History of the Academy

The Electoral Palatine Academy of Sciences and Humanities in Mannheim (1763-1802)

Gemälde von Kurfürst Karl Theodor im Dreiviertelporträt in rotweißem Gewand.
Kurfürst Carl Theodor


The Heidelberg Academy of Sciences and Humanities considers itself the successor of the Academia Electoralis Scientiarum et Elegantiarum Literarum Theodoro-Palatina, which was founded by the Palatine Elector Carl Theodor (1742-1799) in 1763 in his residential city of Mannheim. Its main objective was the research of the history and nature of the country; however, it achieved particular recognition for its meteorological-astronomical observations and the organization of an international collection of weather data. Following the inheritance of the Electoral Palatine dynasty in 1778, the court was transferred to Munich. Since a separate state academy already existed in Munich, interest in the Mannheim Academy waned quickly, and with it the necessary financial contributions. The remaining assets and collections were transferred to Munich in 1802, and the Mannheim academy ceased to exist.



Heidelberg Academy of Sciences and Humanities (1909-1933)

Portraitzeichnung von Heinrich Lanz, er steht leicht seitlich zum Betrachter und schaut in die Ferne. Er trägt ein schwarzes Frack und hat die Arme hinter dem Rücken verschränkt. Seine Haare trägt er kurz, dazu einen Vollbart mit ausgeprägtem Schnurrbart.
Heinrich Lanz


Several attempts to re-establish the Academy in the 19th century failed. The Heidelberg Academy of Sciences owes its present existence to the patronage of the Mannheim industrialist family Lanz. In 1909, it provided 1 million gold marks as endowment capital in memory of Heinrich Lanz († 1905), the operator of the largest agricultural machinery factory in Germany. The organizational structure of the newly established academy resembled that of  other German academies (Berlin, Munich, Göttingen, Leipzig): the members were to be allocated in two classes, the Mathematical-Scientific Class and the Philosophical-Historical Class, each headed by a secretary who took turns in representing the academy as a whole.

According to the statutes of 1909, the "Heidelberg Academy of Sciences and Humanities, Heinrich Lanz Foundation" (as it was called until about 1925) was an “association of scholars for the purpose of cultivating science, expanding it through research, stimulating scientific investigations, and supporting it”. Each class was consisted of ten members who had to reside in Heidelberg; associate members could come from other parts of Baden. Since 1920, the Academy has been housed in the former Grand Ducal Palace in "Karlsplatz" below the Heidelberg Castle.

But the financial resources of the Academy were not sufficient to conduct larger projects of its own. The endowment capital was almost lost due to inflation. It was not until 1928, when the state of Baden started to support the Academy financially with varying amounts, that the Academy was able to carry out its own projects. The first major projects were the “Recovery of the Fossil Findings from Mauer (Homo heidelbergensis)” (duration 1912-1925) and “The Babylonian-Assyrian Dictionary” (duration 1912-1925).


The Heidelberg Academy during the National Socialist era (1933-1945)

In the face of the challenge posed by National Socialist ideology and its implementation by the state, the Heidelberg Academy reacted like almost all scientific institutions in Germany: Its guiding principle became the preservation of the institution. To achieve this goal, the renunciation of legal assertion, collegiality and solidarity with persecuted members, and the abandonment of scientific standards in the event of new elections were sacrificed.  The opportunistic tactic of adaptation and anticipatory conformity in order to save a proprium that had become questionable led to culpable failure with severe consequences. Although the Academy did not pursue any NS-typical research projects, five National Socialists were elected as members in 1934/35, three of them to vacant positions in disciplines with a long tradition at the Academy (astronomy, geology, physiology). The “Nazi-fraction” under the leadership of the physiologist Johann Daniel Achelis, though a minority among the 37 full members, became a strong and hostile force within the Academy. Upon their election, they immediately set about expelling the Jewish members from the Academy. Those affected initially resisted the pressure to resign, resulting in a complete standstill in the Mathematical-Natural Scientific Class between the summer semester of 1936 and the end of 1937 - meetings no longer took place and the annual meeting in 1937 was cancelled. While the Reich Ministry for Education, Science and National Education (REM) did not take a decision in 1936 on the matter of Jewish members in the Academies, Heidelberg became the forerunner of the call for a Reich-uniform solution for the expulsion of all “non-Aryan” members from the German Academies of Sciences. The hostility against Jewish members was further fortified by the Heidelberger student group NSDStB who published a “Kampfblatt” in which they attacked the Academy for its outdated understanding of science and called for the “complete purge“ of “Jews and friends of Jews”.  Despite this, a small minority of class members from the Mathematical and Scientific class remained who, according to a note from their class secretary Otto Heinrich Erdmannsdörfer in February 1937, were still “in favor of the non-Aryans remaining under all circumstances”. The botanist Ludwig Jost left the Academy in 1937 in protest against the treatment of its Jewish members. The Philosophical-Historical Class kept itself out of these disputes and merely referred to the necessity of achieving a uniform regulation throughout the Reich.

