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No Closure Yet

Public information event provides update on investigations into human remains found on the grounds of Freie Universität

Jun 24, 2021

The University Library and Henry Ford Building. The red-roofed building at the top of the image is Ihnestraße 22. Before Freie Universität was founded in 1948, it housed the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute of Anthropology, Human Heredity, and Eugenics.

The University Library and Henry Ford Building. The red-roofed building at the top of the image is Ihnestraße 22. Before Freie Universität was founded in 1948, it housed the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute of Anthropology, Human Heredity, and Eugenics.
Image Credit: Bavaria Luftbild

The interest generated by an informational event held by Freie Universität Berlin in cooperation with the Max Planck Society and the Berlin State Monuments Office (Landesdenkmalamt Berlin) on February 23, 2021 was great. Around 280 people from around the world attended the online event, including university employees, researchers, and members of various associations for survivors and their descendants as well as grass-roots organizations. As a central part of the event, the results of the analyses of the human and animal remains and associated objects found on Freie Universität Berlin’s Dahlem campus were presented. The event also provided a forum to discuss the next steps to be taken in light of the findings. 

In 2014, fragments of human bones were found during construction work outside the University Library of Freie Universität Berlin, on the premises of the former Kaiser Wilhelm Institute of Anthropology, Human Heredity, and Eugenics (KWIA). This piece of land today belongs to Freie Universität Berlin, which was founded in 1948. The main Institute building is now used by the University’s Otto Suhr Institute of Political Science.

After the initial discovery in 2014, professor of archaeology Susan Pollock from the Institute for Near Eastern Archaeology led archaeological excavations on the property in 2015 and 2016. These archaeological investigations led to the recovery of a total of more than 16,000 fragmented bones.

“Gedenkstein” (Memorial) Working Group Established in 2015

The president of Freie Universität, Professor Günter M. Ziegler, opened the public presentation with words of welcome on behalf of the three institutions that had organized the event, noting that he was pleased to see such a large audience and looked forward to a “respectful event and conversation.” He was followed by Professor Hans-Walter Schmuhl, a historian from Bielefeld, who spoke about the KWIA’s history from 1927 to 1945, and then by Professor Pollock, who reported on the archaeological investigations, and by Dr. Manuela Bauche, who spoke about her project “History of Ihnestraße 22.”

In his opening remarks, President Ziegler mentioned the work of the “Gedenkstein” (Memorial) working group, which was first convened in March 2015 to address the issue of the excavated human remains. The group includes members from Freie Universität, the Max Planck Society (the successor of the Kaiser Wilhelm Society), and the Berlin State Monuments Office.

Given the potential connection to crimes committed by the National Socialists (Nazis), the Central Council of Jews in Germany and the Central Council of German Sinti and Roma were regularly informed of developments related to the investigations. Both the head of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, Dr. Josef Schuster, and the head of the Central Council of German Sinti and Roma, Romani Rose, had previously indicated that they were against analyses of the human bones that would involve invasive measures (unlike the non-destructive methods used up to now). Further analysis might have led to more specific information about the origin of the remains, but Schuster and Rose emphasized the urgency of laying to rest the remains of these people in a nonreligious ceremony. Ziegler noted that the Gedenkstein working group will provide a forum in which to discuss the appropriate place and form for a memorial.

Tags of a synthetic material and metal suspension hooks were among the objects found at the excavation site.

Tags of a synthetic material and metal suspension hooks were among the objects found at the excavation site.
Image Credit: Susan Pollock mit Genehmigung des Landesdenkmalamtes Berlin

Professor Pollock’s extensive report provided a summary of the archaeological findings to date. The osteological studies of the human bones show that the 16,000 fragments come from at least 54 different people of all ages and from both biological sexes. Remains of glue and evidence of labeling on some of the bones, together with an absence of modern medical interventions, suggest that they may have been part of anthropological or archaeological collections.

Professor Pollock explained that the assemblage as a whole differs from collections that were typical for the nineteenth or first half of the twentieth century.

The archaeologists also found pieces of plaster casts that were likely portions of casts of human body parts.

The archaeologists also found pieces of plaster casts that were likely portions of casts of human body parts.
Image Credit: Susan Pollock mit Genehmigung des Landesdenkmalamtes Berlin

The possibility cannot be excluded that some of the bones originate from a context directly linked to National Socialist crimes. Overall, however, it is not possible to reconstruct their origin. Pollock emphasized that the bones recovered do not have a single common origin.

Animal bones were also found in the excavations. This can be attributed in part to the fact that animals were used in laboratory experiments. During the period when the KWIA was in operation, it had stalls for laboratory animals, located on the grounds where the University Library was later erected in the 1950s, Pollock explained. Two bones from animals that were not among those used for experimental purposes were radiocarbon dated to approximately 1200-950 B.C.E. and 1740-1530 B.C.E., respectively.

In her concluding remarks, Pollock drew attention to the victims of the Hanau shootings in February 2020, remarking that there is a direct line connecting right-wing crimes today and the “unscrupulous research racism” carried out in the name of science by the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute.

