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Lethal and lucrative: "Big Bertha", the giant Krupp howitzer World War I 

In the Anglophone world Krupp is not just the name of a steel and armaments manufacturer: it will forever be associated with German militarism and its imperialist ambitions. The company became so notorious that its wartime head, Gustav Krupp, was to have been the sole representative of German industry in the dock at the main Nuremberg trial. He was eventually deemed too senile to stand trial and attempts to replace him with his son Alfried — who actually ran the company during most of the war — were vetoed by the British for being too arbitrary.

In his authoritative and surprisingly entertaining new history of the company, Krupp: A History of the Legendary German Firm (Princeton, £24.95), the eminent economic historian Harold James asks whether this was justified. James acknowledges that Krupp's wartime record was appalling but argues that it was no worse than that of many other German firms. So why were the Krupps singled out by the allies? 

The Krupps owed their fortune to Germany's 19th-century rise and were inextricably enmeshed with German expansionism. By 1912 Krupp was by far the largest German company and its female owner, Bertha Krupp, was the richest German, with a fortune of 283 million marks (the Kaiser came only fifth).

The firm played a central role in arming Germany in both world wars. Its cannon "Big Bertha" — named after the company's matriarch — was the iconic weapon of the first war. Krupp exploited slave labour from Russian PoWs on a vast scale in the second.

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