Hermann Staudinger started a new phase of his life in the 1930s: his theory about the macromolecular structure of polymers – which was hotly contested in the initial stages – finally received the recognition it deserved. While the opposition he faced from the scientific community decreased, new storm clouds developed in 1933, when the Nazis assumed power. What did the totalitarian state have in store for Staudinger as head of the chemical institute at Freiburg University? And how did he position himself politically with respect to the fascist rulers, who operated in line with their well-known motto: “If you’re not for us, then you are against us”?
Hermann Staudinger started a new phase of his life in the 1930s: his theory about the macromolecular structure of polymers – which was hotly contested in the initial stages – finally received the recognition it deserved; the outsider who was considered to be suspicious became a celebrated iconoclast with a worldwide reputation. More and more of the organic chemists among his colleagues embraced Staudinger’s “giant molecules” concept. The same was true of Kurt Hans Meyer and Hermann Mark, who Staudinger said were his main opponents in the priority dispute, because their primary valence chains competed with his macromolecules (see Part 2 of this series). The “new micellar theory” propagated by Meyer and Mark was soon to be history; the two physical chemists gradually abandoned it as they made progress in their work (see Staudinger 1961, 93, and Priesner 1980, 214 and 380).
While the opposition he faced from the scientific community decreased, new storm clouds developed in 1933, when the Nazis assumed power. What did the totalitarian state have in store for Staudinger as head of the chemical institute at Freiburg University? And how did he position himself politically with respect to the fascist rulers, who operated in line with their well-known motto: “If you’re not for us, then you are against us”?
Accusation of “anti-German sentiment”
Krüll (1978a), 48 claims that Staudinger profited from the Nazi regime and its racial ideology, although the latter did not encourage this. “After 1933, Staudinger suddenly benefited from the fact that Mark and Meyer were Jews. In the context of ‘German natural science’, Staudinger was of course a priori in the right here, at least within the area controlled by the Nazi Party”. This assessment requires correction to the extent that Staudinger was neither dependent on support from any anti-Semites nor did he receive any such official support with respect to the scientific priority dispute. The Nazis did not by any means come to Staudinger’s defence against anyone; on the contrary, they attacked him themselves, accusing him of “anti-German sentiment” and making him a public enemy.
One of the first to investigate Hermann Staudinger politically was the philosopher Martin Heidegger (1889-1976), a new member of the Nazi party and the first Nazi vice-chancellor of Freiburg University (period of office: 23. April 1933 to 23. April 1934). Heidegger did not just denounce colleagues in his faculty, particularly those of Jewish origin, such as the philosopher Richard Hönigswald (1975-1947), who lost his chair at Munich University because of a negative report compiled by Heidegger (Heidegger 1933, 161: “particularly dangerous brilliance”, “vacuous dialectics”). Heidegger also denounced scientists from all other faculties and “races” who were identified as political opponents, particularly Communists and Social Democrats, but also people who were not members of any party but did not express Nazi / soldierly views. A description that – in Heidegger’s opinion – fitted Staudinger; the research done by the vice-chancellor produced so much incriminating evidence of this that he initiated impeachment proceedings against Freiburg’s star chemist:
• In July 1933, vice-chancellor Heidegger contacted the physicist Alfons Bühl (1900-1988) who had qualified to be a professor in Freiburg but was now teaching at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, where Staudinger used to work. Bühl was supposed to get to the bottom of “various rumours” (Ott 1992, 209), particularly the rumour that Staudinger had “acted as an advisor to enemies abroad” during the First World War, with respect to “the production of chemicals of importance to the war effort, particularly [...] dyes and pigments” (ibid., 203). This had at any rate been investigated by the German Embassy in Bern at the time. Bühl was unable to find out anything specific and was referred by a member of the staff of the Consulate General in Zurich to the Baden district authorities in Karlsruhe, where “material about Mr Staudinger from the year 1919 was available” (ibid., 209). – In this context, Heidegger’s biographer, Hugo Ott, stresses that the Staudinger affair was definitely attributable to the action taken by Heidegger; the driving force was not, as has often been claimed, the Ministry of Culture in Karlsruhe, which was only involved later on. Deichmann 2001, 398 writes: “Staudinger never found out that it was Heidegger who denounced him in 1933; his wife, Magda Staudinger, heard about it in 1982 via an article by Hugo Ott in the Badische Zeitung newspaper.” (cf. Ott 1992, 207)
• On 29. September 1933, the head of the university department at the Baden Ministry of Culture, Eugen Fehrle (1880-1957), was in Freiburg and was “informed” by Heidegger about “incriminating political material about Hermann Staudinger [...]” (ibid., 202). Just one day later, Fehrle submitted a report to the Freiburg police – 30. September was the deadline for the initiation of proceedings for political reasons on the basis of the Act passed on 7.April 1933 to restore the civil service, which enabled the Nazis to remove civil servants who had made themselves unpopular from their offices arbitrarily. The investigations against Staudinger were then taken over by the secret police in Karlsruhe under the pseudonym “Sternheim Project” (cf. Farías 1989, 177). It says in the files that Heidegger “was unable [...] to provide the secret police with any useful information” (Ott 1992, 202); instead of this, he merely passed on rumours. In the subsequent months, the secret police therefore collected “three extensive bundles of files” (ibid., 202) from documents at the Karlsruhe district authorities – Staudinger worked at Karlsruhe Technical University until 1912 – from the German Consulate General in Zurich and from the German Embassy in Bern. Farías 1989, 177-178 writes: “The material obtained by the secret police [...] was sufficient for a case to be initiated against Staudinger in Karlsruhe.”
