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Technology and Culture 41.3 (2000) 606-608
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Siemens, 1918-1945. By Wilfried Feldenkirchen. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1999. Pp. xvi+714; illustrations, figures, tables, appendixes, notes/references, bibliography, index. $75.
The historiography of business firms in Germany does not have the finest of pedigrees. Company histories in the past have often been commissioned works, more akin to public relations than serious scholarship. But in recent years this has begun to change. Internationally recognized scholars such as Gerald Feldman, Peter Hayes, Harold James, and Carl-Ludwig Holtfrerich have received full access to company records and have written critical studies of German firms. Now Wilfried Feldenkirchen has come out with an English translation of his 1995 study of Siemens between 1918 and 1945, a [End Page 606] work likewise based on unrestricted access to the sources and intended as part of the new trend toward full disclosure and critical analysis.
Given this aspiration, it is only fair to ask how well Feldenkirchen, a professor of business history at the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg and director of the Siemens Forum, the company's in-house museum and archive in Munich, acquits himself of the task. There can be no doubt that he travels a long way down his chosen road. He provides good overviews of the development of German electrical engineering and Siemens from their nineteenth-century beginnings to the end of World War I. He offers an excellent and more detailed overview of the same subjects for the years 1918-45, paying particular attention to the unique role of Siemens as the only firm that covered the entire spectrum of electrical engineering, from light-current applications centered on the Siemens & Halske unit (S&H) to all aspects of power engineering at the Siemens-Schuckertwerke unit (SSW), including radio at Telefunken and lightbulbs at Osram.
More concerned with business history than with the history of technology, Feldenkirchen is particularly strong on the difficult economic climate after 1918 and the cautious survival strategy of Carl Friedrich von Siemens, the youngest son of founder Werner Siemens. Carl Friedrich managed to keep the company on a tenuous growth path despite World War I, hyperinflation, the sick economy of the mid-1920s, the Great Depression, and the Hitler regime. Feldenkirchen is an expert guide through the maze of organizational confusion in the unwieldy Siemens conglomerate, with its many subsidiaries, organizational realignments, complicated holding company arrangements, and an increasingly illogical division of labor between S&H and SSW. All this had its counterpoint in the chief executive's tenaciously held belief in the unity of "the House of Siemens" as the principle of integration. The long-term survival of the company as a world-class electrical engineering concern: this is the author's central focus.
Feldenkirchen does not evade such difficult topics as Siemens's involvement in the Nazi war economy, particularly its use of foreign and Jewish slave labor. Compared with the prior silence on the subject, his brief but frank discussion of Siemens's participation in this criminal activity is especially welcome. Like most other big firms, Siemens embraced Hitler's rearmament-driven policy of economic recovery. When war came and German workers were drafted into the armed forces, management never paused to consider the ethics of forced labor. To say that Siemens managers, by force of circumstance more than by choice, lost their moral compass under Hitler is one thing. It is quite another to examine the options they had at various times between 1918 and 1945 and determine the role they played in the making of their own fate. It is not as though management suddenly was confronted with the choice of using slave labor or going under, and had nothing to do with how that dilemma came about. This is where the book falls short of its stated goal. Throughout, Feldenkirchen reduces the element [End Page 607] of agency and the freedom of his protagonists, emphasizing instead how Siemens time and again was a victim of circumstance and coped as best as it could.
In addressing technological development, the book largely...