The Krupp family was a German dynasty of industrialists. The Krupps started the first major steel-works in Germany in 1811, and their enterprise expanded rapidly to become one of the world's largest companies and Germany's leading supplier of armaments.
The astounding rise of the Krupp family is very much part of the rapid industrial growth of Germany with its highly concentrated, efficient cartels. As a major weapons manufacturer since the 1860s, the firm was a symbol of the deadly collaboration between the giant industrial complex and the military in Germany and elsewhere, so characteristic of modern warfare.
The recorded history of the Krupps starts in 1587 with the entry of one Arndt Krupp (Krupe) in the guild archives of Essen. A prominent burgher, he ran a flourishing business in the wine and grocery trade, real estate, and moneylending and married his children into Essen's wealthiest families. The marriage of the eldest son, Anton, to the daughter of a well-established gunsmith first involved a Krupp in the manufacture of guns—in this case, during the Thirty Years War. After the conclusion of that war, however, and during the century that followed, the scions of the family retreated to public office as town clerks of Essen, while other members of the family continued as small traders and shopkeepers.
Not until the mid-18th century did the Krupp's business fortunes rise again. In 1751 Friedrich Jodokus Krupp (1706-1757), a great-great-grandson of Arndt who had become a wealthy merchant by a first marriage, married Helene Amalie, who similarly claimed direct descent from the first Essen Krupp. Following Jodokus's death, Helene Amalie promptly renamed the family business "Widow Krupp" and expanded energetically and imaginatively into new areas of enterprise. In 1800 she acquired a foundry near Essen named "Good Hope" and thereby started the family firm on its way to iron making.
Although the shrewd widow sold "Good Hope" at a considerable profit 8 years later, her grandson and successor, Friedrich (1787-1826), continued her interest in metal-working. He built his steel-casting factory at a time when the exclusion of British steel by Napoleon's continental system made the production of steel an unusually promising prospect. He founded in 1811 the firm of Fried. Krupp—the name the firm still bears today. Although initially hampered by outmoded equipment, Friedrich was able to make a success of his business until his ill health caused the company to enter a period of rapid decline. Friedrich died on Oct. 8, 1826.
Friedrich's death left the near-bankrupt factory and the secret of steelmaking to his 14-year-old son, Alfred (April 26, 1812-July 14, 1887), who was to become the real founder of the Krupp industrial empire. Dubbed "Alfred the Great," he became one of the great industrial tycoons in the rapidly expanding German industrial economy of the 19th century. Initially with the help of his valiant mother, Therese (1790-1850), he quickly tightened his grip on the firm and explored ways of improving and expanding its production. In 1830 he added the manufacture of steel rolls, just in time to take advantage of the expanding market created by the German Customs Union (1834) and the first German railroads (1835). In the 1840s he began introducing newly developed machinery, often designed by himself—such as the famous giant hammer "Fritz," which made his works competitive with English steel.
The major breakthrough came in 1851, when Alfred gained world fame with the display of a perfect 4-ton steel ingot and the first steel cannon at the London World Exhibition. His production of the seamless railroad tire a year later (preserved in the firm's symbol of three interlocking rings) quickly made him one of the world's major suppliers of railroad equipment. In 1862 Krupp pioneered the Bessemer process on the Continent and introduced the open-hearth method of steel casting in 1869.
Krupp's entry into the manufacture of arms was slower. Acceptance of the steel cannon was initially hesitant, and only after the astounding performance of his guns in the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871) did the rapid boost in gun sales begin.
As an industrial empire builder, Krupp pioneered the vertical "mixed company" in Germany by adding a variety of mining, power, and transportation concerns to his firm. As a paternalistic employer, he introduced several significant welfare services (health insurance, pension fund, housing), which later served as models for Bismarck's social legislation.
Friedrich Alfred Krupp
Alfred's son and successor, Friedrich Alfred (Feb. 17, 1854-Nov. 22, 1902), unlike his robust, vigorous, and dominating father, was a quiet, delicate man who enjoyed the theoretical scientific aspects of steelmaking more than the routine of production. Nonetheless, he proved to be an able administrator, acquired new subsidiaries for the firm, began the production of steel armor plate, and expanded into shipbuilding and steam shipping. Under his direction, the firm doubled its work force to 43,000, entered into extensive scientific research, and became a model of progressive paternalistic labor services.
