Deutsch Intern
Center for the History of Psychology

Kurt Lewin

Kurt Tsadek Lewin - a biographical sketch

Mogilno is situated roughly 400 km east of Berlin and 230 km south of Danzig on a rivulet. It is a small, former Prussian place today’s Poland. In 1890 about 3000 inhabitants lived in Mogilno. Two third were catholic, about one third protestant and a minority of 205 people was Jewish. Also Kurt Tsadek Lewin’s parents, Leopold and Recha Engel Lewin, were part of this minority which was discriminated already back then. Kurt Tsadek Lewin was born in Mogilno on a Tuesday, the 9th of September in 1890. In a letter, which has never been sent, Lewin wrote in 1933 to Wolfgang Köhler about the resentments and repressions against the Jewish minority during his childhood in his hometown. Lewin grew up in this environment together with his older sister Hertha and his two younger brothers, Egon and Fritz. In 1905 the Lewins moved to Berlin to offer the three brothers a classical humanistic education at the Kaiserin Augusta Gymnasium.  Kurt studied not only mathematics, history and natural sciences, but also the three languages Latin, Greek and French, but unfortunately not English, which would have been of advantage for his later life. He graduated from school with considerably good grades, except for the languages which were only marked satisfactory.When Levin started studying at the University of Freiburg in 1909, he wanted to become a country doctor and chose the corresponding courses, but also already the course physiological psychology, taught by the private lecturer Dr. Bumke. However, he did not seem very happy with that choice as in the following winter term 1909/1910 he changed to the University of Munich in order to study organic and inorganic chemistry, as well as physics in more depth. He also attended further courses in Psychology. In the following term the medicine student Levin did again change university, this time he went to the Friedrich - Wilhelms - University of Berlin. He studied medicine with Prof. Rudolf Virchow, psychology with Prof. Carl Stumpf and he was especially influenced by the philosopher Ernst Cassirer. After Levin had realised for himself that he did not like medical autopsy and work in a chemistry laboratory, he changed to the department of philosophy in 1911. From then on he could deepen his psychological, philosophical and mathematical studies. Although Levin was aware of the fact that it was nearly impossible to become a university professor as a Jew in Germany, he aimed at this career aspiration. Lewin hoped that Carl Stumpf would be willing to be his doctoral advisor. However, he was not allowed to present his own written promotion - project to Stumpf himself. An assistant handed it over to Stumpf while Lewin had to wait for feedback in a separate room. Stumpf accepted the project, but spoke about it with Lewin for the first time four years later – during his doctoral exam.Lewin served the German armed forces in France as well as in Russia during the first world war. Despite the difficult conditions, he even tried to work scientifically on the war front. In 1917 he published a piece of work titled “The war landscape” in which he anticipated terms such as “Feldkräfte” and “Lebensraum”.Shortly before the war ended, Lewin got seriously injured and had to stay in hospital for over eight months. His younger brother Fritz was less lucky. He did not return home after the war.In 1921 Lewin became first assistant and then in 1922 private lecturer at the Psychological Institute in Berlin. At this time he started the development of his field theory and a rash of films emerged which underpinned his theoretical thoughts. The Adolf-Würth-Center possesses copies of four of these films and makes them accessible online here on this website.

Walking Upstairs for the First Time by Kurt Lewin (~1924)

The Child and the Field Forces by Kurt Lewin (1925)

Field Forces as Impediments to Performance by Kurt Lewin (1925)

Level of Aspiration in Young Children by Kurt Lewin and Marjorie Leonard (~1940)

Kurt Lewin had four children out of two marriages. When his marriage with Maria Landsberg was divorced in 1927 after ten years of marriage, he married Gertrud Weiss in 1929. Lewin and Gertrud Weiss had one daughter, Miriam Lewin who was born in 1931 and one son, Daniel who was born in 1933. In 1932 Lewin was guest professor in California. There he received a further invitation to Japan. During his return to Germany via Russia Hitler had seized power. When Lewin found out, he and his wife immediately knew they had to leave Germany. Their emigration lead them via England to the USA, first to the Cornell University and then in 1935 to the University of Iowa. During this time – shortly before and after the emigration – Lewin shot different films which show the nursery in Palo Alto, his wife Gertrud, their children Miriam and Daniel, as well as a short fraction of Karl Duncker and himself. These films are owned by the Adolf-Würth-Center. Thanks to a donation we could let them conserve and digitalise. Special thanks to Miram Lewin and her daughter who gave us the permission to show theses films here.

Kindergarden Palo Alto

Kurt Lewin and his kids Daniel and Miriam

Miriam eating soup

Eating behavior: Dani and his apple 1

Eating behavior: Dani and his apple 2

Eating behavior: Dani and his apple 3

Lewin’s research was influenced by the events of his time. Especially the brutal death of his mother in the concentration camp Sobibor was upsetting for him, especially  as he put himself under high risk by a short stay in Germany in 1935 and tried unavailingly to convince his mother to emigrate. Her tragic death lead to his personal concern to research group processes in order to understand social processes better and possibly solve them in future. In these terms he achieved great success with the foundation of the Centre of group dynamics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 1945. Kurt Lewin unfortunately died only two years later, on the 12th of February 1947 after two heart attacks in succession.

Armin Stock

Lewin, K. (1917). Kriegslandschaft. Zeitschrift für Angewandte Psychologie, 12, 440-447.
Lewin, K. (1933/1987). Everything within me rebels: A letter to Wolfgang Köhler (M. Lewin & G. Wickert, Trans.). Journal of Social Issues, 42(4), 39-47.
Lewin, M. (1992). The Impact of Kurt Lewin’s Life on the Place of Social issues in His Work. Journal of Social Issues, 48(2), 15-29.