The family was based in the industrial Ruhr, in Essen. Their business was founded in a small way, in 1811, and was unable to expand in any significant way until the railway boom of the 1850s. In 1859 Krupps received a big order for cast steel cannon barrels from Prussia. The starter’s gun had gone off.
In a remarkably short time the family firm was the largest supplier of arms in the world. Krupps extended its operations to include mining in the Ruhr and shipbuilding. Socialists will admire the family’s paternalistic philosophy: they introduced a welfare scheme for the workers which included a sickness and burial fund, a pension scheme (in 1855) and a housing fund in 1861.
Friedrich Krupp died in 1902, and ownership of the firm passed to his daughter Bertha (1886 – 1957). She married Gustav von Bohlen, who was permitted to change his name to Krupp. He was the effective head of the Krupp empire from 1909 to 1943*.
Naturally, it was Krupps which supplied most of the arms for Germany and its allies during the First World War, arms that included a very large gun called ‘Big Bertha’, presumably named for Bertha Krupp. This artillery piece was so powerful it could be used for effective bombardment of Paris from seventy miles off.
Hitler promised to enlarge the Army and eliminate Marxists in 1933, after which Gustav Krupp became a member of the National Socialist Party, providing financial support for its election campaign.
It was the Second World War that changed things at Krupps. Welfare schemes were forgotten when Gustav took on 100,000 slave workers in the factories, and Hitler added captured Russian POWs to the work force. Conditions in the factories were hardly better than in the concentration camps. Indeed one could not see much difference in published death rates.
Alfred Krupp (1907 – 1967) had sole control of the firm from 1943, and it is a matter of conjecture what happened to Gustav from 1943 to his death in 1950. Perhaps he was honourably retired?
Alfred built a big fuse factory at Auschwitz, where Jews were worked to death and then killed. At the Nuremberg Trials (q.v.) he was sentenced to 12 years imprisonment but oddly enough he only served three of them. All his property had also been confiscated at the Trials, but he got it all back, and very soon Krupps became the largest steel manufacturer in Germany, though financial problems during the recession of the mid-Sixties enabled the German banks to force a take-over. As a firm, Krupps recovered after massive cash injections, but it was no longer a family concern.
The company’s influence within the German economy was such that Hitler would not and could not have been so bellicose had Krupps not existed, and been so adaptable to his ideas for dominating Europe and perhaps the world.
* A fascinating glimpse of director Visconti’s feelings about the Krupps can be seen in his film Die Götterdämerung a.k.a. ‘The Damned’ (1969). Dirk Bogarde gave a superb performance in this film as von Bohlen (calling him ‘Friedrich Bruckmann’), most of which was left on the cutting room floor. The movie does not state that it is a biographical account of the Krupps, but it obviously is, and no critic at the time was fooled into believing otherwise.