Historical Review of the Fritz Haber Institute

Foundation of the Institute

What is now called the Fritz Haber Institute of the Max Planck Society was founded in 1911 as the Kaiser-Wilhelm Institute for Physical Chemistry and Electrochemistry, together with the the Kaiser-Wilhelm Institute for Chemistry. These were in fact the first two institutes of the Kaiser-Wilhelm Society (Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gesellschaft, KWG). Setting up the Institute of Chemistry was partially financed by the KWG, but the main contribution came from the "Verein Chemische Reichsanstalt". And installing the Institute for Physical Chemistry and Electrochemistry was made possible by a generous endowment by Leopold Koppel, a wealthy industrialist and banker.

The endowment act was signed on October 28, 1911 in Berlin by the "Koppel Foundation for the Promotion of Scientific Relations Abroad" and by a representative of the Prussian Minister for Scientific and Educational Affairs. According to the endowment act the governing body of the institute was to consist of: (a) the Endowment Council, formed by representatives of the Koppel-Foundation and of the Prussian Ministry, (b) the Scientific Board, to which the Academies of Sciences in Berlin, Göttingen, Leipzig and Munich, together with the Friedrich-Wilhelm University of Berlin would send a total of six representatives, and to which the Kaiser-Wilhelm Society and the Koppel-Foundation would nominate two representatives each, and (c) the director of the institute.

For the initial building and equipment the endowment allowed for 700,000 marks. In addition, an annual grant of 35,000 marks for a period of ten years was included to cover operation and maintenance costs. When it became obvious that the initial funds for equipment were not sufficient Koppel made another 300,000 marks available which was announced on the occasion of the opening ceremony. The State of Prussia provided the site for the institute on the Prussian Royal Estate of Dahlem and covered part of the operating expenses of the institute by 50,000 Mark annually, including 15,000 Mark for the salary of the institute director.

The planning of the institute buildings was in the hands of His Majesty's Chief Architect, the State Counselor on Buildings, Ernst von Ihne, who also designed the other Kaiser-Wilhelm Institute in Dahlem, the Institute of Chemistry. His ambition to combine aesthetic appeal with the requirements of scientific research are illustrated by the fact that he covered the roofs with Thuringian slate and gave the facade a gray color, "so that no colored light should penetrate the work space, to exert a disturbing influence on the investigations". On October 23, 1912, only 11 months after the beginning of the construction, a first research building of about 2,500 m2 space and 18,000 m3 capacity was finished for the opening ceremony. The administration of the institute was handled without bureaucracy by the secretariat of the director.

Fritz Haber was appointed director of the institute following the recommendationof the famous Swedish physical chemist Svante Arrhenius. Haber's personality and his previous scientific achievements were considered particularly appropriate for a leader of this new institute, focusing on basic research in the field of physical chemistry, which was expected to give new momentum to the development of the German chemical industry, at that time regarded as a world leader.

In 1913/14 the staff amounted to 5 scientists, 10 assistants, and 13 volunteers and students, with a personnel and operating budget of  70,000 Mark excluding the salary of the director.

The First World War

During the start-up period of the institute the First World War broke out (July/August 1914) . This was to radically change the mission of the institute. It was put under military control and concentrated on research projects of immediate importance for the war effort. Thus, in 1914 during experiments involving explosives there was a serious explosion which claimed as its victim Otto Sackur, a very promising young physicist.

Fritz Haber himself offered his services to the War Ministry to carry out research on the supply of raw materials. He had recognized the significance of this subject for warfare very quickly, unlike the military leadership. Inspired by patriotism, Haber made also plans for the usage of chemical weapons. He directed their first large-scale application in 1915, believing that trench warfare could be terminated this way bringing the war to a quick conclusion, and in favor of Germany.

As the war continued the institute developed into a central research laboratory for the development of chemical weapons as well as for methods of protecting against chemical weapons. Haber's colleague and friend Richard Willstätter of the neighboring Kaiser-Wilhelm Institute for Chemistry developed at his request the respiratory filter for the gas mask. The institute was further extended by barrack buildings and started to occupy additional rooms of the other Kaiser-Wilhelm Institutes in Dahlem. During this time, many scientists (including Ferdinand Flury, James Franck, Herbert Freundlich, Otto Hahn, Reginald Oliver Herzog, Erich Regener, and Heinrich Wieland) were recruited to work on warfare-related projects, forming a staff of over 1,000 people.

