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The radicalisation of science in the service of the regime

Working group on 'The History of the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft from the 1920s to the 1970s' presents first findings

Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft

"I must admit that it strikes me as bitter and disturbing that we ... at the DFG can find barely a trace of resistance, no outcry against the exclusion of Jewish scientists and their expulsion from universities, not a murmur against the abuse of agriculture and humanities for the criminal purpose of displacement of nations in Eastern Europe, no questioning of the execution or the purpose of medical experiments. Rather, the radicalisation of science in the service of the Nazi regime was evidently sanctioned without query." This was how Professor Ernst-Ludwig Winnacker, the President of the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG, German Research Foundation), described the merging of science and politics under the national socialist regime in his address at the meeting of the Working Group on "The History of the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft from the 1920s to the 1970s" at the Harnack-Haus in Berlin last week.

In 2000, Winnacker asked the historians Ulrich Herbert (Freiburg) and Rüdiger vom Bruch (Berlin) to carry out a study into the history of the DFG under the Nazi regime. Considerations by the members of the working group in the formative stages of the study led them to extend the study to cover the period from 1920 until 1970, in order to allow them to outline the events between 1933 and 1945 in greater detail. The working group has now presented the results of 18 projects, carried out over five years, in conference lectures entitled "Erste Ergebnisse" (Initial Findings). These lectures provided examples of how the DFG, as an institution embedded in the German research landscape, influenced German science between 1920 and 1970 and the Nazi "Reichsforschungsrat" (Reich Research Council), the funding of medical research, especially cancer research, as well as the significance of the humanities and social sciences, with a particular focus on agricultural research.

One of their findings was that the period under Nazi rule, known as the Third Reich, cannot be viewed as a detached episode of scientific history, but needs to be seen in the context of the years leading up to and following it. "It takes far more than a decade to break with tradition," Herbert said of the post-1945 period. The Berlin historian Reinhard Rürup, Chairman of the Presidential Commission on History at what is now the Max Planck Society, also emphasised that dealing with the history of the DFG proffered new opportunities to take a closer look at the history of individual disciplines or fields. The reviews and minutes of the meetings of the DFG statutory bodies that exist from that period allowed unique insights into research during that era. They reflect the prevalent mindset and approach to science, and shed light on the trends of stability and change in individual subject areas. "What is most shocking," Rürup continued, "is not the extreme cases, but the day-to-day reality of research under the conditions of armament and war, of racist doctrines and expansionism, of national pride and political requisition of science."

Ulrich Herbert and Rüdiger vom Bruch expressed their gratitude to the DFG and its President for the fact that they have been able to conduct their research into the history of the DFG completely independently and have been afforded unrestricted access to all sources of information.


The first two of 24 planned volumes on the history of the DFG were also presented at the conference. These volumes are entitled "Wissenschaft - Planung - Vertreibung. Neuordnungskonzepte und Umsiedlungspolitik im 20. Jahrhundert" ("Science - Planning - Displacement. New Orders and Resettlement Policies in the 20th Century"), edited by Isabel Heinemann and Patrick Wagner, and "Man, Medicine and the State. The Human Body as an Object of Government-Sponsored Medical Research in the 20th Century", edited by Wolfgang U. Eckart, both published by Franz Steiner, Stuttgart.

Further information:

Website of the working group:

For additional information on the history of the DFG on its own website:

Information on the working group may be obtained from Dr. Guido Lammers at the DFG (Tel.: +49 (0)228/885-2295, e-mail:

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