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About the Town Where I Was Born

Essen in 1900: partial view of the Krupp iron foundry.

I was born in Essen, Germany. When I tell my American friends that I was born in Essen, I usually get blank faces. Essen after the war was in the British zone of occupation and is not as well known in the U.S. as towns like Frankfurt, which were in the American zone. I fill in the picture somewhat by saying that Essen was at the time something like a mashup of Detroit, Pittsburgh, and Gary, Indiana. It was a coal, steel, and heavy manufacturing town. But it was not an ordinary industrial city. It was the Krupp company town.

The local saying was, “Essen is Krupp, Krupp is Essen.”  My family, myself included, were part of it.  My father’s father, Karl, worked as an office manager for Krupp in Essen. My father in his student years had summer jobs with Krupp. My father’s sister worked as a bookkeeper for Krupp. My mother worked for about two years during the war in the Krupp company archives, known as the Historical Department. I spent many of my infant days in the little garden of that building, and in the bomb shelter in its basement.

Me, late 1941, in Krupp Historical Department building, with my mother and a co-worker

The Krupp coal, steel and machinery works in Essen were the principal makers of heavy weaponry for the German armed forces in World War II. The Panzer, the heavy artillery, the FLAK (anti-aircraft) guns, and much else, were all made in Essen. When Benito Mussolini visited the city in 1937, a banner at the railway station welcomed him to the “Armory of the Reich.”

The Krupp dynasty began in 1587 with Arndt Krupp, who became wealthy in real estate by buying up property at distressed prices during the Great Plague. The firm entered the weapons trade as an arms manufacturer during the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648). In the early 1800s, the firm became a power in the nascent steel industry. It invested heavily in the breech-loading cannon, which proved more deadly than the muzzle-loader, and became a supplier of heavy artillery to dozens of countries.

By the end of the U.S. Civil War, Krupp had become the largest company in Europe. In the financial panic of 1873 the company teetered on the edge of bankruptcy, but the State of Prussia backed a massive loan that bailed it out. Krupp was too big to fail.

Around the turn of the 20th century, the then head of the firm, Fritz Krupp, committed suicide after his exposure as a serial pederast. But the firm was too big to be shaken by scandal.

Under Fritz’ successor Gustav, the Krupp firm built the first U-boats. It acquired a firm that made barbed wire. On the eve of the First World War, it was selling about half its armaments production in Germany and the other half to 52 other countries. During that war, the Krupp firm initiated the use of forced labor in its factories, using conscripted Belgian civilians. The victorious allies named Gustav Krupp a war criminal but never brought him to trial.

With the exception of forced labor, the Krupp firm stood out for its paternalistic treatment of workers. Workers had to sign a loyalty oath to Krupp, and needed written permission from their foreman to go to the bathroom. But the firm provided a range of social services, including parks, schools, recreation facilities, health care, and pensions. This policy, aimed at controlling the workers and shutting out the Socialist and Communist party organizers, made the Krupp firm a state within a state. During the runaway inflation, Krupp printed its own currency, the most stable in the country. Regular employees at Krupp identified as Kruppians (Kruppianer). Paternalism notwithstanding, the Krupp firm in 1928 led the way in a nationwide lockout of a quarter-million workers in order to cut their wages.

During the Weimar Republic, when Germany was forbidden to manufacture armaments, the Krupp firm engaged in widespread evasion and subterfuge. In 1932, Gustav Krupp became an open and fanatical supporter of Hitler, purged Jews from the ranks of German business, raised large sums of money from German businessmen for the Nazi party, and engaged in a secret large-scale rearmament program. His son Alfried, who took over the firm in 1941, was an early and undisguised Nazi enthusiast and SS member.

As the German armies advanced behind Krupp artillery and Krupp tanks, the Krupp firm seized major mines, steel works, and machinery firms in the conquered territories. In response to the extreme wartime labor shortage, Krupp made extensive use of forced labor. His representatives visited concentration camps to select able-bodied men for slave labor in Essen and other sites. Jewish and Slavic workers, considered sub-human, were deliberately worked to death. Krupp opened a factory to make fuses and gun parts near Auschwitz, with labor supplied by women from the Auschwitz concentration camp. Rough estimates put the number of slave laborers in the various Krupp works at more than 100,000, of which about 25,000 were Jews. The number of “free” laborers for Krupp was then about 278,000.

