International meeting place for the scientific community

Harnack House was built in 1929 to provide guest accommodation and a conference venue for the Kaiser Wilhelm Society, the Max Planck Society’s predecessor organization. It established itself in the 1930s as a club for international science and as a social venue in the German capital. Scientists from all over the world, artists, politicians and captains of industry stayed here or came to attend events.


Until 1945 Harnack House was a place of exchange for the Berlin-Dahlem science campus, Germany’s first research campus, built in the open countryside in 1911. However, it also attracted international researchers and was “a home away from home”, as Thomas Goodspeed, the American professor of botany, put it in 1931. Visitors from all continents included at least 35 Nobel Prize laureates. 

After the National Socialists seized power, Nazi racial ideology and foreign policy moved onto the agenda at the international venue. During this period Harnack House nevertheless remained a key location in the social scene which was influenced by disparate forces. Senior Nazi Party officials, including Adolf Hitler, visited the house, as did the members of various resistance groups.

At the end of the war, the US Armed Forces confiscated the building, which had managed to remain intact, before renovating it and stripping out the original period features. Harnack House was used as an officers’ club until the withdrawal of the Allies from Berlin in 1994. It was subsequently handed over to the Max Planck Society as the Kaiser Wilhelm Society’s legal successor.

In the way that it runs Harnack House today, the Max Planck Society draws inspiration from the venue’s founding history which was heavily influenced by Adolf von Harnack. As in 1929, it is now a meeting place for the international scientific community of the Max Planck Society and its guests who come from across Germany and all over the world.

Discover more about the remarkable history of the building and its guests in five exhibition installations in the foyer areas.


The opening of the Harnack House on 7 May 1929 was a banner day for Berlin's academics and its political and economic elites. It was through their concerted efforts that Berlin finally acquired a lecture venue and social center for members of the famous Dahlem Institute, simultaneously serving as a guest house for academics worldwide. The primary initiators of the House were Adolf von Harnack and Friedrich Glum, who energetically fought for the project. The theologian Adolf von Harnack, first president of the Kaiser Wilhelm Society, had one single goal: to overcome the isolation of German academia after the First World War and enable outstanding achievement through international cooperation. Harnack's efforts to build an international research center in Dahlem were vigorously supported by KWS chairman Glum, who helped promote the idea among companies and private individuals.

In June 1926 the senate of the Kaiser Wilhelm Society resolved to found the Harnack House - also as a gesture of gratitude for the hospitality that German scholars had experienced abroad. The most important political godfathers of the Harnack House were Foreign Minister Gustav Stresemann, Chancellor Wilhelm Marx, and the influential Center-Party deputy Georg Schreiber. They undertook the political lobbying and gathered the necessary funds to build the House. In concrete terms, the government was willing to spend 1.5 million Marks, while the state of Prussia donated the real estate upon which the house would be built. The funds, however, were insufficient to complete the building designed by architect Carl Sattler.

Private Donors

In financial straits, Harnack and Glum availed themselves of a new (for Germany) funding concept: sponsoring. The building was not financed through public money. Rather, businesses, labor unions, and private parties were the chief benefactors. 900,000 Marks were obtained for the House's furnishings. In addition, individual companies and philanthropic families sponsored certain rooms, and in this way an extra 400,000 Marks were raised.

Carl Duisberg, for example, donated a room for the institute's assistants, and German United Steel sponsored the room dedicated to Germany's Iron Chancellor, the Bismarck Hall. Large contributors were not the only benefactors. There were smaller donations of 1000 or 2000 Marks from people who simply believed in the project. Gustav Stresemann was particularly struck by the idea of the Harnack House as an international rendezvous for academics. This notion accorded with his foreign policy "of forging stronger ties between Germany and the international community - give and take, take and give... I am quite certain of the major importance that this cohabitation and cooperation will have for not only academia, but for the world at large, promoting as it will a greater understanding among peoples." (From his speech at the opening of the Harnack House on 7 May 1929.)

