PERSIL DETERGENT AND THE “PERSILSCHEIN” AFTER WWII: CONNECTION TO THE 1931 WEIMAR MOVIE “BERLIN ALEXANDERPLATZ”

February 8, 2011 at 11:50 pm | Posted in Film, Germany, History, Literary, Research | Leave a comment

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The 1931 German movie, “Berlin, Alexanderplatz” gives an unintended glimpse into German commercial life of the time: the buses have ad banners and signs for such products as Chlorodont dentifrice, Juno cigarettes (“Berlin Smokes Juno Cigarettes”/”Berlin Raucht Juno”), and Persil (from persilicate) detergent.

Tragically, after 1945, there was a made scramble for a so-called Persilschein (Persil ticket or seal of approval), as the following case illustrates:

J. Hans D. Jensen and the post-war German need for a Persilschein (whitewash certificate)

Persilschein a play on words using the name of the German detergent Persil.

Johannes Hans Daniel Jensen (25 June 1907 in Hamburg – 11 February 1973 in Heidelberg) was a German nuclear physicist. During World War II, he worked on the German nuclear energy project, known as the Uranium Club, in which he made contributions to the separation of uranium isotopes. After the war Jensen was a professor at the University of Heidelberg. He was a visiting professor at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, the Institute for Advanced Study, Indiana University, and the California Institute of Technology.

Jensen shared half of the 1963 Nobel Prize for Physics with Maria Göppert-Mayer for their proposal of the nuclear shell model.

Adolf Hitler took power on 30 January 1933. On 7 April of that year the Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service was enacted; this law, and its subsequent related ordinances, politicized the education system in Germany. Other factors enforcing the politicization of education were Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei (NSDAP, National Socialist German Workers Party) organizations in academia and the rise of the Deutsche Physik movement, which was anti-Semitic and had a bias against theoretical physics, especially including quantum mechanics. The Party organizations were the Nationalsozialistischer Deutscher Studentenbund (NSDStB, National Socialist German Student League) founded in 1926, the Nationalsozialistischer Lehrerbund (NSLB, National Socialist Teachers League) founded in 1927, and the Nationalsozialistischer Deutscher Dozentenbund (NSDDB, National Socialist German University Lecturers League) founded in 1933. While membership in the NSDDB was not mandatory, it was tactically advantageous, if not unavoidable, as the district leaders had a decisive role in the acceptance of an Habilitationsschrift, which was a prerequisite to attaining the rank of Privatdozent necessary to becoming a university lecturer.[5][6][7][8]

While all German universities were politicized, not all were as strict in carrying out this end as was the University of Hamburg, where Jensen received his doctorate and Habilitationsschrift. Upon his 1936 habilitation he had been a member of NSDDB for three years, the NSLB for two years, and a candidate for membership in NSDAP, which he received the next year. The university leader of NSLB had made it clear that active participation was expected from Jensen, and that is what they got.[9][10]

After World War II the denazification process began. When Jensen faced the proceedings, he turned to Werner Heisenberg, a prominent member of the Uranverein, for a testament to his character – a document known as a Persilschein (whitewash certificate).[11]

Heisenberg was a particularly powerful writer of these documents, as he had never been a member of NSDAP, he had publicly clashed with NSDAP and the Schutzstaffel (SS), and he had been appointed by the British occupation authorities to the chair for theoretical physics and the directorship of the Max-Planck Institut für Physik then in Göttingen. Heisenberg wrote the document and convinced the authorities that Jensen had only joined the Party organizations to avoid unnecessary difficulties in academia.[12]

1. a b c d Johannes Jensen – Nobel Prize Biography (1963)

2. a b c Hentschel and Hentschel, 1996, 363-364 and Appendix F; see the entry for Johannes Jensen

3. Hentschel and Hentschel, 1996, 363-364 and Appendix F; see the entries for Harteck and Johannes Jensen.

4. Walker, 1993, pp. 121-122

5. Walker, 1993, pp. 192-204. In these pages, Mark Walker puts into perspective the motivations of and the pressures on students and scientists in the early years of National Socialism in Germany. He addresses the general situation, the Uranverein scientists as a group, and particular cases, e.g., Johannes Jensen, Wilhelm Groth, Karl Wirtz, and Wolfgang Gentner.

6. Hentschel, 1996, Appendix C; see entries for NSDDB, NSDStB, and the NSLB.

7. Hoffmann, Dieter Between Autonomy and Accommodation: The German Physical Society during the Third Reich, Physics in Perspective 7(3) pp. 293-329 (2005)

8. Beyerchen, 1977, pp. 123–167

9. Walker, 1993, pp. 195-196

10. Hentschel and Hentschel, 1996, Appendix F; see the entry for Johannes Jensen.

11. Persilschein a play on words using the name of the German detergent Persil

12. Walker, 1993, pp. 192-204

13. Hentschel and Hentschel, 1996, Appendix E; see the entry for Kernphysikalische Forschungsberichte

14. Walker, 1993, pp. 268-274

Adolf Hitler took power on 30 January 1933, “Berlin Alexanderplatz” the movie is from 1931.

Persilschein is a play on words using the name of the German detergent Persil.

The 2006 movie “The Good German” is explicitly about the Persilschein blackmarket

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