Heidegger demands dismissal
● On 6. February 1934, Heidegger was “asked” by the Baden Ministry of Culture “to submit comments urgently, enclosing the files”, because “Paragraph 4 of the Act (to restore the civil service, editor’s note) must be applied, if necessary, by 31. March 1934” (Ott 1992, 204). The Freiburg vice-chancellor replied on 10. February, i.e. only four days later, and argued in favour of a dismissal of Staudinger from his position as a civil servant. Among other things, Heidegger’s letter says:
“All the reports by the German Consulate General in Zurich from the War [...] talk about the disclosure by St. of German chemical manufacturing processes to foreign (enemies). [...] Staudinger has [...] ‘never denied that he was in complete opposition to the national movement in Germany and has declared on numerous occasions that he will never defend his fatherland with weapons or by service in other forms’. [...] No less incriminating evidence is the fact that Staudinger wrote a petition for the pacifist Dr. med. (Georg Friedrich, editor’s note) Nicolai (1874-1964, editor’s note), who had refused to take the oath of allegiance, in Zurich in 1917. [...] These facts alone require application of Paragraph 4 of the Act to restore the civil service. Since they have become and remained known to large numbers of people in Germany since the discussions about the appointment of Staudinger to the position in Freiburg in 1925/26, action also needs to be taken in order to protect the reputation of Freiburg University [...]. Dismissal is likely to be the better option rather than retirement. Heil Hitler! Heidegger” (quoted in Ott 1992, 205)
The Baden Minister of Culture, Otto Wacker (1899-1940), supported Heidegger’s demand on 22. February 1934 (see Farías 1989, 178, Ott 1992, 206, and Deichmann 2001, 397) and proposed: “The Ministry of State is asked to suggest to the Reich Governor that Professor Dr Hermann Staudinger [...] is dismissed from the Baden civil service.” (quoted from Ott 1992, 206) Staudinger was “no longer a suitable teacher for German academic youth; I consider that the conditions for removal from Freiburg University in accordance with § 4 of the Act (to restore the civil service, editor’s note) are satisfied” (ibid.).
The fact that Staudinger was an annoyance to staunch Nazis was attributable to more than mere rumours:
● The political background of Staudinger’s family was strongly left-wing. His father Franz (1849-1921) had a doctorate in philosophy, sought to combine the theories of Kant and Marx, published in the “Sozialistische Monatshefte”, was involved in the co-operative movement and maintained personal friendships with such prominent Social Democrats as Eduard Bernstein (1850-1932). Staudinger’s first wife, Dora (1886-1964), née Förster, was also actively involved in the co-operative movement as well as “in the religious-pacifist and religious-socialist circles led by the (Swiss, editor’s note) clergyman (Leonhard, editor’s note) Ragaz (1868-1945, editor’s note), who then lost his position in the ministry” (Ott 1992, 204). Staudinger’s brother Hans (1889-1980), Secretary of State in the Prussian Ministry of Trade, was a member of the Social Democratic Party and was married to the Jew Else Maier (1889-1966). He was immediately dismissed from the civil service and arrested in 1933. In 1934, he was able to emigrate to the USA, where he became Economics Professor at the New School for Social Research in New York (cf. Deichmann 2001, 396-397). – As is generally known, the Communist and Social Democratic Parties were branded as subversive right from the start and their members were persecuted systematically. On the basis of what was known as the Reichstag fire regulation of 28. February 1933, the 81 parliamentary seats held by the Communist Party were revoked on 8. March and the assets of the party were confiscated on 26. May. With reference to the Social Democratic Party, the Reich Minister of the Interior, Wilhelm Frick (1877-1946), called on the state governments to ban the party’s activities on 22. June:
“The Social Democrats cannot [...] be allowed to carry out propaganda activities of any kind. [...] The assets [...] that have not already been confiscated in connection with the dissolution of the free unions will be seized. It goes without saying that it is not possible for civil servants and employees who receive salaries, wages or pensions from public funds to continue being members of the Social Democratic Party in view of its treacherous character.” (quoted from http://library.fes.de/fulltext/bibliothek/chronik/band2/e235f1109.html)
The Reich Ministry of Justice announced in this context: “Officials who used to be members of these parties must be required to submit a written statement that they no longer maintain a relationship of any kind to the two parties (Social Democratic and Communist Parties, editor’s note), their support and substitute organisations and their representatives abroad. Their attention must be brought to the fact that dismissal is the punishment for the provision of false information” (quoted from Minssen/Walgenbach 1985-I, 171).
● The accusation Staudinger faced that he failed to demonstrate “sympathy for the national cause” was based primarily on his attempts to obtain dual citizenship during his years in Zurich, i.e. after he acquired a Swiss passport in addition to his German one. In his letter of 10. February 1934, in which he demanded Staudinger’s dismissal, Heidegger criticised: “In January 1917, i.e. when the fatherland was at its time of greatest need, St. applied for Swiss citizenship without their being any professional or other necessity for this. Implementation of this plan was prevented by the German Consulate General. [...] On 9.1.1919, i.e. directly after Germany collapsed, St. submitted his request for permission to become a citizen of Switzerland again [...]. Naturalisation occurred on 23.1.20, without German approval being obtained.” (quoted from Ott 1992, 205) This went hand in hand with the accusation of “pacifist sentiment” (Ott 1992, 204): although he was rejected as unfit for military service at the age of 23, Staudinger was examined again by military doctors during the First World War at the age of 34 and this time he was merely exempted from military service temporarily. Staudinger probably applied for a Swiss passport in order to avoid being called up, as was to be expected (cf. Ott 1992, 203). This interpretation is, however, contradicted by the fact it took almost two years for Staudinger to do this; his commitment to Switzerland can therefore be interpreted instead as the adoption of a neutral position with respect to the participants in the war, whom he called on in 1917 to cease all fighting and to initiate peace negotiations.
