The Max Planck Institute for Brain Research commemorates its tragic past

October 29, 2015

On October 28, 2015, the Max Planck Institute for Brain Research (MPI-BR) organized an event to commemorate the murder of 38 children on October 28, 1940 in the institution Brandenburg Garden. The Institute hosted the first annual Ethics in Science lecture "Provenance and Personal Identity: Problems of Brain Specimens and Tissues from the Era of National Socialism" by Prof. Paul Weindling of Oxford Brookes University (United Kingdom). In addition, the event included an opening of the art exhibit "Schicht, Blase, Effekt" by artist Julius Bockelt from Atelier Goldstein, Frankfurt. Intermezzos were provided by two musicians from Ensemble Modern. Institute members, guests, colleagues and friends from all over Germany, as well as representatives from the Max Planck Society, attended the event.

Managing Director Erin Schuman opened the event with the following words "Our Institute, the Max Planck Institute for Brain Research, bears the heavy burden of the crimes committed by some of its scientists in the name of science, during the Third Reich. This happened at our ancestral Institute in Berlin, the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute (KWI) for Brain Research."

Some directors at KWI for Brain Research at that time, particularly Julius Hallervorden, supported the murder of children and young adults with assumed or proven psychiatric disorders to provide material for their research. Hallervorden used the brains for his research up into the 1960s and some of his immediate successors likely continued using those brain samples well beyond the 1960s.

By that time, the KWI for Brain Research had become our institute, the Max Planck Institute for Brain Research and had moved to Frankfurt. Brain tissue originating from these patients remained in possession of the Frankfurt Institute until the mid 1980s, after which they were buried in an official ceremony in Munich (1990). Amongst the brain specimens were those of more than 30 children killed on October 28, 1940 at Berlin's Brandenburg Garden institution. Today is the 75th anniversary of that terrible day. Our gathering today serves as a commemoration of the children's death.

We, the current and emeritus directors- including Gilles Laurent, Moritz Helmstaedter, Heinz Wässle and Wolf Singer and myself, wish to fully acknowledge our past and express our profound sadness and regret over this history.

We think that the only way forward is to keep this memory, however unpleasant, alive. "We must all understand that our collective humanity includes the ability to conduct unthinkable acts such as these, and we must keep this reflection alive in our collective consciousness in order to ensure that it never happens again."

Paul Weindling is an internationally renowned British Professor of History of Medicine at Oxford Brookes University who has served in several advisory committees to unravel the crimes committed during the national socialist regime, including Presidential Committee of the Max Planck Society for the study of the history of the Kaiser Wilhelm Society during the years of National Socialism. In his lecture, he described the history of brains and body materials used for scientific research during the Third Reich and thereafter.

The lecture provided an insightful view of the extent of the killings during this era current estimates are 98.000 - and, more specifically, the discovery of the brain slices by the journalist Götz Aly in the second half of the 1980s. He noted that the anonymity associated with mass burials of brain sections and tissues from these victims is not acceptable or enlightened- the names and life histories of the victims must be discovered and shared.

After Paul Weindling's lecture, the three current MPI-BR directors Erin Schuman, Gilles Laurent and Moritz Helmstaedter read the 38 names of the children ranging from 7 to 18 years old, all murdered at Brandenburg Garden on October 28, 1940. In addition, Christiane Cuticchio, Director of Atelier Goldstein, a gallery that features the works of exceptional artists with mental disabilities, opened the exhibition by Julius Bockelt.

Cuticchio: "Julius Bockelt is one of the most gifted artists I know and he was lucky to be born during these times", a poignant reference to the fact that had Bockelt been born 60 years earlier he might have met the horrible fate of the murdered child victims being commemorated on this day.

Addition information: The exhibition "Schicht, Blase, Effekt" can be visited during weekdays from 8.00-18.00 hours. In addition, information is provided at the Institute on the murders committed during the NS regime and the connection of the Institutes' predecessor, the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Institute for Brain Research.

See our  history page and scroll down to the chapter "A Dark Period".

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