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125th anniversary of Rheinmetall – the years 1946 to 1956

Optimized efficiency

The view from Heidelberg Castle onto the River Neckar is world famous. Whereas the natural part of the river is largely used by sports and tourist boats, the channelled section of the Neckar is used by freight vessels. To load and unload, they often approach the sluice at Wiblingen which saw a buzz of activity in the 1950s.

Rheinmetall AG wanted to be involved in the transhipment of coal, coke, gravel, sand, gypsum and general cargo. After World War II, Düsseldorf announced its intention to focus on civil activities to utilise its capacities: a project whose profitability was – to say the least – doubtful. Yet the executive board remained adamant and established the department “T/V (transport and loading facilities) and mobile cranes”.

In November 1951, an order was won for a 5 ton electric crane with loading bridge for the inland port in Heidelberg. The customer was the municipal public utility company that had formerly unloaded coal for its own gas and remote heating plant in the harbour. The potential of the cargo handling site was soon apparent, so that related activities were expanded. The powerful crane system from Rheinmetall needed for this purpose was set to work in December 1952.

Rheinmetall reaped a lot of praise from the south-west of the country. The 1952 annual report of the Heidelberg municipal public utility company noted that “thanks to the new loading bridge, it is now possible to use the existing premises much more efficiently for intermediate storage and carry out parallel cargo handling operations without serious loss of time”. In conclusion, it was stated that the loading bridge had proven to be particularly successful from a technical and commercial standpoint. The return on investment had thus been ensured.

Unfortunately, this positive assessment did not hold true for the crane construction business in Düsseldorf. Rheinmetall AG therefore decided to close down its loss-bringing department T/V and mobile cranes in spite of the excellent customer satisfaction. The crane-builders may have been consoled by the fact that far more ships were able to leave the port fully loaded thanks to their system in Heidelberg.

Arms manufacture: To be or not to be?

Between 1945 and 1956, West Germany showed an astonishing change of heart with regard to arms manufacture: on December 16th, 1949, all factions of the German Parliament had unanimously voted against any defence contribution by West Germany: only three years later in February 1952, during the Cold War era that also saw the start of the Korean War, the same parliament voted in favour of a defence contribution.

Between 1945 and 1956, West Germany showed an astonishing change of heart with regard to arms manufacture: on December 16th, 1949, all factions of the German Parliament had unanimously voted against any defence contribution by West Germany: only three years later in February 1952, during the Cold War era that also saw the start of the Korean War, the same parliament voted in favour of a defence contribution.

There were three good reasons for this ambivalent behaviour: Firstly, Rheinmetall was co-owned by the German state. Furthermore, the finance secretary Fritz Schäffer had stated clearly that Bonn (the German capital at that time) would not be willing to invest in arms production and would purchase weapons from abroad to arm its forces. Secondly, the government was negotiating the sale of Rheinmetall-Borsig AG with several interested parties and these negotiations were not to be disturbed by discussions about arms manufacture. Thirdly, Rheinmetall-Borsig still had the plant in Berlin-Tegel. Any statement that might indicate that arms manufacture could take place in Berlin (strictly forbidden by the Allies) would be perfect fodder for the East German media.

In 1956, the Röchling group acquired Rheinmetall; the Borsig plant was sold off to the Salzgitter Group practically at the same time. After that, Rhein-metall as a privatised company was able to commence -manufacture for the German armed forces and NATO allies unhindered.

Dallas in Unterlüß

1859 saw the beginning of an oil rush on the Lüneburg Heath – “Black Gold” had been discovered while searching for lignite in Wietze, some 20 kilometers to the west of Celle. Large oil reserves were also thought to exist under the Rheinmetall proving grounds in Unterlüß. First exploration drillings conducted in 1922 were, however, unsuccessful.