My mother noted in her memoirs from Essen:

In one of the main streets, long columns of men in raggedy gray work clothes, guarded by soldiers on all sides, were marching, no, shuffling along, on to the Krupp factories to produce weapons of war for the Germans, their enemies. I knew they were all foreigners, captured by German soldiers, abducted from their countries and forced to labor here. They were war slaves.

The Allies began bombing Essen in 1940 with isolated raids, and by 1942 the raids grew to become massive. Military strategists and historians have debated these and similar raids ever since. Many years after it was over, my mother wrote in her memoirs that she believed the bombs were aimed at the Krupp factories and that some bombs fell on civilian areas by mistake. This was a case of euphoric recall on her part. During the bombing, while the events were fresh in her mind, she wrote to a friend, Helmut Gollwitzer:

Unfortunately the Krupp factory, which is truly not hard to hit, gets the least of it. We “poor unarmed civilians” get all the more of it.[1]

This was not an accidental pattern.

The Nazis had begun intentional terror bombings of civilian centers in Spain (Guernica, 1937) and massively in Poland (Warsaw) in 1939, and again, with deliberate provocation, in Rotterdam in June 1940. They then launched a prolonged campaign of air attacks on civilian targets in Britain. Not long thereafter, notwithstanding years of deploring the Nazi air attacks on civilians as barbaric, the Allies themselves adopted a civilian bombing strategy. The Allied theory behind massive bombing of German (and Japanese) population centers was laid out in a Royal Air Force staff paper published on September 23, 1941, coincidentally just a couple of days before I was born:

“The ultimate aim of an attack on a town area is to break the morale of the population which occupies it. To ensure this, we must achieve two things: first, we must make the town physically uninhabitable and, secondly, we must make the people conscious of constant personal danger. The immediate aim, is therefore, twofold, namely, to produce (i) destruction and (ii) fear of death.” (Source)

The aim of the Allied bombing, in other words, was to create terror, as the Nazi propaganda, never shy of hypocrisy, pointed out.

The impact on industrial production was secondary, and remains disputed. William Manchester, a critic of the bombing strategy, points out that the Krupp works took up six million square yards of factory space in Essen, an area seven times larger than the center of the city, so that it would be almost impossible to miss. Yet by the end of the war only 30 percent of it had been destroyed, and armaments output actually increased. (The Arms of Krupp, p. 531-533) But the working-class residential districts in the city were hit so heavily that, in the words of a British critic, “the blast bombs, which had caused such havoc when the buildings were intact … did little more than convulse the rubble.” (p. 533)

Allied troops enter residential area of Essen, 1945. From Bildberichte.

An inventory taken by British occupation authorities after V-E Day estimated that of 184,000 homes in Essen before the war, 160,000 were completely destroyed or heavily damaged. Out of 2,044 industrial structures, only 571 were completely destroyed. (Bildberichte, p. 250) Among the civilian victims was my father’s father, Martin Karl Nicolaus, who was fatally wounded in a bombing raid in April 1942 that destroyed the family house at No. 1 Margaretenstrasse along with the rest of the block.

After the war, Gustav and Alfried Krupp were both indicted as war criminals. Gustav was let go because of advanced age and ill health. Alfried was convicted on multiple counts of crimes against humanity but sentenced only to twelve years’ imprisonment, a slap on the wrist. After two years, the Allied High Commissioner commuted his sentence, released him, and restored much of his wealth. He soon recaptured many of the Krupp divisions that had been spun off by trust-busting occupation authorities after the war, and became the world’s richest sole proprietor.

After Alfried’s death in 1967, the Krupp firm underwent a series of restructurings so complex that I cannot pretend to understand them. Among the main developments was its conversion from a sole proprietorship to a joint stock company, and its merger with a major competitor, Thyssen. Today’s ThyssenKrupp AG is a major world power in steel, heavy industrial equipment, and a range of allied industries. It remains a major employer in Essen.

The “Old Synagogue” in Essen, rebuilt (2001 photo)

In 2001, I visited Essen as a tourist. I was dumbfounded by the changes. I had expected coke ovens, smokestacks, the roar of rolling mills and a suffocating blanket of soot — the traditional Essen of the history books. There was none of that. A few former industrial plants had been converted into cultural centers. Trees, shrubs and flowers were everywhere. Ruins could not be found. The synagogue had been rebuilt. The center of the city was a busy pedestrian mall with hundreds of chain stores and small shops. The air was breathable. Essen was in the process of reinventing itself as a white-collar city, a center of software development. In 2010, Essen stepped onto the world stage as a European Cultural Center.

My visit was too short to probe behind the city’s new persona. I came away impressed by its audacity and resilience.

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