Krupp, Bertha (1886–1957)

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Krupp, Bertha (1886–1957)

German heiress to the Krupp armaments fortune and one of the richest individuals in Europe, who played a significant, if discreet, role in directing her family's enterprises during much of the 20th century. Pronunciation: Krupp rhymes with loop. Name variations: Bertha von Krupp; Bertha Krupp von Bohlen und Halbach. Born Bertha Krupp in March 1886 at the family home in Essen, a city in the Ruhr Valley region of Germany; died in Essen of a heart attack on September 21, 1957; daughter of Friedrich (Fritz) Krupp (a leading German industrialist) and Margarethe (von Ende) Krupp (a Prussian civil servant's daughter); attendedfinishing school in Baden-Baden; married Gustav von Bohlen und Halbach, in 1906 (died 1950): children: Alfried von Bohlen und Halbach (1907–1967, who married Anneliese Bahr and Vera Hossenfeldt); Berthold von Bohlen und Halbach (b. 1913, who married Edith von Maltzan); Arnold von Bohlen und Halbach (1908–1909); Claus von Bohlen und Halbach (1910–1940); Irmgard von Bohlen und Halbach (b. 1912, who married Hanno Raitz von Frenz); Harald von Bohlen und Halbach (b. 1916, who married Doerte Hillringhaus); Waldtraut von Bohlen und Halbach (b. 1920); Eckbert von Bohlen und Halbach (1922–1945).

Became heiress to the Krupp fortune (1902); entertained Kaiser Wilhelm II at Krupp centennial (1912); saw first use of "Big Bertha" cannon in attack on Belgium (1914); her husband arrested by French occupiers of Ruhr (1923); opposed husband's conversion to Nazism (1933); Hitler made first visit to Krupp factory (1934); her husband decorated by Hitler (1940); her husband suffered his first stroke (1941); her firm granted special status by Hitler with the Lex Krupp (Krupp Law, 1943); fled from Essen to Austrian Alps, while her sister was arrested following failed plot on Hitler's life (1944); arrest of her son Alfried by American authorities (1945); Alfried convicted of war crimes (1948); with death of husband, petitioned for return of her fortune (1950); Alfried released from prison (1951); Konrad Adenauer visited Krupps (1953); return of son Harald from Russian prison-of-war camp (1955).

Bertha Krupp was the heiress to the great German armaments fortune established by her grandfather, Alfred Krupp. From 1902 onward, as one of the richest individuals in Europe, her role in the affairs of her country was generally discreet: she was always in the position of a privileged bystander to great events. Starting in 1914, she became famous throughout the world as the woman whose name was attached to the "Big Bertha" cannon employed in World War I. Her most visible role was to carry out a Krupp tradition by which the women of the family performed charitable works toward the company's workers and their families. Nonetheless, she was a circumspect but significant power behind the scenes in decisions about the massive family business. In the troubled years after World War I, she apparently had a significant role in determining the direction of the great industrial enterprise of which she was the legal owner. But while she was a potent force in the 1920s, Bertha Krupp saw her influence fade during the Nazi years from 1933 to 1945. In the aftermath of World War II, however, she once again helped to direct the family fortune and the vast influence that came with it.

The Krupp family had its origins in the Rhineland city of Essen. As early as the era of the Thirty Years' War in the mid-17th century, one of Bertha Krupp's ancestors was in the business of selling weapons. The fortunes of the Krupps varied over the next 200 years. At one point, they were one of the wealthiest families in Essen. But, by the close of the 18th century, poor management had reduced the family's fortunes and its civic reputation.

In 1807, Friedrich Krupp, Bertha's great-grandfather and the family's pioneer in the making of steel, took over an iron works owned by his mother Petronella Forsthof Krupp (1757–1839). Eight years later, as a consequence of the territorial settlement reached at the Congress of Vienna, Essen became a part of the Kingdom of Prussia. Friedrich died in 1826. His son Alfred, who lived just long enough to see the birth of his granddaughter Bertha, brought the family's industrial empire into existence.

Alfred produced his first steel cannon in 1847. Ironically, it was the production of steel for the growing network of German railroads that made the family rich and made Krupp products famous. Moreover, much of his general business, as well as orders for arms, came from customers outside Prussia. Only in 1859 did he get his first substantial order for Krupp cannons from the Prussian government. When Austria and Prussia went to war in 1866, the future of Germany was in play. Prussia's victory at the Battle of Königgrätz in July 1866 paved the way for unification under Prussian leadership. But Krupp's weapons played only a minor role in Prussian success on the battlefield.

In the aftermath of the war, however, the Prussian army, as well as the new Prussian navy, began to rely on Krupp weapons. According to Krupp legend, the German victory in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–71, which created a united Germany, was due to Krupp equipment. Even if this is an exaggeration, Krupp now became famous as the arms maker most responsible for German military power.