On November 15, 1938, a "quick letter" from the REM called for the Reich-Citizenship-Act of 1935 (Reich citizens (Reichsbürger) are "citizens of German or kindred blood") to be applied to regular and corresponding members. Those affected were to be induced to resign; if they refused, the Ministry would revoke their membership. The order was repeated on February 1, 1939, and then also enforced in Heidelberg for "Jews, half-breeds, and gentlemen married to Jews or half-breeds of the first degree", although not entirely without exceptions.

The result of the forced resignations or deletions from the membership list was: of 37 full members (as of April 1, 1933), seven were expelled from the Academy (four in the Mathematical-Natural Scientific Class, three in the Philosophical-Historical Class), of 38 corresponding/extraordinary members, five (one in the Mathematical-Natural Scientific Class, four in the Philosophical-Historical Class).

In the elections of the following years until the end of the war, supporters of the regime, critics of the regime, and those with little ideological exposure were elected. The statutes of 1939, which at the same time introduced the Führer principle and made additional elections dependent on the confirmation of the ministry, extended the catchment area for full members beyond Heidelberg to the southwest German region and now also included the universities and colleges of Freiburg, Karlsruhe, Darmstadt and Frankfurt; after the conquest of Alsace, Strasbourg was added. Heads of research institutes and industrialists could also be elected.

The financial situation of the Heidelberg Academy remained precarious, so that only two new major projects could be started in the Philosophical-Historical Class: the edition of the works of Nicholas of Cusa (Cusanus) (duration 1925-2015) and "The German Inscriptions" in the period from about 500 to 1650 (duration since 1935 with preliminary considerations since 1930) - a project supported by almost all German academies as well as the Austrian Academy of Sciences.

The Heidelberg Academy after 1945

Considering the new beginning after May 8, 1945, two questions arose above all: How is the Academy going to behave toward the members who had been forced out of the Academy as "non-Aryans" during the years of the Third Reich? And how is the Academy going to behave toward those members who were accused of serious misconduct during the twelve years of National Socialist rule, especially active participation in the "purge" of the Academy? The first question was easy to answer. Those members who had been expelled or had themselves resigned were invited to rejoin the Academy as corresponding members. Most accepted this invitation, but not all. Apparently, not everyone felt that the Academy had struck the right note in this delicate reconnection.

The Academy found it much more difficult to deal with the incriminated members. At first, it managed with the introduction of a dormant membership, which, depending on the denazification procedures and the decisions of the university, could lead to reactivation, but did not have to. In 1950, the Academy came to the conclusion to decide on the cancellation of dormant memberships according to the rules for new elections. In fact, in some cases the Mathematical and Scientific Class refused to re-elect incriminated members. On the other hand, severely incriminated members were re-elected. The Academy has not had the courage to make a clear cut, or even a clear decision. In his history of the Heidelberg Academy published in 1994 - which contains an extensive analysis of this topic - the historian Wennemuth described the Academy's handling of its past as "hesitant, half-hearted".

The past, however, remained present for the Academy far beyond the immediate post-war years, namely in the form of the question of whether it should or even had to examine how the candidates had behaved during the years of the Third Reich when electing candidates of the appropriate age. As far as can be ascertained, there was never a fundamental debate on this question in the Academy. Even in the individual elections, the question of whether a candidate might have been directly or indirectly involved in the injustices of the National Socialist dictatorship was apparently not raised. Even if one acknowledges that there were reasons for the Academy not to combine the elections with a kind of second, late denazification procedure, one will still have to state critically: The Academy apparently saw no reason to reflect fundamentally on its own conduct in this matter and to give reasons for acting the way it did.

The Heidelberg Academy since the 1950s

From the 1950s onward, the Academy's legal and financial status was gradually consolidated. In 1958, it became a state academy of Baden-Württemberg, in 1966 a corporation under public law, and since 1971 its basic budget has been included in the state budget. Accordingly, the Academy is recruited from scholars who are based in Baden-Württemberg. Parallel to this, the Academy's research activities were expanded.

This development received a decisive impetus when the federal and state governments established the so-called Academies Program in the 1970s. The intention of the program is to fund long-term scientific projects, which had previously been the responsibility of the DFG. Both classes were now able to set up research centers for temporary long-term research projects, which were financed by the Academies' Program. As a result of a vote by the German Council of Science and Humanities, purely natural science research projects were no longer included in the academy program as of 2004. Since then, the academy program has concentrated on long-term projects in the humanities. In a second statement in 2009, the Science Council clarified its statement and encouraged interdisciplinary cooperation between the humanities and natural sciences in projects of the Academies Program.

The Union of German Academies of Sciences and Humanities plays a decisive role in the distribution of funds from the program among the academies. It has existed under this name since 1996 as an association of the now eight academies of science supported by the federal states. The state academies had previously organized their cooperation in a working group since the 1950s, then transformed this into a conference of academies in the 1970s, and finally founded the Union as a registered association. The Heidelberg Academy of Sciences and Humanities was involved in these fusions from the beginning.

Since 2002, its activities have also included the promotion of young scientists through a special, academically appropriate program (WIN program). The prizes that the Academy awards in increasing numbers, starting with the Academy Prize donated by the Friends in 1984, are also intended for young scientists. In 2009, the Academy celebrated its 100th birthday with a ceremony attended by Günther Öttinger, Minister President of Baden-Württemberg, and numerous other events.