“Supporter of the national uprising”
Staudinger had nothing to win by defending his position. So he decided to say during his hearing at the Baden Ministry of Culture on 17. February 1934 that he “abandoned his earlier political views a long time ago” (see Ott 1992, 207). “The accusation that he harboured ‘anti-national sentiments’ could not be made against him any longer since he started working in Freiburg; on the contrary, he had ‘welcomed the start of the national revolution enthusiastically.’” (Deichmann 2001, 397) A tactical manoeuvre, that the Nazis were reluctant to believe – Heidegger, for example, was very sarcastic about the fact that “Staudinger now claims to be a 110% supporter of the national uprising” (quoted from Ott 1992, 205). Deichmann 2001, 397 confirms this: “He was unable to refute the allegations of anti-German behaviour during the First World War by adopting this defence strategy.” (cf. Ott 1992, 206) Staudinger therefore responded again by rejecting descriptions of himself as “anti-German” and a “pacifist”:
● Staudinger was forced to contend with the accusation that he had abandoned Germany and “had been abroad for too long” (Minssen/Walgenbach 1985-I, 193) until the end of the 1930s. He tried to refute it by pointing out how he maintained close contacts to German industry during his time at the chemical institute at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich:
“’Throughout this period from 1912 to 1926, I maintained relationships to German industry and carried out a number of major projects with the same. [...]‘ Staudinger lists: 1. Pest control, 2. Pepper synthesis, 3. Trials to synthesise an artificial coffee aroma. All of these projects were connected with the production of substitutes during the First World War. [...] ‘I would also like to note that the desire to return to Germany was the only reason for me to accept the appointment offered (in Freiburg, editor’s note) in 1926, in order to continue my work about macromolecular chemistry, which I considered and still consider important, there. The Swiss educational authorities had made me attractive offers to persuade me to stay. I doubled the size of the laboratory in Zurich during my time in office there, whereas the Freiburg laboratory offered far less appealing working conditions in every respect at the time – a situation that has only changed fundamentally now.’”
(letter from Staudinger dated 7. November 1938, quoted from Minssen/Walgenbach 1985-I, 193)
● Staudinger tried to prove the Nazis wrong in accusing him of being a pacifist by disassociating himself from fundamentalist positions: “He was not a pacifist in the strictly religious sense of the Quakers or conscientious objectors; he was, instead, a pacifist ‘because of my convictions about the importance of technology in armed combat’” (Ott 1992, 207). To defend himself against the attempts made to discredit him, Staudinger now followed the arguments he put forward back then – which he insisted were strictly scientific and thus non-political – by an article written for the “Völkische Zeitung” newspaper in Düsseldorf, which appeared on 25. February 1934 with the title “Die Bedeutung der Chemie für das deutsche Volk” (= “The importance of chemistry to the German people”). He had reprints of this newspaper article sent to the Baden Minister of Culture, Otto Wacker, and the Nazi Mayor of Freiburg, Franz Kerber (1901-1945) (see Otto 1992, 207, and Deichmann 2001, 398). This article includes Staudinger’s following statements:
“The German people only have two options open to them, in order to survive. On the one hand, as many products as possible must be obtained from the land available by taking particularly good care of it. Attempts also need to be made, on the other hand, to reduce imports. [...] If German technology can be expanded [...] in the next few years, major steps will have been taken to give Germany an independent position in the world.” (quoted from Minssen/Walgenbach 1985-I, 182)
No capitulation to the Nazis, but instead – as Ott 1992, 207 says – “a ‘goodwill move’ by which Staudinger accepted the policy of independence adopted by the Nazi government and tried to recommend himself as a contributor on the basis of his scientific know-how. As a result, “he could now have ‘an extremely wide range of possible activities’ in the Nazi state” (ibid.).
