Saturday, September 3, 2011

Born 150 Years Ago: Robert Bosch, Global Entrepreneur

Robert Bosch 1861-1942


One hundred and fifty years ago, on Sept. 23, 1861, the visionary industrialist Robert Bosch was born in a village near Ulm in Germany. He became a global entrepreneur whose name is ubiquitous in the auto industry to this very day. And 125 years ago, he founded Robert Bosch GmbH, the largest privately owned corporation in the world today. In 1907, Bosch opened its first U.S. subsidiary. By the time World War I broke out, Bosch presided over a worldwide empire. Its business collapsed after the war, soon recovered, and then was annihilated during Hitler’s Third Reich. Bosch and his collaborators financed the German resistance against the Nazis, rescued Jews and tried in vain to persuade the Western powers not to appease Hitler. Today, Robert Bosch GmbH is the world’s largest supplier of automotive parts.

It was “an act of grace,” wrote Theodor Heuss, West Germany’s first president, that his friend Robert Bosch died of natural causes in 1942. Thus, Bosch was spared the agony of watching nearly everything he had created being ravaged by the war he had struggled to forestall. When the guns fell silent in 1945, his global empire was gone, and 70 percent of his factories in Germany had been leveled by Allied air raids.
Even for Heuss, a political scientist and journalist, it would have been foolish to predict what I saw near Charleston, South Carolina, where Bosch has maintained a subsidiary since 1974. After passing several suburban churches, I arrived at what looked from afar like a country club but is in fact the corporation’s largest factory in North America.

It is an almost idyllic place, where 2,500 workers – called “associates” in Bosch corporate language – churn out automotive products the company has pioneered world-wide: gasoline and diesel injectors; anti-lock braking systems (ABS) among other things. I wondered: Are these workers – 60 percent male, 40 percent female; 65 percent Caucasian and 35 percent minority – familiar with their employer’s legacy?

Did they know that Robert Bosch was the first employer to introduce the eight-hour workday in Germany? Or that Bosch managers had languished in concentration camps for their role in a coup attempt against Hitler and that one was severely tortured? Or that Carl Goerdeler had actually been on the company’s payroll? Goerdeler, was the leading plotter who would have become chancellor of a post-Nazi Germany had he not been hanged for fighting “the criminal,” as Bosch called Hitler.

Most of the younger Bosch employees I spoke with in Charleston had only a vague knowledge of these facts. This part of the history of this huge privately owned corporation was not common currency in the United States, not discussed in the media and at universities. Equally little known was the significant detail that, up until America’s entry into the war, some Bosch subsidiaries in the United States had served as secret bases for the “other Germany” Goerdeler represented. And most employees didn’t realize that, in a unique situation, almost all of their corporation’s earnings go to a foundation supporting a hospital and scientific research, international scholarships and a host of programs to advance international understanding; this foundation holds 92 percent of the Bosch shares.

They were only vaguely aware that with their work they are helping a cause that was dear to Bosch’s heart after World War I – the reconciliation between Germany and France. The same goes for German-American relations, once so close but now often sadly strained, are a priority for the Robert Bosch Foundation, which holds 92 percent of shares in the company, whose global sales topped €47,3 billion ($68 billion) last year.

“Well, those who have been around for a long time had heard about this, as have our workers in Germany,” allowed Mark Widmann, a German executive who managed the production of diesel unit injectors in Charleston at the time of my visit. “But ever since Franz Fehrenbach became CEO of the Robert Bosch Group in Stuttgart in 2003, educating the staff in these matters has become company policy.”

According to Widmann, Fehrenbach corresponds directly with his workers around the world by e-mail to inform them about the corporation’s illustrious past and the special ethos resulting from it. It is a culture of civic responsibility, which Bosch himself had practiced throughout his life. In Charleston, it’s not just about protecting the environment and conserving energy but also doing volunteer work, such as cleaning up a dilapidated local school.

Providing a pleasant workplace for the employees is another mandate of Bosch culture. As we walked through the Charleston plant, communications officer David Brown said: “Have you noticed how pleasantly cool it is in here? And yet, this hall is full of furnaces with 1,000-degree temperatures.”

The Bosch ethos goes beyond good working conditions. It includes forward-looking programs such as German-style apprenticeships, which involve an American college education for American employees paid for by the company. In addition, the Bosch way promotes the cosmopolitan worldview that was the mark of “the Founder,” Robert Bosch.

Bosch, the son of a well-to-do farmer and innkeeper, was a precision mechanic. He traveled to the United States in 1884, eager to learn all about America’s democracy. While there, he worked for Thomas Edison, a man he later depicted as “the quintessential and best kind of American.” Bosch returned to Europe convinced of the truth of the adage, “wars don’t pay,” and proceeded to work for peace.

This cosmopolitan outlook has since filtered down to every level of the Bosch workforce all over the world. Blue-collar and white-collar workers alike are regularly sent abroad for stints at Bosch plants in different countries, according to Chandra Lewis, corporate communications director at Bosch’s U.S. headquarters in Farmington Hills, Michigan.

“Executives will only be promoted to the next higher level if they are willing to serve several years oversees,” explained Wolfgang Utner, director of engineering and manufacturing operations at the Charleston plant when I was there. Like Widmann, he had previously worked in Stuttgart, Bosch GmbH’s birthplace and company home.

For decades, the Bosch leadership had been strangely reticent about its distinctive culture and history, especially its daring anti-Nazi activities before and during the last world war. Why is it that the world knows all about Oskar Schindler, the German industrialist who saved 1,100 Jews from the Holocaust – but next to nothing about Bosch’s wide-reaching variety of resistance?

