AIP History Center Newsletter
Volume XXXVIII , No. 1, Spring 2006


The "Atom Smasher" of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physics, in the 1930's. Photo courtesy of the Max Planck Society for the Advancement of Science (MPS).

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The Archives for the History of the Max Planck Society
By Marion Kazemi, Archiv Zur Geschichte der Max-Planck-Gesellschaft

The Max Planck Society for the Advancement of Science (MPS) is probably one of the most well known German scientific research organizations. It promotes basic research in the natural sciences, life sciences, social sciences, and the humanities, primarily in its own 78 institutes.

The Archives for the History of the Max Planck Society started their work thirty years ago in the former Kaiser Wilhelm/Max Planck Institute (KWI/MPI) for Cell Physiology in Berlin Dahlem, which was part of West Berlin at the time. Five years ago, the Archives were extended through the utilization of additional storage space in the former accelerator tower of the KWI for Physics next door.

The main aims of the Archives are the preservation of documents of historic interest for the Max Planck Society for the Advancement of Science (founded in 1948) and for its predecessor organi- zation, the Kaiser Wilhelm Society (founded in 1911) as well as making such documents available for research (currently approx. 3.5 shelf kilometers).

The Archives for the History of the Max Planck Society at Berlin-Dahlem, in the building of the former Kaiser Wilhelm Institute/Max-Planck Institute for Cell Physiology, with the former Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physics behind. Both institutes were built with funds from the Rockefeller Foundation in 1930 resp. 1936/37. The round tower once housed a cascade generator: since 1999 it serves as stockroom for the Archives. Photo courtesy of the Max Planck Society for the Advancement of Science (MPS).

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Documents include records from the Administrative Headquarters and the governing bodies of the Society, as well as those from the institutes, individual departments, research units and working groups. Another major focus of the Archives is on preserving the personal papers of outstanding personalities who were once active with the Kaiser Wilhelm or Max Planck Society, among them several Nobel laureates. We also keep the building plans and drawings of the institutes. These holdings are complemented by a number of person or subject-related collections, autographs, manuscripts, certificates, prize medals, a major collection of audiovisual materials (about 70,000 photographs as well as films and tapes), as well as museum pieces and additional documentation material related to the history of the Max Planck Society and its members, such as collections of newspaper cuttings and so-called grey literature.

While the Administrative Headquarters and the Society's bodies turn over those of their records which they no longer need; institutes, individual departments, research units or working groups generally do not make their records available to the Archives until their closure. On the deaths of directors or scientific members of the Max Planck Society, the Archives enquire with the families and institutes if they can obtain the personal papers. In most cases there are no problems in acquiring such papers, sometimes as a deposit rather than a gift. In the past few years we have often successfully contacted scientific members before their retirement to enquire if they wish to entrust their papers to the Archives during their lifetime. Today, we keep the papers of 220 people in our Archives, of which more than a quarter are still alive. Among them we keep those of 11 Nobel Laureates, including Walther Bothe, Peter Debye, Otto Hahn, Max von Laue, Ernst Ruska, and collections of Albert Einstein and Max Planck, whose papers were destroyed in World War II.

The records of the institutes and Administrative Headquarters are available to historians thirty years after their initial inclusion, with the exception of personnel files. Access to personal archives is restricted until thirty years after the death of the individual unless otherwise agreed on during their lifetime. To access the papers of living scientists, the latters' permission is required.

Most of the holdings relevant to the history of physics and related disciplines are kept in the personal archives, but there are also records of some individual institutes that should be of interest. It should be noted that most of the institutes carry out interdisciplinary research, i.e. chemical institutes often have physics departments or physicists working there. One of the most important institutes is the KWI for Physics, whose first director—until his emigration to the United States in 1932—was none other than Albert Einstein, followed by Peter Debye and Werner Heisenberg; Max von Laue was deputy director. The Archives keep a small autograph collection of Albert Einstein as well as the office papers of Debye and von Laue. While the records of the MPI for Physics (as well as for the MPI for Astrophysics/ MPI for Extraterrestrial Physics originating from it) are not yet in the Archives, we possess the personal papers of the directors and Scientific Members Ludwig Biermann, Gerd Buschhorn, Hans-Peter Dürr, Klaus Gottstein, Reimar Lüst, Norbert Schmitz, Ulrich Stierlin, Eleonore Trefftz, and Carl Friedrich Freiherr von Weizsäcker. For editorial reasons, the archive of Werner Heisenberg is still kept in the MPI for Physics in Munich.

The Archives also contain files from the Aerodynamical Research Institute of the KWG/MPG and the KWI/MPI for Flow Research, temporarily affiliated to it, next to the papers of the directors and Scientific Members Albert Betz, Ernst Kleinschmidt, Kurt Kraemer, Ernst-August Müller, Ludwig Prandtl, Hans Reichardt, Walter Tollmien, and Georg Vogelpohl.

The MPI for plasma physics has made some of its older records available to us. These papers are completed by the papers of Karl-Heinz Schmitter.

The Archives have only a few records from the KWI for physical chemistry and electrochemistry (renamed Fritz Haber Institute in 1953), but have obtained the personal papers of Jochen H. Block, Karl Friedrich Bonhoeffer, Gerhard Ertl, Heinz Gerischer, Rolf Hosemann, Max von Laue, Ernst Ruska as well as collections from Fritz Haber and Rudolf Ladenburg.

What has survived from the KWI for chemistry are mainly the correspondence and personnel files of the department of Otto Hahn and Lise Meitner. There is a collection on Meitner whose letters to Otto Hahn are kept in his archive.

Physical research is also carried out in the KWI/MPI for metals research. In addition to some institute records, the Archives have received the papers of Hellmut Fischmeister, Emil Heyn, Werner Köster, and Ernst Schiebold. We acquired the papers of Heinz Bilz and Ludwig Genzel from the MPI for solid state research. The MPI for aeronomy (since 2005: MPI for solar system research) is represented by the papers of Erich Regener and Sir Ian Axford.

The archives of the radiation physicists Karl Wilhelm and Isolde Hausser (both Institute for Physics of the KWI/MPI for medical Research) are preserved, just as are those of their son Karl Hermann Hausser, who was elected as a scientific member of the MPI some decades later.

The most well known scientist of this institute (which later became an institute itself, the MPI for Nuclear Physics) is Nobel Laureate Walther Bothe. The Archives are in possession of his papers as well as those of his successor Wolfgang Gentner and those of Hugo Fechtig, Hans A. Weidenmüller, and Heinrich J. Völk. The field of Astronomy is represented by the papers of Peter G. Mezger and Richard Wielebinski.

This is only a short survey of the holdings of interest to the history of physics. More detailed information can be found on the MPG Archives Web site: (The Web site is now also available in English.) Or contact Dr. Marion Kazemi, by e-mailing:


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