Kaiser Wilhelm Society

The Kaiser Wilhelm Society (KWG), founded in 1911 in Berlin, was Germany’s first basic research organization. Its principal aim was promoting the natural sciences, which had become extremely significant in the years of rapid industrial expansion in Germany at the end of the 19th century.

In cooperation with the universities and by complementing their work, the KWG was to conduct research at its own Institutes. The research scientists were released from any lecturing duties and provided with the best equipment. 

Adolf von Harnack, a theologian and the director of the Royal Library in Berlin, and Friedrich Althoff, the Prussian minister of culture, began to draw up the plan in 1909 and successfully presented it to Parliament and Kaiser Wilhelm II. The Kaiser agreed to lend his name to the new society. 

As soon as the KWG was founded, the royal estate in Berlin-Dahlem was identified as a suitable location for building its new research institutes. The land was owned by the state, which provided the site chosen for constructing the science buildings at no cost. Further funding was raised from industry and private donors. The Kaiser’s name ensured the newly founded society enjoyed a good reputation and becoming a Supporting Member of the KWG soon became a matter of prestige for the wealthy. Its patrons included many Jewish financiers in particular.

The first institutes were established a year after the foundation of the KWG in Berlin-Dahlem starting in 1912. In the October, the Kaiser opened the Institute for Physical Chemistry and Electrochemistry under the leadership of Fritz Haber and the Institute for Chemistry directed by Ernst Beckmann. Haber’s Institute expanded during the Second World War as he put it at the complete disposal of the war effort and developed poison-gas weapons for the German Army.

Despite the war a further building was opened in 1915 – the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Biology. By the mid-1920s, the campus had expanded to five Institutes while others were in the process of being founded.

Clubhouse of the Kaiser Wilhelm Society

However, the infrastructure in rural Dahlem had not kept pace with developments. The need for a central facility providing lecture theatres and a restaurant became an ever more pressing matter. In addition, an increasing number of visiting scientists were working in Dahlem for whom it was difficult to find accommodation.

Harnack House was built in 1929 by the Kaiser Wilhelm Society as a facility to provide services on the Berlin-Dahlem research campus. The campus had been founded in 1911 far from the city gates. The lack of infrastructure became very apparent in the 1920s as the number of Institutes rose, employing more staff. Visiting scientists from abroad were also arriving in greater numbers. As there was little accommodation and no main lecture theatre in Dahlem, the need emerged for a central venue providing guest rooms, a restaurant, event facilities, lecture theatres and lounges for informal meetings.

The plan for international guest accommodation and a clubhouse was implemented in 1929 on the initiative of Adolf von Harnack, President of the Kaiser Wilhelm Society, and his Secretary General Friedrich Glum. Foreign Minister Gustav Stresemann, whose policy objectives focused on peace and international understanding in the face of stern opposition, also lent his support. He acknowledged that scientists could make a major contribution to achieving such goals.

Harnack House was opened in May 1929 as a place of science and international understanding. Stresemann himself gave one of the opening addresses. The plan proved a success and the venue subsequently became an international meeting place for intellectuals in Berlin.

Club life

The Spanish philosophy professor Xavier Zubiri in his room at the Harnack House, 1930.

Soon after its opening, the new clubhouse established itself as a meeting place in the vibrant metropolis of Berlin. It attracted luminaries from science and the arts, politicians, diplomats but also bankers and captains of industry. Guests from Europe and abroad sometimes stayed for several months. Harnack House represented a new key hub of communication for the KWG. The President of the KWG and many Directors at the Dahlem Institutes fittingly received guests here and held afternoon teas or banquets for small groups of select figures from the fields of politics, business and culture.

In addition to the KWG, other scientific organizations also hired the venue for their events, including the German Academic Exchange Service, the German Association of Female Academics, the Berlin State Museums and foreign cultural institutes. Harnack House thus quickly became a hub in the international network of research, politics and business that extended far beyond the KWG.

Events were also held for the general public. Famous scientists gave talks on their specialist fields for lay audiences in the lecture theatre and thus established the foundations for modern scientific communication. Topics ranged from ornithology to modern nuclear physics, genetics and biochemistry but also included lectures on the humanities.

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