The Warmongers

Mr. Manchester has done it again: his history of the Krupp Empire, begun before he was asked to undertake the biography of President Kennedy, is a most fascinating account of an immense spectacle of power, of the nearly incomprehensible dimensions of human aspirations and failings, of noble and evil ambitions, and of the interplay of private cunning and the awesome turns of history.
It is difficult to imagine a more meticulously documented, a more melodramatic, and a more seductive performance by a journalist who is at once relentless in his determination to detail every available piece of evidence and obsessed with a fanatic will to draw us into a Wagnerian world of mythical amorality.
The saga of the Krupps has been told before, once during the Second World War, at the height of the family’s fortunes, by W. Berdrow, and again in 1960 by both Norbert Mühlen and Gordon Young, when the defeat of Germany and the almost total destruction of Krupp seemed mere temporary setbacks. But Mr. Manchester is a journalist of infinitely greater pretensions; what he offers us in nearly a thousand pages is a symphonic fantastique, from which it is difficult to escape, which has one insistent melody, and which displays a vast array of facts, of splendid tableaus, of blunty drawn portraits, of enveloping lyrical moods, of ominous moments of suspense, and of sudden shocks of calculated vulgarity.
He begins and ends with extraordinary visions of the primeval setting of the Krupp epic: the Hercynian forest east of the Rhine, dark, solid, and terrifying, the tribal laws of pitiless Teutons, the world in which, to quote Mr. Manchester, “the Volk confided to one another as the flames whispered low and the tortured shadows grew; werewolves crouched beneath the writhing treetops, trolls and warlocks feasted on serpents’ hearts, women transformed themselves into slimy beasts and coupled with their own brothers.” Here were born “the morbid themes that have tormented the Gothic soul ever since; the dream orgy, the death wish, the fascination with the grotesque, the emotional convulsion, the exultation in . . . ‘overweening pride . . . and awful vengeance.5 55
From this murky terrain we are easily transported to the beginnings of the Krupp fortunes in the sixteenth century, through the Thirty Years’ War, to the nineteenth century and the accretion of power in the hands of Friedrich Krupp, the founder of the Krupp Works and of a dynasty unbroken until recently. It was Friedrich’s son Alfred, the Kanonenkönig, who made the firm the biggest steelworks in the world, who established a complex network of interdependent industrial enterprises, who replaced the bronze material of cannon barrels with Krupp steel, and who was undoubtedly indispensable to the military and political success of the emerging Reich. Mr. Manchester’s account of this remarkable figure receives the full play of his orchestral skill: Alfred is shrewd, devious, obsequious, cruel, scheming, and suspicious of foreigners but eager to supply them with superior weapons. His death in 1887 Manchester relates, as he does other moments of supreme pathos, with a Balzacian eye for the ominous gesture: “ There was a sudden spasm; he stiffened and then went slack, and as his lifeless hand opened a two-inch pencil fell to the marble floor.” Alfred Krupp had armed forty-six nations — a “noble gentleman,” it was said, “who was an example of that patriotism which considers no sacrifice for the Fatherland too great.”
The Arms of Krupp, 1587—1968 by William Manchester (Little, Brown, $12.50)
His son Fritz was the most successful, baffling, charming, repulsive, and enigmatic of the Krupps: his homosexual escapades were the scandal of 1889; the Fall Krupp offers Mr. Manchester a splendid opportunity for a detailed, well-documented, and titillating exposé of the Byzantine corruption of the German aristocratic establishment. Fritz’s death, presumably a suicide, left the steel empire in the hands of a “leggy child named Bertha”; the firm was transformed into a public corporation almost wholly owned by Bertha, and in 1906, to use Mr. Manchester’s phrase, “the Kaiser decided it was time sire sacrificed her maidenhead to the Reich” and married Gustav (Krupp) von Bolden und Halbach, who remained the head of the gigantic concern throughout the proud and ignominious decades of the First World War, the Weimar Republic, and the Hitler regime until his son Alfried was appointed chief director in 1942.
The history of this half century is the grandest and most colorful part of Mr. Manchester’s design. But as its pattern becomes more intricate, its play of human and inhuman forces more terrifying and elusive, as the monstrous story of Krupp’s complicity in the Nazi war is unraveled, we weary a little of Mr. Manchester’s increasingly hysterical tone. His resolve to mount a more and more operatic tussle between the vile heritage of Teutonic guilt and the fumbling American efforts to mete out an adequate punishment deprives this part of his book of historical objectivity. The gaunt and taciturn figure of Alfried, the last of the effective managers of the firm, stalks through the final three hundred pages first as a servile instrument of the Nazis, then as the operator of fifty-five slave labor and concentration camps supplying some 100,000 foreign workers, and eventually as the evasive defendant before the Nuremberg court who is convicted and all too soon released from Landsbcrg Prison. His pardon in 1951 was, in Mr. Manchester’s implacable view, the incomprehensible act of Mr. John McCloy, whose integrity is here ceremoniously assured, but whose action seems to Mr. Manchester to have been “clumsy” and “illegal,” and whose careful explanations of his reasons for an act of such momentous consequence he dismisses as “worthless” and “fatally flawed.” When he “handed John J. McCloy an audit ol discrepancies between his 1951 statements and the Nuremberg transcript,” Mr. Manchester was shocked to be told that, as a political decision that had to be made at the time in the light of larger American obligations, it might as well be thought of as “ancient history.”
It is in this part of Mr. Manchester’s narrative - which moves on swiftly and with increasing contempt for the declining family, to the dissolution of the firm only a year or so ago—that the characteristic weakness of his method appears most strikingly. Neither the many demonstrable factual mistakes nor the ludicrous melodramatic style nor, indeed, his distasteful journalistic vulgarities need perhaps be regarded too seriously in a book that undertakes to tell a story of truly extravagant dimensions. What Mr. Manchester lacks is an adequate conception of the fundamentally ugly and paradoxical nature of power; the view he offers of men and events, and of motives and decisions, is simplistic in the extreme. As a journalist he assumes the self-assured stance of provincial outrage at this sinister, this unimaginable play of total power. He pretends to be shocked at the notion that in power of this magnitude the matter-of-fact calculations of a tremendous political, military, and business structure should go hand in hand with appalling human failures. Absorbing and lively, macabre and grotesque though this epic of a dynasty may be, it provides, with all its abundance of picturesque incident, less the materials and insights for an adequate understanding of a unique constellation of power than the scenario for a Hollywood spectacular.