Life, ‘Technics’, and the Decline of the West

by Ian James Kidd

Oswald Spengler is best known as the author of Der Untergang des Abendlandes, ‘The Decline of the West’, a classic doomsday vision, first published in 1917. Describing the inevitable slide into intellectual, social, and cultural decay of our ‘Faustian’ culture, it was followed, two years later, by Preussentum und Sozialismus, which called for martial virtues, like discipline and self-sacrifice, as the best, most heroic responses to the doom awaiting us. Both the dark vision of history and life and the celebration of martial heroism persisted into Spengler’s next book, Der Mensch und die Technik, first published in 1932 and reissued, last year, by Routledge as part of their ‘Revivals’ series.

Oswald Spengler (Source: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-R06610 / CC-BY-SA 3.0)

Unfortunately, this new edition is a flat reprint, lacking an introduction, therefore leaving readers in the dark about how the book fits within Spengler’s oeuvre. That’s to be regretted, since in certain respects, Man and Technics, its English title, represents a change of mood for Spengler. Its subtitle – ‘a contribution to a philosophy of life’ – strikes an oddly positive tone, where the ‘life’ spoken of is the raw, almost primal thing spoken of by early twentieth century Lebensphilosophen, like Spengler’s French contemporary, Henri Bergson. Certainly Man and Technics has many things in common with Der Untergang – its brooding character, grand ambition, and agonistic vision of life. But there is also, underneath that, something different. To see what this is, though, a little context might help.

The historian Jeffrey Herf classified Spengler as a ‘reactionary modernist’, one of a loose group of German historians, philosophers, cultural critics, and others, that included Carl Schmitt, Ernst Jünger, and others. The reactionary modernists aimed, says Herf, to ‘reconcil[e] the antimodernist, romantic, and irrationalist ideas present in German nationalism’, with the ‘most obvious manifestation of means-end rationality’, namely, technology. An older cultural spirit filled with Geist, völkisch identity, and Nietzschean will-to-power was merged, remarkably, with new industrial and military technology, fulfilling the idea of a reactionary modernism – an embrace of the modern, but reacting against what Spengler lambasted as the ‘devastating shallowness’ of its liberalism, utilitarianism, and materialism. Profit, utility, and other bourgeois values stifle the true ‘essence of technics’, complained Spengler, who inveigles against ‘progress-philistines’ who fail to perceive in machines a pulsing Will zur Macht.

Cover of Ernst Jünger’s Der Arbeiter. Herrschaft und Gestalt (1932)

Only when the depth of ‘technics’ is properly grasped can the ‘soul of man’ be set free. Such is the aim of a genuine ‘philosophy of life’, fuelled by a philosophy of technology and history, focused on the release of vast energies and power. Understandably, Spengler’s vision in Man and Technics was welcomed by the National Socialists, with Josef Goebbels’s proclaiming the inauguration of ‘an age that is both romantic and steellike’ – a vision of a reactionary modernist state. But Spengler, for his part, resisted their efforts, complaining, if obliquely, that their militaristic zeal was just as shallow as those of the bourgeoisie. ‘The essence of technics’, he wrote, is identical with ‘the soul of man’, not the ends of military ambition. Man and Technics is less a manifesto for a militarised technological state than ‘the history of Man from his origins’, that affords, at its most portentous, ‘a provisional glimpse’ into our ‘destiny’.

Talk of destiny is, of course, not new to Spengler. Decline of the West offered a ‘morphology of world-cultures’, a description of the cyclical processes that dictate the movement of a Kultur into the degenerate form Spengler called a Zivilisation. With a sweeping historical gaze, the waxing and waning of these ‘world-cultures’ is described, from the Classical culture of ancient Greece and Rome, through the ‘Hindu’, ‘Magian’, and, finally, the ‘Faustian’. In the beginning, these cultures are potent and energetic, generating original images and values that coalesce in a ‘Prime Symbol’, like the nude statue of Rome, a symbol of pride, power, and autonomy.

Such ‘cultural-forms’ (Gestalt) are, however, swept up in irresistible transhistorical forces, destined to gradually decline, losing the vitality and energy that sustained their rise. In time, they degenerate into civilizations, orderly and stable, lacking vigorous energy and so declining into defeat or extinction. It was, of course, Spengler’s explanation of the decline of German culture into Weimar civilization as a product of historical forces beyond knowledge or control that made Decline of the West so popular in its day. Scholars, of course, attacked Spengler’s procrustean historiography and his vast generalisations, but the German public was captivated. Socially depressed and politically exhausted as much of Germany was, it’s easy to see why Spengler’s appeal to ‘morphological’ forces was an attractive diagnosis of decline, even if it came at the cost of profound fatalism.

