A Company En Route to International Stature
Helmut Weich was a graphic designer employed by Henschel, and prior to his retirement he became director at the Henschelmuseum. He considers it important to tell the history of the Henschels. Weapons are not his favorite topic of discussion.
Georg Christian Karl Henschel came to Kassel in 1777. At that time he was manufacturing cannon mortars, cannonballs, bells, and, starting in 1780, the first firehose nozzles, also water pipes. After 1810, when he was ousted from the Elector Prince’s foundry by Napoleon’s brother Jérôme, he went into business for himself with the Henschelei. The Henschelei had the first cold sheet mill in Germany.
His son Karl Anton founded the factory “Henschel & Son” upon establishing the foundry on Mönchebergstrasse, where innovations in tank construction were achieved, also where northern Hesse’s first steam locomotive was built. Then the golden age of steam locomotives and steam engines came along. Karl Anton’s son Alexander expanded on the construction of locomotives and was the first to export them. During the period of his successors, Oskar and his wife Sophie, Henschel became Europe’s leading locomotive manufacturer.
- Where were the manufacturing plants located back then?
- Principally at Werk Kassel, also, from 1860 onward, at Werk Rothenditmold in order to accomplish the manufacture of thousands of locomotives.
- Were the Henschels already living on the Weinberg at the time?
- During that time, Oskar and Sophie were buying up the Weinberg parcel by parcel.
- Why was there such a big demand for locomotives?
Because of industrialization. The big locomotive builders were Krauss-Maffei, Krupp, Borsig, but Henschel acquired the better part of the contracts, like the contract to build locomotives for the German Reichsbahn. During this time Henschel wasn’t manufacturing arms. Henschel was the number one man in locomotive construction, but there was no more construction of cannons or the like.
Karl Henschel, the successor, continued to refine locomotive construction, but as an effect of World War I these companies started building cannonry, gun carriages, and ammunition for the “Dicke Bertha” [Big Bertha].
The son, Oscar, took over all three Henschel plants and the Henriks-Hütte in Hattingen, a gigantic steel plant that Karl and Sophie had purchased to become completely independent of Thyssen and Krupp. In addition to locomotive construction, Oskar introduced truck and bus construction as an alternate way to bolster business. Then in 1935 came the unholy time with the swastika and the Nazis and the Henschel aircraft plant in Berlin Schönefeld. In 1937 the Henschel aircraft engine plants in Baunatal were founded.
- What was being manufactured during World War II?
- Locomotive production was continued during World War II. For troop supply there was also the very robust standard war locomotive 52 series, which was produced by several locomotive builders. Arms manufacture was intensified in cooperation with Wegmann and more track vehicles, mainly the Tiger I tank and the Königstiger [Tiger II], were produced. There was a tunnel between the Mittelfeld plant and the Rothenditmold plant, as well as a bunker complex where production could be continued in emergencies. For the purpose of tricking the enemy, construction was branched out and dummy plants were set up in outlying areas around Kassel. With Henschel’s all-wheel technology, trucks were converted into military vehicles. Diesel motors and marine diesel engines were built too. But the main task was to build the tank.
- What were the other arms manufacturers in Kassel at the time?
- Back then in Kassel there were also the Fieseler-Werke, which was also an arms operation, then Junkers, which also did aircraft construction, and scores of subsidiary companies that built parts for the arms industry, and of course Wegmann.
- And Henschel’s main manufacturing plants—Mittelfeld, Kassel, and Rothenditmold—were spread out across the city?
- Yes, that’s right.
- How many people worked in the Henschel plants? What was the proportion of Kasselers to migrant workers?
Before the times of National Socialism Henschel had around 10,000 employees and was en route to international stature because of its locomotive exports. Even before World War I Henschel exported everywhere (South America, China, Russia, Egypt, among others) except for North America. These already existing partnerships had positive effects on the truck operations.
But under the mandate to produce arms, the high level of operations required could no longer be met by the preexisting workforce. This led to the introduction of forced labor, migrant workers, and already the first guest workers from friendly partner states like Italy, workers who weren’t handled quite as badly as prisoners of war or forced labor.
All in all, there were 30,000 workers in wartime, 10,000 of those being permanent employees.
- Where did they live?
- The supplemental workers were housed in barracks in Mittelfeld, on the Schäferberg and in other places, some of whom had to cover long distances on foot to get to the factory. Behind the Schäferberg you can still see parts of the barracks. People are still living on those grounds today. The other barracks were emptied out and demolished and have been gone for quite some time now.
- As it seems, Kassel experienced the most bombardments—and the most intense ones at that—during the war, both pinpoint and carpet bombing. Was that related to the production plants and nothing else?
- The first bomb attacks were in 1943, and they continued blow upon blow until 1945. But at the end of the war Kassel and also Henschel were hit particularly hard.
- But the bombardments of Kassel were directly tied to the production plants?
- That’s absolutely clear. The plants were the targets. It can be ascertained from aerial photographs as well as subsequently declassified maps and plans. Each planned strike was listed, how many tons of cluster bombs, demolition bombs, and what kinds of bombs were used. That applied to the plants and later on to the city. Kassel was up to 80% destroyed, and Henschel up to 75%.
- And how much longer did the Henschel family live on the Weinberg?
- Because of the war, the Henschel family had already moved subsequent to 1941 to the grand estate Gut Falkenberg in Wabern.
- After losing the war in 1945, the state of emergency was very severe. Henschel assembled substructures for hand wagons using pieces of aluminum that were lying around. The wagon that we’re looking at now is from the year 1945 and has the factory number “4.” And then other products for the household, like cast-aluminum lids, cake-pans, or canola oil presses were produced by Henschelites independently. But that was tolerated. In those days rapeseed was stolen for the oil—this wasn’t allowed, of course—and then people would usually run the presses at night.