At the end of the war Fritz Haber's military activities led the allies to label him as a war criminal, because using chemical weapons was forbidden since the "The Hague Agreement about the Regulation of Land War" ("Haager Landkriegsordnung") of 1899 and 1907. However, this did not prevent the Swedish Academy of Sciences from awarding him the 1918 Nobel Prize for Chemistry. The final words of the presentation speech (June 1920) are as follows:

"Geheimrat Professor Haber. This country's Academy of Sciences has awarded you the 1918 Nobel Prize for Chemistry in recognition of your great services in the solution of the problem of directly combining atmospheric nitrogen with hydrogen. A solution to this problem has been repeatedly attempted before, but you were the first to provide the industrial solution and thus to create an exceedingly important means of improving the standards of agriculture and the well-being of mankind. We congratulate you on this triumph in the service of your country and the whole of humanity. Please, accept now your prize from the President of the Nobel Foundation."

The years 1919-1933

After the end of the war Haber started to devote himself again to basic research. Due to the lack of finances and because of the rise of inflation the institute had to stop attempts to apply its expertise in chemical weapon development in peaceful projects dealing with pharmacology and pest control. Economic troubles shook the newly founded republic as a result of large reparation payments. Thus, in 1920 Haber had the idea of paying off the debts by gold resources obtained from electrochemically extracted gold which was assumed to be dissolved in sea water in relatively high concentration. Together with a secret task force team he developed methods to extract gold from sea water as well as new techniques for its analysis. This included detailed studies of sea water samples from various parts of the world, some of them obtained by marine expeditions undertaken only for this purpose. After several years of research it was found that the initial, very promising analysis (it was estimated that 8 billion tons of gold were dissolved in the sea) had yielded gold concentrations which were too high by a factor of 1,000 rendering the extraction economically impracticable.

Just after the war Haber set up two other departments besides his own. First, Herbert Freundlich, who had been working in the institute since 1916 and had become Deputy Director, was assigned to head the Department of Colloidal Chemistry covering a field which he himself had founded. This department was concerned with the behavior of colloids in electrolytes and with the adsorption of species from solutions. Second, James Franck was appointed director of a Department of Atomic Physics where he continued his experiments on collisions between atoms and electrons. For this work he was awarded, together with Gustav Ludwig Hertz, the Nobel Prize in 1925. After James Franck had left the institute in 1920 to assume a chair at the University of Göttingen the Department of Atomic Physics was headed by Rudolf Ladenburg starting in 1924 until 1932 when Ladenburg took up an appointment at Princeton University and the department was closed. In 1923, a second Department of Physical Chemistry was opened and headed by MichaelPolanyi producing pioneering work in various fields. As an example, Polanyi proposed, in collaboration with Eugen Wigner and Henry Eyring, a first atomic model of reactions in the gaseous state characterized by collision processes between molecules and he developed the theory of the transition state for describing the kinetics of chemical reactions. Polanyi also developed fundamental concepts dealing with the plasticity of solids and with the mechanism of polymerization.

Haber himself was at this time engaged in science politics where he played a major role in the foundation of an "Emergency Fund for German Science" (Notgemeinschaft der Deutschen Wissenschaft) from which the German Research Foundation (Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft) developed later on. His main scientific activities were, apart from the gold project, devoted to studies of light emission in chemical reactions (chemoluminescence), kinetics of gas reactions, spectroscopy of intermediate products in chemical reactions, and to photochemistry.

First and foremost, however, Haber attracted with his unique personality and scientific versatility young talented scientists in large numbers and encouraged them by discussion and critical stimulation. The bi-weekly colloquium under his guidance became a forum for discussion of the latest developments in physics and chemistry.

The institute became a Mekka for physical chemists where many prominent scientists began their careers or spent extended time as visiting scientists. Amongst others we mention Hans Beutler, Karl Friedrich Bonhoeffer, Ludwig Ebert, Henry Eyring, Ladislaus Farkas, Karl-Hermann Geib, Paul Goldfinger, Walter Grotrian, Paul Harteck, Hartmut Kallmann, Hans Kautsky, Paul Knipping, Hans Kopfermann, Fritz London, Eugen Rabinowitch, Karl Söllner, Hertha Sponer, Eugen Wigner, Joseph Weiss, Karl Weissenberg, Setsuru Tamaru, and Hans Zocher.

