Amélie Thyssen (1877-1965) and her daughter Anita Countess Zichy-Thyssen (1909-1990), the two heirs of steel industrialist Fritz Thyssen, established the Foundation on 7 July 1959 as an independent charitable foundation governed by private law based in Cologne. In 1960 they provided the Foundation with the proceeds – and in 1964 ownership – of a stock share package in August Thyssen-Hütte AG having a nominal value of DM 100 million. The market value was considerably higher. While her daughter, who was living in Argentina, contributed a quarter of the Foundation’s capital, Amélie Thyssen raised the largest sum. She donated almost half of her entire holdings in the company.
Amélie Thyssen established the Foundation in memory of her husband, the oldest son of the founder of the dynasty, August Thyssen. Her husband died in 1951. The couple had wed in 1900; their daughter Anita was born in 1909. Following the death of August Thyssen (1926), Fritz contributed his industrial legacy to Vereinigte Stahlwerke AG, where he served as Chairman of the Supervisory Board from 1926 to 1939. Fritz Thyssen was one of the earliest powerful industrialist to support Hitler. Amélie also joined the NSDAP (1931). In 1939 she also backed her husband’s break with the Nazi regime, however, and accepted the consequences: Expropriation and expatriation after their escape together to Switzerland, arrest and extradition by the French Vichy government in December 1940. During the period of the couple’s imprisonment – January 1941 to May 1943 in the psychiatric ward of a private sanatorium; then until February 1945 as “special prisoners” in Sachsenhausen concentration camp, afterwards being deported to South Tyrol via Buchenwald and Dachau – she acted as stabilising force supporting her sickly husband. This was even more so the case during the period of his arrest by the US military government and his denazification proceedings (1945-1948).
Following Fritz Thyssen’s death in February 1951, Amélie fostered the reconstruction of the Thyssen Group as guardian of the family tradition and holder of important property rights. She viewed the Foundation as the crowning achievement in the company’s successful history, and a gesture of honour in memory of her husband. Her closest advisors were the banker Robert Pferdmenges, the asset managers Robert Ellscheid and Kurt Birrenbach, and the CEO of August Thyssen-Hütte AG, Hans-Günther Sohl. They attached considerable importance to retaining part of the family assets in the company. Ellscheid and Birrenbach were the main advocates of promoting science and research. Federal Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, an old friend of the family, also strongly supported the establishment of the Foundation. He viewed it as a prime example of the imperative laid down in Article 14 of the Basic Law (the German Constitution): “Ownership is associated with obligations”. Upon his instigation, Amélie Thyssen became the first woman to be awarded the second highest Order of Merit in the Federal Republic of Germany.
The Fritz Thyssen Foundation was the first large, private foundation for the promotion of science and research in the history of the Federal Republic of Germany. The family was not seeking any tax benefits in all this, but it did play a pioneering role in the German tax system: it served as a precedent in the exemption of all charitable foundations from capital gains tax.
According to its Statutes , the sole purpose of the Foundation is the direct promotion of science and research at universities of applied science and research institutions, primarily in Germany, with special consideration being provided to young researchers. As early as 1962, an amendment to the Statutes established a broad latitude for the promotion of international cooperation projects. The founding committees resolved to place the emphasis on promotion of the humanities and social sciences and – in line with the desires of Amélie Thyssen – to also include medicine. The Foundation developed its own initiatives and formed topical working groups from the very beginning. The large-scale interdisciplinary project “19th century” marked the beginning.
The following persons were members of the first Board of Trustees:
- Dr. h. c. Robert Pferdmenges | Chairman
- Prof. Dr. Robert Ellscheid | DEPUTY CHAIRMAN
- Dr. Dr. h. c. Kurt Birrenbach | DEPUTY CHAIRMAN
- Dr. Julian Freiherr von Godlewski
- Dr. h. c. Harald Kühnen
- Dr.-Ing. E. h. Hans-Günther Sohl
- Fritz Berg
Of decisive importance was the appointment of the first Scientific Advisory Council, in which the chairmen of major scientific research organisations played a crucial role: the presidents of the German Research Foundation, the Max Planck Society and the West German Rectors’ Conference as well as the chairman of the Science Council.
The first members of the Scientific Advisory Council were:
- Prof. Dr. Helmut Coing | CHAIRMAN
- Prof. Dr. Dr. h. c. Hermann Jahrreiß | DEPUTY CHAIRMAN
- Prof. Dr. Arnold Bergsträsser
- Prof. Dr. Götz Briefs
- Prof. Dr. Dr. h. c. Adolf Butenandt
- Prof. Dr. Alois Dempf
- Lazy Graf Henckel von Donnersmarck
- Prof. Dr. Ulrich Haberland
- Prof. Dr. Gerhard Hess
- Prof. Dr. Paul Martini
- Prof. Dr. Hans Peters
- Dr. Hans Reuter
- Prof. Dr. Hans Rothfels
- Prof. Dr. Wolfgang Schadewaldt
- Prof. Dr Hermann Schenck
- Prof. Dr. Helmut Thielicke
- Dr. Ernst-Hellmut Vits
- Prof. Dr. Carl Friedrich von Weizäcker
- Prof. Dr. Theodor Wessels
Dr. Ernst Coenen and, for a brief period, former CFO Georg Eichhorn became the members of the first Board , set up in 1961. Werner Schütz, former Minister of Education, replaced Mr. Eichborn in 1963.
The Fritz Thyssen Foundation has apportioned a total of approx. EUR 530 million to support science and research since its inception.
[Prof. Dr. Hans Günter Hockerts, 2019]