Germany, the self-proclaimed “nation of poets and thinkers”, can look back on a long tradition of scientific research. The first German universities were established in the 14th and 15th century, such as in Cologne, Heidelberg and Leipzig. As was typically the case during the Middle Ages, there was a strong bond between universities and the church. The academic subjects taught there were usually theology, legal theory and medicine. Over the following centuries, many universities educated the administrators of the many principalities in particular, which existed within the region known as Germany today.
From the 17th century, the scientific revolution and the Age of Enlightenment ushered in a fundamental change within science itself and the scientific system. At the universities, the theological faculties lost their influence. New institutions, faculties and subjects were established, and academies were considered learned societies for the promotion of scientific fields. This was a development that occurred throughout Europe, including Germany. As industrialisation took hold, institutes of technology were established, such as in Braunschweig, Freiburg and Karlsruhe.
In 19th-century Prussia – a powerful kingdom within the German Confederation – the politician and diplomat Wilhelm von Humboldt was responsible for higher education. He was the brother of the polymath Alexander von Humboldt, and as an advocate of the Enlightenment, he propagated a new model of higher education, involving the integral combination of research and education. This Humboldtian model still guides higher education in Germany to this day and has also had an impact on higher education abroad.
In 1911, the Kaiser Wilhelm Society was founded as an umbrella organisation dedicated to the advancement of fundamental sciences. Its aim was to cover the high financial expenses of scientific research and, against the backdrop of scientific progress particularly in the United States, to establish top, modern research institutes in Germany. After the Second World War, most of these institutes joined the renowned Max Planck Society.
The period of National Socialism from 1933 to 1945 had a dramatic effect on German science. Scientific fields were expected to support the abhorrent ideology of the Nazis. Many great researchers had to fear persecution and even worse. Many of them therefore fled to other countries. It took a while for the institutions of research and higher education to recover from that time and the associated loss of highly educated people. The period of National Socialism from 1933 to 1945 had a dramatic effect on German science. Scientific fields were expected to support the abhorrent ideology of the Nazis. Many great researchers had to fear persecution and even worse. Many of them therefore fled to other countries. It took a while for the institutions of research and higher education to recover from that time and the associated loss of highly educated people.
After the war, science was seen as a means to move on and develop, in both East and West Germany. Additionally, there was fierce competition between both states, which also played out in the realm of science and technology. This actually resulted in driving progress on both sides.
The 1960s in particular brought a huge transformation within the West German education system. Access to higher education was opened up to more disadvantaged social strata, and many new universities were established, including the universities of Konstanz, Bochum and Bremen.
Following the political transformation in East Germany, a number of professors and employees had to leave their jobs due to their cooperation with the East German system. The research institutes often became part of the overarching research organisations. Of the institutes of further education, the Humboldt University of Berlin and the Technical University of Dresden were honoured as universities of excellence.
Nazi Germany developed a huge amount of technology that was either suppressed after the war or became the stuff of conspiracy theories. Some of this Nazi technology, like guided missiles and stealth bombers, became part of today’s modern military. Others, like giant tanks and Sun Guns, were purely theoretical. Still, some are just the makings of paranoid delusions – things like time travel and aspartame. What secret technologies did the Nazi party and military invent?
What’s real and what’s urban legend among supposed Nazi technological developments? These pieces of technology that the Nazis are linked to range from prototypes to the Internet ramblings of conspiracy theorists. But there were plenty of German military weapons developed during World War II, and theory or real, this list has all the craziest inventions, supposedly developed by the Nazis.
Before the guns fell silent in 1945, the Allies had already drawn up plans for gathering as much German technology as they could take. The German war machine had caused untold destruction across the continent, and German technology was reputed to be cutting age. Weapons like the V-2 missile, the Me 262 jet fighter, and the Type XXI submarine seemed like wonder-weapons, enabling Germany to punch well above its weight during the war.
The idea of German military and technological supremacy was widely held in the United States before and during the war. German industry had an almost mythic quality, even as objective indicators of technological prowess increasingly began to favor the United States in the early twentieth century. The evident sophistication of the V-2 and the Me 262, along with rhetoric about the effectiveness of other “super-weapons,” also led Americans to believe that the Germans had harnessed technological innovation on a large scale. But the United States had no standing intelligence infrastructure to capture and exploit German technology. Much was developed on the fly, often with inexperienced and inappropriately trained intelligence “professionals.” When the United States finally attacked the problem of appropriating German technology, it did so in a haphazard fashion, with a bewildering array of different agencies and acronyms. Operation Paperclip, focusing on what would eventually be termed aerospace technology, is relatively well-known. The Field Information Agency, Technical (FIAT) became a major bureaucratic driver, tasked with facilitating the investigation and acquisition of German technology.
The United States wasn’t alone in seeking “intellectual reparations.” The Soviet Union famously evacuated a huge proportion of eastern Germany’s industry to the USSR, along with large communities of scientists and engineers. The British and the French also got in on the game, the former with an eye to maintaining its international position, with the latter focused on restoring the damage caused by the war.
