Happy May Day!
Co-written by Ian Ference and Stacey Doyle Ference
The history of textile industry and its treatment of its workers is a long and brutal one, and a more than appropriate subject on International Workers’ Day. The laborers pictured on these cards certainly appear to be a hard-working group, and up close one can’t help but see these people as they were: people, just trying to live a normal life, just trying to get by. It is the factory owner that stays in the books, and the people that remain nameless and lost to history, though they are the ones that built this country (and one can’t help but see a connection between them and the essential workers of today, the nameless people that keep us all living). But when one digs further into the history of the company featured today, the Berkshire Knitting Mills, one comes away with even more respect for the worker and distaste for the factory owner. Let’s examine.
Foundations: Thun, Janssen, and Oberlaender 1892-1926
The Berkshire Knitting Mills factory was founded by two German-born American industrialists, Ferdinand Thun and Henry Janssen. Born six days apart in February 1866 in Barmen, Germany, they would not meet until both had settled in the New World. They worked their way into the post-Civil War textile industry boon, founding Textile Machine Works in 1892 in Reading, PA. In 1896 the plant was moved to the company town of Wyomissing, PA. They continued to expand, founding the Berkshire Mills with Thun as its head and taking control of the Narrow Fabric Company, securing Wyomissing’s place as a textile powerhouse.
Gustav Oberlaender, a German-born American industrialist, came into the picture in April of 1905 when he reached out to his friend Thun for a job. He had already made a fortune in America and, growing tired of his current industry of liquor, he had decided to go with a change of product. He was disappointed with the offer of $25 a week but joined on anyway, performing a variety of jobs before becoming general manager and earning a spot at the table at Thun and Janssen’s weekly planning meetings. He stayed in this position until 1926 when, citing health reasons, he sold his shares in the company to his partners and fully invested himself in his philanthropic efforts. This was not an entirely positive move.
Oberlaender had aligned himself with the Carl Schurz Memorial Foundation (CSMF), an organization that soon became known for its Nazi sympathies, and under this he established the Oberlaender Trust, whose stated objective was a “better understanding of the German-speaking peoples by the American people, and vice versa.” The fellowship board awarded grants to “American citizens who are actively engaged in work that concerns the public welfare … and who will profit by a period of study in a German-speaking country.” While this seems apolitical one has to wonder about the intentions given the tenor of the times. For example, under the trust, American city employees were sent to Nazi Germany in order to study governing and planning (and a connection can be made between their love of German efficiency and how these three ran their plant). The list of scholars that benefited from the trust ultimately was a long and varied one.
Berkshire Knitting Mills 1924 Plates 1-12
Oberlander and W.E.B. DuBois
One wonders what Oberlaender thought of the fact that one of his Fellows was W.E.B. Du Bois, who used his acceptance to partly fund a trip through Germany and Asia after the publication of his groundbreaking work Black Reconstruction in America. (Du Bois, who had studied in Berlin before, apparently found Nazi Germany personally welcoming to him but was quick to condemn its policies).
This Nazi connection was not limited to Oberlaender’s connection to the CSMF (and it should be noted that that connection was even stronger than the Trust, as Thun was for a time honorary president of the CSMF). The three had weathered the anti-German sentiment of the First World War, supplying the U.S. military with machine parts for munitions production while at the same time donating to German charities, a practice that continued after the war. The stop of German imports greatly increased the profits of domestic manufacturers, helped by the booming wartime economy.
Our three industrialists benefited from all of this, their pro-German sentiments not as overt as some of their contemporaries — and not as strong as they would be once Hitler took control of Germany in 1933. They were not alone; all across the globe, nations or their wealthier citizens of Germanic heritage helped mitigate the Treaty of Versailles by helping their Fatherland however they could.
Proto-Nazis at work in America
There was nothing particularly odd about these three industrialists helping out their Fatherland. Indeed, until some of the less savory elements of Nazism were revealed to the world – remember that the concentration camps were largely unknown “outside of a small circle of friends” until the Soviet troops liberated Majdenek and the British, Bergen/Belsen. Hitler’s rhetoric regarding Jewish Europeans was often just swept aside as bluster until the evidence poured forth. Nevertheless, public condemnations of the Nazis’ attitude toward the Jews (hiding private support for the NDSAP) continued until after the Second World War.
Oberlaender, Thun, and Janssen, while not outright members of the Nazi Party, could certainly be seen as supporters. They were all in Germany during the “Night of the Long Knives” in early July 1934 and Thun and Janssen even met with Hitler in person that month. Oberlaender regularly met with both Goebbels and Hitler. Their concerns were business-related, focusing on the strengthening of German-American relations, and they conveniently over-looked or brushed off any of the horrors of the Reich. They made comments against Hitler’s treatment of the Jews but these appear in passing, and usually made alongside praise for the government. Like many conservative Germans of the era, they seemed eager to overlook such atrocities as long as it did not personally hurt them.
They certainly approved of how Hitler handled the labor movement. In September of 1934 Janssen was even quoted in the Reading Eagle as saying “When radicals try to start trouble of that sort [in Germany] the government gets them right away and they are soon taken care of.” Janssen and the others were called Nazis explicitly by The Daily Worker during the 1936-1937 strike, and while this Communist-leaning paper cannot be seen as an objective source, the three certainly did nothing to dismiss this opinion. To them, Hitler’s Germany was a well-oiled machine where labor unions offered no trouble to capitalists and if the price to pay for that was the murder of millions, then so be it.
