Like any nation with a millennium old recorded history, Germany swims in a sea of memes about what it means to be German. Memes of course are not permanent fixtures in the landscapes of historical narrative. They are still very powerful and are hard to change. So it might surprise you to know that the deeply felt notion that German engineering is the best in the world was not always true. In fact, prior to the turn of the twentieth century, German manufacturing was thought to be insubstantial, cheap, tasteless and just barely up to the task. A design consortium in Germany called the Wedkund became a lobby group and appealed to the Weimar government for help in the operose task of retooling German’s horrid image in design. The appeal worked like magic and standards of measurement were adopted across industries. The German government was prescient enough to do something that would help German business in the long term. Hitler, himself an artist and art lover, loved the field of design. During the worst parts of the depression after World War I, in the detritus of 25% unemployment and national humiliation, Hitler felt that German design was the only shred of dignity Germany had left. Over a period about 20 years, stairs, ball bearings, windows, train gauges, all of these things that everyday people touched were made standard and made intelligently and few hardly even knew it. From the moment he took power in 1933 forward, design would be at the forefront in the creation of a new Germania’s armamentarium. In fact, design all over the world became a weapon in and of itself. Each member nation created its own statement about the country and cultures it fought for.
That they succeeded is old history. German engineering from the Volkswagen to the Swastika to the Panzer tank carried more than just functionality. It conveyed a statement. This is an important thing to remember. Go to the corner grocery store wherever you are and buy a diet soda. You may notice that lots of plastic bottle diet sodas are thinner and taller than the sugared versions. When you see Coca Cola images around Christmas, they adhere to a set of parameters very well prescribed: the image must be upbeat, sweet, happy, and it has to be friendly in any venue. The art has to be exquisite. You see, we are talking about branding, pure and simple. The way a weapon looks, it’s color, it’s heft, all these characteristics are taken into account because they express some emotion about the country these weapons are used in. So design can be integrated into war materials to make whatever statement the warring side wish to make.
It took the equivalent of a Madison Avenue genius to figure out that the Junkers 87 Dive Bombers should turn on sirens when they made their runs just to instill terror on the targets. Showmanship was also a way to brand. Moved by the pageantry of the Church he attended as a youth, Hitler approved of the presentation craft and beautifully art directed Nazi flags and formations in the capital. Held at night accompanied by beautiful and exhilarating music, the darkness light by hand held torches; the Nazi party event planners were indeed masters of political theater and stage design.
Hitler engaged Hugo Boss, a pro Nazi Italian clothier to help design the SS uniforms, the tanker’s uniform and the Luftwaffe uniforms. German political posters engaged the most fantastic graphic designers it could find to craft pro Hitler messages.
In the years when Hitler grew into an absolute monarch, appearances meant more than ever. AEG is one of the first German companies to undergo a complete graphic design redo; a rebranding effort as it were. At the same time, Ferdinand Porsche created the Volkswagen, or the people’s car. People trusted the workmanship of the car, the fact that for a reasonable amount of money one could own a car that would drive anywhere in Europe. In between 1936 and 1966, one million VWs were made. By 1975 there were 20 million, making it the most successful car in world history. It even had a tagline that in retrospect seems like a Mel Brooks parody of Nazi propaganda: Strength Through Joy. This car was a perfect example of the politicization of the car as a symbol. Hitler said he brought Germany the VW, so Germans should vote for him. So ideology was integrated into the design of the VW. Before long, the Nazis learned that weapons quality was a design feature that overawed Germany’s enemies.
