25. May 2023 | Magazine:

A place of research in the middle of the forest TU historian researches the history of the Braunschweig-Völkenrode research site

In the forest near Braunschweig-Völkenrode, scientific research has been carried out almost without interruption for 87 years. From 1936 to 1945, the German Aeronautical Research Institute (DFL) was housed here, which was renamed the Hermann Göring Research Institute in 1938. After the end of the Second World War, the Federal Agricultural Research Institute (FAL) then settled here, becoming the Johann Heinrich von Thünen Institute in 2008. In addition to the Thünen Institute, the Physikalisch-Technische Bundesanstalt (PTB) has also been located on the site since 1947. The history of the DFL and the FAL is told in the newly published book “Ein Ort der Forschung” (A Place of Research) by Daniel Jankowski, research associate at the Institute of History. In an interview, the historian talks about his research in archives, connections to the former Technische Hochschule and why it is worthwhile to research the history of Braunschweig’s research institutes.

Photo credit: Daniel Jankowski/TU Braunschweig

What is the motivation behind the reappraisal of the history of the research site in Braunschweig-Völkenrode?

The impetus for this came from the Thünen Institute. The colleagues there wanted an updated history of the research site from a historian’s perspective. So they approached Prof. Christian Kehrt at the Institute of History with this request. As part of a cooperative project, I then researched the history of the research site for over a year and a half.

What did your work on the book look like?

There is a lot of archival work in the book—both digital and on site. The work started at the end of 2020 and continued throughout 2021. So it was very much influenced by the pandemic. I was very lucky that despite the closure of libraries and archives, I was able to access many of the necessary sources digitally. However, some sources are also stored in the USA and the UK and were only accessible digitally to a limited extent.

In the summer of 2021, some libraries and archives had reopened, so I was able to do research in the archive of the TU Munich and the archive of the Deutsches Museum. Many estates of people who had worked in aeronautical or agricultural research here in Braunschweig are stored there. Last but not least, my work was also greatly supported by TU Braunschweig’s archive.

What were the key points you chose to focus on in the book?

The Thünen Institute asked me two questions. One particular research interest was the question of the extent to which forced labourers were used to build the DFL during the Second World War. One source has documented the presence of 85 forced labourers on the research site. However, this number may be too low. Reports from surrounding villages suggest that forced labourers from nearby camps also had to work at the LFA. It is also unclear for which activities the forced labourers were employed in the LFA.

There was also a particular interest in examining how the two predecessor institutes could be categorised in the emerging system of public research and development, that is, research work for ministries, which was also financed by these ministries. These institutes can be used to trace the development of this public research in Germany in the 20th century.

Why should the history of research institutions be researched—especially here in Braunschweig?

In general: because it is an interesting history! The site in the north-west of Braunschweig is 480 hectares in size and quite impressive. After all, there are huge buildings in the middle of the forest, most of which were erected from 1936 onwards for large-scale National Socialist aeronautical research. Nevertheless, it is relatively unknown. Research at this site also covers a large area. On site we have the example of aeronautical and agricultural research, both of which are actually just umbrella terms and combine a great deal of different disciplines. In this context, the national and international relevance of the institutions in which science was conducted here between 1936 and 1966 should also be emphasised.

In addition, there are often personnel continuities between the National Socialist era and the post-war period. Scientists who conducted research under National Socialism often resumed their research after the war. This is particularly interesting in the case of research institutes in a regional context, because the actors may also have played an important role in urban society.

What was the German Aeronautical Research Institute researching?

The purpose of the DFL was of a military nature. It is often assumed that only basic research was conducted there. That is true. But this basic research was militarily relevant. If, for example, a jet propulsion system for aircraft is to be developed, then in the context of the Second World War this is very likely to be linked to armaments research. The most innovative projects of the LFA were essentially linked to war plans: examples include Adolf Busemann’s arrow wing research, Otto Lutz and the GM-1 process for increasing the power of aircraft engines, and Eugen Sänger and Irene Bredt’s rocket development in Trauen, a branch of the LFA.

Aeronautical research was also carried out at the Technische Hochschule Braunschweig during the National Socialist era. What role did this research play at the TH?

This research played a by no means unimportant role for the TH. Under National Socialism, the state set virtually no financial limits on aeronautics research.  Accordingly, there must have been an interest in expanding research in this field at the TH. Bettina Gundler already worked out in 1995 that aeronautical science and technology were enormously promoted by the state within the framework of the Luftfahrtlehrzentrum (Aeronautical Training Centre), which was newly founded in 1936. Although not all aeronautical research projects at the TH were directly relevant to the war, a concentration on war-related projects could be proven, especially for the years between 1939 and 1945.

What was the connection between the DFL and the then Technische Hochschule?

The Luftfahrtlehrzentrum at the Technische Hochschule was founded before the DFL and was a decisive factor for the establishment of the LFA in Braunschweig. There were various research cooperations between the TH Braunschweig and the LFA that were coordinated by the Reich Aviation Ministry and were important for the war effort. For example, Professor Schlichting’s Aerodynamic Institute collaborated on the arrow wings and conducted research on Prandtl’s boundary layer theory.

In addition, the idea quickly arose that the heads of the institutes at the DFL could be engaged as TH professors at the same time. The scientists are listed in the TH files as professors starting in the winter semester of 1936. However, there is correspondence proving that they never actually taught. Hermann Blenk, the president of the DFL, writes of himself as having lectured at the TH. What we can certainly confirm: there were research cooperations between the TH and the LFA and the institute directors of the DFL were intended to hold professorships at the TH.

How did the transition from the Aeronautical Research Institute to the Agricultural Research Institute take place?

There is a short time gap from the end of the war in 1945 to the founding of the FAL in 1947. During this time, the Aeronautical Research Institute no longer existed there, but aeronautical research continued in the buildings under the supervision of the Allies. This ended quite quickly, however, because researchers went abroad and, in addition, a ban was imposed on motor-powered aviation. So at some point, research on this stopped on the site. After that, the buildings were temporarily used as living space for people whose homes had been destroyed by bombings. There was also a lot of building material here that could be used for other purposes. For example, furniture or cooking utensils were made with the available machines and materials.

What did research work look like at the Federal Agricultural Research Institute after the war?

The FAL was founded in 1947 in response to the precarious food policy situation in post-war Germany. Initially, the institutes that were expected to provide the quickest and most effective solutions to the food shortage were established here. One of the first research topics, for example, was grassland conversion. The idea was to convert low-yielding arable land into grassland on which livestock could graze. Conversely, grassland that could be high-yield arable land was also to be used for arable farming. The soil in West Germany was to be assessed accordingly so that it could be used as efficiently as possible.

Your book ends in 1966. Why did you make a cut there?

After the FAL had been founded as an institution of the state of Lower Saxony, it was taken over by the federal government in 1966. That was a major break in the (self-) perception of the research institute. Until then, the FAL had defined itself very much by the fact that its research could take place relatively freely. The transfer to the federal service was accompanied by the fear that this freedom would be lost. Subsequently, a special arrangement was made for the FAL to become an institution under public law that could determine its own research. Today, this is the rule for public research institutions in Germany.

What is the next step for your research?

I am currently continuing my dissertation project. There I am dealing with the representation and communication of environmental protection through posters in the 20th century and am currently building up my source corpus for it.

Through the work on the book, however, I have also realised that there is still a lot of unexplored research on the history of agricultural science in the Braunschweig region. Perhaps this will lead to some other projects in the future.

Thank you very much for the interview.