Page Overview: BMW during the era of National Socialism

BMW during the era of National Socialism.

During the era of National Socialism, BMW underwent a transformation from a mobility company to an armaments firm and became one of the most important enterprises operating in the German war economy. The production of motorcycles and automobiles continued but the aero-engine business line contributed the lion’s share of the company’s sales. New sites were developed and production was massively ramped up to meet the demand for armaments. During the war, the company management exhibited no moral scruples in making widespread use of forced labour and prisoners in concentration camps in order to comply with the production figures laid down by the authorities. These people had to work under terrible conditions and many died of hunger and exhaustion. BMW bears a substantial share of the burden of responsibility for these events and undoubtedly incurred a burden of guilt in committing these crimes. BMW therefore participated in compensation payments and commissioned two academic dissertations to investigate this dark part of its own history. The BMW Group is proactively committed to an open and free society without any discrimination or prejudice.

BMW R 75 Wehrmachtsgespanne

BMW R 75 side-car motorcycle.

Transformation into an armaments company.

When the National Socialists seized power in 1933, BMW’s business environment underwent a fundamental change. As a result of the policy driving the powerful rearmament programme being pursued at that time by the Third Reich, BMW was transformed into one of the most important companies in the German armaments industry. In 1934, the production of aero-engines was hived off into BMW Flugmotorenbau GmbH with the aim of concealing the increase in the volume of orders received for aero-engines and rearmament of the German Air Force (Luftwaffe). As a privately operated limited company (GmbH), this wholly-owned subsidiary was not required to meet the same level of disclosure in reporting its financial statements as a joint-stock company (Aktiengesellschaft, AG) and this meant that the enormous growth in the aero-engine sector was not shown in the balance sheet of BMW AG.

However, the company was unable to deliver the unit volumes demanded by the Reich Air Ministry (Reichsluftfahrtministerium, RLM) at its two existing plants in Munich and Eisenach, alongside the production of motorcycles (Munich) and automobiles (Eisenach). 

Two factory complexes were therefore constructed in 1936 and 1937 respectively at Munich-Allach (today MTU Aero Engines) and Eisenach-Dürrerhof with the support of substantial government funds provided through the state aviation bank Luftfahrtkontor GmbH. Both of these plants were planned from the start as “shadow or forest plants” and provided with appropriate camouflage.

When production of the liquid-cooled aero-engine BMW VI was discontinued in 1937, BMW became a manufacturer of purely air-cooled aero-engines (BMW 132, from 1940 also the BMW 801), alongside Siemens subsidiary Brandenburgische Motorenwerke GmbH (BRAMO). As part of this commitment to air-cooled engines, a joint venture for development was set up with BRAMO in 1938, which led to the purchase of BRAMO by BMW in 1939. As a result of this acquisition, BWM took on ownership of the Berlin plants in Spandau and Basdorf. Production of the Bramo 323 “Fafnir” was continued until 1943.

In 1940, the existing plants were augmented by the Zühlsdorf plant, which was located opposite the Basdorf plant. These two plants were merged and renamed the Niederbarnimer Flugmotorenwerke GmbH, Berlin, in 1941.

BMW manufactured aero-engines at all its plants but the highest production figures were achieved at the industrial mass-production plants in Allach and Dürrerhof.

 

Luftbildaufnahme des BMW-Werks Dürrerhof (Eisenach).

BMW Plant Dürrerhof (Eisenach).

The layout of the plant in the forest is clearly recognisable from the air.

BMW Werk Allach

BMW Plant Allach (Munich).

As well as being located on the edge of the forest, the production halls were also painted for camouflage.

This enormous expansion of the company is also revealed by the company’s business figures. In 1933, sales of RM 35.56 million were generated by 6,514 employees, whereas by 1939 the company was generating sales of RM 275.5 million with a workforce of 26,918. These figures were to undergo a further increase by 1944 to sales of RM 750 million generated by 56,213 employees.

Production concentrated on the aero-engines BMW 132, Bramo 323 “Fafnir” and the twin-row radial engine BMW 801. A further engine was produced from 1944 in the form of the BMW 003 jet engine. Alongside aero-engines, BMW also manufactured motorcycles like the BMW R 75 for the German Army (Wehrmacht), and this production was supplemented from 1938 to 1940 by the BMW 325 standard passenger car. When the government put a stop to automobile production in 1941, BMW went over to being solely an armaments company.

Fertigung von BMW 801

Production of BMW 801 aircraft engines.

Foreign workers and forced labour.