Sensational turn of events
All in all, Staudinger’s attempts to defend himself against the attacks by the Nazis do not appear to be a particularly convincing way to avoid dismissal from the civil service. What was, at least, dropped was “the charge of the betrayal of manufacturing secrets” to foreign enemies (Ott 1992, 205, cf. Deichmann 2001, 397). Staudinger himself was not, however, in a position to save his neck completely. What helped him, in the final analysis, was his professional reputation. Heidegger himself advised on 5. March 1934 – reluctantly – that “consideration is given to the position that the person in question holds in his scientific field abroad”, although not without mentioning “that there cannot of course be any change in the facts of the matter. What is only involved here is the avoidance if at all possible of a new foreign policy problem” (quoted from Ott 1992, 208). A retreat, although he continued to insist that sanctions needed to be imposed on Staudinger, albeit in a milder form: Heidegger suggested that Staudinger should not, after all, be dismissed without pay but be allowed to retire instead (cf. Farías 1989, 178, and Ott 1992, 209). This “act of mercy” (Ott 1992, 209) would of course have meant the end of Staudinger’s career in Germany too. The last word had not been spoken, however, and the scandal is avoided: “Various interventions – the Nazi mayor of Freiburg, Dr Kerber, expressed support for Staudinger, for example, as did – presumably – the chemical industry – with the result that the (Baden, editor’s note) Ministry of Culture withdrew the application (made on 22. February 1934, editor’s note).” (Deichmann 2001, 397; cf. Ott 1992, 207)
A sensational turn of events, but not without the Nazi authorities humiliating Staudinger again to save face: he himself “was required to submit the official application for dismissal from the Baden civil service, which was then filed for six months. Since the accusations were based on a situation that took place a long time in the past, ‘an official decision’ about the application for dismissal would only be ‘made if concerns arose again.’ This was not the case [...] and Staudinger was, as agreed, allowed to withdraw his application in October 1934. The case was closed, although it was a close shave for Staudinger.” (Ott 1992, 208; cf. Farías 1989, 178, and Deichmann 2001, 398)
He continued to be resented just as much even so, because – as Heidegger put it – “there cannot of course be any change [...] in the facts of the matter”. Staudinger realised how thin the ice was on which he was standing. The fascinating question is how he responded to this and what strategy he chose to make himself as untouchable as possible. He stayed put at any rate, rejecting the offer of an appointment at Berlin Technical University, which then chose Franz Bachér (1894-1987) to take over the vacant chair – “an active Nazi and insignificant chemist” (Deichmann 2001, 183). In view of the extent to which he was disliked by the Nazis, the capital of the Reich must have seemed to Staudinger to be a veritable lion’s den, so he felt it was better for him to stay in Freiburg in spite of the crisis he had just faced. The situation there did not ease, however; if anything, it was made even more difficult for him to work: “From June 1933 to October 1936, Staudinger made five trips abroad to various European countries. With reference to his political past, he was, however, asked by the Reich Ministry of Education to turn down invitations to Zurich (1937), Riga (1937) and Rome (to the International Congress for Chemists in 1938).” (Deichmann 2001, 399) A letter from the Reich Minister of Science and Education, Bernhard Rust (1883-1945), to the vice-chancellor of Freiburg University, Otto Mangold (1891-1962), dated 2. November 1938 includes the following statements about this:
“I reserve the right to take the decision about applications submitted by Professor Dr H. Staudinger, Director of the Chemical Laboratory at the University of Freiburg i.B., in future relating to the approval of scientific trips abroad. I request that Professor Staudinger is informed in an appropriate way of the fact that it does not appear to me to be desirable for Professor Staudinger to carry out scientific activities abroad until further notice in view of his political past.” (quoted from Minssen/Walgenbach 1985-I, 192)
Due to the pressure exerted on him, Staudinger was afraid that he would be marginalised at the international level, so that other scientists would be able to claim responsibility for work that he had done: “In American literature, the situation is already described frequently as if Carothers created high-molecular chemistry”, he complained on 23. November 1934 in a letter to Georg Kränzlein (1881-1943; quoted from Deichmann 2001, 404), “one of the directors of I.G. Farben, who [...] was in charge of the Alizarin Department at the Hoechst factory” (ibid., 399). Following the collapse of the “Third Reich”, Staudinger was to accuse the Nazis – in a memorandum submitted in July 1945 – of weakening Germany’s position as a scientific location and of causing the country to fall behind in the international competitive environment:
“Party considerations [...] prevented a major new area of German research (= macromolecular chemistry, editor’s note) from being represented adequately abroad; this is a particularly unfortunate fact, because this area has been given particularly strong support in England and America due to its technical and scientific importance.” (Staudinger 1945, 11)
In order to be able to carry out scientific research undisturbed, Staudinger tried to make sure that he did not give the authorities any new targets for political attacks or that such attacks were ineffective. He developed a strategy of ingratiating himself with the Nazis, taking a variety of different action in this context. In view of the rejection of his macromolecule concept in the early stages, he claimed – for example – that he was a “victim of Jews” (Deichmann 2001, 404), criticised their alleged dominance in the scientific world and was even willing to use anti-Semitic clichés and slogans.