The new German Empire, ruled by Kaiser Wilhelm I and directed by Prime Minister Otto von Bismarck, became the major power within the European international system. Germany's military system remained the most potent as well as one of the largest on the Continent. The

Krupp enterprises thrived on orders from the German government, and Krupp managers could point to those orders in appealing to arms buyers throughout the world. In 1905, George Bernard Shaw satirized the Krupps and their industrial empire in the play Major Barbara.

Bertha Krupp was born in March 1886 in Essen. She grew up in the family's vast residence, the Villa Hügel, outside the industrial city that her family dominated. By that time, her grandfather was one of the richest men in Europe, and the Krupp enterprises employed 21,000 workers. The Villa Hügel, with its 200 rooms and its twin castles, was a symbol of the newly acquired family wealth. The young girl received the meager education thought suitable for a European heiress. She attended a finishing school at Baden-Baden, along with other young girls from privileged families. The curriculum stressed horseback riding and the skills a wealthy female would need in meeting her family's social obligations. A plain young woman with a thin figure and cold blue eyes, she seemed to have drawn her features from Alfred, her grandfather, rather than from her pudgy father. She and her sister were raised under the strong influence of her mother, who seemed, as Bertha once put it, "in-fallible to us in every respect." Her father was only rarely present.

The Kaiser … addressed her on her wedding day, and Hitler … kissed her hand.

—Norbert Muhlen

Family scandal disrupted her girlhood. In November 1902, when she was only 16, Bertha received word of her father's sudden death. Fritz Krupp had been implicated in an ugly scandal. He reputedly conducted intimate liaisons with young Italian boys at his villa in Capri. As the scandal grew, Bertha's mother Margarethe Krupp had become sufficiently alarmed to appeal to the kaiser for help. The monarch responded by encouraging Fritz to put Margarethe into a clinic for the mentally ill. Biographers of the family agree that their marriage had broken down long before. At the close of November, a Socialist newspaper in Berlin published the full story of the scandal, and Krupp replied with legal action. In the midst of the uproar, he was found dying in the Villa Hügel. All of the evidence pointed to suicide.

An established Krupp tradition called for the eldest child to receive all of the family's properties. By her father's will, Bertha now inherited the Krupp fortune, thereby becoming the richest woman in Germany and one of the wealthiest individuals in Europe. Her mother was empowered to sign the crucial documents required for the firm's operation and expansion, and the Krupp board of directors determined policies. The board included bankers, former government officials, and an admiral with close personal ties to German emperor Wilhelm II.

In the following years, Margarethe Krupp continued an established policy that Bertha would take up in turn: by tradition, the leading woman in the family directed the company's welfare policies designed to benefit Krupp's workers and their families. Such efforts were particularly important to distract public attention from the scandal of Fritz's death. Moreover, they drew the public's eyes away from the deadly products that the firm made and sold to all comers.

The most important event for Bertha in the years after her father's death was her marriage to a young German diplomat. Gustav von Bohlen und Halbach, to whom Bertha became engaged in May 1906, was the descendant of a Rhineland family that had made its fortune in metal manufacturing in the 18th century. Gustav's great-grandfather had settled in Pennsylvania and prospered in the coal and iron business; Gustav's grandfather had died a heroic death fighting in the Union Army during the Civil War; and his father had returned to Germany to take up a diplomatic career. Historians believe that Gustav was the emperor's personal choice for Bertha's spouse. An energetic but unimaginative manager, he was likely to direct Krupp's activities in a way that suited the German government.

Bertha's wedding had political overtones, and the emperor attended. It was only his second visit to Essen since the death of Fritz Krupp. When the German monarch spoke at the young couple's wedding reception, he urged them to continue "to supply our German Fatherland with offensive and defensive weapons … unapproached by those of any other nation." He specifically granted Gustav the right to add the name Krupp to his own name, thereby becoming Gustav Krupp von Bohlen and Halbach. Bertha too adopted the new combination.

Bertha had Alfried, her first child and the heir to the family fortune, a year later. In a new mark of the link between the Krupp enterprises and the rulers of Germany, Wilhelm II stood as young Alfried's godfather. Meanwhile, the Krupp family, including Bertha, now found its existence dominated by Gustav. He directed both the family business and the household management with an obsessive concern for detail. Rooms in the family villa were kept at the cold temperature he preferred; meals proceeded at breakneck speed to match his personal preference for quick dining. Bertha joined in the obsessive effort to direct the household. She stayed up nights to make sure that the male and female servants did not violate family rules and creep across the bridge separating their quarters. And she fired on the spot any servant unfortunate enough to be caught in such activities. Moreover, she played a central role in the lavish entertaining the family conducted. A stellar example of such activities was the three-day centennial celebration of the first Krupp steel factory in November 1912, at which Bertha entertained both Prime Minister Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg and Kaiser Wilhelm II. But it is likely that Fritz Krupp's daughter played more than the role of hostess to the nation's leaders. Observers behind the scenes noted that she had substantial influence in directing the firm's affairs. Gustav may have been the manager of the great set of enterprises, but, as biographer Norbert Muhlen notes, "she remained the steely queen of Kruppdom."

