Book review: “The Arms of Krupp” by William Manchester

manchester --- krupp


Nearly half a century ago, The Arms of Krupp by William Manchester was published to several decidedly negative reviews.

The reviewer for Kirkus Reviews wasn’t sure, after going through the book’s 833 pages of text, whether Manchester saw the Krupp family as fierce patriots or whores in their service to the Fatherland over two centuries of armament development and sales. The writing, according to the review, was, at times, leaden and, at other times, afflicted with pedantry.

Historian Alistair Horne complained in the New York Times that the book had many inaccuracies and was tainted by Manchester’s “visceral, anti-Germanism” as well as his “passion and prejudice.” Horne was unclear if the author believed that the final “sole proprietor” of the Krupp firm, Alfried Krupp von Bohlen und Halbach, was really guilty of war crimes.

Was Alfried responsible for the Krupp firm’s brutal use of 100,000 slave laborers from the conquered eastern nations and from the Third Reich’s concentration camps for Jews? Was he guilty of the deaths of tens of thousands of those people and even their babies? Horne wasn’t sure where Manchester stood.

In another New York Times review, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt asserted:

There are three basic kinds of history, and the historian takes his choice. He can dig up the record and lay it out for others to use — do basic research, in other words. Or he can filter the record through his imagination and write entertainment — popular history. Or he can shape the facts into an argument, prove something — write a thesis. The trouble with The Arms of Krupp is that Mr. Manchester has tried to do simply everything.

This paragraph, it seems to me, explains much, not just about Lehmann-Haupt’s antipathy for the book, but also the antagonism of other reviewers.


“No slain, no crime, no war”

But, first, let’s make something clear.

This entire book is an indictment of the Krupp family and the German people — and especially of Alfried.

It is an indictment of Alfried’s establishment of a factory adjacent to the Auschwitz concentration camp and his use of camp prisoners as slave laborers. It’s an indictment of the brutality inflicted upon tens of thousands of imprisoned Jews and other involuntary workers, including beatings and a torture cage in the basement of Alfried’s company headquarters, within earshot of his office. It’s an indictment of the company’s concentration camp for babies born to the slave laborers, babies who died for lack of food and proper treatment or, later, simply disappeared.

It is hard to understand how any reviewer could misconstrue Manchester’s meaning. Indeed, at one point, the author paraphrases one of Alfried’s prosecutors at the Nuremburg Trials and some lines from Shakespeare’s Richard III to assert:

If you were to say that Krupp is not guilty, it would be as true to say that there had been no Auschwitz fuse factory, no company concentration camp, no Rothschild gassed, no basement torture cage, no infant corpses, no slain, no crime, no war.


A wonderful mess

Why the confusion?

I think it goes back to Lehmann-Haupt’s complaint. He and other reviewers, I suspect, were looking for Manchester to write a book of history that fit neatly into one of Lehmann-Haupt’s three categories.

Instead, Manchester wanted to do it all — and more. He wanted to write a book with a mass of new research into the Krupp family and firm. He wanted to provide general readers with a compelling account about one of the most prominent families and firms in German history. And he wanted to remind that world that, despite an amnesty that Alfried had been given by Allied leaders, the last Krupp sole proprietor was a close associate of Adolf Hitler, helped the Fuhrer develop and carry out his military plans and committed war crimes to build the Third Reich and his company’s profits.

What Manchester was aiming to do was to write a literary history — a work that was true and beautiful (at least, in its language) and one that had a strong point of view. (At this point in his career, Manchester had published four novels and only three works of history.) He wanted to produce a work of history and a work of art.

He wasn’t fully successful.

Let’s face it: The Arms of Krupp is something of a wonderful mess. And much of that messiness and delightfulness have the same source — Manchester’s authorial voice.


Telling his story his way

The Krupp sole proprietors:  Alfred, Fritz, Gustav and Alfried

The Krupp sole proprietors: Alfred, Fritz, Gustav and Alfried

From beginning to end, he is in charge. He is never wishy-washy. It is as if all of the 400,000 words of the book are in his head already, and he is putting them down on the paper — telling his story — in the way he wants to. And that way is rarely direct and simple.

