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The PTR during the Third Reich

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Picture 1: Blueprint of the new Physikalisch- Technische Reichsanstalt planned for Munich (about 1933).

This project aims to document the development of the Physikalisch-Technische Reichsanstalt (Imperial Physical Technical Institute (PTR)) during the Third Reich and examine its role in the National Socialist (NS) scientific community.

Following its foundation in 1887, the PTR was not just the supreme metrological institute in Germany, but also its largest and most venerable physical research institute. During the Third Reich the PTR was directed by two scientists, Johannes Stark (1874–1957) and Abraham Esau (1884-1955), who were high-ranking members of the Nazi Party. Although the core tasks of the PTR—to maintain the base units of measurement and to ensure their incorporation in national standards—were still at the focus of its activities, under the leadership of Stark and Esau, the institute became more and more integrated into the NS policy of promoting the economy and national defense. The activities of some of the divisions were changed and new laboratories were established accordingly. The impact of the institute’s fundamental research, which had made the institute unique within the international framework, was substantially decreased.   

This project will investigate all of these processes in detail, embedding them into the scientific and political contexts of the time. It will give a survey of the then-current topics of research with the foundation of new research divisions and the reorganization of some traditional research fields. Apart from this description of the research praxis in this period, the study will also investigate the specific role of the PTR within the framework of NS science policy and the constellations of political power in the Third Reich, including an analysis of the Nazi Party membership of its employees, the expulsion of Jewish coworkers and the development of its budget and staff.

The planned publication will be the first comprehensive and detailed history of the PTR during the Third Reich and will provide a comparative perspective on the years before and after the despotic era of National Socialism, also touching on the issue of the continuities and discontinuities in the institute’s history. 

Articles on the Subject (Only in German)Articles on the Subject (Only in German)

Dieter Hoffmann, Johannes Stark – eine Persönlichkeit im Spannungsfeld von wissenschaftlicher Forschung und faschistischer Ideologie. In: Philosophie und Naturwissenschaften in Vergangenheit und Gegenwart, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, Heft 22, Wissenschaft und Persönlichkeit, Berlin 1982, S. 90 ff.

Dieter Hoffmann, Nationalsozialistische Gleichschaltung und Tendenzen militärtechnischer Forschungsorientierung an der Physikalisch-Technischen Reichsanstalt im Dritten Reich. In: Helmuth Albrecht (Hrsg.), Naturwissenschaft und Technik in der Geschichte, 25 Jahre Lehrstuhl für Geschichte der Naturwissenschaft und Technik am Historischen Institut der Universität Stuttgart, Stuttgart 1993, S. 121 ff.

Dieter Hoffmann, Rüdiger Stutz, Grenzgänger der Wissenschaft: Abraham Esau als Industriephysiker, Universitätsrektor und Forschungsmanager. In: Uwe Hoßfeld, Jürgen John, Oliver Lemuth, Rüdiger Stutz (Hrsg.), Kämpferische Wissenschaft, Studien  zur Universität Jena im Nationalsozialismus, Böhlau Verlag Köln Weimar Wien, 2003, S. 136 ff.

Dieter Hoffmann, Die Physikalisch-Technische Reichsanstalt im Dritten Reich. In: PTB-Mitteilungen 122 (2012) Heft 2, PTR/PTB: 125 Jahre metrologische Forschung, S. 30f.

Mark Walker, The Rise and Fall of an „Aryan“ Physicist, in: Nazi Science. Myth, Truth, and the German Atomic Bomb. 1995, S. 5 ff. (Initiates file downloadDownload)

CV Prof. Dr. Dieter Hoffmann

Dieter Hoffmann (2010)
Prof Dr. Dieter Hoffmann in 2010.

Dieter Hoffmann (born 1948),

graduated from Humboldt University Berlin in Physics (1972) and earned his PhD (1976) and habilitation (1989) there in the History of Science. From 1976 to 1990 he was a Research Fellow in the history of science at the GDR Academy of Sciences and subsequently a Humboldt Fellow and collaborator at the Physikalisch-Technische Bundesanstalt. In 1995 he became a senior scientist at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin (since 2014 retired) and has also teached as adjunct Professor at the Humboldt University.

In 2002 he was elected to the International Academy of the History of Science and in 2010 to the National Academy of Sciences, Leopoldina and also awarded with Honorary Pin of the German Physical Society.

The focus of research is the history of science and physics in the 19th and 20th century, in particular on biographies and institutional histories, by focusing on Berlin as a leading centre of science and technology. Another focus is science in totalitarian regimes, in particular during the Third Reich and in the GDR.

Opens external link in new windowMax Planck Institute for the History of Science


Publications (selection of books):

  • Erwin Schrödinger. Leipzig 1984 (in Russian 1987; Japanese 1989).
  • Robert Havemann: warum ich Stalinist war und Anti-Stalinist wurde. Texte und ein biographischer Essay. Editors. DH, Hubert Laitko. Berlin 1990.
  • Studien und Dokumente zum Leben und Werk von Ernst Mach. Editors DH, Hubert Laitko. Berlin 1991.
  • Operation Epsilon. Die Farm-Hall-Protokolle oder die Angst der Alliierten vor der deutschen Atombombe. Reinbeck 1993.
  • Naturwissenschaft und Technik in der DDR. Editors DH, Kristie Macrakis. Berlin 1997 (in English 1999).
  • Physik im Nachkriegsdeutschland. Frankfurt am Main 2002.
  • Albert Einstein. Berlin 2005 (in Russian 2009).
  • Einsteins Berlin. Weinheim 2006 (in English 2012).
  • Physiker zwischen Autonomie und Anpassung. Die Deutsche Physikalische Gesellschaft im Dritten Reich. Editors DH, Mark Walker. Weinheim 2007 (in English 2011).
  • Max Planck. Munich 2008.
  • "Fremde" Wissenschaftler im Dritten Reich. Die Debye-Affäre im Kontext. Editors DH and Mark Walker. Göttingen 2010.
  • Max Planck und die moderne Physik. Editor DH. Heidelberg 2010.
  • Hundert Jahre an der Schnittstelle von Chemie und Physik. Das Fritz-Haber Institut der Max-Planck-Gesellschaft zwischen 1911 und 2011. Berlin 2011 (together with B. Friedrich, J. James, Th. Steinhauser; German and English editions).
  • Physik und Kalter Krieg. Edited by Christian Forstner and Dieter Hoffmann. Vieweg Verlag. Wiesbaden 2013.
  • "Dem Anwenden muss das Erkennen vorausgehen". Auf dem Weg zu einer Geschichte der Kaiser-Wilhelm-/Max-Planck-Gesellschaft. Edited by Dieter Hoffmann, Birgit Kolboske, Jürgen Renn. Edition Open Access Berlin 2014.
  • Carl Friedrich von Weizsäcker (1912-2007): Physik-Philosophie-Friedensforschung. Edited by Klaus Hentschel and Dieter Hoffmann. Wissenschaftliche Verlagsgesellschaft Stuttgart 2014.
  • Co-editor of the encyclopedias "Bedeutende Naturwissenschaftler" (Heidelberg 2003) and "Wer war Wer in der DDR" (Berlin 2010).