Arming the Luftwaffe: the German Aviation Industry in World War II by Daniel Uziel offers a fascinating investigation of a very specific aspect of World War II. Written in a dry dense academic style, Uziel explores a sector of war often overlooked: logistics. Inspired by a blindly worshipful museum exhibit on the achievements of the Ernst Heinkel, in Rostock, Germany, Arming the Luftwaffe offers itself as a historical corrective. The 2002 exhibit mentioned “Heinkel’s association with the Nazi regime” but “it was not in the forefront.” This caused outrage and debate. This reaction is reminiscent of the controversy surrounding the 1995 Smithsonian exhibit on the Enola Gay.
Uziel uses the archives from the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum and Yad Vashem, among other sources, to chronicle the rise and fall of the Nazi-era German aircraft industry. With the flamboyant former World War I ace Hermann Goering at the helm, the Luftwaffe would become one of Germany’s biggest employers. Uziel asserts the complicated nature of aircraft development and assembly makes the industry comparable to Silicon Valley computer companies. In its heyday, the various aircraft firms created a corporate culture complete with health spas, living quarters, and firm-based health insurance. It also helped workers develop specialist knowledge for aircraft assembly.
A pivotal event was Big Week (February 20 – 25, 1944), an Allied air offensive specifically targeting the Germany aircraft industry. This spurred the concept of dispersal. Instead of a centrally located plant, various sub-plants would be scattered around the countryside or even underground. Uziel’s discussion of the underground plants associated with the V-1 and V-2 rockets should be of interest to anyone who has read Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon. Along with dispersal, the labor issue became more pressing as Nazi Germany became more desperate. The war crisis created a labor crisis. With most of the men gone to fight, the aircraft industry used the next easily available pool of labor: concentration camp inmates. This caused security and training complications, along with the fact very few inmates were capable of the skilled labor required for aircraft production. At one point, Germany was actually shipping in slave labor back from the concentration camps.
Uziel explores the logistics, bureaucracy, and political ramifications of the aircraft industry’s devolution from cutting edge industry to slave labor employer. He discusses life on the factory floor and looks at the “People’s Fighter,” the He-162 as an example of a late-war program. This book isn’t for everybody, since it is written in dry academic prose; but for the specialist, it is a treasure trove of information and analysis.
Out of 10: 8.1, or 9.5 for World War II buffs, Pynchon fans (specifically Gravity’s Rainbow), and those interested in the history of engineering, wartime logistics, and the Holocaust