Full transparency about institute´s history

New traces of Third Reich atrocities discovered

April 09, 2015

The Max Planck Institute (MPI) for Brain Research bears the heavy burden of crimes committed in the name of science at its Berlin ancestor during the Third Reich (the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Brain Research). Directors at that institute, namely Julius Hallervorden and Hugo Spatz, supported and allowed the homicide "euthanasia" of children and adults suffering or suspected to suffer from psychiatric disorders, and used their victims' brains for their research, up until the 1960s, that is well after the replacement of the Kaiser Wilhelm Society (KWS) by the Max Planck Society (MPS).

Sections of these murdered patients' brains remained in the possession of the MPI for Brain Research until the 1980s, at which time a new generation of directors in Frankfurt discovered their existence, thanks to work of external investigators. These brain sections were buried in an official ceremony in 1990 at the Waldfriedhof in Munich, where the MPS erected a memorial in honor of the victims. In 1997, the MPS initiated a historical commission to investigate all potentially criminal actions of KWS scientists during the Third Reich. This led to a public apology of MPS President Markl in 2001 and the publication of an extensive book series.

Recently, the MPS initiated a new, large-scale and well-funded historical program that will investigate the post-war history of the MPS. One of its tasks will be to examine how MPS scientists and administration officials dealt with the history of the KWS during the Third Reich, including post-war actions of scientists involved in crimes during the Third Reich, such as Hallervorden and Spatz.

In addition to these MPS-wide actions, we, the directors of the MPI for Brain Research, recently decided to revisit the somber history of our institute, and asked our emeritus colleague Heinz Wässle to investigate whether any of the brain sections buried in 1990 might have originated from victims other than those in the so-called "Hallervorden's collection". During this investigation, Wässle discovered that within the materials handed over to the MPS's archives together with the documents of the Hallervorden collection, lay several dozen suspect brain sections. Wässle´s research revealed that some patients from which these specimens originated are possibly victims of the euthanasia program.

This new discovery disturbs us profoundly and underlines that, 70 years after the end of the Third Reich, further traces of past atrocities remain to be discovered. As a consequence, the president of the Max Planck Society has immediately initiated an investigation. Discussions are underway to prepare dignified handling and proper burial of the recently discovered remains once their origin has been confirmed.

We decided to inform immediately about these recent findings. With this, we express our absolute commitment to full transparency, and our determination to encourage further investigations by internal and external experts. We cannot state strongly enough the shame we feel when faced with the actions of scientists at our institute´s antecedent during the Third Reich. We commit to exposing this somber history, and will use it to reinforce the teaching and transmission of the ethical prerequisites of scientific endeavors.

Erin Schuman, Gilles Laurent, Moritz Helmstaedter, Wolf Singer and Heinz Wässle - Directors and directors emeriti at the Max Planck Institute for Brain Research

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