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What can we learn from the history of the Wirtschaftswunder?

The recovery of Germany after the Second World War is often referred to as the Wirtschaftswunder or economic miracle. The rebuilding of Germany was not just a matter of rebuilding the towns and cities that had been devastated during the war, but also the rebuilding of the country’s economy as well as its reputation after 12 years of Nazi rule.

In April 1945 when the Americans came to arrest Alfried Krupp von Bohlen und Halbach – who was the owner and director of his family firm, the giant steel manufacturer Friedrich.Krupp – the name Krupp was synonymous with the armaments of Hitler’s war machine. Immediately after the war the company and its assets were confiscated by the Americans, and in 1948 Krupp von Bohlen und Halbach was convicted for war crimes and sentenced to 12 years imprisonment for his role in supporting the Nazis. However, in 1951 the director was pardonned, and a decade after the end of the war he was once again leading his company, which had now re-invented itself to provide some of the products enjoyed by consumers in the German post war economic boom known as the Wirschaftswunder.

The story of the recovery and rebuilding of the Krupp company after the Second World War, is the subject of an exhibition being held at Villa Hügel, the former home of the Krupp family in Essen, Germany. The exhibition entitled: Wirstschaft! Wunder! Krupp in der Fotografie 1949 – 1967 (Economic! Miracle! Krupp in photographs from 1949 to 1967) is running from 5th July until 23rd November 2014. For further details see Although the exhibition is from the perspective of how one company in the Ruhr was making a recovery after the war: as Krupp and the region were so important economically to the new West Germany, it is also the story of the German recovery, which would ultimately lead to German re-unification after the Cold War, and Germany taking a responsible role within the EU.

When Alfried Krupp von Bohlen und Halbach invited a group of photojournalists from the Magnum photography agency to work alongside Krupp’s own company photographers in the 1950s, it would have been a public relations exercise for a company that now wanted to show itself as open, modern, innovative, sophisticated as well as socially responsible. Some of these photographs are included among the 114 photographs displayed in the exhibition.

One set of photographs is interesting because it shows the day in the life of a Krupp employee. The first shot is of him sitting at the breakfast table with his wife and daughter; in another shot he is shown leaving the flat which had been provided for him by his employer, no need for a private landlord or a mortguage when you worked for Krupp; then he is seen at work in the factory performing a task with a machine tool; in the next shot a doctor is putting a bandage on the hand of the worker, presumably this is happening at a surgery on the premises of the Krupp works or at the Krupp hospital in Essen; in another photograph the Krupp employee is seen shopping with his wife in a supermarket, perhaps he is in one of Krupp’s own stores.

In a seperate photograph taken a few years before the set of photographs of the day in the life of a Krupp worker, we see a group of people standing outside of the Konsum Anstalt, a shop which was built by Krupp and opened in Essen in 1951. Steel girders and frames such as the type used in the construction of this building would have been in high demand from Krupp after the war, as so many buidings now needed to be replaced that had been destroyed during the bombing raids. One of the traditional areas of production that continued after the war at the Krupp factories, was the building of steel wheels for railway locamotives and railway carriages. Again probably most of the orders for these were to replace rolling stock that had been destroyed during the war. New products such as a Krupp motor scooter, and a washing machine were shown off at trade fairs.

For the Krupp firm the miracle of the recovery would have been that the firm itself could once again operate and then become profitable, after a loss of 70 percent of its production plants during wartime bombing. It is certain that the success of the firm could not have been achieved by Alfried Krupp von Bohlen und Halbach alone, without the help and hard work of Krupp’s thousands of workers, including his mother Bertha Krupp, and his deputy Berthold Beitz. Are there any lessons that we can learn today from this economic miracle of recovery?

When I visited Villa Hügel on 19th July 2014, most of the park surrounding the big house was out of bounds to the public, following severe storm damage caused to many trees on the estate. The ferocity of the storm damage in the region had previously been brought to my attention at the end of June, when I arrived in Düsseldorf for a German language course. Although the storm had taken place on 9th June, teams of workmen were still clearing up the damaged trees that had been broken or uprooted. As with the grounds of Villa Hügel in Essen, much of the Hofgarten in Düsseldorf was still closed to the public weeks after the storm, because the debris from hundreds of broken trees still needed to be removed. The destruction of so many trees in these parks, reminded me of an old photograph I had once seen of trees that had been destroyed by the bombing of the Tiergarten in Berlin during the Second World War.

The economic miracle for Germany after the Second World War was a positive response to the terrible destruction caused by the war. The question that we all face today, not just in Germany, but also the whole world is how we respond to the destruction caused by climate change?

©Jolyon Gumbrell 2014

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