Forum of Scientific and Cultural Excellency

Immediately upon opening its doors, the Harnack House began to feed the "Dahlem Legend." Nobel Prize winners and their students met here in social exchange and for academic discussion, holding lectures and colloquia. The House served as a club for members of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute. Here they could lunch, read the international press, drink coffee in the garden, engage in sports, and play music. Foreign scholars were lodged in the guest apartments.

The list of guests and lecturers reads like a "Who's Who of Science": Albert Einstein, Peter Deybe, Werner Heisenberg, Fritz Haber, Adolf Butenandt, Otto Hahn, Lise Meitner, Otto Meyerhof, Max Planck, Max von Laue and Otto Warburg. One Nobel Prize winner, the biologist Hans Fischer, even received the news of his award during his stay at the Harnack House.

But it were not only scientists who enriched the Dahlem colony and the Berlin cultural scene with stays at the Harnack House. Ricarda Huch, the Swiss art historian Heinrich Wölfflin, and the Indian philosopher Rabindranath Tagore also added to the House's lustre and prestige.

Under Spell of National Socialism

Upon the Nazi seizure of power in January 1933, life at the Harnack House was radically altered, the Kaiser Wilhelm Society acceding to the new regime in many important respects. Researchers of Jewish ancestry were forced to leave the country; the lecture program increasingly reflected the Nazification of research and scholarship; Goebbels established his Reichsfilmarchiv here, and Nazi party functionaries were daily patrons. Yet a certain independence of will survived.

In 1935, in direct contravention of the government, Max Planck led an impressive commemoration honoring the passing of Fritz Haber. It was Max Planck again who in a 1941 public lecture warned of the consequences for humanity in attempts to split the atom.

A US-Army Officer's Mess

Following a short period of Russian occupation, the US-Army assumed control of the Harnack House and converted it into an officer's mess. Among the first visitors was President Harry S. Truman and supreme commander Dwight D. Eisenhower. In the following years the Harnack House was adapted to the needs of the American military. Occasionally the House was opened to the Berliners. The German-American "Dahlem Music Society" organized concerts of world famous musicians like Yehudi Menuhin and Walter Gieseking, and the "Harnack House Club" included not only Americans but distinguished citizens from the political, economic and the social life of the city.

In order to meet the new demands placed on it, the House was constantly being renovated by the Army. In the final years of their stay they rented it out for weddings, dances, and bazaars - until 1994, when the Harnack-House was returned to the Max Planck Society.

The fresh start

After the allied forces had withdrawn from West Berlin, the Harnack House was returned to the Max Planck Society, it was inherited, so to speak, from the Kaiser Wilhelm Society in August 1994.

As the Max Planck Society decided to make the Harnack House again the center of social and scientific life, the Harnack House was comprehensively converted into a modern conference center until 2000. The architecture and furnishing reflect the history according to historical plans and details. Since that time, they have provided a relaxed working atmosphere.

The Harnack House provides versatile event rooms, exclusive technical equipment for conferences, modern accommodation capacity as well as high quality catering for guests. Thus it has been able to develop itself into an international attractive forum beyond the borders of Berlin since its re-opening in 2000 - a forum which fosters scientific discourse and promotes discussions on scientific, social and political perspectives on development. The Harnack House has managed to establish itself as an organizer of high level scientific conferences and events.

The future

As an intellectual and community center, the Harnack House is to be a place where even most urging problems of the time can be tackled. In order to meet these high requirements, continuous maintenance and renewal are necessary. This is why comprehensive restoration and modernization measures are taking place since summer 2012.

As the Max Planck Society does not have any public funds at its disposal in order to finance the refurbishment and redevelopment, it urgently depends on the support of private sponsors. With regard to the importance of the Harnack House, the Max Planck Society has decided to use its private assets to realize the redevelopment. Converting it into an event location which is completely functional and realizing the vision to make it a forum for scientific and social dialogue, however, requires further private donations. Therefore, the Max Planck Society invites private sponsors to participate in shaping the future.

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