The Extraordinary History of a "German Oxford"

During the early twentieth century, Dahlem developed into a leading center of scientific research.

Apr 29, 2011

Friedrich Althoff im Preußischen Abgeordnetenhaus, 29. Juli 1907
Friedrich Althoff at the Government table in the Prussian Chamber of Deputies, July 29th, 1907. Image Credit: Archiv zur Geschichte der Max-Planck-Gesellschaft

At the initiative of the Prussian Under-Secretary of Cultural Affairs, Friedrich Althoff, a unique neighborhood of research institutes sprang up rapidly outside the city on crown property in Dahlem after the turn of the century. Among the first to establish themselves there were government scientific agencies, along with two new institutes of the University of Berlin that occupied new buildings near the Botanical Garden.

The development of Althoff's vision of a "German Oxford" was taken on by the Kaiser Wilhelm Society, founded in 1911, which was the precursor of today's Max Planck Society. It commissioned a great many impressive new buildings to house its various institutes, which were predominantly concerned with scientific research. Thus a dynamic scientific community was born, doing ground-breaking work that was recognized with several Nobel Prizes. After the Nazis seized power in 1933, however, several of the Kaiser Wilhelm Society's Institutes in Dahlem carried out projects in support of the régime's war aims and racial ideology.

In 1948, Freie Universität took over the buildings of many of these institutes from the Max Planck Society. In doing so, it took up the mantle of a great and, in parts, problematic scientific past. Brief histories of four institutes which experienced the conflict of interest between the search for scientific understanding, on the one hand, and research commissioned for inhumane purposes on the other, are given below.

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