Warnecke & Böhm. Expropriation and forced labour in Berlin-Weißensee.

50th anniversary of Warnecke & Böhm (October 1932). At the front row in the middle: Heinrich Richard Brinns (left) & Georg Dietzel (right)In 1906, the paint and varnish producer Warnecke & Böhm moved from Berlin-Wedding to Weißensee. Four years later, Heinrich Richard Brinns invested an important 150.000Reichsmark in the company. Ever since, the management was shared between Georg Dietzer and Brinns – and the business went prosperous. In 1919, the latter director even build a ‘Palais Brinns‘ (‘Brinns villa’) with 33 rooms in Berlin-Charlottenburg. During the 1920s, the factory grew steadily and erected another production site in 1927. Even during the crisis years after following the 1929 stock crash, the company maintained work for about a hundred employees. Unfortunately, the Nazi regime which took power in 1933 had a huge effect on the paint factory. In despite of his conversion in 1895, the Nazi authorities considered Brinns to be a jew. The Nazi regime pressured Brinns to retreat, but how? And how did the company deal with this Nazi pressure? And what further consequences had the Nazi’s and the Second World War for the varnish and paint industrialist?

Advertisement of Warnecke & Böhm (1930s)

When the Nazi’s took power, the state-owned Berliner Verkehrsgesellschaft (BVG, Berlin Public Transport) was immediatly nazified. In an attempt to ‘Aryanise’ some companies in March 1933, the BVG demanded the retreatment of Brinns – otherwise it would stop their orders for Warnecke & Böhm. Dietzel and Brinns came to a quick approval, since they both understood that the state was the most important costumer. They agreed that Brinns had to stop as an official captain. In return, Dietzel promised Brinns that his interests will be secured. Moreover, Brinns would later work as the companies adviser if it was allowed to do so. In the worst case scenario, Dietzel and Brinns would commonly develop a foreign industry which would be closely related to Warnecke & Böhm. After 23 years of successful co-ownership and personal friendship, Warnecke & Böhm now officially belonged to Dietzel only.

Unfortunately for Brinns, Dietzel abused his power and did not came to his commitment. When Brinns visited the office, a drunk and nervous Dietzel came up with new conditions. Now, Dietzel wanted Brinns to start working as Warnecke & Böhm’s representative in the Netherlands as fast as possible. In the meanwhile, Dietzel would take care of selling Brinns’ villa. A day later, Brinns was called by Dietzel. In this phone call, Dietzel said that no agreements were made after all. Furthermore, Brinns was dictated that he wasn’t welcome to visit the factory or to look for contact anymore. Brinns was definitely set aside, without any rights to get back a fair share of the company.

Regardless Brinns’ talent, the business for Warnecke’s & Böhm kept on doing well now the state-owned companies wouldn’t break their contracts anymore. Shortly before the outbreak of WWII in September 1939, Warnecke & Böhm was given a priority status because it delivered the paint and varnish for U-Boots (submarines) and Junker Ju 88’s (multi-role bombing airplanes). With the status of a Wehrwirtschaftbetrieb (military economy enterprise), Warnecke & Böhm had particular benefits. For example, they were secured in work force and in raw materials. Due to the prosperous contracts, Warnecke & Böhm planned to expand their activities in within Berlin. Although these plans were not completed, Dietzel managed to profit from the Nazi expansion during WWII. Companies were taken over in the Neulengbach (Austria) and Zwolle (the Netherlands). In the case of the Dutch varnish company Klinkert & Co, co-owner Jan Klinkert sympathised with the German nazi’s. As soon the Netherlands were occupied, his co-owning brother Hendrik couldn’t reject his plans without a risk and stepped out of the company. Klinkert & Co had forced labourers in service started to produce varnish for the German army. Dietzel’s Warnecke & Böhm became the biggest shareholder and took over the company’s management. Thereafter, Klinkert & Co started to work with forced labourers.

In the meanwhile, Warnecke & Böhm started to use jewish forced labourers from the summer of 1939 onwards. These men had to do the most unhealthy jobs with the heaviest chemicals. During their effort to clean the chemicals kitchen or the paint jugs, they weren’t protected from the poisonous gas at all. They suffered from headaches and stomaches all the time. Moreover, it was made hard for them to become a new working outfit when it was worn our or the season changed. Jews were not allowed to use the shower facilities, and weren’t given soap to clean themselves either. Milk, which was believed to neutralise the poisonous gass, was only given to ‘Aryan’ labourers. Even when German labourers left over some milk, it was not allowed for jewish labourers to finish it. Jews were not allowed to talk with their German colleagues at all. In May 1942 – Siegfried Berg he asked his colleague for help. In stead of a helping hand, he was given a hit with an iron stick. On top of that, Warnecke & Böhme gave him a fine of 3.58Reichsmark for his ‘lack’ of discipline.

Under these circumstances, jewish men worked Mondays till Thursdays from 7am till 5:50pm – Fridays till 4:50pm and at a Saturday till 12:30. During the War, the work started earlier and earlier. The extra hours which the men frequently made were only sometimes paid with a bonus. Other times, only the minimum wage was given. They were only given unpaid holidays for six days a year. Jewish labourers were only allowed to use the public transport when were injured veterans from World War I or in case they lived over seven kilometers from the factory. They were not housed in barracks which belonged to the fabric, but had to rent a private apartment. When this house-owner was deported, they had to find a new apartment again. This is how also Berlin’s estate market was ‘Aryanised’ from the beginning of the deportations onwards.

