FHI Centenary Group
Fritz-Haber-Institut der Max-Planck-Gesellschaft
Centennial Project
FHI Centenary Group
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Project Description

The Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physical Chemistry and Electrochemistry was established in 1911 as one of the first two institutes of the Kaiser-Wilhelm Society (KWG). Its successor, the Fritz Haber Institute (FHI), is not only one of the oldest and most tradition-rich institutes of the Max Planck Society (MPG), but also one of the most distinguished, with the highest number of affiliated Nobel Laureates of any KWG/MPG institute. These include Fritz Haber, the founding director, the later directors Max von Laue, Ernst Ruska and Gerhard Ertl, and several scientists who served at the Institute in lesser capacities, such as James Franck, Eugene Wigner and Heinrich Wieland.

The Institute has been not only a hub of scientific excellence and productivity but also an active participant in the history of the 20th century. It played a central role in German poison-gas research and the conduct of chemical warfare during World War I. It was particularly hard-hit by Nazi racial policies and was revamped into a “National Socialist Model Enterprise;” then to remain productive during the Cold War, it had to assert itself in a territorially insular and politically precarious West-Berlin.

In order to do justice to the complex scientific and political history of the FHI, the Institute’s Board of Directors, prompted by the approaching centenary of the Institute (and of the KWG/MPG) in 2011, offered support in 2007 for a broad historical investigation of the Institute from its inception to the present. The Centennial Group, established in response to the Board’s initiative in the Fall of 2008 and comprised of Bretislav Friedrich, Dieter Hoffmann, Jeremiah James and Thomas Steinhauser, launched a research project to examine in detail the changing relationships between this long-standing scientific Institute, its rapidly expanding scientific subject matter and the tumultuous political history of the past hundred years.

Although historians and social scientists alike have published several studies on the overarching Kaiser Wilhelm and Max Planck Societies, they have not lavished similar attention on the individual research institutes (cf. Brocke and Laitko, KWG Institute). For the FHI in particular, there have been noteworthy, purpose-driven studies that have attempted to span the entire history of the Institute, but they remain quite brief and were not intended to present balanced historical accounts (cf. Chmiel, Hansmann, Krauß, Lehmann, Mehrtens, Ranke, Smandek, Sorg, Swoboda, Wurzenrainer, Bemerkungen; MPG, FHI I. New edition: MPG, FHI II). Certain KWG/MPG institutes have also garnered space in broader historical works, and the FHI is prominent among them. In these histories, however, the FHI is often a bit player in what are primarily biographies of famous scientists such a Fritz Haber (cf. Szöllösi-Janze, Haber; Stoltzenberg, Haber) Michael Polanyi (cf. Nye, Polanyi) Peter Adolf Thiessen (cf. Eibl, Thiessen) and Robert Havemann (cf. Hoffmann, Havemann). Or, since the Institute was so closely coupled to social and political events, it appears as a prominent part of monographs focused on topics such as the founding of the KWG (cf. Johnson, Chemists; Wendel, Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gesellschaft) poison gas research (cf. Groehler, Tod; L.F. Haber, Poison; Schmaltz, Kampfstoff-Forschung) and Nazi era science (Deichmann, Flüchten; Hachtmann, Wissensmanagement). Although detailed and well-founded, the sum of these studies fails to provide a balanced history of the Fritz Haber Institute. Still wanting was an historical study of the Institute, supported by archival research, that presented a long-term view of the Institute, and hence could more adequately address the rapid and sustained changes in the intellectual content of the sciences to which it contributed and in the societies, both scientific and political, that supported it.