By the 1930s, though, the appeal of Spengler’s original pessimistic historical determinism was fading. Emboldened by the rise of National Socialism, the new mood was more optimistic. Germany’s political and economic fortunes were changing, pushing out talk of inevitable decline. Certainly it now came to seem premature for Spengler to speak of German decline, with so many signs of activity, life, and power. Similar sentiments flowed through writings by other reactionary modernists in the early 1930s, always with industrial technology as a proof and symbol of this restoration. Among the most important of these fellow-travellers was the war hero, writer, and rhapsodist of battle, Ernst Jünger.

A couple of years before Man and Technics, Jünger published two landmark works, a vivid essay, Die totale Mobilmachung (1930), and its longer companion, Der Arbeiter (1932). The titular concepts pull together in a vision of a ‘totally mobilised’ society, whose entire energies, resources, and people are concentrated into a singular goal, pursued by a vast collective of ‘Workers’. These are not muscular fellows labouring in overalls, but creatures, at once ‘bees and titans’, utterly dominated by an inexorable desire to ‘summon … all possible forces’, deploying them for the purposes of struggle, domination, and violence. Technology, on this vision, is an expression of this primeval impulse to ‘total mobilisation’, to generate and unleash a collectivised will-to-power upon the world.

Spengler, too, celebrates the violent, transformative character of ‘technics’. Man and Technics describes a restlessly stirring ‘will-to-power’ that ‘embraces the world’ in the ‘gigantic power of its technical processes’. Sleepless factories, roaring furnaces, tireless production lines – all of these show the on-going manifestation of ‘technics’, the dynamic, agonistic force that Spengler conceived as a metaphysical force. Channelling Nietzsche’s Der Wille Zur Macht, ‘technics’ is characterised as ‘immemorially old’, ‘immensely general’, underlying all of life and history.

Through much of our history, ‘technics’ was manifested mainly in natural forces and processes, but with the age of technology – of Jünger’s world of ‘totally mobilised’ Arbeiter – we enter a new stage in the history of our species. Indeed, ours is the final stage, the dramatic point of culmination. ‘The creature is rising up against its creator’, warns Spengler, since under loathsome bourgeois influence we are ‘becoming the slave of the Machine’. Seeking comfort, profit, and utility, we are being lulled to sleep, dominated by ‘technics’, surrendering our vital power and spirit. Man and Technics contributes to a ‘philosophy of life’, then, by awakening in us a sense of our ‘doom’.

It is at this point that Spengler combines his earlier historical determinism with the new sense of agency and power. Ultimately, we are ‘doomed’, he says, to live in a stage in the history of human cultures where the release of those underlying energies reaches its final stages. Mass mobilisation, mechanised warfare, and other dimensions of modern industrial and military existence force us into ‘a grim, pitiless, no-quarter battle of the Will-to-Power’, the ultimate expression of ‘technics’. Unlike every age before, the ‘active, fighting, charged’ nature of the ‘soul of man’ finds total expression – a vast outpouring of power, able, on the one hand, to display our potencies, but, on the other, to culminate in our destruction. The ‘curse and … grandeur’ of the modern age, declares Spengler, lies in our being witnesses to – and, indeed participants in – the historical moment of the total realisation of ‘technics’, when the ‘soul of man’ finds its fullest, most satisfying expression.

The cost, of course, is our destruction, eradicated in a titanic, global release of violent energies, insatiable strife, and vast chaos, that will leave our ‘Faustian civilization … in fragments, forgotten … in ruins, like old Memphis and Babylon’. For Spengler, however, this is no cause for despair, since it affords us something momentous, ‘the Choice of Achilles … a short life, full of deeds and glory, [or] a long life without content’. Although the bourgeoisie of Weimar Germany urge the latter, those who appreciate that the ‘essence of technics’ is identical with the ‘soul of man’ will see – acutely, keenly – that a short life, ‘active, fighting, and charged’ affords our only true satisfaction.

Man and Technics is full of these sorts of remarks, testaments to the evocative style and vision of its author. Spengler is, if nothing else, a fascinating read, captivating and frustrating in almost equal measure. Certainly no-one should read his works as historical analyses, much less as prognostications, even if his vision of the relentless extension of technology into all areas of life does ring true. There are many technophiles writing, during this period, among whom Spengler sits among the most dramatic. In a sense, the interest of his work lies in its emotional appeal, his capacity, in the words of one historian, to ‘bewitch’ you, the way he ‘compels you to forget that we know better’. Perhaps it’s best to explain Spengler’s appeal in terms of his capacity to dramatize an ideal, better than any other reactionary modernist. The ideal or vision is what Thomas Mann called a ‘technological romanticism’, infusing technology with ‘soul’, even with ‘Destiny’. If ‘technics’ goes deep, an embrace of it is a source of depth, a way to be, says Spengler, ‘in the silent service of Being’.

