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?
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 . . .
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:
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.
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.
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 & 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?