Work performed at the institute represented milestones in science of the time. Here we mention only a few examples:

  • the interpretation of predissociation spectra by Bonhoeffer and Farkas (1928),
  • the demonstration of negative dispersion in a neon gas discharge tube as evidence of stimulated light emission Kopfermann and Ladenburg (1928), which forms a prerequisite for the development of laser emission detected much later,
  • the purification of parahydrogen at low temperatures by Bonhoeffer and Harteck (1929),
  • the quantum-mechanical description of energy transfer between atomic systems by Kallmann and London (1929),
  • the explanation of the hyperfine structure of atomic spectra by Kopfermann (1931),
  • the sketch of the basic principles of a heavy ion linear accelerator by Kallmann (1933).

The outstanding achievements of Polanyi and his team in physical chemistry and also of Freundlich and his colleagues in colloid and surface chemistry have already been mentioned. These were the "Golden Years", of the institute and of scientific research in Berlin, which came to an abrupt end in 1933.

National Socialism and the Second World War

No other institute of the Kaiser-Wilhelm Society suffered as severely from the takeover by the National Socialists as this one. After having been told to dismiss all racially undesirable staff members, Fritz Haber submitted his resignation as director of the institute in a letter to the Prussian Minister for Science, Culture and Education on the 30th April 1933 and requested permission to retire on the 1st October 1933. His own dismissal had not been demanded by the Nazis but Haber was not willing to submit himself to such instructions. The Department heads Freundlich and Polanyi resigned and left Germany. This development hit Haber hard. He had been suffering for a long time from angina pectoris and had already given consideration to the choice of his successor, the most likely candidate being James Franck. Now he saw his lifetime work in shambles, and his exile was the obvious consequence. He emigrated to England in the autumn of 1933. On January 29, 1934, only two months after his 65th birthday, he died in Basel (Switzerland) on his way to visit the just being founded Daniels Sieff Research Institute in Rehovot (Palestine) which was later to become the Weizmann Institute.

After Haber's resignation Otto Hahn took over as director of the institute following Haber's request as well as a recommendation by Max Planck, the president of the KWG. However, in October 1933 the Prussian government appointed Gerhart Jander, formerly professor of inorganic chemistry at Göttingen, as temporary director. This was against the agreement with Haber and against the recommendation of the Kaiser-Wilhelm Society. The legally unjustified temporary solution was accepted by the Society only in the "firm expectation that the final choice of director would be made with the agreement of the Kaiser-Wilhelm Society".

Jander notified all scientists in question who had not yet voluntarily resigned and the existing lines of research at the institute were abruptly terminated. While the 1933 yearbook of the institute still included 68 papers by 45 authors published in 1932, the year 1934 produced only 8 papers by 6 authors, all in the field of inorganic chemical analysis. Amongst the authors no name could be found from the time before 1933.

Since the appointment of Jander by the Prussian Ministry for Science, Art, and Education and the Ministry for the Armed Forces was only temporary, Max Planck submitted nominations of other scientists as Haber's successors to the Ministry, naming Karl Friedrich Bonhoeffer, Arnold Eucken or Max Volmer as suitable candidates. This had, however, no consequences. Eventually, it became clear to the Ministry for the Armed Services, who took great interest in the institute, that Jander was no longer a suitable director for the projects assigned to the institute. Therefore, the minister agreed to the appointment of Peter Adolf Thiessen as director. Thiessen had already been installed by Jander as a Department Head at the institute and enjoyed the full trust of the political authorities.

The Senate of the Kaiser-Wilhelm Society had no choice other than to agree to this appointment. Thiessen set up additional departments and gradually reinstated scientific work covering a broad spectrum of chemistry. Projects of technical and commercial significance acceptable to the authorities had always preference but he allowed the members of the institute considerable freedom to carry out basic research. P. A. Thiessen himself headed a Department of Colloid Chemistry. A new Department of Physical Chemistry was started by Ernst Jenckel where properties of glasses and polymers were investigated. In addition, there was a Department of Inorganic Chemistry led by August Winkel, a Department of Organic Chemistry under Arthur Lüttringhaus, a Department of Fine structure Research under Otto Kratzer and later a project team for macromolecule chemistry under Kurt Ueberreiter. Bernhard Baule and Kurt Molière were working at the institute as mathematician and theoretical physicist, respectively.

