From Krupp to Aldi

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.

In 1902 Kaiser Wilhelm II travelled to Essen, the city where the company was and is still based, to lead the funeral procession for Friedrich Alfred Krupp, the late head of the firm. He had died, probably of a stroke, possibly through suicide, not long after the socialist paper Vorwärts accused him of using his wealth, in a “terrible picture of the influence of capitalism”, to corrupt Italian peasants at gay orgies on the island of Capri.  

Hitler too made the pilgrimage to Essen. The family entertained him in the Villa Hügel, their grandiose, indeed rather grotesque, 269-room Italianate mansion built in the 1870s on a Wagnerian cliff overhanging the Ruhr as an advertisement for the firm’s iron and steel.

Essen owed its rise to Krupp. When the firm was founded in 1811 Essen’s population was about 4,000; by 1939, it was 660,000. But Krupp was also the source of Essen’s wartime destruction: 1.5 million tons of explosive were dropped on the city, compared to around 45,000 tons dropped on London during the Blitz.

Krupp did not take long to be resurrected. Alfried had his fortune confiscated and was sentenced in 1948 to 12 years’ imprisonment, but he was released in 1951 and his confiscated property returned to him. After his death in 1967, his son Arndt signed over the company to a charitable trust in return for a lifetime income. He too led a sybaritic life, but now the hedonistic parties were held in Bangkok and Marrakesh and the income was no longer sufficient; his estate filed for bankruptcy after his death in 1986.  

Others have taken the Krupps’ place among the Essen wealthy. In 1946 two brothers, Karl and Theo Albrecht, took over their mother’s small Essen grocery store. By 1950 they owned 13 stores trading under the name Albrecht Discount. They continued to expand and in 1962 they shortened the company’s name to Aldi. According to Forbes magazine, the surviving brother, Karl, is the richest person in Germany and the tenth richest in the world, worth more than $25 billion. He still lives in Essen.

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