Nothing They Wouldn’t Do

Richard J. Evans

  • Krupp: A History of the Legendary German Firm by Harold James
    Princeton, 360 pp, £24.95, March 2012, ISBN 978 0 691 15340 7

‘Of all the names which have become associated with the Nuremberg Trials,’ declared the prosecutor at the proceedings intended to bring the surviving Nazi leaders to justice at the end of the Second World War, ‘I suppose that none has been a household name for so many decades – indeed for nearly a century – as that of Krupp.’ Its history, the indictment continued, had made the firm ‘the focus, the symbol and the beneficiary of the most sinister forces engaged in menacing the peace of Europe’. Krupp was very much a family enterprise: ‘Four generations of the Krupp family,’ the indictment noted, ‘have owned and operated the great armament and munitions plants which have been the chief source of Germany’s war supplies.’ The tradition of the Krupp firm, and the ‘social-political’ attitude for which it stood, were exactly suited to the moral climate of the Third Reich. There was no crime such a state could commit – whether war, plunder or slavery – in which this firm would not participate. Long before the Nazis came to power, Krupp was a ‘National Socialist model plant’.

At the Nuremberg trials, and at the subsequent trials of leading industrialists held in 1947-48, ‘Krupp’ came to stand not so much for Nazism as for the economic impulse behind the deeper forces of militarism which the Allies were equally determined to drive out of German politics, culture and society. Given the sinister international reputation of the firm, as the arms manufacturer behind Germany’s military aggression from Bismarck’s wars of unification through two world wars, it’s not surprising that it has attracted the attention of many historians writing from different points of view. The most widely read study was The Arms of Krupp, a thousand-page epic published in 1968 by William Manchester, better known for his account of the assassination of his wartime friend, John F. Kennedy, Death of a President. Written in a racy, sometimes sensational style, the book was full of sweeping generalisations about Germany and the Germans, whom Manchester, not least because of his war experiences, clearly did not like. The Krupps were demonised from start to finish, and there was more than a whiff of muck-raking about Manchester’s whole approach. The book got a mixed reception even in the popular press; reviewers were unhappy with its sarcastic style and Time magazine referred to the ‘swarms of errors’ that littered its pages. Nevertheless, with his customary thoroughness, Manchester had worked hard in the Krupp company and other archives, on the Nuremberg trial documents and on many other sources, and he had interviewed a substantial number of people. He unearthed a huge mass of material, much of it previously unknown, and on particular issues, such as the question of Krupp’s attitude to Hitler in 1932-33, before the Nazis seized power, he stuck to the documentary record and did not make claims that went beyond it.

Manchester was not an economic historian, and he was more interested in the personalities than in the business. Before he published there had been hardly any historical studies of major German companies and their role in the Third Reich, and his book was not only pioneering in this respect but held the field for many years, until other studies began to appear in the 1990s. (One of the reasons for the delay was that German companies, including Krupp, were so incensed by Manchester’s book that they made it very difficult for some time after its publication for historians to gain access to their archives.) In the last few years, however, serious accounts of the firm’s history have begun to appear, and now they have been joined by a chronological overview from Harold James, a British economic historian who teaches at Princeton. The sober style of his book could not be more different from Manchester’s, and its focus on the technological and economic history of the business is a world away from Manchester’s relentless exposure of the personal foibles and misdemeanours of the company’s successive owners.

Like Manchester, James begins at the beginning, though his coverage is roughly even across time, where The Arms of Krupp focused heavily on the Nazi years. As James notes, the company’s beginnings could hardly have been more inauspicious. Its founder, Friedrich Krupp, was a risk-taker of no mean proportions, and most of his industrial gambles ended in abject failure. His grandmother, Helene Amalie Krupp, the first in a series of powerful women who would play a pivotal role in the dynasty’s history, left him a fortune based on her canny investments in retail, trade and property. Her business interests included a small but unprofitable ironworks, in which Friedrich had gained some of his earliest experience, and though it had been sold off, Friedrich was left with a strong desire to produce steel and steel products ‘in the English manner’, combining toughness and malleability.

Friedrich squandered his grandmother’s inheritance in pursuit of his obsession. He experimented with different raw materials, different locations and different techniques. Debts piled up; he was crossed off the official list of local businessmen in 1824, and in 1826 he died, exhausted, at the age of 39. His widow, Therese, however, continued to have faith, and carried on the business, assisted by their 14-year-old son, Alfried, who anglicised his name to Alfred in homage to England’s domination of industry and technology at the time. In 1838, he travelled to England (incognito, as ‘Herr Schropp’), returning in 1843 but continuing to send agents there to inspect the latest factory designs and pick up the latest industrial techniques, to win new customers and to further his reputation in what was then the world’s richest country.

Alfred was a workaholic, who later reminded people that in the early days ‘I was the chief executive, clerk, treasurer, smith, smelter, coke beater, nightwatchman at the cement oven, as well as much else, and one run-down horse served our transportation needs.’ His father’s one indisputable success had been in developing a process for casting steel for the manufacture of steel stamps used in the production of coins. Soon Alfred was supplying coining rolls to the Austrian mint, and branching out into the production of rolls for the manufacture of spoons, which he marketed in France, Russia, England and even Brazil. His real breakthrough came with the railway boom of the 1840s, when he began supplying axles and crankshafts to the Prussian state railway. Further technical innovations made it possible for him to produce cast steel rings for use on railway wheels – three intertwined rings became what is still the company logo – then rails, as well as steel plates and propellers and shafts for steamships. All this allowed Krupp to buy up other firms and acquire iron ore mines, while the introduction of the Bessemer and Siemens-Martin processes allowed him to make more and bigger steel products. By 1874 he employed 12,000 workers on a 35-hectare site in Essen, three times the size it had been a decade earlier.

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