Wolfgang Muehlfriedel, Edith Hellmuth, eds. Carl Zeiss in Jena, 1945-1990. Cologne: Böhlau, 2004. 385 pp. EUR 39.90 (cloth), ISBN 978-3-412-11196-0.
Reviewed by Andrea Schneider (Gesellschaft fÃ¼r Unternehmensgeschichte e.V. (Society for Business History))
Published on H-German (March, 2007)
Carl Zeiss--A State-Owned Enterprise in the German Democratic Republic (GDR)
This volume is the third part of a business history of the Carl Zeiss precision mechanical-optical factory from its founding in 1846 to its re-privatization after Germany's reunification. Ten years ago the first volume was written, also by Edith Hellmuth, an archivist of Carl Zeiss, and Wolfgang Muehlfriedel, who taught economic history at the University of Jena until 1995. The second volume, which was written by Rolf Walter, appeared in 2000. These three volumes combine to form a comprehensive and very detailed work on the history of Carl Zeiss. The Carl Zeiss factory is organized in an unusual way; the Carl Zeiss foundation runs several companies under its umbrella. This organization was established with uncommon but interesting aspects for its staff. Books have previously been written on this particular matter, which might explain why Hellmuth and Muehlfriedel do not discuss the foundation in detail or show how the GDR system interfered in and changed the interactions and specific qualities of its corporate culture. Of course they show how the organization changed, but they refrain from analyzing its cultural aspects.
This volume is divided into twelve chapters, arranged around political turning points. The authors start with the description of the Carl Zeiss Foundation under military control: from the occupation of Jena on April 13, 1945, until the expropriation of the fortune of Carl Zeiss on June 1, 1948. Zeiss is one of the rare companies organized in form of a foundation. The foundation was established in 1889--one year after the company's founder Carl Zeiss died--to secure a long-lasting future for the company and ensure that its profit was used to support the scientific community at universities and innovative institutes. The very close links between factory history and contemporary history asserted by the authors in the introduction are reduced, here, to the day to day relationship between the military occupation and the factory. The political dimension of contemporary history is thus strictly limited to its impact on the enterprise itself. For example, the volume includes notes regarding the military occupation as well as diary remarks from employees, all from inside the company. The authors allow us to follow discussions and negotiations between military officers and employees. They introduce the reader to the reparations the company had to deliver as well as to the Soviet plans regarding the future of the Zeiss and Schott foundations, in terms of transferring them to a large extent to the USSR. The story follows the expropriation and dismantling of the companies. This close approach offers interesting insight in regard to the special relationship between the Soviet occupying power and the company in chapter 2.
In chapter 3, Hellmuth and Muehlfriedel deal with the parallel development of the Carl Zeiss subsidiary companies in the East and the West, namely the re-establishment of the Zeiss factory in Jena and the establishment of ZEISS-OPTON GmbH in Oberkochen. Cooperation between the management in Jena and the responsible officers of the SMAD (Soviet Military Administration) regarding its reconstruction provides the authors with the opportunity to explain the internal organization of the factory in Thuringia. The authors also explain how the SED quickly discovered an interest in the enterprises of the Carl Zeiss Foundation. Zeiss employees became disillusioned when Walter Ulbricht informed them that they would no longer be able to continue the enterprises of the foundation in the spirit of its founder, Ernst Abbe. The threat of nationalization grew. The plan was for the foundation to remain in existence, but with modernized statutes, while the original entity's enterprises would have to be nationalized.
Initially, representatives of Carl Zeiss managed to gain the support of local politicians to fight for the individual enterprises of the Carl Zeiss Foundation to remain a part of the larger company. Consequently the first attempt at nationalizing the enterprises failed, but only for a few weeks. As early as February 1948, the party leadership of the SED took the first steps, this time with support of the Soviet military administration, toward nationalizing the enterprises. Very quickly the enterprises not only were nationalized, but also were transferred, together with the rest of this industry, to the VVB OPTIK, an association of state-owned enterprises. Now each individual factory in the industry was subordinated to the management of the VVB.
This chapter exposes some of the weaknesses of this study: due to the comprehensive and extraordinary quality of the Carl Zeiss archive, both authors refrained from analyzing external documents. Thus the circumstances and motives of the party leadership as well as the Soviet occupational power are analyzed only from the company's point of view. Another weakness stems from the additive form of their narrative. In their retelling of the disentanglement of the foundation, for example, the point of view changes with the description of each single point. Since the story is rooted in great detail, it is rather tricky for the reader to follow the proliferating number of protagonists or to make the right connections between them. Additionally, since a final summary is omitted, the authors fail to reminder readers of the main themes of their detailed stories. Its concluding moments also describes the maintenance of the Carl Zeiss Foundation and the development of Carl Zeiss in Oberkochen. With regard to the latter, Jena cultivated an ambiguous attitude insofar as the western company, in certain cases, was confronted as a competitor.
The following chapters begin with the establishment of the VEB Carl Zeiss JENA (1949-64) and describe chronologically the various stages of the company's development. These chapters alternate with chapters on technological development, and discuss the renewal of the device program (chapter 5), the building up of a science center (chapter 8), and the changing priorities of the research program (chapter 11). Beneath these technological developments the history of the company is written according to the political milestones of the GDR, like the introduction of the New Economic System in 1963, or the decisions of the Politburo in 1967-68. Finally the authors deal with the Kombinat VEB Carl Zeiss Jena (1976-90) and, at the end, with the transfer to Carl Zeiss JENA GmbH in June 1990. To sum up, this study is rich in detail and saturated with archival material. It provides the reader with a comprehensive and interesting history of the company. It does, however, lack a nuanced theoretical approach. In its form, it is really more of a handbook on the history of Carl Zeiss and it will be the job of future historians to connect its indisputably rich findings to broader business history. A final summary could have helped to build bridges to other research and connected the really interesting and comprehensive findings with current discussions in business history. But the volume still represents an interesting project, insofar as few studies on companies in the GDR exist that have been written on such a detailed and profound basis.
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Andrea Schneider. Review of Muehlfriedel, Wolfgang; Hellmuth, Edith, eds., Carl Zeiss in Jena, 1945-1990.
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