“Oppressively Current”: Racism and Antisemitism Are Not Things of the Past

Professor of history Hans-Walter Schmuhl also referred to the growing racism and antisemitism of our times, making clear that these are not things of the past. Engaging with the history of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute of Anthropology, Human Heredity, and Eugenics is unfortunately still relevant today.

The institute was founded in 1927 in Dahlem. Eugen Fischer was the director until 1942, when he was succeeded by Otmar Freiherr von Verschuer. From early on, the institute conducted research in service of the Nazi regime. Researchers at the institute enjoyed excellent international reputations. They were involved in various advisory boards, expert panels and as reviewers, thereby spreading the inhumane research of “racial hygiene” throughout the world and contributing to the crimes of the National Socialists.

Josef Mengele, who completed his doctorate under Verschuer, was a visiting researcher at the institute. In May 1943, he began working as a medical doctor at the concentration camp in Auschwitz. According to Professor Schmuhl, there are indications that Mengele saw to it that human bones from Auschwitz were sent to Berlin, but the record is unclear as to whether they were shipped to the KWIA or to the Berlin University.

Active Audience Participation

During the three-hour-long event, many people used the chat to comment on and discuss the issues at hand. It was a lively and often controversial exchange. The chat facilitator, Shelly Kupferberg, relayed questions from the audience to the speakers. Several attendees wanted to know why associations for people of color or representatives from the African or African diaspora community had not been invited to the conversations last summer with the Central Councils about deciding on whether to pursue further investigations and what to do with the human remains that have been recovered. After all, some audience members pointed out, the official report suggests that a large number of the bone fragments in the KWIA collection may have had colonial origins. As the head of the “Gedenkstein” (Memorial) working group, President Ziegler expressed his openness to dialogue with the groups who participated in the informational event, and he welcomed the opportunity to speak with them about the issues. Other participants expressed their wish for stronger networking between representatives from the different descendants’ communities.

When asked whether Freie Universität and the Max Planck Society saw themselves as fundamentally responsible for the historical legacy of the KWIA, Ziegler replied that history must be continuously made visible in research and teaching. Both institutions, Freie Universität and the Max Planck Society, assume responsibility for this task, he explained. He added that Berlin is fundamentally a place where cultural heritage, whether positive or negative, must be made visible and subject to further study.

Planned Exhibit Will Make “Historical Layers” Visible

Manuela Bauche engages with cultures of remembrance in her research and teaching. Bauche completed her doctorate in history with a focus on the life sciences in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. At the informational event, she presented the project “History of Ihnestraße 22,” which arose out of a student initiative.

Since 2019, Bauche and her team have been working closely with relevant associations of descendants of survivors and grass-roots organizations on developing a plan for the building that will establish it as a site of remembrance. The building itself was erected for the KWIA in 1927. The project’s concept is designed for the building itself as well as for the adjacent outdoor areas. An academic advisory board is in place to guide the process.

The exhibit is scheduled for 2022. It will include media stations and displays that provide information on how the spaces were used in the past versus today. The idea is to make the historical layers visible, something that the current use of the building does not do. The project aims to put the fundamental problem of how science and politics relate to each other in the spotlight, says Bauche.

A New Memorial Site and Educational Center

There was widespread approval among the audience for the idea of establishing a memorial site and educational center as a joint endeavor between Freie Universität and the Max Planck Society. Beyond the history of the KWIA, the center could also inform visitors about abuse and misconduct in the name of science more broadly, for example, in the context of colonial as well as Nazi history. Susan Pollock voiced her support for such a project and drew attention to another working group at Freie Universität “Interdisciplinary Perspectives on the Dark Side of Science (in Berlin) – the Dual Use Problematic.”

Dr. Berthold Neizert, head of the Department of Research Policy and International Relations at the Max Planck Society’s Administrative Headquarters, noted the importance of raising awareness about ethically responsible research not only in connection to historical sites, but also as a fundamental aspect of university education for students and future researchers. Neizert stressed that acting responsibly as researchers and scholars goes hand in hand with clear guidelines for good scientific practices in the daily work of all people involved in research.

President Ziegler spoke in favor of pursuing the idea of a memorial site and educational center on campus, designed to evolve continuously to reflect current developments. “There should be no final line drawn,” he said.

This article originally appeared in German on February 26, 2021, in campus.leben, the online magazine of Freie Universität Berlin.

Further Information

List of articles (in German) published in campus.leben since 2014

Februar 2021: „Kein Schlussstrich“

September 2016: Neue Grube mit menschlichen Knochen an der Harnackstraße entdeckt

Juli 2016: Vermutung bestätigt: weitere Knochenteile gefunden

Juli 2016: Archäologische Untersuchung des Erdaushubs an der Harnackstraße

Februar 2016: Weiterer Fund in der Harnackstraße

November 2015: Erneute Grabung in der Harnackstraße: Archäologen finden Knochenfragmente

Oktober 2015: Neue Grabung soll Gewissheit geben

August 2015: Wissenschaftler finden Tierknochen

Juni 2015: Wissenschaftlicher Blick

Februar 2015: „Unhaltbare Vorwürfe"

Januar 2015: „Ihr, die ihr gesichert lebet…“

November 2014: Gerichtsmedizinischer Bericht zu den Knochenfunden auf dem Campus

Juli 2014: Bauarbeiter stoßen auf menschliche Knochen