The Kaiser's Chemists: Science and Modernization in Imperial Germany

By Jeffrey Allan Johnson | Go to book overview

Conclusion: Reflections on a "Most Instructive Case"

A diagnosis of the modern soul--where would it begin? With a resolute incision into this instinctive contradiction, with the isolation of its opposite values, with the vivisection of the most instructive case.

-- Friedrich Nietzsche, The Case of Wagner, 1888

Viewed simply as a tale of human striving, achievements, and frustrations, the story of the scientists I have called the Kaiser's chemists would take on qualities of Greek tragedy. Mostly irreligious themselves, the chemists had absorbed enough of the classical education of their era to feel perhaps that the gods of Mt. Olympus were extracting a terrible price from them for their hubris in daring to dominate the world of chemistry. How else to explain so many noble intentions bringing so little fruit for so long, so much time and effort wasted in pursuing so many dead ends, so many ironies and tricks of fate played upon the actors, so many of whom came to tragic ends?

Viewed from the perspective of modernization and particularly the "conservative modernization" used throughout this book, at least the general outlines of this story become more comprehensible, if no less tragic. They thereby shed light on the historical issues raised in the opening chapters: the problems of developing a historical frame of reference for understanding the institutional changes associated with the emergence of modern science, as well as the changes in German society from the turn of the century to the First World War. Then come the related questions of what these changes meant to science within Germany and modern science as a whole, and what they reveal about historical continuities across the fateful summer of 1914.

The events that led to the creation of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institutes, together with the subsequent acts of the Kaiser's chemists, present a "most instructive case" of the role of science in the process of modernization not only in Germany, but also in the world as a whole during the twentieth century. Theorists of modernization in general have tended to make science central to that process, almost by definition, but without fully explaining why it should be so. As suggested in the opening chapter

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