After the outbreak of the Second World War (in September 1939)  the institute was, for the second time, almost entirely directed to projects of military interest. Only few basic science investigations could by carried on. Here theoretical studies on Ray interference and electron diffraction by Kurt Molière deserve special mention, as do the investigations by Otto Kratky who developed X-ray small angle scattering. In 1944 Iwan N. Stranski, having worked as Professor of Physical Chemistry in Sofia until 1941 and later at the Technical University in Breslau, was appointed Scientific Fellow of the institute and performed pioneering studies on crystal growth and phase formation.

Towards the end of the war some of the experimental and workshop equipment as well as the contents of the library had to be evacuated. The latter provided the basis for the Otto-Hahn Library in Göttingen, which is now located in the Max-Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry. The buildings of the institute, however, escaped extensive damage. Only the striking pointed roof of the main building fell victim to the bombing. After the occupation of Berlin by the Soviet army the equipment remaining in the institute was confiscated and transferred to the Soviet Union. This occurred before the American army had set up its Berlin sector in which the institute was located. Of all scientists only Iwan N. Stranski, Kurt Molière, and Kurt Ueberreiter remained in Berlin. Their courageous protection of the institute during this chaotic time deserves much praise. P. A. Thiessen went to the Soviet Union. He returned to the German Democratic Republic (Deutsche Demokratische Republik, DDR) in the mid 50's as a Fellow of the Academy of Sciences and became President of the DDR Research Council.

The early years after the Second World War

In the early post-war years the institute was supported by the Berlin City Council. However, scientific work was only barely possible. Robert Havemann, who had held a scholarship at the institute in 1932 and 1933, was appointed head of the institute by the City Council. In Hitler Germany time Havemann had played a key role in the antifascist group "European Union". He was caught by the Nazis, and in 1943 sentenced to death. The execution was postponed, and he was luckily freed from prison by the Soviet troops in 1945. I. N. Stranski, K. Molière and K. Ueberreiter resumed their work at the institute as best as possible considering the external conditions. Hartmut Kallmann, who had worked with Haber for many years before 1933, returned to the institute from his industrial refuge for a short time. In 1948, however, he accepted an offer to become Professor of Physics at the New York University.

The districts within the U.S. occupation zone did not resume responsibility and financing of the institute until June 1947. At that time the institute received a grant for the "German Research Colleges of Berlin-Dahlem". This organization included the institute together with Otto Warburg's Institute for Cell Physiology and a group of several other Kaiser-Wilhelm Institutes. In January 1948 R. Havemann was charged with being an active member of the communist party, and by order of the American authorities he was dismissed as director of the institute, but was still retained as a Department Head. His department, however, was closed in the beginning of 1950, when he was accused of communist propaganda and banned from the institute. He subsequently moved to East Berlin, where he already had held a professorship for physical chemistry at the Humboldt university since 1947.

In the spring of 1948 a department was set up in the institute for Karl Friedrich Bonhoeffer who was at the same time director of the Institute for Physical Chemistry at the Humboldt-University of East-Berlin. In December 1948 he was appointed director of the institute, but in 1949 he accepted the invitation of the newly founded Max-Planck Society to become director of the new Max-Planck Institute for Physical Chemistry in Göttingen. Nevertheless, he continued to lead the institute until March 31, 1951. He brought Ernst Ruska, the inventor of the electron microscope, to the institute as leader of a Department of Electron Microscopy. Ruska was to set up this new department (while still retaining his employment at Siemens) in order to encourage fundamental research and further development in the field of electron microscopy.

In his Department of Physical Chemistry and Electrochemistry, Bonhoeffer attracted young scientists to work in new fields of research. Georg Manecke developed new ion and electron exchange type polymers, and produced the first immobilized enzymes, i. e. enzymes coupled to polymer matrices, which are now of great importance in biotechnology. Klaus J. Vetter built up a successful team in electrochemistry. He developed new methods for the analysis of the kinetics of electrochemical reactions and made an important contribution to the understanding of the resistance of metals to corrosion. In 1961 both Manecke and Vetter moved to the Free University, as Professors of Organic Chemistry and Physical Chemistry, respectively, but they still kept some institute laboratories as External Scientific Fellows of the institute.

