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Mitchell Ash

Science and Politics in the 20th Century: Crises and Continuity in Times of Political Upheaval (07.05.2014)

This lecture addresses the relationships of scientific and political changes in the twentieth century, focusing particularly, though not exclusively, on examples from the four regime changes in German and Austrian history marked by the dates 1918, 1933/34/38, 1945 and 1990 in transnational context. In keeping with the meaning of the German term Wissenschaft, “science” refers here to natural and life sciences as well as humanistic disciplines.

The central claims to be defended here, among others are: (1) that sciences and politics could be and often were used as resources for one another in multiple ways during each of the events described; (2) that political ideologies and/or ideological constructions of science were only two of many types of resources involved in this complex interaction; (3) that (relative) autonomy for science and scholarship (Wissenschaft) was never a pre-ordained or guaranteed result of such interplay, but always needed to be negotiated amongst scientific and political or policy actors; (4) that (relative) autonomy, when it was achieved, often came at a high cost.

The word „crisis“ has many meanings. In particular, talk of a “crisis of science” or a “crisis” in one or more of the sciences was common before and during the Weimar Republic. At the same time, radical regime changes could be and were perceived in twentieth-century Germany and Austria as crises of a different sort, namely as threats to institutional continuity. In addition, the impact of politically caused dismissals created crises of yet another kind in the personal lives and careers of scientists and scholars, for example those dismissed on racist grounds in the Nazi era. All of these meanings of the word “crisis” will be explored here.