GERMANY: Science confronts an uncomfortable truth

A German independent research unit has examined the history of the German Research Foundation, the country's chief research grants body, from 1920 to 1970. The foundation's role in research funding during and after the Nazi period is the unit's core issue. From 1933 on, it unreservedly supported Nazi goals, starting with the expulsion of democratic and Jewish scientists from universities and the organisation itself, and backing Nazi genealogy research and hereditary health policy.

The unit was commissioned in 2000 by the foundation's then President, Professor Ernst-Ludwig Winnacker, and funded by the DFG itself to develop a comprehensive research programme into the organisation's history. It comprised 20 individual projects and was headed by Professor Rüdiger von Bruch of Berlin's Humboldt University and Professor Ulrich Herbert of the University of Freiburg.

The key aspects looked into were the role of the DFG and the scientists it financed in the Nazi period, the characteristics of German academic culture after 1918, and how traditional views were accommodated to political and academic changes in the post-World War-II period.

Summing up their main research result, von Bruch and Herbert state that the DFG's history represented an attempt among academics working in German institutions to create as much autonomy as possible and assert their interests given increasing dependence on politics, economics and the public.

Founded in 1920 as the Emergency Association of German Science, the foundation appeared as a response to an overall sense of crisis, to universities and pure research losing importance, and to Germany's waning role as a world leader in science. Other research systems were struggling with similar problems although academics in Germany were equating the situation science was in with that of the nation as a whole. An academic culture evolved that proclaimed serving the nation was the supreme duty of science.

From 1933 on, the DFG backed Nazi goals and provided funding and apparatus for Joseph Mengele's experiments on human beings in Auschwitz. It facilitated the scientific framework for the mass deportation of "anti-social elements" and "gypsies".

The foundation's complicity in the Generalplan Ost is also documented. This vast scheme was to be put into practice after the Nazi "final victory" and would have involved the ethnic cleansing of territories in the East occupied by Germany in World War II. The Nazi master plan incorporated researchers in subjects ranging from regional planning to agricultural science.

The Generalplan Ost is currently being reviewed in a DFG travelling exhibition.
In the post-war years, the foundation stubbornly clung to the old concept of the "Ordinarienuniversität", the university controlled by tenured professors, until sweeping reforms set in at the beginning of the 1970s.

"This is a profoundly uncomfortable truth for the DFG that cannot let us go. It has to give us nightmares, has to hurt," commented foundation President Professor Matthias Kleiner during the release of the research unit's results at an international conference in Berlin.

Representatives of Berlin's three main higher education institutions, the Free University, the Technical University and Humboldt University, were to embark on a six-day excursion to mark the 68th and 65th anniversaries of the Nazi Krakow and Zamo campaigns and officially present an apology for the Generalplan Ost to the city presidents of the 14 Polish cities designated for "Germanisation" in 1942.