Chemistry in Imperial and Weimar Germany


A review of Citizens of the Chemical Complex: Industrial Expertise and Science Philanthropy in Imperial and Weimar Germany, by Juan-Andres Leon.

The German chemical industry has already amassed a sizable historiography. This is due in part to its starring role in Germany’s “Second Industrial Revolution,” but also, of course, to some of its more notorious appearances on the world-historical stage: the production of mustard gas and phosgene in WWI, the release of disastrous levels of pollution in 1980s East Germany, and most infamously of all, the complicity of the chemical giant I.G. Farben in the Holocaust. Chemistry, for better or worse, has played a part in every phase of modern German history.

It is therefore no small thing to say that Juan-Andres Leon’s dissertation explores an entirely new aspect of the story of German chemistry. For one thing, Leon’s narrative does not focus on catastrophe, and he makes a conscious effort to explore his subject matter “in a way in which it does not all turn into one single premonition of the Third Reich” (p. 18). His aim, instead, is to trace the intertwining relationships between science, capitalism, and the modern state – a purpose for which Germany’s well-documented chemical industry proves a rich and fruitful case study. Weaving together macro-scale analyses of Germany’s economic and social transformations in the Imperial and Weimar periods with a fine-grained prosopography of the chemical industrialists (and industrial chemists) who helped push those transformations forward, Leon argues that the rise of chemical manufacturing was deeply bound up with the emergence of Germany’s distinctly continental brand of “coordinated” capitalism. A key element here was the development of a unique tradition of academic-industrial collaboration, which chemistry’s new elites helped pioneer. This collaborative culture, a model of science philanthropy that differed from the (largely financial contribution-based) American paradigm, engendered complex, interlocking relationships between academia, industry, and the state, which in turn, “played an important role during the radical changes in twentieth-century Germany, including war, hyperinflation, extreme economic cycles, and the increasing political polarization of the Weimar era” (p. iii).

Citizens of the Chemical Complex is divided into three hefty chapters, the first of which traces the emergence of synthetic dye production in the Rheinland and its role in catalysing Germany’s frenetic industrial breakthrough in the second half of the nineteenth century. Inspired by David Blackbourn’s 2006 environmental history of German industrialization and state-building (David Blackbourn, The Conquest of Nature: Water, Landscape, and the Making of Modern Germany. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2006), Leon tells the story of Germany’s transition from what he describes as the “textured” industrialization of the Rhenish highlands to the “flat” industrialization of the lowland river valleys. “Textured industry,” Leon writes, arose over many centuries in the tight-knit mountain communities of the Bergische Land, and it was deeply enmeshed in local traditions of skilled labor and in the idiosyncrasies of the terrain itself. It was in these communities that the production of plant-based textile dyes such as “Turkey Red” first took hold. But it wasn’t until the mid-nineteenth-century discovery of processes for synthesizing exotic non-European dyestuffs (notably ultramarine and coal tar-based dyes) that things really gained steam. As the demand for these commodities continued to rise, dyers ramped up production, moved downriver, and adopted a new (now “flat”) paradigm that employed armies of unskilled laborers and was not rooted in any particular place. Along the way, academically trained chemists gained new prestige in an industry that demanded a never-ending supply of novel, patentable synthetic processes, to the extent that many of these promising young scientists would later ascend to the highest levels of corporate leadership.

One of Leon’s stated goals is to explore the linkages between broad transformations and individual historical actors, and it is in this aspect that his narrative is most engaging. The mid-to-late nineteenth century was a period of momentous change in German-speaking Central Europe, during which the social, political, and even the “natural” contours of the world were radically in flux. Chemistry played a role in these massive reconfigurations, and Leon contends that this role was much more complex than we have previously imagined. Accordingly, the nineteenth-century chemists in his dissertation emerge not as detached technicians or greedy industrialists, but as prospectors on German capitalism’s wild frontier, caught up in the fever of modernization and eager to build new lives and futures. The author’s aim here, to be clear, is not to glorify the titans of science and industry, nor is it to mourn the loss of pristine landscapes and traditional lifeways. The point is simply to follow the path by which “a new class of experts” emerged in Imperial Germany – a class of experts who, by increasingly involving themselves in affairs of state and by designating scientific research as a new realm of elite distinction and sociability, ultimately helped transform the German social and institutional landscape.