In a letter written on 9. June 1941 to the Cologne businessman Wolfgang Klever (1881-1970), a personal friend and former student, Staudinger spun a yarn about “a completely self-contained clique [...], which formed earlier on before 1933 and still sticks together today. It is very difficult to prevail against these Jews abroad and here in Germany.” (quoted from Priesner 1980, 329) What Staudinger failed to mention here was, on the one hand, the fact that it was a Jewish winner of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, Richard Willstätter (1872-1942), who was the first to subscribe to his macromolecule theory. On the other hand, he dug up the hatchet – which had really been buried for years – and attacked his former opponents Kurt Hans Meyer and Hermann Mark (see Part 2 of this series), because they were the target of the criticism he expressed. Jaenicke 2003, 604 talks in this context about “bogeymen”. There can be question of the two chemists ever conspiring to oppose Staudinger and there was certainly no threat to him from them since they emigrated: from 1932 onwards, Meyer taught at Geneva University, after his appointment to Berlin Technical University – which was as good as certain – was thwarted by Staudinger himself (see Priesner 1980, 306-307, and Deichmann 2001, 255). After permission for him to teach at Vienna University was withdrawn and he was imprisoned for a time, Mark escaped from the Nazis by moving to the USA in 1938, where he started working at the Polytechnic Institute of New York in Brooklyn in 1940 (cf. Priesner 1980, 327, and Deichmann 2001, 183). Staudinger did not stop presenting himself as a victim even so. In June 1938, for example, he wrote – “in a distortion of the truth” (Deichmann 2001, 406) – the following letter to the Reich Ministry of Education, after this Ministry had prohibited him from attending the International Congress for Chemists in Rome:
“My position in the German chemical community is being influenced very unfavourably by a scientific battle that I [...] have had to fight against what are primarily Jewish circles. The field of high-molecular substances (rubber, cellulose, plastics) that is involved here is of both scientific and technical significance. My results were rejected at the 1926 conference for natural science researchers in Düsseldorf, since numerous Jewish scientists had completely different views at the time. From 1928 onwards, they then – above all K. H. Meyer – tried to take over major results of my work without mentioning me, something that is standard practice in the scientific world otherwise. Since I was unable to accept this, an argument began that continued for years and was very disadvantageous for me personally, since K. H. Meyer as a member of the Management Board of I.G. Farben-Industrie and director of the plant in Ludwigshafen held a very influential position in the German chemical community. The success that Jewish circles have in the scientific world is based on the same method that they apply in other areas too: emphasising their own achievements and expressing biting criticism of others. [...] They make their very negative influence felt at domestic and foreign congresses, particularly – for example – at the International Congress for Chemists in Madrid in 1934. These circles, that I opposed in Madrid, will be particularly delighted by my failure to attend the congress in Rome. My only regret is that the battle I have been fighting for decades to overcome the Jewish influence in this important chemical field has as a result to all intents and purposes been fought in vain.” (quoted from Deichmann 2001, 406-407)
This was a shot that backfired: the Reich Ministry of Education confronted I.G. Farben with the contents of the letter and asked Georg Kränzlein – who has already been mentioned – from the Hoechst plant to comment. Kränzlein was “disgusted by the criticism that Staudinger expressed about I.G. too via the accusations about Meyer” and “rejected Staudinger’s claim of having become a victim of Jewish intrigues as untenable” (Deichmann 2001, 407). But what prompted Staudinger to make further offensive anti-Semitic comments (“self-contained Jewish clique”) about Meyer and Mark three years later, as has already been mentioned? The occasion was the appearance of the textbook “High-Polymer Chemistry” written by the two of them, “which, in spite of the fact that both were Jews by Nazi definition, was published in Leipzig in 1940 and was reviewed positively” in the magazine “Die Naturwissenschaften” (Deichmann 2001, 408-409). It says in this “with reference to Staudinger: ‘Read the section about viscosity. Although a direct and simple relationship between molecule size and chain length is rejected with convincing arguments, the writer specifically emphasises the viability of viscosity measurement for evaluating the solutions of high-molecular substances. This chapter will be particularly instructive to those who go as far as to virtually confuse chain lengths or the degree of polymerisation and indicators derived from viscosity.’” (ibid., 409)
Priesner 1980, 331 concluded that all this was “an unmistakable indication that Staudinger continued to see his fellow-chemists as enemies” and added: “It is frightening that the small amount of intellectual freedom which still existed in Germany in 1941 was vilified as an intrigue on the part of a group of conspirators” (ibid., 330). Jaenicke 2003, 604 criticises Staudinger’s “attacks ( ) on the Jewish surrounding of German macromolecules by anti-German polymer chains” and “the typical [...] unoriginal adoption of other people’s ideas and culture for commercial purposes” as “embarrassing, [...], obsequious and opportunistic” and concludes: “Genius does not protect against stupidity” (ibid.). Staudinger did not make himself many friends among the Nazis with his anti-Semitic pretence either. I.G. Director Georg Kränzlein, who subsequently became the regional head of the Nazi technical authorities in Hesse-Nassau and SS-Hauptsturmführer (= captain)” (Deichmann 2001, 406), reprimanded him:
“In my opinion, you make the mistake of arguing with Jews the whole time. [...] There is no need for you to start polemic discussions with Jews, because by doing so you give them too much honour. Avoid and ignore these people, because otherwise you let them have the last word over and over again, which regularly harms you. We disassociate ourselves systematically from the Jews, as the Nuremberg Laws prove. By doing this, we send them back to where they came from. Why don’t you disassociate yourself in the scientific world? Here too, they need to return to the intellectual ghetto they came from, back to their Talmud, which they are incapable of escaping from. [...] Instead of this, you incite the Jews to band together against you more and more and this will harm you in the long run. [...] Now it is your duty not to mention the Jews again at all, definitely not allowing yourself to continue a polemic debate with them.”
(Letter of 3. June 1936 from Kränzlein to Staudinger, quoted from Priesner 1980, 318; cf. ibid., 317, and Deichmann 2001, 405)
Staudinger nevertheless continued to do everything in his power to be considered an anti-Semite: “As early as 1936, he had worried that too many ‘non-Arians’ could study at his institute; and in May 1942, he again expressed misgivings to the vice-chancellor in writing – now that there were no more Jews at German universities – about too many ‘half-breeds’ among the chemistry students” (Martin 1994, 11, footnote 32).
No chance of a party membership book
The aim of “his application for membership of the Nazi party” (Schnabel 1991, 230) was to eliminate any doubts about his loyalty to party principles, but this application was rejected, officially “because of former membership of a Masonic Lodge” (ibid.). A family tradition – Staudinger’s father was “Grand Master of the Grand Lodge ‘zur Eintracht’” (Krüll 1978b, 225). Incidentally: Staudinger was only registered as a passive member of the SS because the latter “blackmailed him [...], forcing him to pay protection money from time to time” (Jaenicke 2003, 604).
