Science in the lecture hall

As the venue for academic lectures and events, the lecture hall is the heart of Harnack House and is today named after Otto Hahn. As the man credited with discovering nuclear fission and the first President of the Max Planck Society, Hahn was among the Nobel Prize laureates to give lectures at Harnack House in the 1930s and became a frequent visitor. In the lower foyer, photographs and a board bearing lecture titles from the past and present emphasize the lecture hall’s academic use.

Between 1929 and 1945, the lecture hall was the beating heart of academic activity at Harnack House. Twenty Nobel Prize laureates are known to have given lectures here. Nuclear physics, genetic research, biochemistry and molecular biology were among the topics of these lectures, as were history, the history of art, and jurisprudence. Speakers included numerous international researchers and most Dahlem-based Nobel Prize laureates who worked in the Kaiser Wilhelm Society: Otto Warburg, Fritz Haber, Werner Heisenberg and Max von Laue. Many continued their research in the Max Planck Society from 1948. Max Planck spoke not only on the topic of physics but, as President of the Kaiser Wilhelm Society during the Nazi era, also made statements criticizing the regime.


Yet, the lecture hall also hosted scientists complicit in the crimes of National Socialism. Eugen Fischer, Fritz Lenz and Otmar von Verschuer of the neighboring Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Anthropology, Human Heredity Studies and Eugenics gave scientific legitimation to the Nazis’ race ideology. In 1933, Eugen Fischer surrendered his Institute to serving the political aims of Hitler’s government. One of Fischer’s students, Otmar Freiherr von Verschuer, succeeded him as Director in 1942 and sourced blood and tissue samples for the Institute from the Auschwitz concentration camp. Verschuer’s former doctoral student Joseph Mengele conducted countless experiments on human beings as the camp’s physician, some of which were directly related to the research interests of Verschuer and his staff. 

Following the confiscation of Harnack House by the US Army, the lecture hall was repurposed as a dance bar. In the 2014 renovation works, the Max Planck Society restored the room’s academic purpose, conscious of scientific ethics. Ever since, it has hosted the Harnack Lecture, an annual honorary event hosting eminent researchers from all around the world.

Otto Hahn and Lise Meitner

Lise Meitner and Otto Hahn in 1959.

Today, the lecture hall at Harnack House is named after Otto Hahn (1879-1968), while the adjacent hall is named after his research partner, Lise Meitner (1878-1968). The installation of photographs in the foyer between the two halls depicts their lives as pioneers of nuclear physics and radiochemistry. Their work together led to the discovery of nuclear fission by Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann in Dahlem in 1938. By that time, Lise Meitner was in exile in Sweden.

Meitner and Hahn conducted research at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Chemistry from 1913. Hahn headed up the Radiochemistry department and, in 1922, became Director of the Institute. Meitner managed the Radiophysics department from 1918 until her emigration in 1938. The pair were regular guests at the nearby Harnack House. Hahn was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1944, though he was only able to accept it in 1946.

As its first President, Otto Hahn played a particularly important role in the Max Planck Society. His discovery of nuclear fission in 1938 at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Chemistry in Dahlem led him to adopt a social and political mission and repeatedly assert that science must be for the good of mankind. He was a committed opponent of nuclear weapons and urged politicians of the era to handle new scientific discoveries responsibly. The two light installations at the entrance to the lecture hall recall Hahn’s legacy.

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