The death of Friedrich in 1902 extinguished the direct male line of the house and left the firm in the hands of two determined women, Friedrich's wife, Margarethe (1854-1931) and his 16-year-old daughter and sole heiress, Bertha (1886-1957). In 1903 the firm was transformed into a joint stock company owned exclusively by the Krupp family. Bertha married the Prussian diplomat Gustav von Bohlen und Halbach (Aug. 7, 1870-Jan. 16, 1950) in 1906, and he was permitted by the emperor William II to add the name Krupp, thereby ensuring the formal continuation of the dynasty.
Gustav Krupp von Bohlen und Halbach
The rising demand for weaponry created by World War I soon overshadowed all other production and caused the firm to grow rapidly. The field gun "Big Bertha," introduced in 1909, played a vital role in the German advance in 1914 and at Verdun in 1916. In 1918 a new cannon, the "Paris Gun," shelled Paris from a 75 mile distance.
At the end of the war, under severe strains of revolution and Allied pressures, Gustav reconverted the firm to the production of railroad equipment and heavy machinery. The major expansion was in the exploration of new types of metals and machinery, which led in 1926 to the invention of sintered tungsten carbide.
With the rise of Hitler, armaments production once more became an important branch of the firm, although it remained less than 10 percent of the total production until 1939. During World War II the Krupps were again Germany's major arms suppliers—the best-known were the Krupp U-boats, the "Tiger Tanks," and the huge railway gun "Dora," used to bombard Sevastopol with 80-centimeter shells in 1941. The firm expanded rapidly and became intimately tied to Nazi policies through the use of some 100,000 slave laborers from occupied eastern Europe. Meanwhile, with Gustav's health failing, the firm passed to the eldest son, Alfried (Aug. 13, 1907-July 30, 1967), who became director in 1942 and sole proprietor of the reconverted family firm in 1943.
Alfried Krupp von Bohlen und Halbach
At the end of the war, both father and son were arrested, but because of Gustav's ill health, only Alfried was brought to trial; he was sentenced to 12 years of imprisonment and forced to surrender the firm (Nuremberg, 1948). The company—70 percent destroyed and dismantled—was put under Allied control. In 1951, however, the U.S. high commissioner, J. J. McCloy, released Alfried, and an Allied decree in 1953 permitted his return to the helm of the company, an arrangement that was later changed by the establishment of a holding company, which left ownership, but not control, in the hands of Alfried.
With the economic recovery of West Germany and the establishment of the Common Market, the Krupp firm— reconverted to railroad and heavy machinery production— again expanded rapidly. Through its work as designer and builder of whole factories, Krupp was active both in under-developed countries and in trade with Communist Eastern Europe. In June 1967 it completed Germany's first nuclear plant.
Alfried's death in 1967 and financial crisis finally led to the dissolution of the family enterprise by Alfried's eldest son and heir, Arndt. The firm was converted into a true corporation on Jan. 31, 1968, thereby ending one of history's longest industrial dynasties.
Further Reading on Krupp
Primary source material is in Wilhelm Berdrow, ed., The Letters of Alfred Krupp, 1826-1887 (trans. 1930), and in the Trials of War Criminals before the Nuremberg Military Tribunals (15 vols., 1949-1953). Two Krupp histories in English are both popularized and passionately critical. Peter Batty, The House of Krupp (1966), is concise and interesting, while William Manchester's rather bombastic The Arms of Krupp, 1587-1968 (1968), although cluttered with German phrases and careless in detail, contains more information.
Older works are Wilhelm Berdrow, The Krupps: 150 Years of Krupp History, 1787-1937 (trans. 1937), a popularized and sentimental story of the Nazi years; a fine classic by Bernhard Menne, Blood and Steel: The Rise of the House of Krupp (1938); the semiofficial family history by Gert von Klass, Krupps: The Story of an Industrial Empire (trans. 1954); Norbert Mühlen, The Incredible Krupps: The Rise, Fall, and Comeback of Germany's Industrial Family (1959); and Gordon Young, The Fall and Rise of Alfried Krupp (1960), a fine and fair-minded work.
Recommended for general historical background are Gustav Stolper, Kurt Haeuser and Knut Borchart, The German Economy, 1870 to the Present (trans. 1967), and Golo Mann, The History of Germany since 1789 (trans. 1968).