Yet since Rheinmetall had been forbidden to use the grounds after the end of World War II, there was once more a desire to drill for oil there in 1952. As the government itself was no longer interested in the military utilisation of the proving grounds, approval was initially granted. However, things changed with the foundation of the German Bundeswehr –Unterlüß was not transformed into a mini-Dallas and the southern part of the Lüneburg Heath did not develop into a second Texas: in 1963, drilling was ceased due to insufficient oil production.

Allied wrangling

Germany had lost World War II in May 1945 and the Red Army occupied Berlin, the German capital. Even before the city was divided up among the Allies and the Soviets withdrew to the eastern parts of Berlin, the latter had taken swift action by creating facts for what would later be declared West Berlin. This also affected the Rheinmetall-Borsig plant in Tegel: from the summer of 1945 onwards the few buildings and machines that were still in a serviceable condition became a bone of contention between the Soviet military administration, the interim management board of Rheinmetall-Borsig now located in the eastern part of the city, the French military government, the mayor’s office in Tegel, the magistrate of the city of Berlin and the trustees of the western assets of Rheinmetall-Borsig – and all this wrangling took place against the backdrop of a hopelessly destroyed city.

In hindsight, it is hard to grasp the chaos surrounding the plant in Tegel. Basically, the Allies all wanted the remaining assets for themselves. Initially, the mayor’s office in Tegel and after its establishment, the magistrate of Berlin tried to requisition the Tegel plant as the city repair workshop (inter alia, for the repair of the transport network).

This was countered by compensation claims of the Soviets, followed by the French after June 30th, 1945. To begin with, the French agreed to use the Tegel plant as a maintenance site in Berlin. But when it became clear that most of the work orders came from the Soviet Occupation Zone, they withdrew their consent. The plant was occupied by the military in 1947 – as had previously been the case with the Soviet Army – disassembly was initiated but not actually carried out.

Apparently the French wanted to tap the know-how of specialist workers in Tegel and unsuccessfully tried to persuade them to move to France. In the end, the French let the Berlin machinery construction contractor Schwartzkopff – who was carrying out repair work for the city magistrate – have the site. Order was not restored until the Petersberg Agreement had been concluded on November 22nd, 1949: disassembly was stopped and the Tegel plant was granted permission to operate. With its traditional machinery products that had been the pride of the former Borsig company along with locomotive production, workers at Tegel were finally able to contribute to the reconstruction of the city of Berlin.

“Give us our factory back!”

Many listeners tuned in to their radios on the evening of August 24th, 1949, will have been surprised by what they heard. Arnold von Borsig, from a well-known industrialist family, claimed on RIAS broadcast station that the Borsig family had practically been dispossessed by the German Reich and Rheinmetall in 1993 when Rheinmetall took possession of the plant in Berlin-Tegel. With the aid of the French military government and the Berlin magistrate, Borsig intended to bring legal action against Rheinmetall. Nothing ever came of it because both the city of Berlin and the French were really only looking after their own interests.

Yet what gave Arnold von Borsig the idea in the first place? In 1930, the traditional locomotive manufacturer Borsig went bankrupt in the wake of the Great Depression. Even the sale of the locomotive division wouldn’t have prevented bankruptcy. The creditor banks now had the say in Tegel. The Borsig family had previously tried to sell the company to a Dutch financial consortium which nearly succeeded had it not been for the new National Socialist ruling power that had already decided to allocate the factory premises to the arms industry. One of the interested parties willing to invest in Tegel was Rheinmetall. The German government put pressure on the executive board, making its involvement in the rearmament of the Reich conditional on manufacture in Berlin. Irrespective of this, the sale of the business to whosoever and at whatever price would hardly have helped the Borsig family since the creditors stood to benefit from a sale. After 1945, the family tried to nullify the contracts of 1933 for being in violation of moral principles.

This failed since many of the events could no longer be traced following the turmoil of war. Arnold von Borsig didn’t give up and turned to the general public. In 1950, an amicable settlement was found with Rheinmetall. Although his prospect of success at court was slim, Rheinmetall paid 150,000 DM in order to get rid of the troublemaker.