The Aviation Industry and German Society

The expansion of the German aviation industry did not take place in an empty space. It took place within a society under a new political system and at times of important social and economic changes. It is important to describe here the prewar social character of the aviation industry in the Nazi era in order to understand the deep changes it went through during the war, and especially in its later phases. As a rather new industry, which boomed in a matter of a few years, the aviation industry influenced German society in several respects. Generally, it started expanding into areas stricken by unemployment and suffering from a relatively low standard of living during the economical crisis of the Weimar Republic. The process of growth brought immediate economic, demographical and social changes to the communities around the factories. Furthermore, this industry quickly developed a unique self-consciousness. It viewed itself as an elite industrial sector, producing cutting-edge modern machines. As such, it can be viewed as equivalent to today’s high-tech industries, and as many firms of this branch do, the aviation industry also sought to implement new ideas concerning working environment, standard of living, special benefits, employeremployee relations and workplace design. Immediately before the outbreak of World War II there were 27 aircraft factories and 16 aero-engine factories in Germany. Most of these factories were located in the proximity of cities and within their public transportation network.30 Originally the main factories were located in specific cities. Messerschmitt’s main plants were located in Bavaria, in Augsburg and Regensburg; FockeWulf’s center was in Bremen; Junkers’ in Dessau, Fieseler’s in Kassel and Heinkel’s in Rostock. The expansion of the aviation industry meant that in a matter of several years aviation firms became leading employers in these cities. From an insignificant total of 3,988 workers in January 1933, the number of people employed in the aircraft and aero-engine industry jumped to 293,000 by October 1938.31 Some firms expanded rapidly from humble workshops or small design bureaus into industrial giants. Messerschmitt AG in Regensburg had in 1937 only 530 employees on its payroll. Two years later and after winning a contract to produce the Luftwaffe’s new single-engine fighter, the firm employed 4,580 workers. In 1944 Messerschmitt’s Regensburg complex alone employed 14,508 wage earners and salaried employees.32 Erla, a minor engineering firm in Leipzig, had in 1934 exactly 111 workers on its payroll. One year later, after the company entered the aviation business, this number increased to 698. By 1939 Erla employed 5,821 workers in its two factories in Leipzig, producing the Me 109 fighter under license. This expansion continued during the war and by 1943 the firm employed a total of 24,991 men and women; 8,959 of them were Germans, and the rest were foreigners, POWs and concentration camp inmates.