Blood and Steel

Review of Krupp: A History of the Legendary German Firm, by Harold James (Princeton University Press, 2012)

Journalist William Manchester's 1968 work, The Arms of Krupp, has long defined legacy the Krupp family business. Manchester roundly condemned the corporation and its leaders, accusing the Krupps of "pillage of the continent" and "slave labor crimes."1 Partially as a result, the name Krupp has become synonymous with war profiteering, armaments and the Nazi regime.

Cover of Krupp: A History of the Legendary German Firm by Harold James
Cover of Krupp: A History of the Legendary German Firm by Harold James.

Harold James' book, Krupp: A History of the Legendary German Firm, offers a new look at the famous German steel producer. James' narrative offers a more ambiguous view of the Krupp family and its legacy. Where Manchester's work heavily emphasizes the company's arms sales, James presents a more balanced account of the company's activities and its role in technological change.

James, like Manchester, structures his study by focusing on the Krupp family and its successive leaders. Manchester's descriptive writing brought his characters to life more than James' style does, but the latter makes up for this deficit with the superior accuracy of his account.

The protagonists of James' work are five Krupp men, their lives stretching from 1787 to 1967. The author begins his work with Friedrich Krupp, a young energetic man of a middle class Bürger family. Friedrich made it his goal to achieve British style steel production in Germany. Mortgaging his family businesses and properties, Friedrich Krupp chased his vision of "cast steel," depending upon a number of unreliable business partners and inventors, who led only to further debts. By 1824, Friedrich Krupp had squandered his family fortune, been stripped of all his rights and was removed from the list of merchants in Essen.2 He died impoverished two years later.

It was his son, Alfried Krupp, who made the Krupp fortune. Alfried, who changed his name to Alfred to show his enthusiasm for all things English, turned his father's visions into reality. He proved adept at catching new technological change at moments of maximum advantage. For instance, when Krupp adopted the Bessemer Steel production process before any of his major German competitors, it increased his production capacity 200-fold and made Krupp the leader in German steel production.3

More importantly, James shows how Alfred possessed remarkable talents in marketing and self-promotion. As a young man, Alfred skillfully made personal connections advantageous to furthering the business. In particular, Alfred developed close contacts with the Prussian state. His skill in this regard was indeed nothing short of astounding: when he took over his father's business at the age of 14, he immediately began dispatching letters to the Prussian state mint.4

His father had initiated the company's ties to the Prussian state. But Alfred Krupp's new government contacts brought numerous new opportunities. In the 1840s, Alfred began experimenting with the production of steel cuirasses and innovative new rifle barrels. James argues that these fields of production particularly suited Alfred's interests: they helped him prove "himself as an entrepreneur…enhancing his reputation not just nationally but internationally."5 By his death in 1887, Alfred had taken his firm from 4 employees to over 20,000. Krupp revenues in the year of his death approached fifty million marks. And his business was the world's largest arms manufacturers.

Alfred's son, Friedrich Alfred Krupp, was a tragic figure. A softhearted man, he possessed limited business interests and instincts. He came under frequent attack in the German press, as rumors circulated about his homosexuality and his spending sprees abroad. Friedrich Alfred's daughter, only 16 at the time of his death, had little interest in the business, and left the company in the hands of others, most notably her husband, Gustav von Bohlen und Halbach.

Under Gustav and his son, Alfried Krupp von Bohlen und Halbach, the company played a central role in the armament of Germany during the First and Second World Wars. The company became an industrial superpower during the First World War, serving as the primary arms manufacturer for Germany and employing up to 200,000 industrial workers.6 While the firm did make a good deal of money during the war, James argues that the Krupp firm's leadership emphasized social responsibility – to its workers and the state – at least as much as profits.7

The Krupps' role in World War II receives the careful consideration it deserves. Gustav Alfred and his son had a complicated relationship with the Nazi regime, accused by some of financing Hitler's rise to power. The company's use of slave labor on a massive scale resulted in the company's board of directors being tried for war crimes. James offers new details about the trial of Alfried Krupp. He had only assumed a position of real responsibility in 1943, at which time the company had already begun its most objectionable practices.8 James argues that Alfried became a scapegoat, tried more for his company's name than his actual role in corporate governance.9

James continues his narrative through the post-war period, showing how Krupp participated successfully in the German economic miracle, reinventing itself. This came at a cost: the company lost the family character which had defined it, as after the death of Alfried Krupp von Bohlen und Halbach, it was reorganized as a foundation. Krupp prospered as globalization spread, becoming intimately involved in Third World industrialization projects. Perhaps symbolic of this change, the Shah of Iran became one of Krupp's largest investors.10

James does an excellent job of showing how the fates of Germany and Krupp were closely entwined. Partially, this was a product of the close political ties Krupp enjoyed with successive German governments, essential as an arms manufacturer. But James shows that the relationship between the Krupp business and Germany's history runs deeper, a product of the personalities involved in the running of the company and the central importance the Krupps placed on their relationship with their labor force. Indeed, constant adaption to the needs of the labor force resulted in the creation of a unique and famed corporate culture, that of the Kruppianer.

Krupp: A History of the Legendary German Firm is a book that will appeal most to specialists. The sensationalism and rich characters of Manchester's account are absent from James' account. Instead, he offers a new, subtler portrait of a firm which has come to be known as a definitive symbol of Germany.

1 William Manchester, The Arms of Krupp, 1587-1968 (Boston, MA: Little, Brown and Company, 1968), 580.

2 Harold James, Krupp: A History of the Legendary German Firm (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012), 21.

3 James, 36.

4 James, 52.

5 James, 65

6 James, 140.

7 James, 140.

8 James, 225.

9 James, 209.

10 James, 269.