Berthold Beitz, German Steel Industrialist Who Saved Jews, Dies at 99
By MELISSA EDDY
Published: August 1, 2013
BERLIN — The rise of Berthold Beitz to the head of ThyssenKrupp, the steel conglomerate, is the stuff of modern German legend. He played a critical role in the rebuilding of postwar Germany into an industrial powerhouse.
Michael Rougier/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images
Yet when Mr. Beitz died on Tuesday at 99, he was remembered as much for his efforts to save hundreds of Jews and Poles from the Nazis while stationed in Poland during World War II.
Mr. Beitz (pronounced BITES) worked for an oil company when the war broke out. But rather than calling him up for active duty, the Nazis sent him to supervise the Borislav oil fields, which had fallen into German hands with the invasion of Poland in 1939. Oil was crucial to Hitler’s war machine, and Mr. Beitz wielded considerable power. He used it to create unneeded jobs that spared hundreds of Poles and Jews from being deported to death camps.
His death, on the island of Sylt, off Germany’s northern coast, was announced by ThyssenKrupp.
Often called “the grand old man of German steel,” Mr. Beitz joined the company after the war and over the next six decades transformed it into a publicly traded international conglomerate. While continuing to make steel and armaments, it expanded into building and equipping factories and manufacturing elevators, among other things.
Mr. Beitz’s reputation for integrity, earned during the war, gained him the confidence of leaders beyond Germany’s industrial backbone in the Ruhr River Valley and placed him in a position after the war to renew business and restore diplomatic ties to countries in Eastern Europe, especially Poland. Chancellor Konrad Adenauer sent him on an exploratory mission to Poland in the 1960s, paving the way for Willy Brandt’s normalization of relations with East Germany and its allies a decade later.
“With the death of Berthold Beitz, Germany has lost one of its most eminent and successful corporate personalities, who helped to shape the country in important ways,” Chancellor Angela Merkel said.
Born on Sept. 26, 1913, in the eastern German city of Zemmin, Mr. Beitz trained to become a banker, but his career took a turn in 1938 when he joined the Shell Oil Company in the northern port city of Hamburg. His experience there led to his war duty in Poland.
After the war, Poland awarded him its highest civilian honor, and the Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial in Israel, honored him as a Righteous Among the Nations, its highest recognition for non-Jews who saved Jews from the Holocaust.
“I saw how people were shot, how they were lined up in the night,” he told The New York Times in 1983. “My motives were not political; they were purely humane, moral motives.”
After the war, as president of the German insurance company Iduna, Mr. Beitz adopted business methods, like bonuses and competitions, that were unusual at that time. His success caught the eye of Alfried Krupp, then 45 and the sole owner of the Krupp steel company. Mr. Krupp had recently left prison after serving part of a 12-year sentence for war crimes, including using slave labor.
Mr. Krupp needed someone with an unblemished reputation, and in 1953 he made Mr. Beitz the company’s chairman. One of his major tasks was to re-establish a sense of purpose and direction among the company’s demoralized employees.
Mr. Krupp died in 1967, leaving Mr. Beitz as executor of his will. Mr. Beitz persuaded Mr. Krupp’s sole heir to renounce his inheritance, with which he then established the Alfried Krupp von Bohlen und Halbach Foundation and converted the company into a publicly traded corporation. The foundation today holds a 25.3 percent stake in ThyssenKrupp.
In recent years, ThyssenKrupp has suffered from Germany’s slow economic growth as the country’s center of economic power has shifted away from the Ruhr Valley.
Mindful of that shift, Mr. Beitz invested heavily in the arts and established a cultural foundation that helped transform the Ruhr Valley from an industrial heartland to a hub of postmodern and postindustrial art. The foundation provided the Folkwang Museum with financing for a new building, designed by David Chipperfield. It opened in January 2010.
Mr. Beitz is survived by his wife of more than 70 years, Else; three daughters, Barbara Ziff, Susanne Henle and Bettina Poullain; and many grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
Robert Ziff, a grandson, said Mr. Beitz did not like to talk about his experiences during the war. Instead, he gathered letters he had received from survivors and bound them in a book, which he gave to his family.
He “let that do the talking,” Mr. Ziff said.