Science in the lecture hall

The lecture hall at Harnack House hosted academic but also cultural events. Lectures were regularly held here, with both scientists from the Kaiser Wilhelm Institutes and also foreign guests being invited as speakers. Lectures were also occasionally given by leading industrialists or eminent artists. The KWG held public winter lectures from 1929 onwards which were also aimed at the general public.

The lecture programme reflected the science of the times – modern nuclear physics, genetics, biochemistry and molecular biology but also history, the history of art and law. Fritz Haber’s Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physical Chemistry and Electrochemistry regularly held its Institute colloquiums in the lecture theatre from 1929 to which German and international experts were invited. The same applied to medicine and biology evenings which enjoyed great prestige as expert colloquiums under the leadership of Otto Heinrich Warburg.

In addition to the KWG, other academic societies used the lecture theatre but this was often arranged by KWG members. The American Nobel Prize winner Robert Andrews Millikan visited in 1930 at the invitation of Max von Laue on behalf of the German Physics Society and Gabriel Bertrand from the French Chemistry Society arrived in 1930 as a guest of the German Chemistry Society at the request of Fritz Haber.

Evidence indicates that 20 Nobel Prize winners gave talks in the lecture theatre between 1929 and 1941. They included Irving Langmuir from the USA, Hans von Euler-Chelpin from Sweden and most of the Kaiser Wilhelm Society’s Nobel Prize laureates, not least Otto Warburg and Peter Debye. Max Planck not only lectured on physics but, as President of the KWG, also reflected on the fundamental problems of knowledge acquisition and did not shy away from voicing critical remarks about ideologically motivated research. He gave a famous lecture entitled “Physics in the World-View Battle” in 1935.

Quite a number of these Nobel Prize winners continued their research at the Max Planck Society from 1948, including Walther Bothe, Max von Laue, Richard Kuhn and Werner Heisenberg.

From 1933 the lecture programme of the KWG increasingly featured titles that reflected the ideology of the Third Reich. Eugen Fischer and Fritz Lenz from the directly adjacent Kaiser Wilhelm Institute of Anthropology, Human Heredity and Eugenics – its building is today occupied by the Otto Suhr Institute of the ‘Freie Universität’ – appeared with increasing regularity. The KWI of Anthropology was founded in 1927 and became one of the most important institutions of its kind in the world as international research work had a focus on genetics. However, shortly after Hitler seized power, its Director Eugen Fischer aligned the Institute with the political objectives of the new Nazi government. Fischer was involved in drafting the Nazi law on the “prevention of offspring with hereditary diseases”, trained judges and doctors and helped to legitimize Nazi racial ideology.

Fischer’s protégé Otmar Freiherr von Verschuer, who succeeded him as Director in 1942, was a frequent visitor to Harnack House and gave many presentations in the lecture theatre. Under Verschuer’s leadership, the Institute obtained blood and tissue samples as well as other human anatomical specimens from the Auschwitz concentration camp where Josef Mengele, previously a doctoral student under Verschuer, was the camp doctor. He conducted countless experiments on humans, some of which were directly related to the research interests of Verschuer and his staff, above all research on twins. 

The lecture theatre was converted into a dance bar after the house was taken over by the US Army. Through the renovation work in 2014, the Max Planck Society restored the lecture theatre as an academic venue, reflecting an awareness of the importance of scientific ethics. sk

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