CW: mention of suicide, death, genocide, Nazis, violence
In his suicide note, Ludwig Topf referred to himself as a “decent person” who was “the opposite of a Nazi.” In case you are not aware, Ludwig Topf ran the family-owned company J.A. Topf & Söhne (or J.A. Topf and Sons), the largest company to design and build ovens and gas chamber exhaust fans for the Nazi’s concentration and extermination camps.
Founded in Erfurt, Germany, in 1878, J.A. Topf & Söhne started as an engineering firm that made heating systems, steam boilers, and equipment for brewing and malting. Eventually, they expanded and diversified their offerings by creating products for chimneys and incinerators designed to burn municipal waste. Then in 1914, in response to rising interest in and acceptability of cremation as a means of post-mortem body disposal in the Weimar Republic, they entered the crematoria industry. It is also reported that the company was well-known for its “optimal implementation of the commandments of piety.”
The United States Holocaust Memorial Museums (USHMM) reports that J.A. Topf & Söhne entered into business with Adolf Hitler’s Reich in 1939 when they delivered portable incineration ovens to the Buchenwald concentration camp after an outbreak of disease killed large numbers of prisoners. Behind the scenes, the people actually making the ovens were subjected to abuse and forced labor with the Buchenwald concentration camp visible through office windows.
As Hitler rose to power, and Nazi’s struggled to come up with ways to handle the growing number of corpses in their camps, J.A. Topf & Söhne was one of twelve companies that, driven by competition, worked hard to create innovative solutions the Nazi’s would invest in. The USHMM also reports that “beyond knowingly supplying ovens for the unlawful cremation of concentration camp victims, Topf and Sons anticipated the demands of its new customers and engineered “better” equipment. For example, new designs incorporated a rounded opening (rather than the standard square coffin-sized opening) in order to allow multiple bodies to be burned simultaneously despite the fact that this was still illegal under German law.”
But the Nazis needed more. Fast.
J.A. Topf & Söhne had to observe how people were being killed in the extermination camps in order to help them better understand the system so they could kill even more people and dispose of their bodies more quickly. Mass gassings only added to the urgency. J.A. Topf & Söhne designed and produced two “eight-muffle” ovens — that had a capacity of hundreds of cremations per day — along with ventilation systems for gas chambers that made them safer for Nazis to operate since they removed Zyklon B — extremely poisonous insecticide — from underground gas chambers.
Meanwhile, Ludwig Topf remained in charge and oversaw operations with his brother, Ernst Wolfgang Topf, and the company’s senior engineer, Kurt Prüfer. It’s important to note that Ernst maintained his innocence until he died. According to him, the Nazis just misused J.A. Topf & Söhne products, his company was not to blame. Moreover, Prüfer admitted that “[he’d known] since spring 1943 that innocent human beings were being liquidated in Auschwitz gas chambers and that their corpses were subsequently incinerated in the crematoriums” during the Nuremberg Trials. In 2018 Time reported that Prüfer “carefully marked on his design “incineration chamber” rather than “cremation chamber,” for he completely understood the power of words. With a few strokes of his pen, his bland description disguised the red line between his previous work, serving the life and death of an ordinary community, and building the technology to fuel mass murder.”
Until the day he died, Ludwig Topf believed that he was innocent. He believed that he did nothing wrong. In his suicide note, wrote “If I am arrested, the greatest of all wrongs will be done to me. I never consciously or intentionally did anything bad; instead it has been done to me.” He then went on to add the following: “If I ever believed that my innocence as far as the crematoria are concerned (and my brother is just as innocent) would be recognized and honoured, I would continue to fight for justification, as I always have until now — but I think people need a sacrifice. In which case the least I can do is provide it myself.”
In The Empire Has No Clothes, philosopher Olúfémi O. Táíwò describes how “people’s public actions can deviate from their private beliefs when social power is involved.” In this case, what Ludwig Topf believed during any stage of his involvement with Nazis matters much less than his actions. Táíwò explains that countless problems arise when we “[rely] on what people actually believe to explain their behavior and derivative political phenomena” and J.A. Topf & Söhne offers one of many illustrative, historical examples.
Annika Van Baar and Wim Huisman approach the issue of Topf’s involvement in the Holocaust from a criminological perspective in The Oven Builders Of The Holocaust: A Case Study of Corporate Complicity in International Crimes. They argue that “the engineers in the firm competed to design the best ovens and offered innovations and ideas on their own initiative. They were present when the ovens were tested and they were continuously improving their designs. This central value of innovation and technical perfection is clear from the way the company designed and built the ovens and was prominently reflected in their corporate culture. Moreover, this emphasis on technical perfection fits in with historical analysis of other corporations at the time and can be related to the nature of bureaucracies.”
Ultimately, Van Baar and Huisman concluded that “contribution to the autarkic Nazi economy, the war effort and the persecution and extermination of “Untermenschen” were central values heavily endorsed by the regime. This provided Topf — and other corporations — with motivations and opportunities that are extremely unusual in democratic societies. Moreover, social control was probably diminished by this context of a criminal regime. Legal control was absent or even reversed.”
But, are inherently harmful motivations and opportunities actually extremely unusual in democratic societies?
Van Baar and Huisman describe the “‘Nazification’ of the German society and economy and the emphasis on technical aspects and innovation allowed for justification and normalization of involvement in the disposal of corpses by neutralizing this as contributing to hygiene in the camps.” Táíwò describes how “norm and incentive” structures in neoliberal political environments allow one to make justifications for different political actions, for better or for worse. People living in neoliberal political environments, or so-called democratic societies, may not be engineering ovens and gas chambers for the Nazi regime but they might be funding or working for organizations directly involved with orchestrating mass killings around the world.
J.A. Topf & Söhne started as a family company that made brewing and malting equipment. As soon as the people who ran the company went into business with Nazis, their actions told the world more about them than their alleged beliefs. While it’s important to think about the ways that propaganda and overarching social structures impact our belief systems, it’s even more important to think about how they impact our actions. We may even struggle to make sense of our own beliefs at times but it is imperative that we actively avoid doing harmful acts. The road to evil is paved with seemingly amoral actions.