Even though Staudinger – as has been indicated – did everything in his power to make the impression of being a staunch follower of the Nazis, Krüll 1978a, 48 confirms that he was “no Nazi”. Rightly so, because Staudinger generally showed no interest at all in Nazi ideology in his position as head of the institute and could not have been more politically incorrect in his actions, protecting students and assistants who were disapproved of by the Nazis:
● Staudinger came to the defence of Ernst Trommsdorff (1905-1996), “one of my best assistants and staff members” (quoted from Minssen/Walgenbach 1985-I, 176), who he supervised when he obtained his doctorate in 1932 and who was now in danger of being dismissed from the civil service because of his “Jewish origins”. On 1. August 1933, shortly before he himself became a target, Staudinger wrote a letter to vice-chancellor Martin Heidegger:
“Since they work together, there is a strong feeling of solidarity in my laboratory between the laboratory staff, the lecturers, the assistants and the students. Dr Trommsdorff is a fully integrated member of this team. Last year, for example, he and seven other assistants helped me to write a book about rubber and cellulose. This community spirit will be destroyed if a member of the team is required to leave in these circumstances.” (quoted from Minssen/Walgenbach 1985-I, 175)
In another line of argument, Staudinger deliberately tried to portray Trommsdorff as someone who sympathised with the Nazi movement, with the aim of taking the wind out of the sails of those who wanted to harm him:
“In all his opinions, Dr Trommsdorff has a very positive attitude towards the state as it is today. One of his brothers is a member of the Hitler Youth organisation. The position Dr Trommsdorff holds among his comrades is made most clear by the fact that he has acted as group leader in military sports exercises. I have discussed this matter with Dr (Ernst Otto, editor’s note) Leupold (born in 1903, editor’s note) too, who is the representative of the assistants in the laboratory for which I am responsible; he agrees with my view that the assistants and students do not feel that Dr Trommsdorff should be covered by the [...] Act (to restore the civil service, editor’s note). This statement was important to me, since Dr Leupold has been a member of the SS for a long time now and has studied Nazi issues intensively.” (quoted from Minssen/Walgenbach 1985-I, 174)
It may well have been quite a clever move “to make progress with his own cause” (Minssen/Walgenbach 1985-I, 191) for Staudinger to “assume or use moral concepts followed by the ruling class” (ibid., 183). Anyone who believes that “one does not change at all in the process” (ibid, 191) is subject to an error of judgement, however – like it or not, one’s own personality is distorted as a result.
Staudinger did not succeed in preventing Trommsdorff from being dismissed; the latter was unable to pursue a normal scientific career in the Nazi state. “I would have liked him to have qualified as a professor here, but this is not unfortunately possible at the moment”, Staudinger regretted in a letter of recommendation to the British chemist Sir Robert Mond (1867-1938), with which he tried to help his assistant to make a career for himself in England (quoted from Minssen/Walgenbach 1985-I, 176). Instead of this, Trommsdorff joined Röhm und Haas AG, Esslinglen and Philadelphia, where he became Research Manager in 1939.
● “Not only Staudinger was accused of spending too much time abroad; one of his staff was among those who faced the same charge. Political pressure had increased in the meantime. No-one needed to be an ‘enemy of the state’ any more [...] in order to suffer professional problems. It was sufficient for someone not to stand up for Nazi ideology actively enough, ‘to fail to show commitment to the Nazi state’”, as can be read in Minssen/Walgenbach 1985-I, 193-194. In June 1941, Dr Rolf Mohr (born in 1910), one of Staudinger’s staff, who he wanted to make his scientific assistant, was the victim. The application to this effect was initially approved by the dean of the natural science/mathematical faculty, but the Nazi leader of Freiburg’s lecturers (Eduard, editor’s note) Steinke (1899-1963, editor’s note) raised “concerns for political reasons” (ibid., 195):
It is a well-known fact that Mohr obtained all of his education and training outside Germany (= in Switzerland; editor’s note). During the many years of his activities here (= since 1933, editor’s note), he has demonstrated no commitment to the Nazi state [...]. He only recently joined a Nazi unit and has been in the armed forces since the spring of this year. Since the lecturers’ leadership is of the opinion that Mohr is not a suitable candidate for an academic career in view of his overall attitude and views, I do not consider it justified to appoint him to the position of scientific assistant; instead of this, I would be grateful if he were allowed to continue holding such a position on a provisional basis for the time being.”
(Official party letter written by Steinke to the vice-chancellor’s office at Albert Ludwigs University in Freiburg on 10. June 1941; quoted from Minssen/Walgenbach 1985-I, 196)
Vice-chancellor Wilhelm Süss (1895-1958) agreed with Steinke’s assessment:
“Dr Rolf Mohr cannot be appointed to be a scientific assistant yet. Dr Mohr has been evaluated unfavourably in political appraisals in the past. Since he only recently joined a Nazi unit, a lengthy probationary period will be necessary before any change is made in the current assessment of his political views. I would be grateful if Dr Mohr was to continue holding a position as assistant on a provisional basis.”
(Letter written by the vice-chancellor to Staudinger on 30. June 1941; quoted from Minssen/Walgenbach 1985-I, 196)
In response to this, Staudinger threatened to the vice-chancellor on 5. July “to inform Dr Mohr about the contents of your letter, since he has turned down attractive technical positions in the hope of being able to qualify for a professorship here” (quoted from Minssen/Walgenbach 1985-I, 197). Staudinger was not allowed to inform Mohr about the arguments against his appointment as an assistant in writing; he “is instructed to make contact with the lecturers’ leader before taking further action” (ibid., 198). It has been lost in the mists of time exactly how the Mohr issue was resolved in the Third Reich. What is definite is that Mohr did not qualify for a professorship in Freiburg until 1946 with a thesis “About the stabilisation of cellulose nitrates”.
