Tuesday, October 28, 2008

The Arms Of Krupp

Last night I completed reading William Manchester’s “The Arms Of Krupp”.

The book is a mammoth read—well over 1000 pages with the various addenda included—and has proven to be a very durable publication, especially since it is a popular history rather than a scholarly one. With the exception of one brief period at the beginning of this decade, the book has remained in continuous print for forty years, and has sold a phenomenal number of copies. It is one of those books practically everyone has read. Indeed, until the last month, I suspect I was the only person on the planet who had not read the book.

However, “The Arms Of Krupp” is hardly the last word on its subject: the German family that amassed and managed an industrial empire over several centuries. Since the book first appeared in 1968, one scholar after another has picked apart various theses in Manchester’s tome, taking issue with one facet of the book or another. Many of these scholarly attacks, understandably, have emanated from Germany.

As a result, “The Arms Of Krupp” is not accepted as serious history and never was accepted as serious history (the original reviews were mixed, even largely negative). Instead, “The Arms Of Krupp” is a personality-driven narrative. It is chock-full of facts and quasi-facts (and the occasional crackpot theory), but it remains a narrative, not a study. Moving the story forward takes precedence over everything else, including matters of accuracy, scholarship, interpretation and judgment. The book is emblematic of the strengths and weaknesses of popular histories.

Nothing is allowed to interfere with Manchester’s provocative march through the very darkest side of German history and the very darkest recesses of Krupp family lore. Manchester often gets his facts wrong, and wrenches things out of context. He ignores anything not useful to his theses, such as information not supportive of his insistence that Germany and the Krupps were nothing more than monstrous embodiments of evil. In Manchester’s hands, everything is blatant black and white. Subtlety was not a weapon in Manchester’s arsenal.

Further, Manchester lacks a comprehensive and scholarly grasp of the history of Germany (and Europe as a whole) from 1500 to 1968. This shortcoming becomes irritating to a prohibitive degree about one-third of the way through the book, and the irritation it causes does not dissipate even in the one period—the years of the Second World War (but not the years of its buildup or aftermath)—in which Manchester genuinely does have a firm grasp of historic events.

Nevertheless, Manchester tells a good yarn. He often brings to life a class (arms merchants) and an industry (coal, steel and weapons) not often associated with popular storytelling. This cannot have been easy to do, even if much of the book is reminiscent of an ancient television soap opera, something along the lines of “Dallas In The Ruhr”.

The chief criticisms of the book have been rehashed for forty years: that Manchester intensely disliked Germany; that Manchester intensely disliked the Krupp family; that Manchester fervently ignored any facts not conforming to his agenda; and that Manchester was too keen to emphasize the lurid and the sensational.

Such criticisms are valid. Each of these faults is present. Each mars the book. And yet Manchester’s story is often—but not always—fascinating.

Five or six times in his book, Manchester gets bogged down in fifty pages of deadly writing at a whack. These episodes occur when Manchester ceases to write about the Krupps themselves and instead tries to place the family within the context of its times. These episodes of historical analyses are gruesome, simultaneously facile and contorted—and often simply dead wrong. Such episodes seem to be borrowed from ancient editions of The Encyclopedia Britannica, cut and pasted into Manchester’s own narrative. The insertions suggest a rush job on the part of author and editor.

Manchester is also unduly interested in various romantic entanglements of a handful of Krupp family members. Gossip may be fun to read on occasion, but such gossipy treatment of a family of industrialists does not enhance the reader’s understanding of why the Krupps stood at the pinnacle of European industry for centuries.

Oddly, it is gossipy matters that really get Manchester’s authorial juices flowing. His writing about romantic entanglements is far more vivid and lively than his writing about factories, weapons, politics and wars. His book is two parts Hugh Trevor-Roper for every one part Barbara Cartland—but it is the Barbara Cartland parts that most command attention. Indeed, I wonder whether it is the Barbara Cartland pages of “The Arms Of Krupp” that account for the book’s longstanding commercial success.

“The Arms Of Krupp” is an important publication in many ways—it was the first post-war book in the English language focusing on the German arms industry that received widespread public attention–but it is also a hopelessly outdated one, one given to a very narrow perspective of the Krupps and the events attached to them over hundreds of years. In the last decade alone, two books have been issued in Germany, both written solely to correct the numerous—and egregious—factual errors in Manchester’s book.

The way for publishers to handle publications that have become outdated or superceded is to offer extensive and scholarly forwards in current editions, forwards in which up-to-date scholarship may be cited and major flaws in the original publications addressed. If done properly, such forwards need not detract from reader enjoyment of the originals.

And such a forward is precisely what current editions of “The Arms Of Krupp” need. A lengthy introduction, addressing the book’s factual errors and providing a counterweight to its most disputatious conclusions, would enhance the book’s value and provide an even richer experience for the reader. As things stand now, the reader versed in German history begins mentally tallying up errors in the first few pages, and these errors become overwhelming a couple of hundred pages into the story. At such point, readers—if they bother even to proceed—treat the rest of the book as something akin to fiction, always prepared to dismiss anything Manchester has to offer, even when Manchester is in full command of his facts and analysis. An authoritative fifty-page introduction could resolve such concerns, for the general and specialist reader alike. At the same time, it might also bring the story up to date, presenting the story of the post-1968 disposition of the Krupp empire.

George Bernard Shaw, in drawing Mr. Undershaft for “Major Barbara”, was clearly influenced by Europe’s largest arms manufacturer. Shaw’s Mr. Undershaft, not an admirable figure, is nonetheless far more complex and far more multi-faceted than the one-dimensional arms merchants that emerge from Manchester’s volume. Manchester’s Krupps belong to the realm of melodrama.

In melodrama, plot always trumps character.

Manchester provides plot aplenty.

His characters are cardboard.


  1. I realize I'm 3+ years late in posting this comment but I read your review of The Arms Of Krupp with an avid interest.

    I'm a big fan of the book and have been most keen on finding and reading about the technical and historical errors that Manchester made (his mistakenly crediting the construction of the cargo submarine "Deutschland" to Krupp's Germaniawerft for example).

    You mentioned several books that have been written specifically to refute Manchester's errors. Do you have the titles of those books or other sources, printed or online, that cover this subject?

    Very much obliged for any help you can provide.

    (FYI - Please ignore my screen name, it refers to something completely unrelated to your blog or Manchester)

  2. Rubbish.

    The portrayal of the Germans (at that time) as the monstrous embodiment of evil is entirely accurate. Manchester even tries to 'justify' and find some goodness in the monstrous Krupp dynasty which is objective journalism at its best.

    I've read around this period extensively and can't find a single area where Manchester is 'off piste'.

    These people were monsters and it is enormously regrettable
    the Krupp tried at Nuremburg did not 'swing'.

    Martyn Nutland (real name)

  3. Hi, I just found and read your review, some eight years after the fact. It's important to know that both the New York Times and Time Magazine issued negative reviews of the book supporting your view. My name is Dave Stroebel and I'm the great-grandson of Engelbertha Krupp Stroebele, Fritz Krupp's sister. Just Google David Stroebel to find my book...