A. Lange & Söhne History – Nazi Past

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A. Lange & Sohne Hitler gift watch

As our post Rolex, Panerai and The Nazis revealed, Rolex founder Hans Wilsdorf supplied parts to Italy’s Panerai brand knowing they were going into watches for Nazi frogmen. Jose Pereztroika uncovered this dark chapter of Rolex’s past. Over at grail-watch.com, Stephen opens the book on A. Lange & Söhne history. Specifically, the German company’s production during World War II. As Warren Zevon would say, it ain’t that pretty at all . . .

As the Nazis came to power, A. Lange & Söhne saw an opportunity to supply the German military with watches and timers. After a 1933 inspection by the new regime, various Glashütte companies were selected for military contracts, with A. Lange & Söhne building pocket watches and marine chronometers. It was good for the company that there was a military market, since by 1942 the Reich made it illegal to produce non-military products like ladies watches!

That doesn’t seem too bad, right? It’s not like A. Lange & Söhne could have done a Delta and berated Hitler for his murderous anti-semitism and whatnot; the Nazi regime wasn’t exactly a champion of free speech. And while A. Lange & Söhne made instruments that aided and abetted the German war effort (e.g., bomb fuses and detonators), what else could they do?

Weimar, Aufmarsch der Nationalsozialisten

Confronted by the horrors of the Holocaust, many if not most post-War Germans said “we didn’t know” and/or “what choice did we have?” Both statements are the subject of serious study. Regardless, there’s something important missing from Stephen’s account of A. Lange & Söhne’s war years: the gold pocket watches the company made for the Nazi elite. For Adolph Hitler.

Nazis considered a watch from the Fuhrer the most precious honorary gift. Presented to close confidantes, the watches were generally gold A. Lange & Söhne timepieces, supplied by Berlin jewelers A. Lünser. Watches that are still highly valued today, for both their horological excellence and their historical significance. For example . . .

Hitler watch gift to Morell

In 2007, the A. Lange & Söhne pocket watch Hitler gave to his personal physician Dr Theodor Gilbert Morell in 1944 (above) sold for $70k. In 2006, the Lange watch the Nazi leader bestowed upon Reichsmarschall Hermann Goering – inscribed “In cordial friendship at Christmas 1934” – hammered for $621,691. At the top of this post: the watch Hitler gifted his architect Albert Speer.

These gold Lange pocket watches weren’t “military products” per se. But they played their part in perpetuating the Nazi power structure – celebrating it in fact – that led to the destruction of countless Jews, gypsies, homosexuals and the mentally ill. But that’s small beer compared to how A. Lange & Söhne produced its products during World War II. Stephen:

A. Lange and Sohne slave labor

On September 14, 1940, 30 French prisoners of war arrived at a forced labor camp in Glashütte. Over the next three years, forced labor became more and more common in the town, especially as more of the German population was conscripted into the military.

Katrina

Called “foreign workers” by officials, these prison camps grew across Germany, with as many as 3,000 in Glashütte by 1943 perhaps outnumbering the residents. It is well-documented that these workers were mistreated, poorly fed, and forced to work in the local factories against their will.

A. Lange & Söhne was one of the beneficiaries of forced labor, employing prisoners to build chronometers, timers, and fuses for munitions. Many of these workers were from other European countries (Russia, Ukraine, Czech, France) and a majority were women.

A. Lange Sohne Forced Labor Census 1946

According to a 1946 accounting of labor by A. Lange & Söhne, many spent years working in the factory and living in the labor camp. Other documents show that some worked 12 hour days and suffered or died in the town. Some are buried un-named in the town. With more prisoners than residents, it is likely that most of the factories in Glashütte relied on forced labor during the war.

Most? I’m guessing all. Stephen’s account relies heavily on documents and photographs provided by glashuetteuhren.de. The author there is indignant.

An apology, let alone compensation for the injustice suffered, has never been given. It is never too late for Glashütte to acknowledge this part of the history of the place and its industry and to act accordingly.