● In June 1942, Staudinger’s “half-Jewish” student Gerhard Bier (1917-2003) – whose mother was a Jew – was prohibited from completing his chemistry degree, after he had already been forced to discontinue studying medicine elsewhere in 1939. However, the Freiburg “vice-chancellor Süss and Professor Staudinger make it possible for him to stay another few months to graduate.” (Deichmann 2001, 86) Bier remembers:
“There were a number of other ‘half-Jews’ who studied chemistry apart from me. After the final exams, Staudinger said to me: ‘If you want, I can find out whether you can work here.’ He phoned the military research authorities responsible and received approval to deploy me as a scientific professional for work in the macromolecular research institute that was of importance to the war effort. I was paid as an untrained scientific assistant, i.e. received 100 RM per month.” (quoted from Deichmann 2001, 86)
Bier managed to graduate in 1942 (cf. Deichmann 2001, 412), but then things got too dangerous for him in Germany in 1944, so that he fled to Switzerland (ibid., 86), where he completed a doctorate at Bern University in 1946.
Two different political faces
In view of all this, Staudinger’s behaviour in politically difficult contexts must be considered contradictory. While he was a conformist at some times, he was a troublemaker at others; all in all, he remained unpredictable, managing not only to express politically correct views with impressive vehemence but also to step out of line subversively. Which means that he acted neither as a model Nazi nor as a figure with whom anti-fascists could identify. In the end, the Nazi regime abandoned the strong reservations against him even so and came to terms with the man who was originally reviled as a “traitor to his country”.
The turning point came in 1940: a separate research department for macromolecular chemistry was established at Staudinger’s institute and was affiliated to the chemical laboratory at the university – after the institute had already been expanded twice in 1933 and 1937, “in order to create additional capacities for the [...] growth in macromolecular chemistry” (Heimlich 1998, 84). Staudinger was to head this department, which was the first in Europe to be devoted exclusively to the new area of research into polymer sciences, until he retired in 1951. After this, he remained in charge for another five years on an honorary basis. The ban on foreign travel was lifted in 1940 too, when Staudinger’s “name was cleared completely at the political level” (Deichmann 2001, 399). Reich Minister of Education Rust received the following letter from the head of the scientific authorities at his ministry, represented by Otto Wacker, on 26. January 1940:
“The district controller in Freiburg has informed me that he has decided to deploy Professor Staudinger politically to a certain extent too in view of his impeccable conduct in recent years. He will as a result be speaking to a selection of political leaders for the first time in the next few days. The district controller therefore considers that the Staudinger case is now closed completely. At the same time that I am informing you about this fact, I think that I am in a position to express the opinion that no fundamental objections should be raised any more in future to scientific activities by Professor Staudinger abroad.” (quoted from Deichmann 2001, 399)
Von 1942 bis 1944 wurde Staudinger zwecks Kulturpropaganda „im vom Deutschland besetzten bzw. annektierten Ausland“ eingesetzt und unternahm in dieser Zeit insgesamt acht Vortragsreisen, unter anderem nach Prag, Mülhausen und Straßburg: „Staudinger hatte sich das Vertrauen der NS-Machthaber erworben.“ (Deichmann 2001, 399; vgl. Schnabel 1991, 230)
Promotion of defence chemistry
It can be assumed that the sudden change in the Nazis’ position was attributable less to a fundamental re-evaluation of Staudinger as a person and more to an increase in their appreciation of what he had to offer professionally as the “natural science figurehead of Freiburg University” (Martin 1994, 11). This was due to the fact that the organic and polymer chemistry he represented was considered to be of importance to the war effort in 1940 – something that Staudinger’s pupil Gerhard Bier had already benefited from, as has been indicated. Staudinger seized the opportunity and never tired of emphasising that he could – and wanted to – be of use to Germany in the war. In the spirit of the Nazi policy of self-sufficiency, he tried to convince the authorities of his ability “to supplement the chemical arsenal by adding plastics and substitute materials” (Jaenicke 2003, 604; cf. Deichmann 2001, 397, and Westermann 2007, 115). He was also willing to make his laboratory available for the promotion of what was known as defence chemistry. As early as 5. September 1939, four days after the attack on Poland, he wrote to the Freiburg vice-chancellor Mangold:
“A number of projects of importance to the war effort have been carried out at the chemical institute here for years now, e.g. in connection with the gas protection department at the Ministry of War and with Draeger-Werke in Lübeck. At the suggestion of the latter, work has been done about mustard gas protection (the original name for the chemical weapon yellow cross was “Lost” [...]) and I am involved in developing a reaction for the detection of traces of Lost. Studying cellulose and nitrocellulose have prompted visits to explosives factories, so that I have become acquainted with problems faced by the explosives industry.” (quoted from Schnabel 1991, 222)
On 19. October 1939, Staudinger drew attention to the importance of his work to the war effort and the country in a letter to Rudolf Mentzel (1900-1987), President of the German Research Association (DFG) and a member of the Nazi party since 1925: “He stressed that the findings about the structure of cellulose, e.g. the identification of imperfections in the molecule, are of significance with respect to the production of gun cotton and nitrate powders and emphasised the general importance of his work in relation to the constitution of Buna and chlorinated rubber, which is used as a rust-proofing agent. He quoted projects about an agent providing protection against weapons and a new gas mask as examples of work done by his institute that was of special importance to the war effort. The production of synthetic pepper, which came onto the market in Germany in the First World War, had been started again too. (Peter Adolf, editor’s note) Thiessen (1899-1990, director of the Kaiser Wilhelm institute for physical chemistry and electrochemistry and a member of the Nazi party since 1925; editor’s note) acknowledged that Staudinger’s work was important to the war effort and the country, with the argument that although Staudinger’s research was not of direct importance to the war effort, it was of considerable significance to the raw material situation, because it could at any time lead to practical consequences for the cellulose manufacturing industry, the plastics field etc.” (Deichmann 2001, 411-412)