With the onset of World War I, Krupp became the arms supplier par excellence to imperial Germany. Even before 1914, the firm was the most favored arms maker in Germany, but much of its production had gone to other countries. Now, the weapons it made, ranging from cannon to submarines, went exclusively to Germany and Germany's allies such as Turkey and Bulgaria.

Bertha's name was attached to one such weapon. "Big Bertha" was a huge mobile mortar capable of firing a giant projectile of several thousand pounds at an enemy nine miles away. It played a crucial role in breaking down Belgian defenses in 1914, thus allowing the German army to sweep into northern France in the war's first great campaign. According to her brother-in-law, Krupp had not been enthusiastic about having such a weapon named after her. "She took it with resignation," he said.

As the war came to an end, Bertha and the other Krupps faced threats from both Germans and foreigners. The family fortified itself in the Villa Hügel in the first weeks of November 1918 as revolutionary workers took power in Essen. For a time, such radicals even threatened to seize and socialize Krupp enterprises. Shortly afterward, by the terms of the Treaty of Versailles, the military power of the German state was severely limited. The Krupp enterprises had to struggle through years of meager earnings. Neither Gustav nor Bertha seemed able to find a solution to the firm's difficulties.

In 1923, the French army invaded the Ruhr region, including Essen, to punish Germany for not making scheduled reparations payments. Gustav was arrested, and he remained imprisoned for seven months. Nonetheless, Krupp enterprises continued to exist. By the mid-1920s, a stream of American investment dollars was helping German industry recover, and Krupp shared in the economic surge. The factories shifted to profitable nonmilitary production in the Krupps' homeland. More ominously, arms development and manufacture went on in disguised fashion elsewhere: non-German companies, partially owned by Krupp, operated in neighboring countries like Holland, Switzerland, and Sweden. Gustav directed these efforts, but it seems unlikely they went on without Bertha Krupp's knowledge.

The Nazi era arrived in 1933. Gustav had been less than enthusiastic about the Nazis before they were in power; in 1928, Hitler had not even been permitted to visit the huge Krupp factory at Essen. With the onset of the new political order, however, Gustav became one of its most avid supporters. Hitler was received at the Krupp steel factory with enthusiasm in June 1934, with Bertha's eldest daughter, Irmgard von Bohlen und Halbach , presenting him with a welcoming bouquet. He now visited the Krupp factories regularly. In August 1940, on Gustav's 70th birthday, Hitler personally decorated him with the Nazi Party's highest civilian award. By this point in the Krupp saga, however, Bertha and Gustav's eldest son, Alfried, was the driving force at the firm. A member of the Nazi Party since 1938, Alfried remained at home to carry out his industrial tasks while his brothers went off to fight in 1939.

Bertha disliked Hitler, and among trusted company she was daring enough to make her views clear. An event like the replacement of the Krupp family flag by the Nazi swastika above Villa Hügel outraged her. Her most consistent criticism of the Nazis was that they dominated the operation of the Krupp enterprises, removing decisions from the family's hands. She was apparently just as offended by Hitler's lower-middle-class background. Nonetheless, her personal feelings did not disrupt the close links between the Krupp enterprises and the German government. She may have been consoled by the family's growing wealth as government orders poured in. The firm's annual profits, which made up her personal income, increased tenfold between 1935 and 1939.

The Second World War put Krupp at the forefront of German miliary industry once more. Krupp tanks and Krupp submarines helped Germany come close to victory. But World War II also brought a number of painful blows to the Krupp family. Two of Bertha's sons died in the war. A third son was captured by the Soviet army in 1944 and spent 11 years in prison camp. Essen, and particularly the three square miles of the city occupied by Krupp factories, was one of the most heavily bombed areas in Germany. Bertha opened the rooms of the Villa Hügel to house key Krupp executives who had been bombed out of their homes. Most important of all, Krupp's use of slave labor tainted the company's reputation in what seemed an irreparable way.

In November 1943, Bertha consented to a fundamental shift in the nature of the Krupp holdings. To keep the ownership of Krupp enterprises permanently within the family, Gustav convinced Hitler to give the family firm special status via the Lex Krupp (Krupp Law). Krupp enterprises would no longer be subject to inheritance taxes; all the properties, which had traditionally been in the hands of the senior family member, would now pass to a single heir free of charge. As part of the new arrangement, Bertha gave up her ownership of the firm and passed it to Alfried.