- People didn’t have anything to eat at the time.
- Right. That probably went on until the monetary reform in 1948, at which point the shops were full again, quite suddenly.
- How did things continue after the war? 75% of the factories were destroyed. When was production resumed? What was produced after that?
The war ended in May of 1945. One month later 100 people began with the clean-up work. Up to the moment when the workforce was reinstated in 1949 under Oscar (Robert) Henschel, who had been interned since the end of the war, the operations ran under American administration. The American occupying forces allowed for the repair of locomotives destroyed by the hail of bombs, and they re-equipped their trucks with Henschel diesel motors. Henschel diesel motors used significantly less gas, were of a higher quality, and the question of replacement parts was resolved. That was an enormous boost for Henschel. Then there were products needed for postwar reconstruction: steam rollers for road construction, pavers, and the construction of trucks and heavy equipment was accelerated.
In 1957 Henschel went broke for the first time, so it sold the Baunataler Werk to VW, which is the big gear manufacturing plant today. He was able to sell the Weinberg back to the city and a lot of Henschel real-estate was liquidated. Henschel withdrew to Switzerland as a man of independent means. The management of the Henschel plants was taken over by the manager, Fritz-Aurel Görgen. Between 1959 and 1964, he successfully made Henschel into a world-class company once again. With 14,500 employees, Henschel was the biggest employer in Kassel and in northern Hesse, just as it was before the war. Then rumors broke out that Görgen had been engaging in tax evasion and shady business dealings in the defense technology sector, after which he went to Switzerland. The litigation lasted ten years, but ultimately nothing could be proved.
- The “Tiger” was no longer being produced, and then Henschel produced lighter vehicles. Under Thyssen-Henschel, we primarily built the infantry fighting vehicle, the Marder [Marten], in very high numbers, then the wheeled vehicle 8 x 8 Lux, followed by the 6 x 6 Fuchs [Fox]. The custom was to give the vehicles animal names already as early as the Reichswehrmacht.
- How did that come to be?
- I don’t know. But it happened again with the Bundeswehr. Every vehicle bears the name of an animal, like Wiesel [Weasel] or Puma. The exceptions confirm the rule, like the “Roland,” a defensive weapons system.
- What is a civilian vehicle and what is a military vehicle?
- When an automobile is armored and carries a weapon, it can be clasified as military. However not every armored S limousine can be seen as a military apparatus. Maybe the vehicle is only armored to prevent the important person sitting inside from being shut down instantly by a hand granade. That’s not a weapons job. Sure, it’s armed, but it doesn’t fall under “military vehicle.”
The Bundeswehr’s motor pool consists of various vehicles—green, silver, red—and “Bundeswehr” is written on all of them, but of course you can’t call them military apparatuses. The vehicles—ones with treads and ones with wheels—that are first and foremost equipped with weapons are the vehicles that fall under that heading. Even the armored personnel carrier 1, the Fuchs, has an integrated MG [machine gun] mounted somewhere for defense purposes. But it isn’t a fighter vehicle. Vehicles have different jobs.
- What is Henschel involved in today?
- Strictly speaking, Henschel is out of the game. The family split off from the company in 1957, but Görgen retained the original name, Henschel AG. Thyssen joined the business by way of Rheinstahl and carried the name on until 1998. Then Thyssen Krupp took everything that hadn’t already been sold and broke it up into a corporation. There are, however, a number of small firms in Werk Mittelfeld who are carrying the Henschel name on, like the Henschel Antriebstechnik GmbH [manufacturer of gearboxes] and Henschel Systems. In 1994 locomotive manufacture was outsourced with ABB Henschel, who fused with DaimlerChrysler under the name of Adtranz. Adtranz was then taken over by Bombardier. Bombardier merely retained Henschel’s own numbering system, the number 1 being the Drache [dragon]—and in the near future the thirty-six thousandth locomotive will have been completed. Henschel defense technology became Rheinmetall Defense, a huge corporation headquartered in Düsseldorf that manufactures track vehicles and wheeled vehicles in Kassel. They’re still using the same test track that was laid out back then. And Wegmann, through its merger with KraussMaffei, began to restrict its production exclusively to arms. They don’t build any civilian products at all anymore.
- What does Krauss-Maffei Wegmann build?
- Track vehicles and wheeled vehicles. The Puma tank is built here and there according to the same plans.
The commissions for arms vehicles are issued by the federal government. The government also decides which countries are allowed to purchase the arms, apportioning the pool of contracts among various companies. The company is not permitted to export its products independently.
- There was always competition when it came to the handing out of commissions. Wasn’t there a tank deal in 1991 that Thyssen-Henschel had to fight for?
- At the moment, Rheinmetall develops the same vehicles as KMW [Krauss-Maffei Wegmann]. The number of items were divided up due to each company’s limitations in capacity. But that doesn’t constitute a partnership. It’s how the federal government as commissioner wanted it. Generally speaking, the Leopard is a vehicle made by KMW and the smaller infantry fighting vehicle is made by Thyssen-Henschel. Today the successor, the Puma, is made by Rheinmetall and also by KMW.
- Is it true that Kassel is one of the biggest arms production locations in Germany today?
- Yes, with Rheinmetall and KMW combined, it’s yet again one of the biggest locations we have. Of course other cities have something to do with arms manufacture, maybe only because they do logistics or electronics. But as far as the tonnage goes, Kassel would still be the place to bomb.