Panzer Mark VI Tiger Tank
Once Hitler began invading his neighbors, it required less than a year for the Wehrmacht to make it all the way to the beaches of France. That awoke Great Britain in 1940 up to the fact that they desperately needed some great designs and they needed them fast. For example, England needed machine guns for tens of thousands of people. Each gun had to be light, easy to operate and use a caliber that is easily available. Since higher grade materials went to create bigger and better weapons, only simple manufacturing materials would be available. Reginald Shepherd and Harold Turpin designed Britain’s first submachine gun. It was a simple stamped metal tube, spring loaded, gas operated and easy to use: The Mk. 1 Sten Gun. It used off the shelf industrial materials, nothing forged or machined. Just punched and stamped metal. It had no wood on it since wood was in short supply. After Dunkirk, the gun went into a brutally efficient mass production that awarded functionality and speed of manufacture over perfect tolerances and beauty. The next people who saw the gun were the manufacturers of toys: the Lines Brothers. They made marked improvements and showed the improvement to the British Ministry of Defense. They reduced the number of moving parts from 69 to 48 and right there on the spot they earned an order for 500,000 of them. It represented the sensibilities of a country and culture that needed something that was good enough. For example the feeding spring used in the Mk 3 Sten gun was the same spring one could find in almost any mattress. So in a war torn country, if you needed a new spring, you could probably find it in a home, or in a store or in the street.
That said, the gun jammed and failed to operate frequently.
Mk 3 Sten Gun
Some say design is the opposite of art. Design offers constraints and cost and ticking clocks. Art has none of that. Design has to consider the people using an object. Art cares nothing for the person’s needs, only the perceptions.
The Mosquito bomber was a masterpiece of British design. Made of plywood, it had a natural lightness and with powerful twin engines, the Mosquito was a super fast, amazing bomber/reconnaissance aircraft. It flew over 400 mph, and carried mostly only bombs and few external weapons, relying on its speed to save it. It could carry almost the entire payload of a B-17 and had a loss rate a fraction of the Flying Fortress.
On both sides, graphic designers made political posters that were used as direct communications with the people. Grow your own food. Report things that look suspicious. Keep calm and carry on. Soon a new graphic expression of a new muscular and determined United Kingdom emerged.
The Panzer Mk. VI Tiger One is a machine that performed excellently on the battlefield but portended poorly for the Germans in the larger context of the war. Today, the United States military has the same design ethic as the German tank designers of World War II. There is a tendency for perfection over practicality. Forget a plane that can be built in large numbers. We build 187 F-22s that are so complicated and so fraught with technical problems that the plane is hardly worth the effort. In the 1940s, the most engineered, most advanced, the newest thinking only, would be included in all the tanks Germany put on the battlefield. This of course prorogued the tank development and even pushed back the attack on Moscow. So it took the Germans months to finish a Tiger tank. In that time the Americans could make an inferior tank, the M4 Sherman, by the thousands. The Russians could produce a T-34, a very robust tank in a few days as well. Of course the Tiger had cross-country suspension and power steering, adjustable seats and even an illustrated owners manual. The T-34 had none of that. Neither did the M4. Although by the end of World War II we had produced 39,000 of them and the Germans only put out 1,287 Tigers. Eventually the reduced manufacturing ability of the Germans made it impossible to replace the tanks as fast they could be destroyed. In places like Kursk and Normandy, numbers mattered. The M4s and the T-34s may not have been as lethal as the Panzers, but they could not be stopped from advancing partially die to their numbers. As Josef Stalin said: “Quantity is a quality all its own.”
The Allies learned these lessons in ways the Nazis never did. When U-boats patrolling the North Atlantic sent untold tons of shipping beneath waves, an American manufacturer designed a transport ship that could be made in less than a week. 7000 Liberty ships were made by the end of the war. Ford built a B-24 Liberator, one completed bomber per hour by the end of the war. In fact Detroit became the arsenal for democracy even though Ford was a Nazi aficionado and a hero in the capital of Germany.
Complex designs require complex support systems. German tanks broke down often enough that field crews had to improvise fixing them. The Brits coined the term “Gerry-rigged”. Eventually the cost of empire, the results of bad design, cost Germany the war. Remember bad design in a war might just mean too expensive. The subject matter deserves more space and I will indeed talk more about this in upcoming posts.
Source: BBC, Military Channel, Wiki