Kurt Ueberreiter

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Interviewed by
Steve Heims
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Interview of Kurt Ueberreiter by Steve Heims on 1988 June 29, Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics, College Park, MD USA, www.aip.org/history-programs/niels-bohr-library/oral-histories/31903

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Topics discussed include: Ueberreiter's work at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institut fur physikalische Chemie und Electrochemie and macromolecular chemistry; Fritz Haber; Hartmut Kallmann; his work with polymers and at the Max Planck Gesellschaft; Peter Debye; Von Laue.


Interview conducted by Steve Heims on June 29 1988, at the Fritz-Haber-Institute at 16 Faradayweg, Berlin-Dahlem. The Fritz-Haber-Institute is a subsidiary of the Max-Planck-Gesellschaft. A booklet, “Fritz-Haber-Institut der Max-Planck Gesellschaft” (Heft 7/86), published by the Gesellschaft’s central office in Munich, gives background information about the Haber Institut. The heyday of the Institut was during the years of the Weimar Republic, when it was known as the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Institut fur physikalische Chemie und Elektrochemie, with Fritz Haber its director. Work at the Institut deteriorated rapidly when from 1933 Jewish scientists left and when a member of the Nazi party was made director. During the Nazi years Kurt Ueberreiter was appointed head of a group for “macromolecular chemistry.” Ueberreiter remained a scientist and scientific administrator at the Institut in post-War West Berlin until his retirement.

(The record of the interview — in German — consists of one 90-minute casette. A rough summary in English is given below. The occasional numbers in parentheses correspond to the digital counter of the tape recorder.)

Side A:

If it gets boring, just turn off the machine. Hartmut Kallmann was here at the Institute as Fritz Haber’s assistent. He had to leave the Institut and then appeared as an employee of Siemens Co. Since he was Jewish, his wife was Aryan — he was Jewish as per grandmother. Nazis permitted directors of K-W Institutes to remain, but Jewish co-workers had to be dismissed. O. Warburg stayed throughout — he was most angry because the American soldiers threw him out: He could handle the Nazis but not the Americans. For Fritz Haber, who worked alone, it was not a problem to leave. Kallmann then also left. Haber refused to dismiss Jewish co-workers, as he was supposed to. Warburg had no Jewish co-workers.

In 1945 Kallmann returned here and became “ordentlicher Professor” at the Technical University, but eventually went to New York. In 1953 I was in the U.S. for a year and telephoned with his wife — and she complained. Kallmann later returned and took up his position at the Technical University.

I was a student in Berlin in the twenties, chemistry and then I specialized in polymers. Kallmann told me all his frustrations within the system, he was very impulsive. He was Haber’s assistant and also administrative second. Kallmann told me once at the K-W Institut he had held a shouting conversation with someone at the other end of the corridor, and when Haber came by he had said “why doesn’t Kallmann use a telephone.”

(Reconstruction after 1945?) At first we were forbidden to work by the Allies, and an American officer checked on us. The Russians had taken all our instrumentation. We tried to get things together again. First a Communist, Havemann, was made director. Non-fraternization. Warburg arranged at that time a school for research, and I was made head of the school with the words — “you can get along with the professors and also with the crazy Allies; you can handle it.” (115) The “school” was a new idea at that time — notion of a school for advanced studies. I was ordered by the Americans to dismiss Havemann and I refused: That would be the old Nazi method to dismiss someone for his political views. Someone else did that then. Havemann told me why don’t you came to East Berlin with me — as an administrator-functionary you have complete freedom there. That’s true. Then Bonhoefer became director here, as well as at the Max Planck Gesellschaft in Goettingen. I kept up contacts with Max Planck Gesellschaft. In 1945 everything was called K-W Institut. When the Russian had encircled Berlin, railroad tickets were distributed to all researchers to them to leave. I stayed. I was told by a man named Wende(?) “you were not a Nazi, you are needed for reconstruction here.” A gamble. The others, the top Nazis, were arrested. Nothing happened to me.

… We began to set up things at the Humboldt University, gave some introductory courses. The Russians controlled it, I became control officer for the Russians… I eventually got along quite well with the Russian representative. Some of my course-listeners were arrested. I decided to quit at the end of the semester and arranged to return to Dahlem to the K-W Institute and the new school. The Russian official only wanted that I certify he had tried to keep me there. The British were opposed to the name of K-W for the Institute — we wanted the K-W name “Lieber Kaiser Wilhelm steige nieder und regier du uns wieder; lass in diesen schlechte Zeiten den Adolf oben reiten.” They wanted to call it Max-Planck Gesellschaft, and they did. We fought the change of name. (272) We were still a K-W Institute until we became members of the Max Planck Gesellschaft, and then we had to take the name Fritz Haber Institut. In memory of Fritz Haber. That is the story in brief.