Apart from the department of the institute director there was a large department headed by Iwan N. Stranski who held also a position as Professor of Physical Chemistry at the Technical University of Berlin. His department focused on investigations concerning crystal structure, nucleation and crystal growth processes. At a later stage, also studies on properties of zeolites and of catalytic processes in such microporous solids were performed. In 1954 I. N. Stranski became Deputy Director of the institute.

Erwin W. Müller, the inventor of the field electron microscope, had been working as an assistant in Stranski's department since 1947. During this period he developed the field ion microscope which could achieve extremely high resolution of atomic structures. In 1950 E. W. Müller was given his own department in the institute but in 1952 he took up an appointment in the USA. He remained connected with the institute as an External Scientific Fellow until his death in 1977.

Incorporation into the Max-Planck Society

In 1951, at the age of 71, Max von Laue became chief director of the institute. This started a new period of consolidation in which Max von Laue applied all his influence and his great scientific reputation to the task of rebuilding the institute. The official incorporation into the Max-Planck Society took place in 1953 when the institute was renamed "Fritz-Haber-Institut". At this time Kurt Molière's group was expanded and converted into a department where the structure of surfaces was studied with electron diffraction and by theoretical analysis. Kurt Molière was appointed Scientific Fellow of the institute in 1960. Kurt Ueberreiter who, since 1943, had served as head of a department where physical and chemical properties of polymers were investigated, became a Scientific Fellow of the institute in 1954.

In 1953 Max von Laue brought Gerhard Borrmann to the institute as a department head. Borrmann continued his studies on X-ray absorption in perfect crystals. He became a Scientific Fellow in 1956 and headed the department until his retirement in 1970. Rolf Hosemann, working as assistant to Max von Laue since 1951, studied X-ray diffraction phenomena in solids exhibiting statistical disorder and developed his theory of so-called paracrystals. In 1960 he became head of a department and was appointed Scientific Fellow of the institute in 1966.

In 1953 Max von Laue started to plan a major expansion of the institute. As a result, Ernst Ruska gave up his position in an industrial company in 1955 and became a Scientific Fellow of the institute heading an independent department. In 1957 this department became the "Institute for Electron Microscopy of the Fritz-Haber Institute". A new building for electron microscopy with an administrational and library annex was completed in 1959. The adjacent new lecture hall was not completed until 1963.

Development into a surface and interface science research center

In October 1958 Rudolf Brill was appointed director of the institute and in March 1959 he succeeded Max von Laue as chief institute director. Brill headed the institute until the spring of 1969. Amongst other subjects, his was engaged in studies of catalytic properties for heterogeneous reactions which were investigated using X-ray diffraction methods and kinetic measurements. He took a particular interest in catalysts used in the ammonia synthesis as well as in hydrogenation and oxidation catalysts. From 1955 to 1964 three new buildings on Faradayweg 16 were added to the institute, housing Ueberreiter's group and taken over later by the departments of Profs. Block and Hosemann. The buildings had been used previously by the Max-Planck Institute for Silicate Research housing a group working on micromorphology of silicates.

In November 1969 Heinz Gerischer was appointed to succeed Brill as chief institute director. He headed the Department of Physical Chemistry and initiated research in the areas of electrochemistry, photo electrochemistry, and fast reactions. His department focused also on studies of solid surfaces under ultra-high vacuum conditions and their interaction with gases. Further, exploiting the low temperature technology already developed by von Laue at the institute, a research program on matrix isolation spectroscopy was started. Here the transition between atomic and metallic properties in clusters was investigated. When Gerischer was appointed, Jochen H. Block became Scientific Fellow of the institute. He had been hired by Brill in 1966 and had built up his own department in which kinetic processes on metal surfaces were studied using field electron and field ion microscopies. In 1974 a new building for electron microscopy was completed. This building was constructed in particular to isolate Ruska's ultrahigh resolution microscopes against external vibrations.