When the economy started to boom on the back of government orders for armaments, Germany started to be beset by a drastic shortage of labour from the mid-1930s. Women were increasingly co-opted in order to redress the deficit, although this went against the ideology of National Socialism. The start of the Second World War further exacerbated the situation since large numbers of workers were called up to serve in the German Army. At the end of 1939, the first Polish prisoners of war were put to work in Eisenach in order to enable the company to meet its production targets. BMW also tried to recruit workers from the occupied territories or from other Axis countries. There was a particular drive to recruit workers from Western Europe with technical training and skills. These “foreign workers” (Fremdarbeiter) had comparable rights to German workers including an entitlement to social benefits.

Workers from Western and Southern Europe were generally better treated and received more pay than Poles or workers from the territories in the east known as “eastern workers” (Ostarbeiter). There were substantial differences in the working and living conditions depending on the origins of workers. As the war progressed, foreign workers gradually also lost their rights and privileges and this ushered in a gradual transition to forced labour. All the forced labourers (Zwangsarbeiter) had to contend with shortages of food and inadequate accommodation, and their living conditions underwent further drastic deterioration as the war progressed.

KZ-Häftlinge in Allach

CONCENTRATION CAMP PRISONERS IN ALLACH.

Prisoners from the Dachau concentration camp conducting a final inspection for aircraft engine production in Allach. The prisoners used were interned at a special sub-camp.

Starting in 1941, prisoners of the SS were pressed into work, and inmates from concentration camps were forced to become labourers from 1942. The Allach and Dürrerhof plants had their own satellite camps. By the end of 1944, around 29,000 forced labourers were engaged in work at BMW, accounting for more than 50 percent of the total BMW workforce. Without this massive deployment of forced labourers, mass production would not have been possible. These workers had to work up to 12 hours a day and the “eastern workers” and prisoners from concentration camps were singled out for particularly harsh treatment, violence and death even in the case of trivial misdemeanours. As a consequence, death rates among “eastern workers” and concentration camp prisoners were significantly higher than for other groups.

At the end of the Second World War, a large proportion of the forced labourers who survived left the destroyed country of Germany for good. When they departed, the memory of the horrors they had endured and the crimes that had been committed against them largely faded. Along with most other German companies, BMW for a long time suppressed its own responsibility for this part of the company’s history.

At the beginning of the 1980s, BMW started to address the issue of forced labour for the first time by commissioning the book entitled “Vor der Schallmauer” [In front of the sound barrier] by Horst Mönnich. Since the end of the 1990s, BMW has been a founding member of the Foundation Initiative of German industry “Remembrance, Responsibility and Future”. This organisation has paid financial compensation to forced labourers and today it remains dedicated to making amends for the past. Furthermore, BMW commissioned two dissertation projects by independent researchers to investigate the involvement of the company in National Socialism and most importantly the use of forced labour.

Place of Remembrance.

From June 2020 visitors to the BMW Museum in Munich will find a dedicated exhibition room where they can learn how BMW is dealing with the issue of forced labour at the company. The “Place of Remembrance” presents a broad spread of information, pictures, reports and historical documents which address the role of Bayerische Motoren Werke as an armaments manufacturer and the deployment of forced labourers to keep its factories running. The exhibition is not only about coming to terms with this dark chapter in the company’s history, but also describing and exploring what happened so similar injustices can be prevented in the future.

Some of the historical documents on display and further information on the subject can be viewed at the BMW Group Archive.

The BMW Group is very much aware of its social responsibility and believes it has a duty to conduct its business within a socially ethical framework as a result of this very dark period in its history. Since 2011, the BMW Group has been a partner of the UN Intercultural Innovation Award. This is a prize conferred in cooperation with the UN Initiative Alliance of Civilization. The prize is awarded annually for projects which are dedicated to promoting the equality of women, giving vulnerable children a route into education and most particularly for projects attempting to break down inequalities through intercultural dialogue. The fact is that only individuals with an insight into the mindsets of others are able to diminish prejudice and resentment. This was the rationale for conferring this award in December 2019 on the non-profit organisation “180 Degrees Turn” from Cologne for the commitment to combat radicalisation and hate.

The BMW Group is proactive in supporting integration in Germany, for example through the project “Work here!”. This is a sphere where the BMW Group has been working together with the Federal Employment Agency since 2015 to provide support for refugees with training sessions over a period of several weeks in different departments. This gives refugees a basic idea of how the German labour market operates and the kind of requirements that are necessary. Since 2016, more than 500 refugees have taken part in the programme.

This mutual respect and promotion of (cultural) diversity is also reflected within the company itself. Employees from 124 different nations work at the German locations alone. When BMW signed up to the Charter of Diversity in 2011, this also represented a commitment to creating a working environment free of prejudices. This type of dedication ensures that the corporate values of BMW are not simply empty words but rather are proactively lived as a corporate vision.