There’s a rich resonance, here, with deeper currents in German intellectual history. A full account of Spengler needs to include German Romanticism, Kant, Lebensphilosophie, Hegel’s vision of history, Nietzsche’s metaphysics of the will-to-power, the later Heidegger’s ‘history of Being’, among others. If locating Spengler among such philosophically illustrious company seems overgenerous, one should consider, to take one example, his influence on Heidegger’s later writings, themselves so important to modern cultural criticism and environmental thought. Man and Technics describes how ‘we think only in horsepower now’ – a waterfall appears as a source of electric power, a field of cattle is ‘a source of meat-supply’ – and we see the origins of the later Heidegger’s conception of ‘technology’, a ‘way of revealing’ things and the world in the narrow terms of human use. Both Spengler’s ‘technics’ and the later Heidegger’s ‘technology’ offer a vision of reality and human life – totalising, violent, dramatic. The difference is, however, that the former ends in our inevitable doom, whereas the latter offers the enigmatic prospect of a ‘saving power’, an eventual emergence into a post-technological world.

Spengler’s own life ended without the drama and vigour described in his books. His criticisms of Nazi ideology, such as its racist biology, made his final days uncomfortable. Declining invitations to honours, professorships, and invitations to address the Nazi elite, Spengler awkwardly played up to his lone prophet status. ‘I do my thinking independently of parties, tendencies, and interests’, he said, and for that reason ‘see more keenly’. Studying the morphology of world-history, then, meant staying away from local and particular manifestations of its deep rhythms and dynamics.

Fortunately for Spengler, the Nazis froze him out, leaving him to live out his days reflecting on his Cassandra status as an unheeded prophet. By 1936, his influence was almost nil, although interest in his work would sporadically recur, not least among scholars of Heidegger and Ludwig Wittgenstein, and other cultural pessimists. Certainly the existing scholarship on Spengler does not exhaust his interest or influence on twentieth-century history, politics, or philosophy—barely a handful of books exist, alongside a small scholarship.

It is to be hoped that the reissue of Man and Technics might encourage others to look again at Spengler, although this Routledge edition – a straight reissue of Charles Francis Atkinson’s 1932 translation, with no introduction or scholarly notes, priced at seventy pounds – is overpriced and underserved. The few who read it, though, may find something more interesting than they might expect from the brooding, pessimistic author of Decline of the West.

Oswald Spengler: Man and Technics. A Contribution to a Philosophy of Life
Translated by Charles Francis Atkinson
London: Routledge, 2016
ISBN 13-978-1-138-23180 (hbk)
104 pages, hardback, GBP 68.00

Ian James Kidd is an assistant professor of philosophy at the University of Nottingham, UK. He has research interests in the history of late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century Austro-German philosophy and co-edited Wittgenstein and Scientism (Routledge, 2017).

The Great Rubber Robbery: How Julius Fromm’s Condom Empire Fell to the Nazis

by Leon Rocha

JULIUS FROMM WAS BORN Israel Fromm on 4 March 1883 in Konin, what was then a small town in the Russian Empire and now part of Poland. Like many Jewish families in the region, the Fromms moved in 1893 to a rapidly expanding Berlin in search of a safer life and better opportunities for the children. They were culturally assimilated, and Israel Fromm adopted the name Julius. The Fromms made a living rolling cigarettes during the day, and selling them one by one in cafés at night. This was a line of work which lent itself to impoverished immigrants in Germany who often had little more than manual dexterity. The patriarch Bernhard Fromm died in 1898 at the age of forty-two and Regina died in 1911, leaving Julius and his elder brother Salomon the responsibility of raising the entire family. Julius Fromm, a “quintessential ‘entrepreneurial proletariat’”, and a modest man with minimal education, sought a career alternative to making cigarettes and began taking evening classes in rubber chemistry around 1912.

Julius Fromm then hit upon the idea of making condoms. The early condoms from the eighteenth century were generally made of animal intestines, and were used primarily by wealthy men – like Giacomo Casanova, who referred to them as “English riding coats” – to protect against the incurable syphilis. These condoms were difficult to use, diminished pleasure, frequently broke, and offered only limited protection against venereal diseases. In 1893 the American industrialist Charles Goodyear developed rubber vulcanisation. When the sap of the rubber tree is formed into rubber, then treated with sulphur and heated to high temperatures, it forms an elastic and durable material that can be used to make raincoats, shoes, tyres and condoms which rather looked like bicycle inner tubes with bulging seams. Later a dipping method was invented that made possible the production of thinner and seamless condoms. Julius Fromm saw a market he could tap into and founded his company in 1914, opening a small workshop in the Bötzow area in the Prenzlauer Berg district of Berlin. With World War I and the liberalisation of sexual values in the Weimar Republic, the demand for condoms exploded and Fromm’s business quickly expanded, and he established factories near the Spree River in Berlin-Mitte.