(The K-W Ges. had been financed largely by the Notgemeinschaft?) There was a big Jewish banker who helped set up the K-W Ges. around 1910 — the Kaiser was present at the opening. It was then supported half privately by members of ?, industry or wealthy bankers, and the financial requirement was not so great in those days. Thus the government’s control was incomplete. It provided less than half. Even the Nazi years as well. The economy was of course fascist during the Nazi years, not fully planned as by the Communists. Now the private sector contributions have shrunk. Now if someone wants to set up a new Institute, the bureaucracy is a problem… When one wants to start an institute, now one first has to find a distinguished man and then make application to the government, but by that time the man may have left. Joke: In the zoo — the lion in one cage is fat with lots of meat to eat near him in the cage, another lion is very skinny and unhealthy looking — he is surrounded by carrots, salad and cabbage. The visitor asks “what madness is this?” The answer, “it can’t be helped, he is in a location planned for a monkey.” This illustrates the foolishness of the state. (360) We get an annual funding from the state, so the state does not intervene in-between times. Heisenberg was in Berlin at the K-W Inst. First was Debye, and then Diebues, and then Debye was told we must work on Uranium-splitting, and he said no, and emigrated. Lise Meitner was not here. Otto Hahn worked here. Nothing came of it — they worked to slow, besides they didn’t want to… I was interested in synthetic polymers, not in biological molecules. Schrodinger & Delbrueck were much greater (scientists) than I. I made my Ph.D. here under Jaeger, that was in 1937. I had done my studies at the U. of Berlin in chemistry. Wanted to get started, but had no money. My father had died young… So I worked. I became chemist through Hitler. At first I was a zoologist. Looking for a Ph.D. advisor, and I found Marcus, who was Jew… what today one would call molecular biology, it was fun. But now I was supposed to take chemistry curriculum, there was a waiting list (475). So I was given a corner in the laboratory to do chemistry, that was 1933. Marcus had been decorated in the first World War. But he left for Sao Paolo, Brazil, research on snakes. I got shunted into chemistry, there was money available. I was supposed to join a student political club, but said no. Someone named Tilo(?) here could offer a stipend, I needed to do a lot of bottle-washing, cleaning up, etc, and he led me to Jenckel — who came from Goettingen. I studied “styrol”, plastics: I got into chemistry because of Marcus and into polymers because I didn’t have money of my own. There was some free tuition for some students in those days. I had to go to the Ostsee… they wanted me to participated in a political student group. I said no. They don’t know what courage is required. I went to my professors — reserved a place in their courses for a later semester, for fear that at that time my free tuition would be cancelled. I then came here to the K-W inst. under Jenckel, and then did my doctorate. We had to stay here or be drafted. It was a problem to protect science at that time.

Von Laue was here during the War — both at the Univ. and at the K-W Institute. I too am emeritus at the U. and also at the Haber Inst.: one needs both roles, because otherwise we couldn’t have Ph.D. students here. (What kind of person was Laue?) He was a typical researcher, although he had been an officer during the monarchy… but he was a typical scientist, removed from the world — a thinker. Polanyi I only heard lecture once. (730)

Side B:

(How did it go here during the Nazi times?) The scientific status of some of the institutes — as here Haber’s eventual successor was Thiessen — some lowering of the level of the science. Haber went to Switzerland. Thiessen came from Goettingen where he had been with Goldschmidt; he didn’t want to fire the people here — but someone else had taken care of that. Thiessen was opportunistic, did what was good for him. When the Russians came, he said “I have shat on the brown ones, I’ll do the same with the red ones.” He went over to the Russians. He had been member of the Nazi party, and then became a member of the Communist party. Little difference. Many made that transition. Of course if you are a Jew, then with the Nazis you got kicked out right aways. I am a Catholic, so I didn’t go along — I would have had to give up my religion. That was a skeleton for me, an excuse. We continued work with private support in part — but the level of the work at this institute was not high. Thiessen did not not have Haber’s qualifications. Although he has helped the Russians in Uranium separation and got a Lenin prize or Stalin prize from them. Then, when Laue became the director — in 1951 — the level began to improve, and now we again have good people, e.g. Bloch. Laue was active in the rebuilding, his status and name helped. He was an enemy of the Nazis. It is the same ‘over there’ (the GDR) — even if you are an enemy of Communism a scientist can work there. You have to at the right moment stand up when Honecker visits. In dictatorships it is important that you have no children, because they can take the children away and indocrinate them, etc. Without children you are less vulnerable. I am still friends with a Jew who had left,… and I have invited him to come here. Some who went to America, have remained very much Europeans — and as I saw when I visited America — and the so-called Aryans, some of whom left for America in 1945, what a tragedy that the children can’t speak German. (105) They don’t want to learn German. Only sometimes the children of the Jews who left earlier still know German. (Interviewer mentions his own Jewish-German backgrounds and emigration). You’d have a reason to forget German, after all you got kicked out, but those others just went to the promised land.

(Kallmann?) He was a good scientist, the chief assistant of Haber. Did both theory and experiment. Gave in the 1940’s excellent lectures on physics at the Technical University. One of his close co-workers was Broser (?) — still here. Arbeitgruppe Dr. Broser is still listed. The best is you go into the main Institute and inquire for Prof. Broser, how you can speak with him. He remained here at the Haber Inst. and also is at the Techn. U. — He would be the best source about Kallmann. I know him mostly from meetings where we both sat. Broser also knows his work well. (Can we call him now?) That would be fortuitous to catch him (215).