German engineering! Also, German history

Yesterday, I learned about the history of some microscope companies. I was a little surprised.

In the business of biology, there is a hierarchy of prestige. The highest rated microscopes are typically made by Zeiss, and the price reflects that. They really are sweet machines with excellent optics, and rock solid, reliable mechanicals. I adore the old Zeiss Universal, and if one dropped into my lap I would be overjoyed in spite of my shattered femurs. Second on my list would be a Leica scope, but the ranking is a little unfair — it’s based partly on reputation, not necessarily the quality of the modern instruments, and one of the reasons Zeiss is prized is pure status-seeking. Then there’s Nikon and Olympus, two Japanese companies with excellent scopes…but they aren’t German. There’s a strong cachet to German engineering, but really, the Japanese optics are pretty darned good.

My lab microscope is a Leica and I’m very happy with it. We also have a fair number of student microscopes made by American companies, and I confess with some patriotic embarrassment that they’re junk. Cheap, but junk. I had the displeasure of working with some student scopes yesterday and was dismayed at the lack of that silky smooth feel and crisp, clear optics, but then, we can’t afford to drop $10,000 each on the 30 scopes we might need to equip a student lab.

Notice that my top two microscope brands are German, and these are old companies, established in the 19th and early 20th centuries. And that makes one wonder…what were they doing during WWII and the rise of the Nazis? It’s an uncomfortable question, and a little bit unfair, since every German company had to make accommodations to coexist with the Nazis, and it’s not as if they could have shuttered their factories and labs and moved to a different country in 1933. We could ask how enthusiastically they cooperated with the regime, however.

There, Zeiss disappointed me. Zeiss used forced labor from the concentration camps during the war.

On October 18, 1944, 200 female workers were allocated to the ZEISS Goehle-Werk, an additional 300 women had been transported from Auschwitz on October 28, 1944, and yet another 200 were transported on December 14.

According to prisoner statements, the prisoners were guarded by female SS members who were armed with rubber truncheons, which they used. Some of the guards had previously worked at ZEISS-Ikon. The women were housed on one level of the factory, and they worked two or three levels below.

The ZEISS Werk Reick, located in the southeastern part of Dresden, was one of four ZEISS-Ikon AG plants in Dresden. Like the ZEISS-Ikon Goehle-Werk, it became the site of a subcamp in October 1944. However, unlike the other subcamps with female prisoners in Dresden, the Werk Reick is less well known. That may be because of no trial was held, in contrast to the case of the Goehle-Werk. The camp evacuation took place in mid-April 1945 after the allies occupation.

Moreover, there was evidence that during the war (1941-1944), ZEISS has utilized thousands of forced labor workers, which comprised about 30% of all its employees. Furthermore, according to reports, ZEISS also provided direct economic support to the national and local Nazi-party organizations (Reference: 6. Carl Zeiss. Die Geschichte Eines Unternehmens. Band 2, 2000).

Yikes. They profited from slave camps.

You might argue that, well, they had to. Optics were critical to the German war effort, and the Nazis basically held a gun to the head of every company in their territory. They just did what they had to do. But then, I read about Leica during WWII and the Leica Freedom Train.

“Under considerable risk and in defiance of Nazi policy, Ernst Leitz took valiant steps to transport his Jewish employees and others out of harm’s way,” said Abraham H. Foxman, ADL National Director and a Holocaust survivor. “At a time when the Nazis were steadily advancing their nation on a path toward war and the Holocaust, Leitz had the courage to defy their directives while risking his life to save others. In the moral void that engulfed the world in those nightmarish days when the cruelty of the Nazis ran rampant, Ernst Leitz had the Courage to Care. If only there had been more Oskar Schindlers, more Ernst Leitzs, then less Jews would have perished. We remember and honor his act of selfless moral courage in the face of absolute tyranny.”

Yeah. The company saw what was coming and started hiring Jewish workers and assigning them to foreign offices to get them out of harm’s way.

As early as 1933 and continuing as late as 1943, Leitz quietly established what has become known as the “Leica Freedom Train”, a covert means of allowing his Jewish employees, their families, and even non-Jews to leave Germany under the guise of being ‘assigned’ overseas. These refuges were sent to Leitz sales offices in France, Britain, Hong Kong and the United States. They were trained, housed at company expense and paid a stipend until work was found for them in the photo industry.

As new Leitz “employees” arrived in New York they made their way to the Manhattan offices of E. Leitz Inc., each with a symbol of freedom around their necks – a new Leica Camera. The total number of escapees has never been established but may have been as high as 200-300 in the United States alone.

Unfortunately, the company wasn’t large enough to employ 6 million people overseas.

I am now a little happier with my Leica DM (although I really had no complaints about it before), but I’m giving a few dirty looks to my Wild (a Zeiss-associated company) M3C, even though it is an objectively magnificent tool.


  1. imback says

    Like the Leica Freedom Train, maybe some Texas companies should provide transportation for some of their female employees for some out-of-state D&C.

  2. DLC says

    Then there is the question of, how long do we penalize companies like Zeiss for knuckling under to the Nazis and continuing to do business with them and profiting off the misery and death of others ? Note: I’m not trying to excuse anyone for anything. Perhaps there needs to be a corporate death penalty. But I do want a free Leica camera body. Or something.

  3. Derek Vandivere says

    #1 | imback: I believe SalesForce just announced they’d pay to move employees out of Texas if necessary.