“Perhaps this is due to a Swabian virtue – ‘Bescheidenheit’ (modesty),” said Widmann. Bosch was a Swabian; he hailed from the former German kingdom of Württemberg whose people are renowned for their reserve. But his is a story worth telling – the story of a successful craftsman who since the end of World War I labored with Count Richard Coudenove-Calergi (1894-1972), a former Austrian diplomat, to forge a united Europe, a dream that would not be realized until another global conflict had ravaged the Old World.

It is, too, the story of a liberal who was active in an association to fend off anti-Semitism well before Hitler came to power in 1933. It is about a quiet, behind-the-scenes operator who pumped millions into schemes to protect Jews, or smuggle them out of Germany, until the very eve of World War II, and who provided work for the disenfranchised Jews who could no longer make a living anywhere else in the country.

Bosch was an agnostic who funneled large sums of money to the Lutheran Church of Württemberg led by Bishop Theophil Wurm, a leader in the anti-Nazi Confessing Church movement. And it is an astonishing tale about the Byzantine ways in which this new denomination served as a cover for the transfer of Bosch funds to Jews.

Bosch was remarkable for his philanthropy, for example, in 1910, he gave one million gold marks – a huge sum in those days – to the Technical University of Stuttgart, and in World War II managed to found a large homeopathic hospital. However, Bosch’s story is one with many curious quirks that sometimes might seem hard to fathom for contemporary readers:

On the one hand, Bosch resisted Hitler. On the other hand, Bosch factories produced military hardware for the Wehr­macht, Germany’s military. Moreover, the company employed prisoners of war provided by the regime to take the place of workers serving at the front. And what are we to make of the fact that the Bosch management’s conspiratorial endeavors on behalf of the Jews and the German resistance would have been impossible had they not enjoyed the protection of Gottlob Berger, an enigmatic general in the Waffen SS?

According to Bosch’s biographer, Joachim Scholtyseck, this top-ranking Nazi probably even knew the true reasons why Bosch had employed Goerdeler, the former mayor of Leipzig, in 1937. Goerdeler had been a foe of the regime since 1933 and resigned from his post when local Nazis blew up a monument to Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, a Protestant composer of Jewish descent. Hitler had personally blocked his employment by other corporations, yet Bosch took him on – ostensibly as economic adviser, but in truth with the explicit task to warn world leaders of Hitler’s intentions.

“Hitler is no bulwark against Bolshevism,” was Goerdeler’s message to his Anglo-Saxon interlocutors. Rather, Goerdeler explained, Hitler too was a kind of a Bolshevik who “will first destroy Judaism, then Christianity and ultimately capitalism.” Goerdeler urged American, British, French and other leaders to stand up to the tyrant. Only then, he claimed, would the anti-Nazi faction of the Wehrmacht’s leadership rise against Hitler, arrest him and have him tried for treason. Sadly, Goerdeler was ignored.

Two years after Bosch’s death, the coup d’état of July 20, 1944 – one of the around 40 assassination attempts against Hitler – failed. Among those who were arrested were Goerdeler and some of Bosch’s top executives. Goerdeler ended at the gallows, the others in concentration camps.

Remarkably, Robert Bosch’s CEO and successor Hans Walz was not discovered, even though it was the passionate Christian who had engineered most of Bosch’s resistance operations – ranging from the protection of Jews to secret meetings secretly with Allied diplomats in Switzerland. It was Walz who and funded his church’s activities against the régime, and and who was Carl Goerdeler’s principal associate in corporate headquarters.

While the Gestapo did not nab him, the U.S. military did. Though aware of Walz’ wartime activities, the U.S. occupation forces interned him for two years for the “offense” of having headed a major German corporation. Theodor Heuss, the future West German President, denounced this as “alberner Schematismus,” a ridiculous display of a schematic mindset.

In the immediate postwar days, the mere mention of the German resistance was forbidden. On Nov. 8, 1948, Volkmar von Zühls­dorff, an anti-Nazi émigré who had returned to his homeland from exile in New York, wrote to his friend and fellow émigré Hermann Broch, an Austrian Jewish writer:

“You ask me why, in Germany, nothing is written or said about the heroes of the resistance? … Recently I spoke about this with … (Robert) Lochner who heads Radio Frankfurt [as Chief Control Officer on behalf of the U.S. military] … There exists an ordinance that July 20 [the day German Wehrmacht colonel Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg tried to kill Hitler] must not be mentioned, and this ordinance is still in force. Why? Because all Germans are Nazis, and if one mentions July 20, people might get the idea that there were a few who were not Nazis, and that is not permissible.”

Walz went quietly back to work, rebuilding Bosch’s empire. But some of the Jews he had rescued and who now lived in America had not forgotten. At their initiative, the Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority in Israel recognized that at the risk of his own life, Walz had saved Jews. It declared him a “righteous among the peoples.”

In 1969, a tree was planted in Walz’ honor at the Holocaust Memorial at Yad Vashem. Today, the Robert Bosch Group is bigger than ever, with 300,000 employees and 320 plants and outlets in 140 countries producing automotive parts, power tools, security systems and, in a joint venture with Siemens, some of the world’s leading home appliances.

Uwe Siemon-Netto, the former religious affairs editor of United Press International, has been an international journalist for 55 years, covering North America, Vietnam, the Middle East and Europe for German publications. Dr. Siemon-Netto currently directs the League of Faithful Masks and Center for Lutheran Theology and Public Life in Irvine, California.


  1. Thank you for sharing this. We just bought a Bosch oven and I went online to learn more about the company although I had always heard good things. This is a wonderfully fascinating story about the founder. So many companies these days do not reflect the values of their founders. I'm glad this one does.

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