine its activities between 1933 and 1945.

The results of Hammerstein's efforts have now been published, and they are disappointing in more than one respect. One reason, although not the most important one, is explained in the foreword by the author himself. Hammerstein declares that he was more interested in other subjects and was not overjoyed at the prospect of taking on the assignment. This becomes plain enough in parts of the book.

But Hammerstein has plenty to say. His history of the DFG becomes a history of German research policy and sponsorship as a whole. And because his study starts, not in 1933 when Hitler seized power, but in 1920 with the foundation of the DFG, he sheds light not only on changes and differences, but also on continuities between the republic and the dictatorship.

In the Weimar Republic, the DFG played fundamentally the same role as it plays today, albeit on a different scale and under different circumstances. As a self-governing body that allocated state grants on the basis of independent reports, it became the most important meeting point for researchers from all disciplines and a driving force behind German research. Its fair and democratic principle was obviously fundamentally opposed to the National Socialists. But the new rulers did not break up the DFG. They used it, as Hammerstein puts it, “to centrally organize university, research and scientific policy in the Third Reich”. But the organization came increasingly under the influence of the Reichserziehungsministerium (REM), founded in 1934. In the end, says Hammerstein, the DFG was no more than a “clearing house” for the REM. So, for this reason alone, it had nothing more in common with today's DFG.

The first of two key theories in Hammerstein's book is that the REM exerted a far greater influence on the DFG and Nazi research policy than was previously assumed. The second concerns, not the institutions, but the subjects of research — a far more contentious area.

According to Hammerstein, German research after 1933 and well into the war years was carried out for the most part as it always had been. Researchers in Germany were generally concerned with the same subjects as their colleagues abroad, and most of the DFG-sponsored projects met with the “standards of scientific research that were internationally customary at the time”. Naturally, he says, new materials, substances and preparations were also developed and used by the Nazi rulers for their war weapons. But strictly speaking, claims Hammerstein, this research could have been part of “conventional academic endeavours” and might also have helped the sick, for example. Hammerstein does not believe that the scientists, and certainly not the DFG as sponsors, can be blamed for the fact that the results of this research were used for other purposes.

In a similar way, the author discusses another particularly delicate subject – the medical experiments carried out on humans in concentration camps, assignments that were also sponsored by the DFG. Hammerstein does not want to play down these criminal experiments – but he does everything to deny a direct connection between such activities and the DFG. Whether it was research into tuberculosis, twins or hereditary diseases, he claims that the applications were always concerned with the “classical subjects of anthropology and medicine”. The fact that humans were used and killed in such experiments, he says, was not made clear in the research applications. Hammerstein almost seems to suggest that the misuse of the DFG and its funds for criminal purposes has a dual use – albeit of a horrifying kind.

Hammerstein's theory about the normality of German research after 1933 has already triggered heated debates in Germany. And it deserves particularly critical examination not least because it is the result of a certain methodical procedure. Allowing sources to speak for themselves may be an accepted principle of historical science. In Hammerstein's case, however, this principle takes the place of interpretation and personal opinion in parts of the study, or even replaces them entirely. Thus, we get the impression that a professional historian has fallen victim to his sources. One of many examples: Hammerstein repeatedly describes how many German researchers deceived themselves into believing that they were able to carry out ‘normal’ research even under the Nazis, thereby succumbing to such self-deception himself.

This impression is endorsed by several linguistic oddities and oversights. For example, Hammerstein writes of the “bad” experiments, or of the “notorious” Josef Mengele, which sounds rather clumsy or naive in a scientific paper. Elsewhere, he mentions Jewish mathematicians who were brought together from various concentration camps to carry out important war research — according to Hammerstein, this was a “comparatively harmless use of concentration camp prisoners”. One may ask again whether it is really appropriate to compare everything.

This is an ambivalent book, which raises more questions than it answers. Here, too, we can agree with Frühwald, the initiator of Hammerstein's study, who claims the book has sparked off but has by no means ended the debate about the DFG's role in the Third Reich.

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Finetti, M. Research as ‘normal’. Nature 402, 461 (1999) doi:10.1038/44952

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