In 1944, the family skirted the edge of deadly danger. One of Krupp's directors had ties to Carl Goerdeler, the mayor of Leipzig and a member of the July plot to assassinate Hitler. Bertha's younger sister, Barbara Krupp (b. 1887), as well as Barbara's husband, were caught up in the Nazi roundup of those connected to Goerdeler. Bertha was able to aid them only in small ways such as smuggling food to them during their confinement. Meanwhile, to escape the unrelenting bombing of Essen, Bertha and her husband fled to their summer castle at Blühnbach. Located in the Alps near Salzburg, it offered some measure of safety.

With the end of the war, Allied authorities arrested Alfried. While the Villa Hügel had escaped destruction, most of the city of Essen was in ruins. One English correspondent stated simply that the city "is just a chaos of burned-out, broken masonry and twisted ironwork." The Allies requisitioned Villa Hügel and transformed it into the headquarters of the North German Coal Control Commission. Bertha's bedroom now housed one of the Allied officials. The Allies made it clear that the Krupp industrial empire was slated to be destroyed for all time.

At war's end, Bertha and Gustav were at Blühnbach. The Allies also commandeered that castle, and the Krupps had to make do with the nearby servants' quarters. They remained there for the next five years. Gustav had been increasingly incapacitated by a series of strokes beginning in 1941; Bertha now devoted her days to nursing him.

In 1947, Alfried and 11 other key executives of the family firm went on trial for war crimes. Gustav Krupp, senile and immobile, was not considered healthy enough to be tried. Alfried was convicted in July 1948 and sentenced to 12 years' imprisonment. His property, the great set of Krupp enterprises, was declared confiscated.

The year in which Alfried was convicted and sentenced also saw the United States commit itself to Germany's economic recovery. The disintegration of the wartime alliance with the Soviet Union and the growth of Communism in France and Italy made it appear essential to Washington to strengthen Germany. In this new political environment, Bertha Krupp made an imaginative, although unsuccessful, stab at regaining the family property. She tried, in January 1950, to induce the Allies to set aside the Lex Krupp of 1943. Claiming Hitler had forced the family to accept it, she now tried to remove Al-fried from the picture to gain title to Krupp property for herself and her other children. The effort failed.

In the new political environment, Alfried was released from prison in early 1951, and Bertha was soon welcoming her eldest son when he traveled to Blühnbach. At the start of 1953, an agreement between Alfried and the governments of the U.S., Britain, and France allowed the Krupps to resume most of their industrial activities.

When Gustav died in 1950, the widowed Bertha soon abandoned their modest home near Salzburg and returned to Essen. She resumed the social chores that Krupp women had always carried out, greeting such prominent visitors to Villa Hügel as the Shah of Iran. In the view of biographer Peter Batty, Alfried was uncomfortable with her presence. He believed that, in the public mind, she was a constant reminder of the role Krupp had played in World War I and World War II.

To the outside world, she remained the remote, somewhat forbidding figure who appeared only on ceremonial occasions. Nonetheless, her last years brought one more moment of high drama. On October 11, 1955, she learned that her son Harald, who had disappeared while serving on the eastern front and been given up for dead, was now home. After more than a decade as a prisoner of war in Soviet hands, he was back, a member of the final group of Germans returning home from Siberia.

The woman who had known Germany's leaders for more than half a century and been immortalized by the name of a World War I cannon died of a heart attack in Essen on September 21, 1957. She was stricken while preparing for her daily activity of visiting the widow of a deceased Krupp worker. Despite her immersion in charitable efforts, Bertha had remained a living link to an embarrassing past. A young generation of Krupps, led by Alfried, were busy restoring the family fortune. Thus, as Batty put it, her passing probably brought a sense of relief. Despite Alfried's personal loss when she passed away, Bertha's death "must nevertheless have made it that little bit easier for him to throw off his history."


Batty, Peter. The House of Krupp. NY: Stein and Day, 1967.

Manchester, William. The Arms of Krupp, 1587–1968. Boston, MA: Little, Brown.

Muhlen, Norbert. The Incredible Krupps: The Rise, Fall, and Comeback of Germany's Industrial Family. NY: Henry Holt, 1959.

suggested reading:

Fielding, Gabriel. The Birthday King: A Romance. NY: William Morrow, 1963.

Von Klass, Gert. Krupps: The Story of an Industrial Empire. Translated by James Cleugh. London: Sidgwick and Jackson, 1954.

related media:

The Damned (155 min.), fictionalized account of a German industrial family in the Nazi era based on the experience of the Krupps, starring Dirk Bogarde and Ingrid Thulin , directed by Luchino Visconti, Warner Bros., 1970.

Neil M. Heyman , Professor of History, San Diego State University, San Diego, California

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Krupp, Bertha (1886–1957)

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