Hermann Röchling (1872–1955)
Hermann Röchling was a German steel manufacturer who, over decades, polarized the German-French relations and continued to be a controversial figure beyond death. He is born on 12 November 1872 in Saarbrücken, being the eleventh child in a row of 14 children. In 1881 his father bought a disused ironworks in neighboring Völklingen that became the core of one of Europe’s highest earning industrial companies.
Since 1898 Hermann takes the role of a managing director of the Völklingen Ironworks, together with his brother Louis. He introduces a number of technical innovations, including a benzene factory built in 1907 that processed the by-products of the company’s coking plant for the chemical industry. Despite his father’s protests, he encourages the technical development of a smelting furnace for electric steel in 1908. The “dry” purification of blast furnace gas by means of cotton filters implemented in 1911 is another groundbreaking technological innovation, followed in 1917 by an elevated water tank that globally ranks as one of the most advanced concrete constructions in those days.
Regarding the company’s welfare schemes like hospital services, kindergarten and a home for the elderly and disabled he particularly focuses on social housing. Thus, he personally presides over the “Worker’s Building Cooperative” and pushes ahead the construction of dwellings for the workforce. Like his father, he trades successfully with neighboring France and, at the same time, raises his profile as a fierce advocate of German national interests. During World War I he provides the electric steel for the first German steel helmet and produces shells made from scrapped industrial plants in the occupied parts of France. In 1933 he starts to politically press for the Saar region to be released from French administration and reintegrated in the German Reich. He joins the Nazi party NSDAP in 1935, writes a memorandum under the heading "Thoughts on the Preparation for the War and Its Implementation", is one of 15 German "Wehrwirtschaftsführer" (heads of war economy) and becomes part of the top-level management of the German arms industry by his appointment as chairman of the Reich Iron Association (RVE). For the production of gun barrels and steel sheets for planes in his own plants he uses forced labourers on a massive scale, employing thousands of civilians deported from Russia and Ukraine as well as French, Italian and Soviet prisoners of war. Whoever violates the strict rules of his rigid ‘work discipline’ is transferred to a prison camp run by the company itself.
Two times, 1919 and 1949, France takes the initiative to have him sentenced to ten years imprisonment as a war criminal. In 1951 he is prematurely released on the condition that he never sets foot in the Saar region again. The following dispute between France and the Röchling family who both claim ownership rights in respect of the Völklingen Ironworks nearly threatens the ratification of the Paris Agreements which finally bring an end to the military occupation of West Germany in 1955. In the same year, on 24 August, Hermann Röchling dies in Mannheim at the age of 82.