America Before Labor Unions
They brought this to bear on the aforementioned violent thirteen month strike of 1936-1937 and their various comments expressing poor opinion of the textile strike movement of the 1920s-1930s (in speaking with the Reading Eagle, Oberlaender pointed out that “there has been less disorder in Germany than in the United States, where strikes are progressing everywhere”). There were rumors that they were producing propaganda, though there is no proof of anything that overt. Indeed, they seem to be simply one of history’s biggest dangers: the uncaring man.
The criticism they received at the time was minimal, mostly limited to Jewish and Worker’s Rights groups, but this was all before the United States had entered World War II. Such statements were sadly not uncommon and not often commented on; patriotism was not yet tied to anti-Nazism. Oberlaender suffered a heart attack in November of 1936. He recovered, only to suffer a second, fatal attack some weeks later (he was described as “a close friend” of Hitler’s in his obituary). Had he lived to see the US entry into the war it is possible that he would have walked back some of his connections to the Reich. In the space he left it would be the the Trust that he founded that would take the bulk of the criticism. In early 1940 Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes investigated some of the CSMF, including Janssen and the late Oberlaender, for pro-Nazi sympathies. Their favorable statements regarding Hitler, all made in the city newspaper, were probed. Ultimately it was decided that the foundation was “muddled rather than subversive,” but they were essentially forced to publicly disavow Nazisim, which they finally did in September 1940. At any rate, by this time cultural exchanges had ended and the trust had shifted its focus to funding refugee scholars from the Reich, establishing them in America. The trust, which was only deigned to exist for twenty-five years, eventually ran through all its funds and faded into history. Janssen and Thun died in 1948 and 1949, not living long after the failure of the Reich and therefore not having long to answer for their politics.
Berkshire Knitting Mills 1924 Plates 13-24
During the 1920s Wyomissing was a well-run company town, with periodic raises for the employees. This state did not last through the Great Depression. In 1933 workers went on strike at Berkshire Mills for the very first time as part of a broader textile strike. This was only ended when the newly founded National Labor board of the National Recovery Administration (NRA) took on the strike as its first case. The workers won the right to elect their own representatives. This peace was short lived, as the new arrangement failed miserably. The workers accused the owners of inviting them only to shame meetings and companies, including Berkshire Mills, of creating company unions in order to undercut the other representatives.
This unrest ended in the violent, and unsuccessful, 1936-1937 strike (in an example of the violence, an issue of The Daily Worker, dated October 2, 1936, lists 30 injured strikers that day as strikebreakers and police attacked the protestors). The main goal of the workers was to be able to join the national union. They failed, but put Berkshire Mills in the spotlight and the government eventually had to compensate the strikers. This event, while well-documented by the workers’ literature of the time, has largely faded from the American consciousness despite the narrative of “American workers vs. Nazi-sympathetic bosses.”
Berkshire Knitting Mills 1924
This set was commissioned in 1924, during happier times for the company. The photographer, Alfred Krauth, was German-born and the set was published in Weimar Germany. Nothing is known of Kauth’s personal politics, though he did produce a set of photographs of Nazi medals and memorials. The photographs show the crisp, almost German-like efficiency under which the plant operated. It does seem effective, and during the time pictured it appears to be a rather successful knitting mill.
Regardless of Krauth’s personal politics, it cannot be argued that these stereoviews (taken shortly after the Beer Hall Putsch got Hitler tossed in prison, where he would write Mein Kampf) are anything less than excellent. Krauth realized the challenges that a large, likely somewhat messy mill complex posed. Often using hyperstereo in order to highlight the workers’ relation to space, these come off as masterful when placed against (for example) the Sears and Roebuck litho set that almost every stereography collector has on his or her shelves.
Looking through this boxed set 96 years later through Krauth’s eyes is a treat, and that’s about fifty percent due to his ability to work with both people and spaces, and about fifty percent the staggering amount of control he had over his process – from lighting to printing. By sending the specifications for the volume off to Weimar Germany, one would expect that Krauth likely had an affinity for his Fatherland, but again, little enough is known about him, and this could have been done at the behest of the owners, trying to restore a little money to their country that was so “unfairly” treated by the Treaty of Versailles. One thing is certain: three years after these stereoviews were taken, Krauth permanently relocated to his native Germany. Twelve years later, Germany would invade Poland and start the Second World War.
3 Replies to “May Day 2020: Berkshire Knitting Mills 1924: The Nazis of Reading, PA, in 3D”
Those are great photos of the mill. So well done! And the research behind the mill owners is also interesting and impressive. Carl Schurz, namesake of the foundation was an interesting man- and nothing like a totalitarian. He participated in the liberal German revolution of 1848, came to the US, became a Republican and was a General in the Civil War. A stain on his reputation was his opposing President Grants use of force to break up the KKK, but on the other side, he oppossed anti-Semitic practices in the German states. At any rate, he probably would have been horrified that a charity named for him would have been cosy with the Nazis.
I frequently heard from relatives who worked at Berkshire Knitting Mills that part of each pay was deducted as a donation towards the German war effort. Have you knowledge of this? Also, I believe, but can’t be sure if it was Walter Winchell who said something to the effect of, “If the Nazi’s ever attacked the safest place in the USA is Reading, Pa. and the Berkshire Knitting Mills.” Any knowledge of this? Please help.