When the deportations to extermination camps started in the autumn of 1941, the jewish forced labours at Warnecke & Böhm were replaced. The number of forced labours who worked at Warnecke & Böhm increased rapidly. By November 1942, there were about 300 forced labourers from occupied countries such as Poland, France, Belgium and the Soviet-Union. As always, the forced labourers from East European countries were off worse than forced labourers from West European countries. They had to do the tough or brainless jobs, such as cleaning the factories and its facilities. Also women from East European countries were forced to work, while West European women weren’t brought to Nazi-Germany. Nevertheless, the jews had the most restrictions. They were not allowed to eat at the factories canteen and the factories toilets.

The jewish forced labourers knew that being absent from work due to illness increased the risk of being deported. Therefore, they sacrificed their right on a holiday – as was the case of Paul Eisenstädt. He wrote letters to the direction of Warnecke & Böhm, asking them for an unpaid holiday to recover from his illness. Eisenstädt recovered successfully and continued working at Warnecke & Böhm, but not for too long. During the Fabrikaktion in February 1943, all remaining jewish labourers were picked up from the factory’s gate and concentrated in buildings throughout the city. With the exception of the men who had a ‘privilegierte Mischehe‘ (‘privileged mixed marriage’), all of them were deported to concentration camps and extermination camps. In total, 308 jews who worked at Warnecke & Böhm were killed during the Holocaust – only 61 survived it.

Forced labour camp Ostseestraße/Goethestraße (1943)

In the meanwhile, a camp at the nearby Hamburger Platz was build between from April 1942 onwards. Here, two barracks and basic facilities were build for 160 men and women. As in other camps for forced labourers, the conditions were harsh. The barracks were overpopulated and unhygienic. The camp was nicknamed Russenlager (Russian camp) because it were mostly Soviet (wo)men and Prisoners of War (PoW’s) who were in this camp. A second location for the Russian forced labourers was situated at the corner of the Goethestraße with the Ostseestraße. Here, Warnecke & Böhm took over an already existing forced labour camp with the capacity for 350 inmates. Although the factories were nearby, the inmates were forced to walk in rows under the surveillance of armed guards. Only on Sunday’s, these forced labourers were allowed to go outside without supervision. Nevertheless, they were excluded from public life – they couldn’t eat at restaurants or even make use of public transport. The Hamburger Platz is bombed during an air-raid in November 1943, and again at 18 March 1945. It is not documented how many forced labours died in these bombings. Warnecke & Böhm closed at 20th April – and was liberated only two days later.

Heinrich Richard Brinns & his wife Eva (1930s)

With the loss of his company, Brinns’ bad luck did not come to an end. Throughout the 1930s, his possessions were confiscated by the Nazi regime. In an attempt to save their villa, Brinns and his wife officially divorced in the late 1930s. It resulted in the loss of the last worthy thing which Heinrich Richard Brinns had: his civil rights as a man with a ‘privilegierte Mischehe‘. In 1941, Brinns worked as a forced labourer before he was deported to Theresienstadt (December 1942) and Auschwitz (December 1943) where he was killed in 1944.

After the War, Warnecke & Böhm was in use again only three weeks after the war ended. Since the factory was located in the Soviet sector, it became ‘property of the people’ by February 1949. Due to the lack of houses directly after the war, the Russenlager at the Hamburger Platz were used as private houses. Since October 1945, Warnecke & Böhm subletted the barracks’ kitchen with two additional rooms. Other rooms were let as a storage. When the worst shortages of houses were over, the authorities illegalised and demolished the barracks in 1952. The Hamburger Platz is a regular square ever since. At the other barracks, located at the corner of the Ostseestraße and the Goethestraße, apartments are developed nowadays. In 2004, a book about Warnecke & Böhm was published, which became the base of an exhibition at the Dokumentationszentrum NS-Zwangsarbeit from September 2011 till January 2013. Furthermore, the Palais Brinns is nowadays a dog wellness in an upper-class neighbourhood.

Taken everything into account, the company was put under economic pressure by the nazified companies. Brinns had the fundamental bad luck that Dietzer couldn’t be trusted on his promises, not even in the slightest. Unfortunately, Brinns wasn’t the only man who became victim of Warnecke & Böhm. With the privileges which the company was given, another 369 jews worked for this company in the worst conditions imaginable. Over 80 percent of them did not survive the Holocaust. Another hundreds of foreign forced labourers were abused at the factory. The Russians among them were held in captivity, nearby the fabric. The history of Warnecke & Böhm during the Nazi-reign is better researched and remembered than likewise companies. This makes it an example of the ‘Aryanisation’ and forced labour within an ambitious private industry. Throughout Nazi-Germany and occupied Europe – there is reason to belief that likewise histories took place for many thousands of times more.

4 thoughts on “Warnecke & Böhm. Expropriation and forced labour in Berlin-Weißensee.

    • Thank you Leanne! You are right – the topic of forced labour is rather hard to get into. The best books I’ve found, are in German – without being translated…!

  1. Pingback: Overview | Historical tales about the capital of the 20th century

  2. This company figures prominently in the book When Time Stopped by Arianna Neumann (Scribner, 2020). It was good to get the background from this article.

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