Fromm improved on the manufacturing technique. He used glass moulds, which were mounted on carrier frames and dipped into a vat of rubber solution liquefied with gasoline, benzene and tetrachloromethane. After two dippings, a thin rubber skin formed around the glass moulds and this was then vulcanised in special ovens with sulphur vapours. The condoms were dusted with a lubricant, rolled off the glass moulds and tested by inflation with compressed air, inverted and packaged. Fromms’ condoms were sturdy yet elastic, durable enough to be warehoused and transported for long distances. In fact this technical process of condom manufacturing has remained largely unchanged, with the exception of automation and the replacement of the benzene treatment with a latex process in the 1960s. Using a similar setup, Fromm also made surgical finger cots, rubber gloves, pacifiers and teats for baby bottles – another sound business move given the rising birth rate in Germany.

In 1916 Fromm decided on “Fromms Act” as his brand name. In adopting the English spelling of the word “Act” (Akt in German), Julius Fromm wanted to transmit a cosmopolitan image for his product. It was also a humorous name, as “Fromm” also meant “pious” in German, and at the same time somewhat risqué, as “Act” carried a sexual connotation. Fromms Act condoms came in instantly recognisable small cardboard boxes with green and purple stripes, and each box contained three condoms and was sold for seventy-two pfennigs. This was not inexpensive but Fromms Act was a high-quality and reliable product. It was even endorsed by famous sexologist and homosexual activist Magnus Hirschfeld, who founded the Institut für Sexualwissenschaft in Berlin in 1919. By the 1920s Julius Fromm was a very successful and wealthy man. He received a certificate of naturalisation in 1920 and acquired German citizenship. In 1926 Fromm moved his operation to Friedrichshagen in Eastern Berlin; in that year alone his factory produced 24 million condoms. In 1930 Fromm established another factory in Köpenick, an impressive and ultra-modern complex built by the famous architects Arthur Korn and Siegfried Weitzmann in the Neue Sachlichkeit style, complete with full-length glass façades and climate control systems. Annual production rose to 50 million condoms in 1931. Fromm had agencies in all parts of Germany and exports were handled by branches in the Netherlands, Britain, Switzerland, Austria, Hungary, Iceland and even as far as New Zealand. Fromms Act became the first global condom brand, older than the current bestselling brand around the world, Durex, which was established by London Rubber Company in 1929. Fromms was so popular that apparently German cabarettists and comedians name-checked the product in their routines, singing lines such as “Fromms zieht der Edelmann beim Mädel an”, “Wenn’s Euch packt, nehmt Fromms Act” and “Ich bin ganz Fromms – zum Platzen gespannt”.

ADOLF HITLER became Chancellor of Germany in 1933. Two managers of Fromms Act became members of the National Socialist Party, and a red swatiska flag and a photograph of the Führer were soon displayed in the cafeteria of Fromm’s factory. Julius Fromm began to emphasise the German nature of his products, in an attempt to ward off boycotts of his Jewish company. His naturalisation was reviewed by the Berlin police commissioner, though the plan to revoke his citizenship was abandoned a year later in 1934. Julius Fromm did remain optimistic about the future and did not feel that Hitler posed a real threat, but his company increasingly became a target of harassment. He therefore converted Fromms Act into a corporation and assumed the role of consultant, drawing profits from the business and retaining possession of the buildings and equipment. He also sent his children to safety in Britain and Switzerland. Fromm continued to promote his products and refined the manufacturing process. Collaborating with I.G. Farben, he developed a synthetic rubber and improved his condoms’ lubrication. However, by 1937 Fromm realised that Germany was no longer safe and decided to sell Fromms Act. In May 1938 the sales of Jewish property had to be approved by the Reich Economics Ministry, and Hitler’s economic advisers began to take serious interest in Fromm’s lucrative enterprise.

A buyer was brought in by the Ministry – Baroness Elisabeth von Epenstein, the godmother of Hitler’s right-hand man Hermann Göring. The offer was 200,000 Swiss francs; Nazi officials steamrolled the transaction. According to the official exchange rate, Epenstein’s offer was the equivalent of 116,000 Reichsmarks. Even though the offer was worth several times that amount because Swiss francs were valuable foreign currency, this was still a fraction of Fromms Act’s estimated market value of 5 million Reichsmarks. Julius Fromm’s life project was now Aryanised. Elisabeth von Epenstein also received a large piece of property in Gösing in lower Austria, belonging to another Jewish industrialist who was forced to sell all his assets at bargain basement prices before emigrating to the United States. In return, Elisabeth von Epenstein gave her godson Hermann Göring a mediaeval castle in Veldenstein near Nuremberg, and bequeathed to him the Mauterndorf castle in Lungau, Austria.

