The Physikalisch-Technische Reichsanstalt during the Third Reich

The Physikalisch-Technische Reichsanstalt during the Third Reich


Draft of the Physikalisch- Technische Reichsanstalt planned for Munich.
Source: D. Hoffmann

The project aims to document the development of the Physikalisch-Technische Reichsanstalt (Imperial Institute for Physics and Technology / PTR) during the Third Reich.

Since 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 high-ranking Nazi scientists, Johannes Stark (1933–1939) and Abraham Esau (1939–1945). 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-program of promoting the economy and national defense. The activities of some of the divisions was 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.   

The 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 research topics current at that time, of the foundation of new research divisions, and of the reorganization of some traditional research fields. Apart from the description of research practice in this period, the study will also investigate the specific function of the PTR within the framework of NS science policy and the constellations of political power in the Third Reich. This will include an analysis of the NSDAP membership of fellows, the expulsion of Jewish co-workers, and the development of its budget and staff.

The publication resulting from this study will be the first comprehensive and detailed history of the PTR during the Third Reich. It will have a comparative perspective, looking at the years before and after the years of National Socialism, touching on the issue of the continuities and discontinuities of the institute’s history.