Konrad Lorenz

In my most-recent post, I wrote of my visit to Vienna last week and how it left me with mixed emotions. On the one hand, I truly love the city and its culture. On the other hand, I sense something not quite right. Specifically, I made reference to the Konrad Lorenz Institute, and my discomfort about calling an institute after a man who was a Nazi. My piece has caused great offence in Austria. Normally, I don’t reply directly to criticisms, in reviews or elsewhere. If and when I do, I prefer to do so in the context of a newly written piece that is trying to make an overall argument and not simply engaging in trench warfare. However, I have decided that it would be right and proper to respond on this occasion.

First, so you don’t have to go searching, let me repeat the comments that have been made.

9. Mitchell G. Ash – March 03, 2010 at 10:33 am

Another Vienna: A Response to Michael Ruse

As an American historian of science who has taught at the University of Vienna since 1997, I read Michael Ruse’s recent “Brainstorm” essay entitled “Vienna” (27 February) with profound irritation.

Ruse would have done better actually to go to the Konrad Lorenz Institute in Altenberg. Had he done so, he might have learned that the institute’s director, theoretical biologist Gerd Müller, and other scientists there are quite well informed about Lorenz’s Nazi past. Indeed, Müller and his colleagues – with whom I work closely on history of science topics – opened the institute\’s archival materials to young Austrian scholars who published an extensive study of Lorenz in the Nazi era in 2001 and integrated archival material they found at the institute into a biography of Lorenz published in 2003. If Ruse had bothered to consult this work, or Richard W. Burckhardt, Jr.’s fine book Patterns of Behavior (2005) on the origins of ethology, he would have learned more about what is now known about Lorenz’s actual activities at the time. These did not involve working as a doctor at a death camp, but were not entirely harmless either. Instead Ruse prefers to indulge himself in morally comforting discomfort, and engage in irresponsible rumour-mongering – citing rather old rumours at that.

Much has been written about the role of the sciences in the Nazi regime, and recently efforts have increased to expand this effort to Austria. Having published for decades on the sciences and Nazism and related topics, I have participated in a modest way in these efforts by organizing conferences and supervising theses on these issues; indeed, the title of my seminar this semester is “The Sciences under Nazism: The Case of the University of Vienna.”

I do not wish to claim that traces of the Nazi past have entirely disappeared from Austrian life; such traces remain, and are subjects of repeated, passionate discussion and debate. But there are also widespread efforts to investigate that past more thoroughly, in the hope of combating its traces more effectively in the present. Ruse’s text does a great disservice to those efforts. Given his demonstrated ignorance of and apparent disdain for what is actually happening here in his own field, I find his text intellectually lazy, and his decision to publish it morally and politically irresponsible.

Mitchell G. Ash

The author is Professor of Modern History, Head of the Working Group in History of Science and Speaker of the Ph.D. Program “The Sciences in Historical, Philosophical and Cultural Contexts” at the University of Vienna.


10. Gerd B. Muller – March 03, 2010 at 03:21 pm

To the Editor:

Dr. Ruse is well known in the scientific community for his offending style. It happens that he characterizes a colleague in the audience as a “little boring man” or gets into a fist fight at a dinner reception. This time it is worse. Being scheduled for a talk at the Konrad Lorenz Institute for Evolution and Cognition Research (KLI), an international institute of advanced study in Altenberg, Austria, he departed on the day before his lecture without notice, leaving his audience stranded who traveled some 20 kilometers to the venue. Instead of an explanation, Dr. Ruse writes a moral piece on Austria. In a paragraph concluded by “Europe at its very worst” he lashes out at the KLI. Without hesitation he hints that the name giver of the institute had been working as a doctor in one of the death camps of the Nazi regime and insinuates that in Austria today it is possible to name a scientific institution after a war criminal. He feels “grubby” for having accepted an invitation to speak at such a place.

Dr. Ruse personally knows several members and former fellows of the KLI very well and has participated in meetings co-organized by the institute in the past. It remains a mystery why he has never voiced any of his conflicted feelings regarding the institute at previous occasions. He also omits the fact that the KLI, since its foundation in 1990, the year after Konrad Lorenz died, has supported a number of historical inquiries into Lorenz’s biography (see notes 1,2,3 below). These works are highly critical – and correctly so – of Lorenz’s national socialist leanings in the years following the Anschluss, his membership in the Nazi Party, and the tone of several publications from the period. But nowhere in these or any other historical writings that have come to our attention, has it been suggested that Lorenz had been active in death camps. Such a suggestion represents an extremely serious allegation, certainly extending beyond the nonchalant rudenesses to which Dr. Ruse is prone. If there is any factual foundation to the claim he relates, then he should come forward and present the case. The KLI is certainly open to accepting any new historical finds and will respond accordingly. However, given the constant stream of historians who have passed through the KLI during the past 20 years, it must be doubted that any new materials have appeared. In this case we ask an apology from Dr. Ruse for having made such an outrageous statement, thereby tainting the reputation of an institution fully devoted to the advancement of science and its historical and philosophical foundations.

Gerd B. Müller

Chairman, Konrad Lorenz Institute for Evolution and Cognition Research.

Professor and Head, Department of Theoretical Biology, University of Vienna.

1. Föger B. und K. Taschwer. Die andere Seite des Spiegels: Konrad Lorenz und der Nationalsozialismus. Czernin Verlag. Wien, 2001.