Julius Fromm and his wife Selma left Berlin in October 1939 for London, where his second son Herbert and his family were already living. The Fromms proved to the British Aliens Department that they were able to support themselves, and were granted visas from the Home Office. They stayed at first at Hotel Esplanade in Warrington Crescent, where Sigmund Freud also lived between August and September 1938. They later moved to an apartment in Regent’s Park. Julius Fromm’s siblings also tried to get out of Germany, though they initially found it difficult to leave behind what they had earned. Salomon and Alexander Fromm both owned successful optician’s shops, which were ransacked and demolished on Kristallnacht. Siegmund, Berhard, Else and her husband Willy Brandenburg sold Fromms Cosmetics to Fromms Act, now owned by Elisabeth von Epenstein, for a fraction of its market value. But Salomon Fromm’s wife Elvira and son Berthold, as well as Else and Willy Brandenburg, never made it out of Germany. Berthold was sent to Sachsenhausen concentration camp near Berlin, where he was shot, and Elvira Fromm and the Brandenburgs were murdered in Auschwitz. Most of the Fromm family members who made it to London were classified as unsuspicious enemy aliens, but with the rise of fear of Nazi spies and the “enemy from within” in Britain, some of the Fromms were detained in barracks and camps, and Salomon Fromm’s daughter Ruth ended up in Holloway Prison. Julius Fromm’s youngest son Edgar was deported to Australia in 1940, abroad the infamous HMT Dunera, and found his way back to London after nearly eighteen months of internment.

MEANWHILE IN GERMANY, property that belonged to the Fromms and other German Jews continued being expropriated by the Nazi state. In accordance with wartime international laws, Julius Fromm’s property was subject to enemy asset administration once the British declared war. In 1942 expelled German Jews were renaturalised as German citizens, in order to subject them once again to Reich laws and enabling the Nazi government to expropriate Jewish property.

Julius Fromm’s savings in various bank accounts were emptied out and “invested” in government bonds, and their safe deposit boxes were raided. Former business partners refused to pay their debts to “the Jew Fromm”. The Fromms’ villa in Berlin was transferred to the Reich and then given to “war hero” Colonel Wolf Hagemann. The furniture and other valuable items of the Fromm household were sold to high-ranking officers or auctioned off, nominally in the name of Julius Fromm. The revenue generated from these sales were then taxed away or siphoned off. In total, the German state’s profit from the Aryanisation of Fromm’s holdings was 2 million Reichsmarks, in today’s purchasing power an equivalent of 30 million euros.

Julius Fromm died on 12 May 1945 of a heart attack in his London home, four days after the Allies’ victory. His family recalled that he was overjoyed with the demise of the Nazis and in fact looked forward to returning to Germany. The Fromms factory in Köpenick – which was part of the Soviet occupied zone – was almost destroyed by air strikes, and the machinery that remained intact were shipped to the Soviet Union. The older plant in Friedrichshagen continued to supply Red Army soldiers with condoms. According to the Potsdam Agreement, the Fromms ought to have had their factories returned to them, but Communist officials in East Berlin prevented this and forcefully nationalised the company, arguing that Julius Fromm was a “Jewish proprietor, capitalist exploiter, anti-social, anti-labour and pro-Nazi”. Later, Fromms condoms were produced by the Volkseigener Betrieb Plastina in Erfurt, and the brand was renamed to Mondos, which became synonymous with condoms in the German Democratic Republic.

After Elisabeth von Epenstein’s death in September 1939, Fromms Act was passed onto her lover and financial consultant, the Viennesse businessman Otto Metz-Randa. After the War Metz-Randa transformed himself from a profiteer of “Entjudung” and passed himself off as a victim of the National Socialist regime. He refused to hand the company and the trademark back to Julius Fromm’s sons Herbert and Edgar, and argued that Fromms Act was not sold under duress and the transaction  unrelated to the Nazi regime. In 1951 the Fromms were forced to agree to a settlement at the restitution tribunal in Berlin, and outrageously the Fromms had to pay 174,300 West German marks to Otto Metz-Randa in order to regain ownership. An agreement was signed between the Fromms and the Hanseatische Gummiwerke Bachmann & Co. KG, which would allow the Bremen-based company to use the Fromms Act trademark. Hanseatische Gummiwerke, now MAPA, continued to make a range of condoms in the present day – Billy Boy, Blausiegel and Fromms. Even in the 1960s Germans still knew exactly what a “Fromms” (plural “Frommse”) was, just as Kleenex had become synonymous with tissue paper.