  4. citizenjoe says

    Long-retired pathologist here. Yeah, those Zeiss optics were terrific, and “silky smooth” mechanics is an understatement. I never owned one. The U.S. Army’s standard was AO scopes, and they were reliable workhorses; Jeeps, not Mercedes. (And I think Jeep/Kaiser/Willys/et al. had fewer Nazi associations than did Mercedes.)

  5. consciousness razor says

    it’s not as if they could have shuttered their factories and labs and moved to a different country in 1933.

    It’s not? Leaving Germany is definitely something that many could have done and many did actually do. Obviously not everybody was fortunate enough to be in that kind of situation, but many individual refugees were able to relocate, including quite a few famous examples like Schrödinger and Einstein.

    The capitalists who owned businesses (and property like factories, etc.) could’ve left the country too. If anybody did, they had the means to do it, while many ordinary working-class people did not. Whether that property is sold or abandoned or whatever, they certainly didn’t need to remain capitalists, although I’m sure that is the outcome they would’ve preferred. But it’s just not the case that none of those people had a choice or that there really was nothing they could do.

  6. submoron says

    I’ve worked with various Leica and Zeiss microscopes and found all of them beautifully engineered. The only problem is that whereas the old models such as the Zeiss Standard 16 had machined metal planetary gearing the more recent ones use plastic harmonic drive gearing. I believe that this includes the Leica DM LM (I had one strip the z axis gears when fitted with a heavy motorised stage) I but found the DM RM more robust. I don’t know about the Zeiss Axioscop.
    The history of these companies is always a problem but I don’t suppose that anyone would advocate punish DDR Zeiss of Jena if they had collaborated with the STASI. Was it Primo Levi who was outraged when the manufacturer of crematorium ovens for extermination camps didn’t change their name after the war?

  7. GiantPanda says

    According to German Wikipedia Zeiss was owned (and is again) not by capitalists but by a Stiftung (non-profit? foundation? trust?) dedicated to the good of their workers, the good of their community and STEM research and teaching. The East German part of the factories was dismantled by the Soviet Union and moved to Kiev, that half of the company nationalized and later rebuilt nearly from scratch.

    That’s not quite the same as a family getting stinking rich on dead bodies and never even acknowledging their history.

  8. says

    You said Zeiss was located in Dresden but didn’t mention how they were affected by the notorious bombing of Dresden. It could be Zeiss already paid a heavy price.

  9. says

    So, uh, a feel-good post, lets us all be smug about not personally participating in or commercially supporting Nazi atrocities. (Unless anybody on here is both secretly very much older than they’ve been giving out, and also a native German, of course.) Just out of curiosity, as long as we’re talking about corporate participation in crimes against humanity, anybody going to castigate American companies which currently hire UNICOR, the federal prison slave labor front company? Anybody? (Per Wikipedia, the list includes, but is not limited by any means to: Whole Foods, McDonald’s, Target, IBM, Texas Instruments, Boeing, Nordstrom, Intel, Wal-Mart, Victoria’s Secret, Aramark, AT&T, BP, Starbucks, Microsoft, Nike, Honda, Macy’s and Sprint.)

    Remember: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States”. That little loophole is why we have private prison companies, three-strikes laws, mandatory sentencing, and a whole slew of other unsavory things. Prison labor is really profitable!

  10. expatlurker says

    Corporations are not people, my friends.

    First let me say that in no way do I want to absolve any of the guilty monsters. My intention is to add nuance.

    Many German companies were involved in atrocities. We all know the names, Bayer, Volkswagen, AGFA, etc. What happened with Zeiss is similar to what happened to other German companies. Zeiss in Jena was originally under American occupation. Much of the intellectual property and designs, etc. were taken to Stuttgart in the West. When the soviets came in, they took a lot of the tooling to the East (Kiev camera works). These were spoils of war. Under the communist regime, the company was nationalized and eventually built back. It was one of the few viable companies in the DDR. It was sold off by the Treuhand after reunification, probably for too little money. After this, 16,000 workers were laid off with scarcely any press coverage. Is this still the same company? I don’t know. Probably.

    We also know the names Ford and IBM and we know about their cooperation with the Nazis. There were certainly others. I suppose their crimes did not rise to the same level. Were American companies punished enough? Were they punished at all? Did you ever buy an IBM computer? Would you ever buy a Ford?

    In Germany, you can find many memorials of the terrible crimes that were committed here. I wish I could find more of such in my native country considering what was done against people of Native and African ancestry (and also our adventures in other lands). Let us remember.

    Since slavery is part of the topic, I also want to mention another thing you probably didn’t know about. The Russians took young Germans from Prussia as slave labor to Siberia for reparations. In the winter, the bodies had to be stacked because the ground was frozen. When these young people were released, they could not return to Prussia because it was now Poland so they often never saw their families again. So much sorrow was created by the fascists. The woman I knew had to return to Jena as a refugee within her own country. Was she guilty of any crime? Perhaps there is a kind of collective guilt. I don’t know. I have more questions than answers when it comes to the topic of morality.

    This has been a very difficult, emotional post for me to write. Please be kind if you reply. Nothing was said with ill intent.

  11. mailliw says

    I feel most sorry for Hugo Junkers, a pacifist who saw the aeroplane as a way to bring people together. His factories and patents were confiscated by the Nazis in 1934 because of refusal to join in the rearmament effort.

    His name was attached to such gruesome weapons of war as the JU-87 “Stuka”, which he had no part in designing.

    Today Junkers is best remembered for the beautiful JU-52 airliner – the Tante Ju (Auntie Ju) as it affectionately known. There are a few still flying.