Instead, Manchester tells his tale in long complex sentences which often evoke sharp images of people, places and events and always demand the reader’s full attention. Consider this description of Alfred Krupp, the first great Cannon King of the family after the construction of his huge new home:

His conviction that his own body odors were toxic had grown as he aged and was reinforced by the belief that his lungs could exhaust a room’s supply of oxygen within an hour, leaving their sole proprietor to be quietly asphyxiated. Now, with three hundred rooms, his guards and servants could bed down for the night and leave vast corridors down which he could roam, napping a while in one chamber and then, after sniffing the air suspiciously for a trace of carbon dioxide, moving on. He was a living ghost, haunting his own castle…

Or here’s Manchester writing about how Alfred’s son Fritz got the leaders of his own nation as well as those across the world coming and going:

There appeared to be no end to Krupp’s stratagems. Probably the most profitable of them was what the amused Kaiser called his Schutz und Trutzwaffen schaukeln, his defensive and offensive weapons seesaw. It worked this way. Having perfected his nickel steel armor, Fritz advertised it in every chancellery. Armies and navies invested in it. Then he unveiled chrome steel shells that would pierce the nickel steel. Armies and navies invested again. Next — this was at the Chicago fair [of 1893], and was enough in itself to justify the pavilion — he appeared with a high-carbon armor plate that would resist the new shells. Orders poured in. But just when every general and admiral thought he had equipped his forces with invincible shields
Fritz popped up again. Good news for the valiant advocates of attack: it turned out that the improved plates could be pierced by “capped shot” with explosive noses, which cost like the devil. The governments of the world dug deep into their exchequers, and they went right on digging. Altogether thirty of them had been caught in the lash and counterlash.

With paragraphs like this, The Arms of Krupp is a demanding read, even exhausting. Manchester looks at nearly 400 years of the family and firm’s fortunes, and, while I’d argue that no single page is ever boring, the sheer weight of so many pages written in such a complex, challenging style can feel oppressive.


Startling and jarring

Still, here’s the thing: The Kirkus review concluded that “one wonders how many readers will get through the nearly 1000 pages which alternate between pedantry and appropriately leaden prose.”

Yet, nearly half a century after its publication, The Arms of Krupp is still in print. It continues to sell well, and hundreds of customer reviews at websites such as and give it an average of four out of five stars.

Part of the reason is the way Manchester is often pulls together his mass of data and makes a startling point, such as his description of the result of Alfred’s efforts in the 1880s to see cannons throughout the world:

His clientele included Switzerland, Holland, Portugal, Sweden, Denmark, Italy, Russia, Belgium, Argentina, Turkey, Brazil, China, Egypt, Austria, and every Balkan capital except Belgrade. Altogether 24,576 Krupp cannon were pointing at each other, provided one includes those of the Reich….

Or to jar the reader which an insight into the way of life on the upper levels of German society in the late 19th century, such as his description of Marga, the wife of Fritz, who was something of a free spirit from a down-on-its-luck noble family:

It would be quite wrong to suggest that she was sophisticated, worldly, or even as knowledgeable as, say, a fourteen-year-old of the 1960’s. In her Dusseldorf home neither Baron August von Ende nor his wife would acknowledge to their children that babies were born naked…

Manchester’s prose is too operatic and too buttressed by facts to be called snarky, but it’s clear on every page that he is no fan of the Krupps or of the Germans. In one of many passages in which he tweaks Gustav, the punctilious husband of Fritz’s daughter and heiress Bertha, Manchester prints Gustav announcement of the birth of Alfried, his first son and then comments:

It sounds like the announcement of a successful business deal, and in a way it was; a male heir had just entered the Konzern’s inventory. Inspired, Gustav returned to the 10:15 rite, and his efficient performance of his solemn duties continued to bear fruit. It was all there in his file copies. Second son: 1908. Third son: 1910. First daughter: 1912. Fourth son: 1913. Fifth son: 1916. Second daughter: 1920. Sixth son: 1922. The Schleiffen Plan failed, the Reich floundered, but Krupp’s conjugal advances continued uncheck on all fronts.


