One Hundred Years of the Fritz Haber Institute



We outline the institutional history and highlight aspects of the scientific history of the Fritz Haber Institute (FHI) of the Max Planck Society, successor to the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physical Chemistry and Electrochemistry, from its founding in 1911 until about the turn of the 21st century. Established as one of the first two Kaiser Wilhelm Institutes, the Institute began as a much-awaited remedy for what prominent German chemists warned was the waning of Germany’s scientific and technological superiority relative to the United States and to other European nations. The history of the Institute has largely paralleled that of 20th century Germany. It spearheaded the research and development of chemical weapons during World War I, then experienced a “golden era” during the 1920s and early 1930s, in spite of financial hardships. Under the National Socialists it suffered a purge of its scientific staff and a diversion of its research into the service of the new regime, accompanied by a breakdown in its international relations. In the immediate aftermath of World War II it suffered crippling material losses, from which it recovered slowly in the postwar era. In 1952, the Institute took the name of its founding director and the following year joined the fledgling Max Planck Society, successor to the Kaiser Wilhelm Society. During the 1950s and 1960s, the Institute supported diverse research into the structure of matter and electron microscopy in its geographically isolated and politically precarious location in West Berlin. In subsequent decades, as Berlin benefited from the policies of détente and later glasnost and the Max Planck Society continued to reassess its preferred model of a research institute, the FHI reorganized around a board of coequal scientific directors and renewed its focus on the investigation of elementary processes on surfaces and interfaces, topics of research that had been central to the work of Fritz Haber and the first “golden era” of the Institute. Throughout its one-hundred-year history, the Institute’s pace-setting research has been shaped by dozens of distinguished scientists, among them seven Nobel laureates. Here we highlight the contributions made at the Institute to the fields of gas-phase kinetics and dynamics, early quantum physics, colloid chemistry, electron microscopy, and surface chemistry, and we give an account of the key role the Institute played in implementing the Berlin Electron Synchrotron (BESSY I and II). Current research at the Institute in surface science and catalysis as well as molecular physics and spectroscopy is exemplified in this issue [Angew. Chem. 2011, 123, 10242; Angew. Chem. Int. Ed. 2011, 50, 10064].