THIS COMPACT AND COMPELLING BOOK is co-written by Götz Aly and Michael Sontheimer, and expertly translated into English by the award-winning Shelley Frisch. In 2004, Aly organised a reading group at the Sunday Club – “a meeting place for lesbians, gays, and trans-, bi- and heterosexuals” – in Berlin, and shared with his colleagues a file on Fromms Act that he discovered at the German Federal Archives. Although Aly’s recollection sounds strangely inappropriate: he was challenged by “the person in charge of cultural programming” at the Sunday Club to come up with something to read that was different from the “run-of-the-mill hetero claptrap”. Aly thus decided to show his friends the sexy Fromm file to “uphold his reputation” (as what?). Independently, Michael Sontheimer, a correspondent for Der Spiegel, managed to track down Julius Fromm’s son Edgar after watching him on a TV chat show in 1996. Crossing paths with Aly, the two men decided to co-write a book on Fromms Act. Aly and Sontheimer admit that the story is compiled from fragments. Neither Fromm’s personal papers nor his company’s archives survived, and Aly and Sontheimer only managed to unearth a handful of documents – wills, Julius Fromm’s application for German citizenship, correspondence with the police commissioner in Berlin, marketing materials for Fromms Act, certificates and photographs. Nevertheless, this book is meticulously researched and packed with fascinating detail.

The German title of the book is far clearer about Götz Aly and Michael Sontheimer’s intentions – Fromms: Wie der jüdische Kondomfabrikant Julius F. unter die deutschen Räuber fiel. This is literally Fromms: How the Jewish Condom Manufacturer Julius F. Fell Prey to German Robbers. Compare this to the English title Fromms: How Julius Fromm’s Condom Empire Fell to the Nazis, which: (a) omits mention of Fromm’s Jewishness; (b) draws attention and prioritises the condom part of the story by rendering Kondomfabrikant into “condom empire” (a cynic may wonder if this is the publisher’s marketing ploy to make the book sexier); (c) conflates deutschen Räuber with the National Socialists. Deutschen Räuber in the German title is not only intended to refer to the Nazis, but also the officials of the Federal German Republic and the German Democratic Republic who fraudulently manipulated the Fromm’s heirs application for restitution, in order to not pay out that which the family was entitled. So the English title is unfortunately somewhat misleading.

Fromms is never intended as a history of sexuality, or a history of a contraceptive technology. In fact Aly and Sontheimer do not seem to be that interested in condoms; only the first pages of Chapter 13 discusses the modern manufacturing process of condoms, and Fromm’s method was passed over in Chapter 2 in about one-and-a-half pages. There is no discussion on where Julius Fromm might have sourced his raw materials and chemicals, other than a quick mention that “Ceylon rubber is best suited to the manufacture of Fromms products”. One begs to find out the trade networks that transported rubber from Southeast Asia to Germany. We get little sense of how Fromm might have obtained his machinery, no details on the other hygienic and surgical rubber products that his company made, or how his competitors operated, or how Fromms Act were distributed and marketed from Antwerp to Auckland, or how Durex eventually took over as the leading brand around the world. Moreover, we gain little new understanding on the sexual culture – only Chapter 1 provides some historical background on the transformation of sexual mores and the question of family planning in Weimar Germany. The bibliography lists eight secondary sources on the history of gender and sex in Germany. The essential Sex After Fascism: Memory and Morality in Twentieth-Century Germany (2005) by Dagmar Herzog is not cited; although she appears on the dust jacket praising the book.

Aly and Sontheimer do not tell us how National Socialists discussed condoms, other than a quick mention of their compulsory use in military brothels. Nor do we find out more about the discourses of sexually transmitted diseases and birth control in the German Democratic Republic. Aly and Sontheimer’s story stops with the death of Julius Fromm and the painful process of seeking restitution, well before the age of HIV, when the sales, promotion, public discussion and use of condoms dramatically increased again. These are not the priorities of Aly and Sontheimer – and admittedly the sources that will enable them to address some of these issues may be severely limited – so it is no wonder that the historian of medicine and sexual science Lesley Hall seems disappointed in her recent view in Social History of Medicine. (As another historian of medicine and sexuality, I am similarly disappointed, though tremendously educated by the book.) Hall, “with eager anticipation”, wanted to read a history of the material culture of pre-hormonal contraception that concentrates on technical developments, marketing and dissemination of these devices. But Götz Aly and Michael Sontheimer set out to deliver a work that – in the words of Julius Fromm’s son Edgar – “put [Fromm] back on the map” – and that offered a case study of the Nazi plundering of Jewish property. A comprehensive, academic, global history of the condom remains to be written.