The founding of the KWG amounted to the third in a series of institutional innovations – after the founding of the Berlin University (1810) and of the Imperial Institute of Physics and Technology (1887) – which originated in Berlin and helped shape the modern research establishment. In a sense, the founding of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physical Chemistry and Electrochemistry can be regarded as one of the consequences of the Prussian “Althoff System,” credited with the modernization of education and research structures in Germany. It came about in reaction to forewarnings by numerous prominent scientists and science-policy makers about the waning of Germany’s scientific and technological superiority relative to the US and to other European nations. In hindsight, the founding of the KWG in general and of the KWI for Physical Chemistry and Electrochemistry in particular could be viewed as a successful answer to this challenge, for during the following decades the KWG established itself nationally and internationally as a leading research organization. Although the creation of the KWG broke new ground for the state funding of science in Germany, the establishment of the KWI for Physical Chemistry and Electrochemistry was made possible by an endowment from the Berlin Banker and philanthropist Leopold Koppel, granted on the condition that Fritz Haber, well-known for his discovery of a method to synthesize ammonia from its elements, be made the institute’s director.

As indicated above, the history of the Institute has largely paralleled that of 20th-century Germany. It undertook controversial weapons research during World War I, followed by a “Golden Era” during the 1920s and early 1930s, in spite of financial hardships. Under the National Socialists it experienced a purge of its scientific staff and a diversion of its research into the service of the new regime, accompanied by a breakdown in its international relations. In the immediate aftermath of World War II it suffered crippling material losses, from which it recovered slowly in the post-war era. In 1952, the Institute took the name of its founding director and, in 1953, joined the fledgling Max Planck Society, successor to the Kaiser Wilhelm Society. During the 1950s and 1960s, the Institute supported diverse researches into the structure of matter and electron microscopy. In subsequent decades, as both Berlin and the Max Planck Society underwent significant changes, the institute reorganized around a board of coequal scientific directors and a renewed focus on the investigation of elementary processes on surfaces and interfaces, topics of research that had been central to the work of Fritz Haber and the first “Golden Era” of the Institute but that had never before been developed into an institute-wide research orientation. The shifting fortunes and socio-political roles of the Institute help to explain the striking breadth of topics that have been researched within its walls over the past century, but so too do the diverse abilities and personalities of the scientists who have made the Institute, however briefly, their intellectual home. Dozens of dis- tinguished scientists, among them the already mentioned seven Nobel laureates, have shaped the pace-setting research in physical chemistry, chemical physics and related fields performed at the Institute. Their interests have ranged from providing for the concrete needs of society, in times of peace or war, to plumbing the abstract depths of quantum mechanics, and from the apparent simplicity of hydrogen chemistry to the acknowledged complexity of non-linear dynamics. Their investigations reflect a distinct, intellectual facet of 20th-century history which is inextricable from social, cultural and political history.

Over the three years of its existence, the Centennial Project has worked toward three goals. The first and foremost has been to produce a volume, which spans the history of the FHI and is based largely on as yet untapped archival material. Laboring against a deadline set one hundred years ago, its authors have striven to bridge the institutional and scientific history of the Institute and to provide a holistic picture up to the present. Second, the Centennial Project has nurtured more detailed and rigorous studies on specific themes, aimed at engaging the history of science community. Finally, the Centennial Group reached out to the wider public by putting on twenty seminars which revolved around the key figures and themes in the history of the FHI both as part of the research necessary for the historical overview and in order to provide a forum for broader collaborations among scholars already interested in aspects of the history of the FHI.

In our efforts we have been frequently reminded of the words of a doyen of modern history of science research, Gerald Holton (Pais Prize Lecture, 2008): [T]he science research project of today is the temporary culmination of a very long, hard-fought struggle by a largely invisible community of our ancestors. Each of us may be standing on the shoulders of giants; more often we stand on the graves of our predecessors.

At times in the history of the Fritz Haber Institute, these struggles have been more than “simply” intellectual and have, in themselves or through their outcomes, had profound and even fatal, repercussions. The Centennial Project – and this volume – has aimed to highlight these struggles of the past and to pay tribute to those who, for the most part, persevered through them. We hope that the historical perspective offered herein improves understanding of the Institute’s place within the educational and research establishments and helps to raise historical awareness amongst scholars working at the Institute and beyond.


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