While most innovations serve society well, others lend new and terrible meaning to the concept of creative destruction—the process by which new systems and industries replace existing ones. “[The world] scraps its obsolete engines and dynamos,” observes Andrew Undershaft, the millionaire arms manufacturer in George Bernard Shaw’s 1905 play Major Barbara; “but it won’t scrap its old prejudices and its old moralities and its old religions and its old political constitutions.” The sentiment that ethical and social constructs can and should be as readily retooled as an internal combustion engine was shared by Undershaft’s historical prototype, the German industrialist Alfred Krupp (pictured), who operated on the principle that the interests of the company and the nation were one. In 1873, Krupp described the mission of his business as “the creation of a work which in a certain measure is inseparable from the idea of the development and importance of the state”—and indeed the firm’s history perilously paralleled that of Germany in the 19th and 20th centuries.
When Krupp inherited the family’s ironworks, the loosely connected German states were struggling to compete with other rapidly industrializing nations. Determined not to suffer the same humiliation as his father, who died in debt, the young Krupp imposed strict discipline on the enterprise and, building on his father’s smelting experiments, expanded his workforce from a handful of employees to some 20,000 over the course of the next several decades. A key turning point was his decision to send an enormous steel cannon to the Great Exhibition in London, organized in 1851 to promote international peace. He soon reported that his factories were no longer making spoons but weapons—an activity that excited admiration from royal quarters. “I must see this genius, Herr Krupp,” declared Crown Prince Wilhelm of Prussia, who, with the aid of Krupp’s cannons, united the formerly independent German states to become Kaiser Wilhelm I.Krupp, for his part, was happy “to increase the capacity for destruction” if it would “serve the fatherland at the time of need.”
Before his death in 1888, Krupp enjoined his son, Friedrich Alfred, to “be to the future Kaiser what I am to the present one.” Fritz, as he was known, heeded this advice, expanding the company’s product line to include artillery guns with recoil mechanisms, battleships, and U-boats. The new kaiser, Wilhelm II, appointed Fritz as his “secret councilor,” giving him the title of “Excellency.” Yet despite imperial favor, Fritz fell prey to scandal:In 1902, newspapers claimed that, while vacationing on Capri, the industrialist engaged in lewd acts with adolescent boys. Within weeks, he died in disgrace.
The houses of Krupp and Hohenzollern remained closely tied through the person of Gustav von Bohlen und Halbach, a diplomat who, at the emperor’s behest, married Fritz’s daughter, Bertha, and appended Krupp to his string of surnames. Gustav possessed a pliable conscience that enabled him to steer the company through the Great War and, after Germany’s defeat, to work to clandestinely rearm the country during the 1920s and 1930s. “Only support of the Führer is possible,” he remarked when Adolf Hitler rose to power, setting the stage for the company’s contributions to the next global conflict.
His son, Alfried, however, played the leading role in World War II, after a stroke forced Gustav to retire in 1941. The newly anointed leader enjoyed the Nazi regime’s largesse, which not only allowed him to seize factories in occupied countries but also furnished a steady supply of slave labor. Although these appropriations later resulted in Alfried’s prosecution for war crimes, he was granted amnesty in 1951 and regained most of his assets. He also retained another wartime trophy:In 1943, Hitler had passed a law that changed his surname to that of his forebears. After all, as his great-grandfather had asserted in 1893, “It must not be forgotten that the owner of the company and the company are a unity.” Certainly no one who managed to survive the firm’s many destructive innovations could ever forget that.
Corrections: Our coverage of the Jaguar F-Type V8 S in the June issue (Best of the Best special section, page 80) erroneously included an image of the wrong F-Type. Also in error was a photo of the Lexus LS 460 F Sport that ran alongside a story on the 2013 Lexus GS 350 F Sport in the January issue (“Rookie of the New Year,” page 48). Visit www.robbreport.com to read these stories and see the correct images.