In his second chapter, Leon explores in more detail the role of this nascent chemical elite in defining the “applied” sciences as a legitimate subset of academic knowledge. Already in the first few decades of the Second Empire, chemists and chemical industrialists had set about perfecting the art of professional association, thanks in part to their collective interest in trying to influence the formulation of German patent laws after unification. With this groundwork already laid, industrial chemists were able to carve out a space for themselves in the conservative German academy – an arena that jealously guarded the boundary between “pure” scientific research and less prestigious industrial or “technical” expertise (the province of the polytechnics or technische Hochschulen). Their brainchild, the Göttingen Association for the Advancement of the Physical Sciences, became “a space for the socialization of a new manufacturing ruling class that identified itself with science” (p. 17). This ruling class was in some ways a counterpart to the industrial philanthropists who gave money to science in the United States, but differed in important ways. These science philanthropists weren’t rich enough to simply fund scientific research. Instead, they engineered ways of manipulating the state into funding science, and they arranged institutional (rather than financial) support for research. These institutional structures – and the ideology of a “civic religion of science” that both underwrote and grew out of them – were the lasting legacy of the chemical elites.

In order to thoroughly explore this legacy – and to broaden the thematic scope of the dissertation – Leon includes a third and final chapter, which explores the related story of the industrialization of astronomy in early twentieth-century Germany. This chapter could be a stand-alone study of its own, but by exploring several of the dissertation’s central themes in a different (though overlapping) context, it also serves to shed additional light on the story of the German chemical elite. As it turns out, prominent members of this elite were also participants in an amateur astronomy movement that had taken hold among the German bourgeoisie in the late nineteenth century. Industrialists with a penchant for stargazing, Leon explains, were instrumental in securing both commercial funding and academic support for the development of new and better equipment for astronomical observation – in other words, they serve as another example of the tight-knit relationships between science and industry that were developing in Germany at this time. In the wake of the First World War, the vestiges of those early collaborative efforts in astronomy reconvened to help establish a “Relief Community (Notgemeinschaft) of German Science” in order to lobby for and organize support for scientific research, largely through non-financial means. When hyperinflation hit and German philanthropic endowments evaporated, this tendency to rely on collaborative and in-kind aid for scientific research became even more pronounced. And as Weimar society grew increasingly polarized, organizations like the Notgemeinschaft were caught up in politically charged scientific battles, such as that between Einstein and the proponents of relativistic astronomy, on the one hand, and the antisemitic “German Physics” movement, on the other.

All in all, Citizens of the Chemical Complex is an extensively researched and innovative work that draws attention to aspects of the history of science that do not often receive thorough exposition. Scholars in the Latourian tradition have spent decades observing in extraordinary detail the social and material world of the laboratory; Leon’s most compelling insight is that the world that makes the laboratory possible – the world of boardrooms, professional associations, para-state agencies, academic politics, and delicate inter-institutional relationships – is equally consequential and thus an equally worthwhile object of analysis. This dissertation will make an excellent book.

Johanna Folland
Department of History
University of Michigan

Primary Sources
Various archived oral history interviews
Corporate archives: BASF, Bayer, Carl-Zeiss, Krupp, Siemens
Personal papers and autobiographical writings: Carl Linde, Walther Rathenau, Max Wolf
Proceedings of the Göttingen Association for the Advancement of the Physical Sciences

Dissertation Information
Harvard University. 2013. 356 pp. Primary Advisor: Peter Galison.

Image: Photography by Author. Commemorative cartoon for the 10th anniversary of the Göttingen Association for the Advancement of Applied Physics and Mathematics, 1908. Source: Siemens Archives.

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