This meant that Germany was full of scientists, engineers, businessmen, and military officers searching for something, anything of value. As it soon became clear, paper and microfilm wasn’t enough; the scientists and engineers themselves held their value in their heads. And this often led to grabbing folks just to keep them away from another country. For the United States and (to a lesser extent) the United Kingdom, this was mutually agreeable; post-war Germany was deeply impoverished, and opportunity beckoned abroad. For Germans who found themselves spirited to the interior of the Soviet Union, the story was less happy.
The frustrating attempt to draw intellectual reparations from Germany after World War II holds some lessons for the United States today. First, the appropriation of foreign technology is harder than it seems. This lesson has been learned and re-learned over the years by companies and countries attempting to steal technology, and it remains true today. Americans should take some comfort in this when thinking about Chinese intellectual property theft. Second, scientific enterprise is fundamentally international, with scientists and engineers benefitting from the knowledge and experience of their colleagues. There is no national, autarkic strategy for successful technological innovation. Americans should keep this in mind when they think about the health of their research universities, which thrive on foreign students.German nuclear weapons research was competitive with American research, as German physicists made important discoveries in nuclear reactor construction, isotope separation, and heavy water production.
What role does science play in Germany today?
Science is an important topic within German society, politics and the economy. According to the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research, in 2016 around 2.9 percent of GDP was spent on research and development. In comparison, according to the OECD, the USA spent 2.7 percent of its GDP on research and development, the UK 1.7 percent, and Switzerland 3.4 percent. The overall average among the OECD states is 2.3 percent.
Since 2005, top universities have been receiving special financial support from the state in connection with the Excellence Strategy (formerly: Excellence Initiative). As part of the Pact for Research and Innovation, the public financial support for the German Research Foundation (Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft) and the four major research organisations is fixed. The High-Tech Strategy is a political instrument to transform research findings into applied science and economic applications. Universities and research institutions are important employers in Germany. More than 700,000 people – professors, scientific staff and non-academic staff – are employed at the universities alone, without considering other public and private institutions of research.Young scientists are particularly encouraged in Germany. The number of doctoral students and scientific staff in qualifying jobs is steadily rising. Many of them are employed in projects funded by third parties. Students and researchers from abroad are highly welcome, and they are able to utilise excellent support structures like the German Academic Exchange Service, in order to prepare and organise their stay in Germany.
German Science and Fusion in the 21st Century
Over the past five months, physicists at the Max Planck Institute for Plasma Physics in Germany have completed a second round of tests on a nuclear fusion device to bring sustainable fusion energy out of human imagination.
The team announced that they have etched many steps closer to achieving that goal, with the data from these tests showing that the reactor has broken several world records.
Nuclear fusion reactions
Nuclear energy reactors are built to mimic the mechanism that stars, including our Sun, use to produce a near-infinite amount of heat and light. It does so by fusing together two atoms of hydrogen – a reaction that releases enormous amounts of energy. This process, called nuclear fusion, is popularly heralded as the future of clean and near-limitless energy. Many reactors and nuclear energy projects in the world have managed to sustain these fusion reactions for several minutes at a time. But, for nuclear fusion reactions to be sustainable, the plasma (charged atoms of a gas at very high temperatures) needs to be suspended by a magnetic field at extremely hot temperatures for the atoms to fuse.
Researchers are unsure exactly what this temperature needs to be, but agree that the reaction would need at least 6 times the Sun’s core temperature: 15 million degrees Celsius.
The device used by most reactors in the world to attempt these fusion reactions is the doughnut-shaped tokamak. But the reactor in Germany, Wendelstein 7-X, uses a dizzying number of twists and turns in which the plasma is contained using a magnetic field. This kind of device – a stellarator — uses a complex 3-dimensional arrangement of coils and loops to control the flow of hot plasma through the device’s loops, keeping it stable.
The Wendelstein 7-X has now broken records for producing the highest density of plasma (2 x 10^20 particles per cubic metre) and the highest energy density (more than one Megajoule), bringing it one step closer to being suitable for clean fusion power. The team also says it has achieved long-lasting plasma reactions of 100 seconds for the first time – another record for a stellarator device. Though the reactor was designed and fired up for the first time in 2015 as a proof of concept and not an actual energy source, it would provide evidence for stellarators to be a good design for sustainable nuclear fusion plants – if successful.
How is scientific education organized in Germany?
Scientific education is available at public or private universities and at universities of applied sciences (known as ‘Fachhochschulen’). In addition, there are colleges of art, film and music. In accordance with the European Bologna Process, most study subjects conclude with a bachelor’s or a master’s degree. Doctoral degrees can be achieved at universities, but not typically from universities of applied sciences. Since lifelong learning has become an increasingly important issue, many universities have established professional education and special master’s programmes.
Where does scientific research take place in Germany?
Scientific research is conducted at regular universities in particular as well as in a complex network of public research institutions, for example the Max Planck Institutes. There are also private research institutes and, of course, research and development departments in business enterprises.