“Slavs are slaves”

Part of the messiness of The Arms of Krupp is how it’s out of proportion. Half of the book is spent on Alfried’s and his father’s roles in the rise of Hitler, their early and high-ranking membership in the Nazi Party and, as Gustav slipped into dementia, Alfried’s use of his close connections with the German leadership to obtain slave laborers.

Nonetheless, I suspect that few of Manchester’s readers would want fewer details about Alfried’s work with the Nazis and his abuse of involuntary workers from the east and from the concentration camps.

For instance, Manchester notes that, in the jargon of the Krupp company, those involuntary laborers were known as Stucke — i.e., stock, cattle. And, in a passage discussing the efforts of Krupp, already using 7,000 involuntary Slav workers, to requisition 9,000 more, he points out:

For a decade the Fuhrer had preached that the peoples living to the east were subhuman. Now signs posted outside Krupp shops proclaimed SLAWEN SIND SKLAVEN (Slavs are slaves). The ugly word was out in the open, and with it came a new jargon. Increasingly, intrafirm memoranda alluded to Sklavenarbeitr (slave labor), Sklavengreschaft (the slave trade), Sklaverei (slavery), Sklavenmarkt (the slave market) and Sklavenhalter (the slave holder — Alfried). Once Adolf Eichmann’s trains began rolling the patois expanded. Assembly lines, Alfried’s subordinates were informed, would be augmented by Judenmaterial (Jewish livestock).


“Properly driven”

Alfried’s use of concentration camp Jews and other slave laborers, Manchester writes, wasn’t simply a business decision. The Krupp sole proprietor was a true believer in Nazi doctrine:

No one knows who coined the ingenious phrase “extermination through work,” but…[in 1942] Krupp put it to the Fuhrer. Ignoring the language rules, he said that every party member favored liquidation (Beseitigung) of “Jews, foreign saboteurs, anti-Nazi Germans, gypsies, criminals and antisocial elements” (Verbreecher und Asoziale), but that he could see no reason why they shouldn’t contribute something to the Fatherland before they went. Properly driven, each could contribute a lifetime of work in the months before he was dispatched. Hitler hesitated.

The answer, it turned out, was a simple matter of economics, or, if you like, of bribery. Krupp proposed to pay the SS four marks per diem per inmate, from which seven-tenths of a mark would be deducted for feeing. In addition, “The SS would receive a commission on the sale of arms, to compensate for not having the use of its own prisoners” (um sie fur den Verzicht auf die Verwendung ihrer eigenen Gefangenen zu entschadigen).

Opposition vanished overnight. In September, Hitler authorized the new policy…


An indictment

manchester with krupp bookManchester sees Alfried and the Krupp firm through history as archetypes of the German people — warlike, brutal, oppressive. Certainly, they exemplify some aspects of the Germanic spirit over the past two centuries. Yet, Manchester turns a blind eye to other elements of the German character, such as those that brought Bach, Beethoven and Goethe to the world.

It’s worthwhile, I think, to point out that, when The Arms of Krupp was published in 1968, memories of World War II and, for that matter, World War I were still fresh.

It’s also worthwhile to note that Manchester’s moral outrage at Alfried’s war crimes is stronger and more virulent because Alfried seemed to have gotten off scot free.

Although convicted at Nuremburg, the Krupp owner was later freed from prison for political reasons and became one of the five richest men in the world. His work to support Hitler, the war effort and the Final Solution were whitewashed. He became one of the great figures in international business — that is, until his arrogance brought about the end of the Krupp family firm in 1968 and, a few months later, he died.

In telling the Krupp story, Manchester isn’t seeking to provide balance. His book is an indictment of the Krupps as weapons-makers and war-mongers and of Alfried as a brutal, Nazi slavemaster.

Without question, Manchester is intemperate. That’s because he sees intemperance as the only rightful reaction to war, slavery and the Holocaust.