TO THOSE WITH PASSING FAMILIARITY WITH the field of Modern German History, Götz Aly requires little introduction. Though he deservedly enjoys a considerable scholarly reputation, Aly is perhaps best described as a “maverick historian”. He has won numerous prestigious awards, such as the Heinrich Mann Prize of the Berlin Academy of Arts in 2002 and the Marion Samuel Prize in 2003. He was a Visiting Professor for Interdisciplinary Holocaust Research at the Fritz Bauer Institut in Frankfurt. He was appointed by the German Federal President Horst Köhler to the board of trustees of the Jewish Museum in Berlin, and in 2007 received the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany.

No stranger to controversy, Aly caused a minor media storm at the press conference of a 2009 exhibition held at the Werkstatt der Kulturen on “The Third World in the Second World War”, when he accused black Allied soldiers of the systematic rape of German women during World War II. He also upset the British press – The Daily Telegraph  and the First World War Veterans’ Association, when at the same event he asserted that Gandhi was one of the greatest fans of Nazi Germany. (Though to be fair to Aly, he was arguing against what he perceived as an instance of “political correctness” gone wrong; the exhibition at Werkstatt der Kulturen was cancelled and later reopened at a different site, because the exhibition also included material on “non-White admirers of the Nazis”.) Aly’s 2008 book Unser Kampf: 1968 – ein irritierter Blick zurück (a deliberately provocative title that plays on Mein Kampf), argues that 1968 was merely a delayed offshoot of European totalitarianism, and that the ’68 generation was no different from the ’33 generation in their propensity to violence and their anti-democratic, anti-Enlightenment, anti-Semitic, anti-capitalist and anti-American attitudes. In a couple of recent columns in Berliner Zeitung, Aly has also launched an attack on the current German pension scheme by arguing that it had its basis in the Nazi regime – in other words, social egalitarianism is just National Socialism under a different name. This has won Aly a number of conservative supporters who argue for the dismantling of the welfare system in Germany.

Aly’s profile at the Goethe Institut website uses the word Querschläger to describe him. Querschläger is literally a “ricochet”, but in this context means a provocateur, a dissenter, a lone pioneer, a “gadfly” perhaps, someone who revels in his role as a critic challenging all sorts of received wisdom, particularly the accepted opinions of the “academic establishment” in which Aly wishes to have no part. Aly’s self-fashioning as an outsider is apparent on the third page of Fromms’ preface. He argues that Jewish businesses like Fromms Act “are almost universally ignored by historians”, because:

[T]hese companies were unceremoniously destroyed, they cannot sponsor business historians, who prefer to follow the money. Over the past twenty years, scholarly interest guided by this monetary inequity has produced a peculiar asymmetry, with the perpetrators and profiteers dominating historical inquiry. The companies’ legal successors have supported research because of their professed interest in “coming to terms with” an unappealing past fosters their images and thus the marketing of their brands; among the many cases in point are Volkswagen, Krupp, Allianz, Daimler-Benz, Deutsche Bank, Degussa, Dresdner Bank, Flick, and Bertelsmann. Because business history functions in this manner, a giant of the twentieth century like Julius Fromm, the  creator of the world’s brand-name condom, seemed destined for oblivion.

Elsewhere Götz Aly stated that “invoking the names of Dresdner Bank, Allianz, Generali, Daimler-Benz, Deutsche Bank, Krupp, I.G. Farben or Thyssen may serve to veil the real historical background of Aryanisation in a cloak of anti-capitalism, but it cannot provide a remotely satisfactory explanation” (“Rede zur Verleihung des Heinrich-Mann-Preises der Akademie der Künste 2002”). So in Aly’s scheme, those who study the collusion of big companies with the Nazi regime are either mercenary historians following the scent of money and hired to perform a public relations exercise to improve the companies’ image, or they are irrational anti-capitalists or conspiracy theorists with an axe to grind and who cannot provide any interesting or adequate explanation of the financial workings of the Nazi state.

Fromms should be read alongside Götz Aly’s earlier work, Hitlers Volksstaat: Raub, Rassenkrieg und nationaler Sozialismus (2005, translated in 2007 as Hitler’s Beneficiaries: Plunder, Racial War, and the Nazi Welfare State), the book that caused by far the greatest stir among German historians. At the heart of Hitlers Volksstaat are two simple questions: What was it that held the Third Reich together, and why did ordinary Germans support Adolf Hitler? Aly’s answer is surprising: the ordinary Germans supported Hitler not because they were anti-Semites and or driven by Nazi ideology, they were quite simply bribed and bought – Nazi Germany was a “dictatorship of favours” for everyone. The Third Reich, Aly claims, in fact operated a programme of “progressive taxation” that redistributed wealth; this was funded by Jewish assets and properties systematically plundered from Germany and its occupied territories. The result was that the ordinary Germans hardly bore any financial costs of the war, and actually enjoyed a much improved standard of living. This argument, seductive it may seem, is fiercely criticised by other historians. While it is true that the Germans did systematically pillage on an unprecedented scale, critics such as Adam Tooze (The Wages of Destruction: The Making and Breaking of the Nazi Economy, 2006) argue that the second half of Aly’s thesis – that the Nazis provided its citizens with a progressive welfare state and that seventy percent of the costs of the German war effort was transferred to the non-Germans – “[is] wrong not in the sense of debatable or contentious, but wrong in the sense that it is contrary to all empirical evidence and to any known body of economic theory”. Limit of space here will not permit a detailed analysis of Aly’s book and its many critical reviews; interested readers may start with Alfred Mierzejewski’s review “The Latest Phase of Germany’s Effort to Master its Nazi Past” ( and Adam Tooze’s strident though entirely judicious essay, “Economics, Ideology and Cohesion in the Tird Reich” (