“Staudinger also carried out a research project for the Reich Ministry of Aviation and the commander-in-chief of the air force that focussed on ‘Investigations into nitrocellulose’” (Deichmann 2001, 412), which – according to Gerhard Bier, his pupil at the time – was the area of operation of greatest relevance to the war effort:
“Nitrocellulose was an industrial product, the raw material for celluloid [...] and for civil and military explosives as well as for civil and military ammunition fuels. Problems of storage stability arose in the large-scale production of nitrocellulose during the war. For unknown reasons, nitrocellulose or a mixture containing nitrocellulose degenerated occasionally, which led – for example – to premature explosions. By carrying out systematic tests, Staudinger’s staff found out that traces of sulphuric acid in the nitrocellulose were the reason for why the nitrocellulose was not stable in storage. The precondition for high storage stability was to wash out the nitrocellulose thoroughly, in the context of which the sulphuric acid ester groups needed to be hydrolysed too. The sulphuric acid was a necessary component of the nitration mixture. I am not aware of the details of this work. [...] Other work done during the war related to the plastics sector and the synthesis factor sector, e.g. polyamides.”
(Letter written by Gerhard Bier to Ute Deichmann on 2.9.1996, quoted from Deichmann 2001, 412)
Funding from industry
There is no doubt about it: between 1939 and 1945, the most important institute at Freiburg University as far as the war effort was concerned – alongside the physics institute – was the chemical institute (for details, see Schnabel 1991, 223, and Martin 1994, 11, footnote 32) and it received appropriate funding. This funding came from many different sources, with “industry providing far more money for (Staudinger’s, editor’s note) research than the emergency association/German Research Association” (Deichmann 2001, 401):
● “As an external member of staff, Staudinger received RM 10,000 per year from I. G. Farben from 1927 to 1937 for studying rubber and high-molecular natural and artificial substances/plastics. [...] In 1943, Staudinger became an external member of the staff of I. G. again, this company supporting him to the tune of 10,000 RM in both 1943 and 1944.” (Deichmann 2001, 400-401; cf. ibid., 241) Westermann 2007, 68 points out in this context: “This means that he had additional research funds at his disposal that amounted to far more than half of his annual income as professor. Between 1930 and 1932, Staudinger earned RM 1,166.66 per month, increasing to RM 1,350.66 with all allowances."
● “Staudinger’s research into cellulose and other fibres started to receive funding from the emergency association/German Research Association in 1936. He received regular support of between RM 3,000 and RM 12,000 per year until 1943.” (Deichmann 2001, 401). The funds provided by the German Research Association and the Reich Research Council are said ibid., 232 to total RM 66,160 in the period 1934 – 1945.
● “Staudinger’s work [...] was also funded by the Reich economic development authorities as of 1941; the amounts provided are not known.” (Deichmann 2001, 412)
This list is in curious contrast to Staudinger’s own statements after the war: “The research activities of the undersigned were made more difficult by the fact that he was viewed unfavourably by the party [...]. Due to the position adopted by the party, other major authorities, such as the Reich Research Council, the Reich economic development authorities, etc., were influenced either to refuse funding for the work at the institute here or only to approve minor financial support.” (Staudinger 1945, 11)
Apart from this, Schnabel 1991, 230 criticises the fact that Staudinger makes no mention at all of the research he did that was of importance to the war effort, something which he had played as his trump card during the time of the Nazi regime, in the “Report about the influence of National Socialism on the teaching activities of the chemical institute”, which has just been quoted above. In his review of the “Third Reich”, Staudinger criticised party-political nepotism in the making of appointments to scientific and university administration positions and the lack of funding for young academics:
“In my practical experience, it was frequently the case during the Nazi period that qualified assistants contemptuously rejected suggestions that they pursued an academic career and opted instead to accept technical positions – not just for financial reasons but also and primarily due to the uncertainty of an academic career because of intervention by the Nazis; during this time, the institute director was unable to guarantee even the most capable of chemists a successful academic career, as the official controller responsible for the students and lecturers as well as the head of the training camps had much greater influence than the performance of the applicant. A successful academic career was as a result dependent more on party activities than on scientific achievements.” (Staudinger 1945, 7)
Veil of silence
After 1945, it was not unusual for chemists to cast a veil of silence over their involvement in the crimes of the Nazi regime. Deichmann 2001, 414 brought up this painful subject: “In contrast to prominent German physicists, who professed after the war that they had not been in favour of the production of the atomic bomb for moral reasons, neither Staudinger nor other chemists claimed that they were unable to synthesise an artificial fibre, an explosive, a poison gas or an antidote because they had not wanted to for moral reasons. They were honest about this. However, Staudinger (and all his fellow chemists) failed to comment on the enormous crimes that were committed with the involvement of chemists. [...] The killing of mentally disturbed Germans by carbon monoxide and of European Jews by Zyklon B (is, editor’s note) not mentioned.”