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Investigation into Germany’s largest research funder confirms collaboration with Nazi regime

BMJ 2008; 336 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.39489.475914.DB (Published 14 February 2008) Cite this as: BMJ 2008;336:353
  1. Annette Tuffs
  1. 1Heidelberg

    A seven year investigation into the work of Germany’s largest organisation that funds research, between 1920 and 1970 has confirmed that German scientists used the Nazis’ totalitarian regime to conduct lethal experiments.

    The German research foundation (Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft) remains the country’s largest funder of research, with an annual budget of about €1.3bn (£970m; $1.9bn). The independent investigation found that the organisation and most of the scientists it funded had succumbed to serving the Nazi regime “almost completely and without scruple” after its rise to power in 1933.

    This started with the expulsion of Jewish and other scientists not in political favour from the foundation and from German universities. And it escalated to the experiments on Jewish prisoners conducted by Josef Mengele at Auschwitz, which were supported financially by the foundation.

    Reporting the findings of the seven year investigation at a conference last week in Berlin, Matthias Kleiner, president of the foundation, said, “This is a profoundly uncomfortable and lasting truth for the foundation, very oppressive and very painful.” The conference reviewed findings from an independent research unit set up by the foundation in 2001 after several previous attempts to analyse and acknowledge its history had failed. The former president of the foundation Ernst-Ludwig Winnacker committed in 2000 to provide sufficient funding for a systematic and intensive review by an independent working group. The foundation supported this with €5.5m.

    The research unit systematically studied the history of the foundation from 1920 to 1970, led by historians from Berlin and Freiburg. It reported that the foundation was set up in 1920 in an effort to improve the standard of science in Germany after the crisis resulting from the first world war. The investigation found that the close connection between science and politics had its roots in this period, when German scientists linked the crisis in science to the problems in the country as a whole and saw it as their duty to support national interests through their work.

    After 1933, research funding was abused by the politicians of the Third Reich. In addition, the scientific community and politicians worked together to further each other’s aims in a symbiotic partnership, according to one of the investigating historians, Mitchel Ash, from the University of Vienna, Austria. He explained that scientists sought personal advantage by participating in research projects and by anticipating programmes likely to be popular with the regime.

    Medical research projects funded by the foundation at this time focused mainly on human genetics, supporting the Nazi’s racist ideology. “The scientists clearly used the totalitarian system to have the freedom of conducting lethal experiments,” said Wolfgang Eckart, medical historian from Heidelberg University. He acknowledged, however, that there were also scientific contributions to modern medicine, including work in cancer research, tropical medicine, and physiology.

    The research unit also looked closely at the period from 1945 to 1970. The foundation was re-established in 1949 and tried to bring science in the Federal Republic of Germany closer to Western standards. However, until 1970 it remained “a reservoir of conservative beliefs and the reserve of tenured professors and universities controlled by tenured faculty,” concluded Professor Kleiner.

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