The Things You Learn

One of my favorite books is William Manchester’s The Arms of Krupp.  I have it in paperback and it’s been read enough that my copy is falling apart.  Once day I suppose I’ll hunt up a hardcover copy on Amazon, but that’s a priority that’s going to have to wait.  I have a few of Manchester’s other books, including his now-completed (posthumously, by his hand-picked editor) biography of Churchill — The Last Lion — and the last book, I think, that he ever wrote himself, A World Lit Only by Fire, a book about the world and plane of human understanding shattered by Magellan’s voyage.

At the risk of understatement, in the Krupp history Manchester avoids the pitfall of falling in love with his subject.  Rather the opposite; in fact, at least some contemporaneous reviews — here, for example — took him to task for erring too far in the other direction.  A few years ago, a Harold James published a new history of the family and its company, Krupp: A History of the Legendary German Firm (here I am violating one of my informal rules (hey, it’s my blog, right?), namely that of not linking to books that I have not read), which has been favorably contrasted — here and here, for example — to what is now perceived as Manchester’s lop-sided portrayal of the family and its doings.

All that is as it may be, as the English say.

I wanted to focus on a person who figures prominently in the latter part of Manchester’s book, a boy name of Berthold Beitz.  Beitz was brought in as the front-man of the firm in the 1950s.  He’d been head of an insurance company after the war.  Here it is helpful to understand the outsized role that insurance companies play in the German economy and in society.  Let’s just say that insurance occupies a much more honored niche in both than is the case here.  Manchester portrays Beitz as being almost a cartoonish wanna-be American.  Using first names.  Glad-handing.  Everything big, loud, and overdone.  Very much contrary to how the family and firm had done business before.

The family and firm had need just at that time (1953) of a front-man.  Alfried Krupp, the last sole proprietor, was then still somewhat in bad odor, he having been caught with a large number of dead slave laborers about his person.  Manchester’s book is in fact dedicated to the nameless dead children in the cemetery at Buschmannshof, in Voerde-bei-Dinslaken, who were born to Krupp’s slave laborers, died, and were buried there.  His father, Gustav Krupp von Bohlen und Halbach — who was not even a born Krupp; the Kaiser himself gave Gustav the Krupp name upon his marriage to Bertha (for whom the Big Bertha siege gun of the Great War was nicknamed) — was to have been one of the defendants at the first Nuremberg trials, sitting in the dock with Goering, Heydrich, Sauckel, and the rest of them.  That’s how egregious their behavior was.  But by the end of the war Gustav was a drooling imbecile and in fact had in 1942 (I think; it may have been the next year) given the entire firm to his son Alfried.  For whatever reason the Allies never tumbled to that fact, and so Alfried, under whom the worst of the firm’s wartime atrocities occurred (Manchester even cites to an occasion on which the S.S. complained of how Krupp was treating its slave laborers), escaped a hanging court.

So Beitz was brought in as the first outsider to have a decisive voice in the firm’s running.  Manchester portrays him has more or less running it into a ditch, over-extending it with questionable dealings with Third World countries and Warsaw Pact countries, the abilities and willingness to pay of which were all dicey at the time and proved to be the firm’s undoing.  Again, according to Manchester (it’s been several years since I re-read the book), the firm began doing an ever-greater percentage of its business in places where a prudent vendor would have given serious thought to the merits of up-front payment.  And then of course those same “developing” (a misnomer: they didn’t “develop”; the West developed them, and paid through the nose for the privilege) countries welshed on enormous contracts, which drove the firm from private ownership.  Ended up going public, a step which the Founder, Alfred (his parents gave him the English spelling of the name) had vehemently opposed.  Of course, to complete the irony, Krupp and Thyssen have now merged (look at the next elevator Gentle Reader rides in).  Thyssen was Alfred Krupp’s arch-enemy back in the day.

The merger, by the way, was Beitz’s doing.  He stayed with the firm for 60 years, and died July 30, 2013, just shy of his 100th birthday.

What I didn’t know until I read his obituary in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (sorry, their archives are pay-walled) was that he was inducted into Yad Vashem for his actions in saving Jews during the war.  He’d been in charge of a large petroleum facility in the Ukraine, sufficiently high up that he had the power to designate workers as critical war workers.  He also was sufficiently lofty to receive advance notice of proposed round-ups and liquidations.  And so he began using his critical-worker designation powers willy-nilly.  In favor of all manner of people, including children.  He and his wife also hid Jews in their home.  According to the Wikipedia write-up here, he was eventually credited with saving on the order of 800 Jews from extermination, for which he was honored by Yad Vashem as Righteous Among the Nations.  It is, I understand, the highest accolade that the children of Abraham can bestow upon a Gentile.

I can think of no higher recognition than to be recognized in one’s own lifetime as Righteous Among the Nations.  Has a biblical ring to it which sort of chokes one up, upon reflection.  I think what impresses as significant is the mental image of the individual standing on his own, alone, among the nations of all the earth, all acknowledging his virtue and courage (part of the selection criteria for Yad Vashem is that the person must have acted as he did at peril of his own life, and for the purpose of saving the lives of Jews).

I don’t know whether Beitz’s war-time rescue activities were widely known when Manchester was writing (his book dates to the late 1960s, which means it would have been researched and written towards the middle of the decade).  Would knowledge of that have altered how he was portrayed in the book?  I’d sure hope so, given how negatively he is shown.

The take-away from all this is that it’s going to be a long, long time before the last is written or spoken upon any of us.

Farewell and rest in peace, Berthold Beitz, Righteous Among the Nations.

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