09 October 2014

Design and War

Text: Stephan Ott

Design is involved. Weapons, propaganda, logistics – war drafts are also always design drafts or as the American designer George Nelson once formulated it: “How to kill people – a problem of design.”1 However, design does not stand alone with this “problem”; but instead shares it with other (creative) disciplines such as architecture, historiography, business or politics.


When it recently became known that Dirk Niebel – former German Federal Minister for Economic Cooperation and Development – will become the head lobbyist for Rheinmetall, one of the largest German armaments companies, as of January 1, 2015 there was more than a little indignation among political opponents and in the media (“It Stinks”).2 Yet from the point of view of Rheinmetall the commitment makes perfect sense because Niebel is optimally qualified for the task. As a former member of the German Federal Security Council he has thoroughgoing knowledge about the procedures involved in German weapons exports on the one hand and, as a result of his activities while in office, he has good contacts to prospective Rheinmetall customers on the other. This may sound cynical to the uninitiated, but such an approach is steeped in tradition – which does not make it any less cynical, but only once again demonstrates how stable the power structures are in the industry, in spite of all moral indignation, ethical doubts, lost wars and the strict conditions prescribed by an international community of states.

For example, as the production of arms in Germany in the 1920s became subject to stringent conditions as a result of the Treaty of Versailles, this was circumvented by Rheinmetall through the establishment of subsidiary companies abroad. For the development and production of small arms – among other things, the S1-100 machine gun, which under the designation of MP 34 later became one of the small arms most frequently used by the German armed forces and the Armed-SS (design: Louis Stange)3,4 – Rheinmetall first acquired the Swiss arms factory Solothurn in 1929 and a short time later took over the majority in the Austrian factory Steyr-Werken and then founded the arms factory Steyr-Solothurn Waffen AG in 1934. While the arms factory Solothurn was liquidated in 1949, Steyr Mannlicher GmbH continues to produce – in addition to hunting and sporting guns – small military arms such as the Steyr AUG (universal army rifle) which, among other things, are also sold with sights from Swarovski Optics to this very day.

Another creative construct was Verwertungsgesellschaft für Montanindustrie GmbH (Montan GmbH), a virtually operating company that was controlled by the German office for army weapon (HWA) as of 1934 and which acted as a private fiduciary for the army’s own arms factories with the singular aim of masking government involvement in the German arms industry; a procedure that caught on under the buzzword “Montan model.” In the year 1951 the meanwhile government-owned Montan GmbH was renamed to the likewise government-owned Industrieverwaltungsgesellschaft mbH (IVG). Its direct successor is in turn today’s wholly privatized IVG Immobilien AG, one of the largest German property developers (the market value of its own real estate holdings amounts to EUR 3.6 billion) and a developer and operator of underground deposits (caverns) for gas and oil – among other things “for the storage of strategic oil reserves of various Western European countries” – and with the “IVG Caverns Fund” operator of the largest infrastructure fund in Germany (investment volume EUR 1.7 billion). There are some who may refer to such an enterprise as a wartime profiteer.5





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