A Lange & Sohne - Richemont Group company

A. Lange & Söhne could join the “Remembrance, Responsibility and the Future” foundation, established in 1999 to provide “humanitarian assistance” and “promote international understanding and global respect of human rights.” It could also acknowledge this sad chapter of its history on its website, which completely skips its pre-German unification past.

Neither is likely to happen. As the son of a Holocaust survivor who worked as a slave in labor camps, whose parents and extended family were murdered in Nazi concentration camps, A. Lange & Söhne’s unwillingness to face their Nazi past puts me off a watch brand I covet deeply and completely. You?

21 COMMENTS

  1. Let’s be honest, a lot of things have a Nazi past. You can even point to the US depression and the drying up of bank loans from the US as part of the rise to power of said political party. Chanel got her company back because of them, yet Chanel NEVER talks about that one. (side note, we were sitting at an event where Chanel was presenting their new high jewelry collection, and they talked about a piece that she created that looked like a shooting star of hope and I said at our table, “Sure as shit wasn’t a star of David”, the whole table laughed so audibly, that we got dirty looks from both the presenters and our bosses. Good times and well worth the joke. Can’t really rebuke someone for that.).

    Well at least he wanted universal healthcare, so there’s that.

  2. I’ve avoided buying flieger watches in the past because I don’t want to wear a “Nazi” watch, even if nobody would ever be able to make that connection. When I did finally buy a “flieger” style watch, it looked like something Howard Hughes, not a German bomber pilot, would have worn.

  3. “A. Lange & Söhne’s unwillingness to face their Nazi past puts me off a watch brand I covet deeply and completely. You?”

    I was never that into the brand. To me it comes off as a South African fashion house’s parody of a German watch brand.

    Sinn and Nomos have less cartoonish watches without the historic baggage.

  4. Ok. This is really getting to the point where I might stop following this blog.

    How much US military atrocity complicity or creation can we name? Iran contra? Iraq? Afghanistan? Slavery? Native Americans?

    This blog is really way too much fear mongering (ohhh don’t wear Rolex, muggers!) and misinformation (watch sales are doomed!) and general hating on stuff that you probably just can’t afford.

    And now this. If you look at just about any company that was in existence during war times, in any war, they will probably have had something to do with what went on. Are you just trolling or really that dense, to somehow imagine that during that time things were so black and white, good vs evil?

    American really are painfully uniformed and alarmist, while also being entire ignorant about their own governments machinations.

    Fool

    • America has its share of shameful events, from slavery to Japanese internment to water boarding in the Philippines. But moral equivalency isn’t a defense. If you can turn a blind eye to using slave labor to build detonators, fuses and gold watches for the Nazis – without apology – that’s your prerogative. Mine is to tell the truth about watches and those who make them. And if you think I do so from a place of jealousy you’re making a false assumption. Perhaps not your first.

    • My politics are well to the left of Robert, Oscar, Racer88, and other commenters on this blog. That said, I see more love for watches with an American Mil Spec pedigree real (Benrus, Zodiac) or fictitious (the Seiko Turtle and Arnie) on other websites where the opinions tilt to the left. Robert and company aren’t exactly writing love letters to American military horology, so I don’t see why his points about the troublesome history of some European watches would be suspect.

      • Don’t worry, I’ll have Zodiac Sea Wolf and Glycine Airman reviews coming up to represent some of the historic US military personnel go-to watches (although to their credit they were bought in the free market, never officially government sanctioned or procured).

  5. I follow this site in large part because it’s the only watch site takes on uncomfortable issues like this. At least it’s the only one I’ve found. The fact that these topics are covered is enough to keep me engaged. The extent to which I agree or disagree with the author is irrelevant.

    So thanks for that.

    • Your patronage is much appreciated. I’m not looking for readers who accept our opinions uncritically. That would undermine the whole point of the site.

  6. Important and balanced piece. Really liked the suggestions in the end of how the watchmaker can make retribution to the past.

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