The problem with Aly and Sontheimer’s Fromms is that, in Chapter 10, “‘Jew Auction’ as Aryan Haunt”, the indisputable fact of the expropriation of Julius Fromm’s property is subtly mobilised to support Aly’s argumentative grandstanding in Hitlers Volksstaat. Chapter 10 is by far the most detailed of the book, and describes the transfer of the Fromm villa into the hands of Wolf Hagemann and the auctioning of Fromm’s possessions. Aly ends the chapter on a dramatic note:

Julius Fromm had fallen prey to the robbers. These were not a bunch of bandits in the bushes, however, but a state and its citizens. Millions of Germans – Nazi and others – seized the opportunity to profit. According to the principles of social participation, helping the Nazis meant helping themselves. The National Socialist movement may have sprung from an ideological foundation but it was now fully fused with material interests, thus uniting the Görings, Hagemanns, and Metz-Randas, the men who ran the elevators and the men who ran the country, the tenants in the modest back units and stately front buildings, lower-ranking and top-level officers. Instead of going to a carnival or a sale, everyone happily trotted off to the Jew Auction.

But this only seems partly true. It is beyond doubt that the Görings, Epensteins, Hagemanns, Metz-Randas, the men who ran the country, the tenants in stately front buildings, the top-ranking Nazi officers – in other words the elites – profited from the plundering of Fromm property. It is not obvious, however, how the men who ran the elevators, the tenants in the modest back units, and lower-ranking officers – the ordinary Germans – benefited from the hideous and harrowing spectacle of the Jew Auction. Aly asserts that “even Germans who arrived late or came with an empty wallet and left empty-handed still stood to profit in the end, because the proceeds flowed into the Reich coffers and reduced the tax burden across the board”. According to Adam Tooze, this is based on “kitchen sink accounting techniques” – “the evidence suggests that up to the early 1940s, contrary to the impression created by Aly [in Hitlers Volksstaat], the per capita tax burden in the Third Reich was […] among the highest in the world”. The argument that the expropriation of the property of affluent Jews provided substantial per capita benefits to the entire German population simply does not hold up. But even if the only people to benefit from the pillaging of Fromms’ property were Hermann Göring, Elisabeth von Epenstein, Wolf Hagemann and Otto Metz-Randa, this would not make this any less of a moral outrage. What emerges here is that the idiosyncratic arguments from Hitlers Volksstaat are smuggled into Fromms. And the case of Julius Fromm is then enlisted to bolster the theses from Hitlers Volksstaat. Julius Fromm is indirectly made to service Götz Aly’s argumentative acrobatics, perhaps argumentative excesses.

Julius Fromm’s grandson Raymond wrote a heartfelt Afterword to the book. For the Fromms, the book clearly is more than “simply another tale of persecution and the Holocaust, for it serves as an example of the fate that befell […] countless other German and Continental Jewish families” – families torn apart, often stripped of their possessions, rendered destitute and homeless, sent to extermination camps, and the descendants humiliated as they sought restitution that never arrived. Götz Aly and Michael Sontheimer, as Edgar Fromm requested, admirably put Julius Fromm “back on the map”. They told a powerful story that absolutely needed to be told, and wrote a book that absolutely needed to be read. The problem is Aly also appears to have dragged Julius Fromm into his fight against other German historians, and have turned part of the Fromm saga into grist to his theoretical mill.

Götz Aly and Michael Sontheimer. Fromms:
How Julius Fromm’s Condom Empire Fell to the Nazis.
Translated by Shelley Frisch, afterword by Raymond Fromm.
xii + 219pp., fogs, apps., bibl., index.
New York: Other Press, 2009. $23.95 (cloth).

Leon Rocha is D. Kim Foundation for the History of Science and Technology in East Asia Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Needham Research Institute and the Department of History and Philosophy of Science, University of Cambridge.

(c) 2011 The Berlin Review of Books