2. Taschwer K. und B. Föger. Konrad Lorenz: Biographie. Paul Zsolnay Verlag, Wien 2003.

3. Burkhart R.W. Patterns of Behavior: Konrad Lorenz, Niko Tinbergen, and the founding of ethology. The University of Chicago Press, 2005.


I am going to ignore the ad hominem comments and leave the judging of my character and actions to others. I left early, having made apologies, because Lizzie (my wife) suddenly was hospitalized with serious heart problems. Although it is obviously going to be some while before I am ever invited back to Austria, something I regret, I should say that I have the kind of personality that really isn’t too bothered by this sort of stuff. You should see what the New Atheists say about me. 

Let’s get my position right out on the table.  Konrad Lorenz was an important scientist, and rightly honored for his work. I applaud his getting the Nobel Prize. He was, however, a Nazi, this was no accidental or minor thing, and after the war he did not make the efforts I think demanded to show regret. I therefore do not think it appropriate to honor his memory with an institute named after him. 

Note that I am not saying his scientific work should not be studied or respected.   I am not saying that every Nazi was automatically beyond redemption. I think many made genuine and successful efforts to come to terms with their dreadful past and make amends for it. I don’t want to seem prissy by saying that this for me is a moral issue, but it is. I am not saying what I say because of a personal issue. I am not Jewish and I lost no relatives in the Holocaust. Indeed, born in England, I lost no relatives from fighting in World War II. I am also not saying that people in Austria, including members of the Konrad Lorenz Institute, have made no efforts to confront the past. They have and I applaud the work. It is that I don’t think any such efforts by others can scrub the stain from Lorenz.  That was for him to do.

How does one decide on differences as I obviously have with my critics? My field of expertise is the history and philosophy of evolutionary biology. I have read much by and on Lorenz and those with whom he worked and influenced, but I do not pretend to be an expert on him and these related matters. Fortunately, there is a major recent book on the field, with much on Lorenz. I refer to Richard Burkhardt’s Patterns of Behavior: Konrad Lorenz, Niko Tinbergen, and the Founding of Ethology. I have known Burkhardt for many years and count him a friend, if not a very close one. I have long admired his work, especially his writings on the French evolutionist Lamarck, and when he published this new work and won the major prize of the History of Science Society, I was one of the first to congratulate him. This is not therefore a work to which I turn having earlier criticized it. Note that both of my critics make reference to it positively.

If anyone wants to get into this squabble seriously, I beg them to read the pertinent discussion in Burkhardt. It is measured and calm, and very thorough. Please do not take my word based on a digest. This said, what does Burkhardt say? First, what everyone agrees: Lorenz was a Nazi. Of the Anschluss, when the Germans marched into Austria, Burkhardt writes:  “However one interprets the enthusiasm of so many Austrians for the Anschluss, there is no doubt that Lorenz himself was ecstatic about it” (238). On June 28, 1938, Lorenz applied for membership of the Nazi party, writing: “I was as a German thinker and scientist naturally always National Socialist” (242). Like many Nazis, he was worried about degeneration and the bad effects of domestication, and he thought that Darwinism supported national socialism (257). In his published work, “Lorenz argued that evolutionary theory and Nazi race hygiene concerns were mutually compatible” (250).

Burkhardt is at pains to stress that, as these things go, Lorenz was on the mild side. You do not get the anti-Jewish ravings of someone like Julius Streicher. And often his thinking was drawing on the same background as the Nazis, as opposed to direct lifting from them. But the thinking was there and it was not accidental or tangential. “In print Lorenz underscored the virtues and importance of race purity” (276). He did not make derogatory remarks about Jews in his published writings; however, things were different in private. In a letter written after Britain declared war on Germany:  ”Lorenz observed that from a “purely race-biological standpoint,” it was a shame to have the two best “German peoples” of the world at war with each other while all the “nonwhite, black, yellow, Jewish and mixed races” stood by rubbing their hands with glee” (276).    

What happened after Lorenz was drafted for military service? Burkhardt is very careful and measured, and more cautious than other writers. But let us stay with him, noting incidentally that in my original piece I did not make definite claims. Lorenz was a military psychologist in Poznan, Poland.  For a time he assisted Rudolf Hippius, a race psychologist, on studies of various German “types” and the effects of race mixing and so forth. Burkhardt is reserved about whether Lorenz actually performed tests on individuals that then led to their being deported, although one gathers that this was happening. What did happen was that his name was used “as a means of adding scientific credibility to the work” (270). Obviously Lorenz was not a death-camp doctor of the kind that operated at Auschwitz, but he was not entirely clean-handed either. Whether he was directly involved in people’s deaths, the Scottish verdict of “not proven” seems appropriate. Indirectly? Well, you judge.

For me, the most important thing that Burkhardt has to say is in his summing up of Lorenz and his later attitudes to his own past.

“Later in his life Lorenz never really faced up to the possibility that his own behavior as a scientist under the Third Reich might have helped sanction the ideas and actions of others whose work he may not have fully endorsed himself. … His stance, when he was later confronted about his past political behavior, was that whatever political gestures he made in the service of his biology were understandable and excusable as such. This, together with the explanation that he was ‘naïve’ about the intentions of the Nazis, constituted the essence of the ‘apology’ he finally offered to the public, long after the war’s end, on the occasion of his receipt of the Nobel Prize in 1973. He did not specifically acknowledge that as a scientist in the Third Reich, in promoting ideas of racial hygiene and using a language of ‘elimination,’ he had possibly made an indirect or inadvertent contribution to a program that resulted in genocide.” (278)

I do not think that one should name an institute after such a man as this.

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