During this period two internal reorganizations were carried out (1974 and 1980). In 1974, the institute was restructured to consist of three sections which were to combine their collaborative efforts: Physical Chemistry (directors: J. H. Block, H. Gerischer, K. Molière), Structure Research (directors: R. Hosemann, Kurt Ueberreiter), and Electron Microscopy (director: E. Ruska until 1974). H. Gerischer remained the chief institute director. In 1977 Elmar Zeitler was appointed Scientific Fellow and director at the institute as successor of Ernst Ruska.

After the retirement of R. Hosemann, K. Molière, and Kurt Ueberreiter in 1980 a second reorganization introduced a collegiate structure for the institute with stronger emphasis on surface and interface science. In November 1980 Alexander Bradshaw was appointed Scientific Fellow and director at the institute heading the Department of Surface Physics. Since 1976 he had built up his own group in the Department of Physical Chemistry, with emphasis on the spectroscopy of solid surfaces and on the study of chemisorbed molecules. In 1999 Bradshaw accepted the request to become chief director of the Institute for Plasma Physics of the MPG in Garching and Greifswald, and in 2002 his Department of Surface Physics was terminated.

In 1977, on the initiative of the Fritz-Haber Institute and the German Federal Institute of Standards (PTB) planning started for a synchrotron-radiation light source in Berlin. A company (BESSY) was founded in 1979 to build and operate the necessary electron storage ring. Members of the company included the Max-Planck Society, the Hahn-Meitner Institute, the Fraunhofer Society, and the German Electron Synchrotron (DESY) in Hamburg as well as four industrial companies. The Fritz-Haber Institute provided the Scientific Director and was also concerned with administration in the initial phase. Bradshaw was appointed Scientific Director of BESSY in 1981 and again in 1988 after the tragical death of his successor Ernst-Eckard Koch. Since the start of experimental activities at BESSY in 1982 the radiation source has been intensively used by various groups at the institute. The new storage ring BESSY II, starting to operate in 1999, plays also a prominent role in the research program of the institute.

In 1986 Gerhard Ertl succeeded Gerischer as director of the Department of Physical Chemistry and was appointed Scientific Fellow at the institute. His research interests focus on structure and chemical reactions at solid surfaces.

In 1986 Ernst Ruska was awarded the Nobel price for his scientific achievements in connection with the development of the electron microscope.

A joint Computer Center (Gemeinsames Netzwerkzentrum, GNZ) for the Fritz-Haber Institute and the Max-Planck Institute for Molecular Genetics was opened in 1986, initially providing computer services such as cpu resources, networking, software, mailing, purchase consulting etc. for all members and visitors of both institutes. In 2002 this computer center was renamed "Gemeinsames Netzwerkzentrum der Berlin-Brandenburgischen Max-Planck-Institute, GNZ)" assuming responsibility for all network components connecting the old and recently founded Max-Planck institutions (12 altogether) of the Berlin and nearby Brandenburg region.

In July 1988 Matthias Scheffler was appointed Scientific Fellow of the institute and director of the newly opened Theory Department. The department specializes in surface theory as well as solid state research, quantum chemistry, and computational physics.

Shortly before the retirement of Elmar Zeitler in 1995 Robert Schloegl was appointed Scientific Fellow of the institute. The Department of Electron Microscopy was closed and a new Department of Inorganic Chemistry was established. This department concentrates on heterogeneous reactions on inorganic surfaces. Oxidation reactions of carbons and metals are studied as well as a range of heterogeneous catalytic processes involving partial oxidation and dehydrogenation steps. The goal of this experimental research is to bridge the gap between surface physics and surface chemistry. To this end, a range of in-situ analytical techniques and synthetic efforts were established to create realistic model surfaces with defined catalytic functions. The tradition of electron microscopy has been continued with the installation of two new commercial high-resolution transmission electron microscopes in 1996.

After the unexpected death of Jochen Block in 1995, Hans-Joachim Freund became director of the Department of Surface Reactions and was appointed Scientific Fellow of the institute. The department was renamed into Department of Chemical Physics, its objectives being studies of adsorption and reaction on solids, in particular, on oxide surfaces.

In 2002 Gerard Meijer was appointed as a new director at the institute, and he installed the new Department of Molecular Physics. Respective renovations and rebuilding started in autumn 2002, and the new department is expected to be operational in autumn 2003.

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