Harnack House under National Socialism

The implications of the National Socialists’ seizure of power in 1933 were soon felt in the scientific community, including at Harnack House. Harnack House played an important role during the Nazi era as the site of political communications in the upper echelons of the Kaiser Wilhelm Society. For the hotel side of operations, however, little changed. The House remained an international meeting place, albeit under the banner of the Third Reich’s foreign policy and racial ideology. Alongside the official invitation policy, though, the liberal spirit of the House’s founder lived on in private events.

Max Planck at the lectern in the Goethe Auditorium at the 25th anniversary of the KWG, 1936.

Upon the enactment of new anti-Semitic legislation in 1933, the majority of Jewish researchers and researchers of Jewish heritage were driven out of Dahlem’s institutes – and, with them, a significant proportion of Harnack House’s regular clientele. Only those with an international passport, such as Lise Meitner, were allowed to stay for the time being and remained welcome at Harnack House. International researchers, including scientists formerly based in Dahlem before emigrating, continued to visit. Among them was the biologist Victor Jollos, who had worked at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Biology in Dahlem prior to his emigration.

Over time, however, the official KWG invitation policy at Harnack House became increasingly loyal to the Nazi regime. The KWG sought to establish a good political relationship with the new regime as early as 1933. Although Max Planck was skeptical of the National Socialists, he made numerous compromises as President of the Kaiser Wilhelm Society (KWG). Following Planck’s departure in 1937, the KWG also introduced the Führerprinzip, the Nazi principle that placed Hitler’s word above all written law. 

As a clubhouse, Harnack House thus became an important location to foster political and social networks with Germany’s new rulers. The KWG appointed Charles Edward, the last reigning Duke of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, to its Senate in 1933 in light of his close relationship with the Nazi leadership. At his invitation, high-ranking National Socialists visited Harnack House as dinner guests, including Heinrich Himmler and Adolf Hitler. Nazi organizations increasingly joined long-standing scientific and cultural institutions as external events organizers who booked rooms at Harnack House.

Yet, away from the official invitation policy, the original spirit of Harnack House, one shaped by internationalism and tolerance, lived on in subversive form. After Harnack’s death in 1930, the House named in his honor became an important place for many of his family members, who held private events here. Consequently, democrats such as Theodor Heuss and his wife Elly Heuss-Knapp also visited Harnack House; so, too, did Adolf von Harnack’s nephew Arvid, together with his American wife Mildred Fish-Harnack. The pair were executed in 1942 and 1943 respectively as enemies of the state. One example of a symbolic act of intellectual resistance can be found in the memorial ceremony for Fritz Haber in 1935. Haber was one of the most prominent Institute Directors in Dahlem and died in 1934 after emigrating due to the rise of anti-Semitism in Germany.

In 1943, the lecture series at Harnack House was canceled along with hotel operations due to the state of the war. The only guests who still stayed the night were employees visiting from more distant Kaiser Wilhelm Institutes and those whose Institutes had been relocated from Berlin due to the war, as well as certain KWG contacts. Employees whose homes had been bombed also stayed at Harnack House with their friends and family members.

When the Red Army marched into the south of Berlin in April 1945, Harnack House’s time as the scientific clubhouse of the KWG came to an end.


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