Patrick T. Reardon


  • Paul Reid Posted November 2, 2018 12:27 pm

    Well done. Bill Manchester would appreciate and respect this review.

    • Patrick T. Reardon Posted November 5, 2018 9:19 am

      Thank you, Paul. I really appreciate your comment, coming as it is from Manchester’s co-writer on the final Churchill volume. I can’t tell you how jealous I was of you that you got to know him and complete his work. Pat

  • Dexter Trask Posted March 8, 2019 4:13 pm

    Thank you, Mr. Reardon. This review strikes me as just right. I read the book last year and gave it to my mother for Christmas; both of us agree it is a tough read, though more for the subject matter than for the prose. I certainly took the entire book to be literary indictment of the entire Krupp Konzern. Or, as I told my mother as I gave it to her on Christmas morning: “The Krupps are garbage people.” Intemperance is surely the correct feeling to have after reading the book.

    • Patrick T. Reardon Posted March 11, 2019 10:55 am

      Yeah, I’m with you, Dexter. Pat

  • David Wieberg Posted April 2, 2019 3:13 pm

    Yes I agree for the most part with the review. I am old enough to remember the fifties and sixties, and how memories of WWII were still raw. After all, the crime of which the last Krupp (among others) was guilty was enormous, almost beyond imagining, and it did seem for a time that Krupp would get off lightly. However, I think Manchester went over the top in tarring all Germans with the same brush, and any mature historian should know there is no such thing as a ‘national character’. There are only people, not greatly different from you or me or him. Also, it is interesting to consider Alfred’s idiosyncratic – quite possibly autistic – behaviour in light of the behaviour of latter day ‘barons’ like Steve Jobs. Maybe those in the US should be more worried now that such types are seemingly on the ascendant.

  • Robert Bridges Posted May 21, 2019 6:20 pm

    I read this book back in the early 1980s, and am now about 2/3’s of the way through it again. It is a long read, no doubt about it, but the detail is needed to understand the crimes of Alfried. I would never condemn an entire people based on the crimes of one person, whether Hitler or Alfried Krupp, but people do need to understand how the German industrialists were in bed with the Nazis, both for profit and ideology. Thank you for the review.

    BTW, I came here after searching for reviews, and I read the wiki article on this book. I was aghast to see this passage in the wiki article:

    Time Magazine gave the book a mixed review stating:

    “The result is an often flawed, some times naive but largely fascinating chronicle whose inflated pretensions as a work of real scholarship are punctured by swarms of errors. As a work of history, the book is marred, too, by an overwrought style and an unbecomingly snide use of irony. Manchester is not fond of the Germans, and he caricatures them either as superefficient and slavishly obedient or as a folk barely removed from dwarfs and dragons, blood feuds and bags of tainted gold.”[2]

    It would have been nice for them to offer a few examples, but I guess that is too much too ask of Time Magazine.

    • Patrick T. Reardon Posted May 22, 2019 11:21 am

      Thanks, Robert. Reading this book some 30 years for the second time, I was aware of many different aspects of it in more and less positive ways. I still find it an amazing achievement, very rich and, given Manchester’s style, very compelling.

      • Warren Dorn Posted July 8, 2019 8:09 pm

        The book is an extraordinary achievement – one must be impressed at the scholarship, research and organization. All accomplished without Internet. In such circumstances, the author must exhibit some consciousness of his material and the terrible moral degeneration of a modern, scientific, western nation’s decline into the abyss. Can one expect no opinion to be expressed? There is nothing wrong with judgement as long as the facts and history lead one thusly.

  • ROSS VAUGHAN Posted September 8, 2019 2:44 pm

    I found this review only today and really enjoyed your analysis.
    I was referring the book to a Toronto Sun writer Ling Hui who penned;
    CONFLICT AND CHAOS: Remembering the start of Second World War.
    He never mentioned the Krupp family.
    I read The Arms of Krupp in 1970 and have never forgotten it.
    They really were an evil empire long before Ronald Reagan coined the phrase in a 1983 speech .

Add Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *