Ernst Leitz went down in the industrial history of Germany as a visionary entrepreneur and courageous opponent of the Nazis. But the pioneer of the legendary Leica camera was also a passionate hunter and tested the optical devices in his own hunting grounds.
The year when the Hessian entrepreneur Ernst Leitz, Jr. made the most momentous decision in his life, was not an easy one for Germany. Proper governmental activities had become almost impossible in the Weimar Republic, communists and national socialists paralysed the young democracy, and even after two Reichstag elections no clear majorities had been reached. Germany was marked by mass unemployment and impoverishment of whole layers of society. Despite the introduction of the new Reichsmark, the economic chaos of hyperinflation still had an impact on German economy.
At the same time, the year 1924 was also a year of great public enthusiasm for technology. Radio broadcasting began its triumphal procession into German living rooms, electrical engineer Ernst Alexanderson sent the first fax across the Atlantic, and at the Bavarian Walchensee the largest European hydroelectric power plant was connected to the grid. In an atmosphere of crisis and euphoria and against the advice of many close colleagues, the 53-year-old director of the optical factory Leitz decided to launch a revolutionary major project: The Leica, the word’s first compact camera, was going into production.
“My decision is: Let’s risk it!” Those were the words that the bold entrepreneur is reported to have used in a conference at the company headquarters in Wetzlar, adding that this was an opportunity to guarantee employment to their workers in the years of economic depression and thus help them through the difficult times to come. The truth is that the 35 mm camera invented by the ingenious engineer Oskar Barnack was a real trump card for the visionary entrepreneur with a sense of social responsibility.
The small, light Leica (the product name is a portmanteau word made up of Leitz and camera) facilitated previously unknown flexibility. The roll film and interchangeable lenses that can be swapped quickly allowed fast photo sequences; its easy handling offered amateurs access to photography. The Leica formed the foundation of modern photo journalism and had an impact on the developments in the photographic as well as photochemical industry for more than three quarters of a century. This revolutionary achievement of Leitz helped establish new image aesthetics: as a secret observer, the small Leica was able to capture the moment discretely. This marked the birth of the dynamic snapshot photography; stiff and unnaturally posed studio shots had become obsolete.
The marketing as well as the production of the camera were likely to face some difficulties, though. So far the optical factories of Leitz had earned their reputation and their revenue with microscopes and binoculars, and there was a clear lack of production means and distribution channels for the new photographic device. So the company needed massive investments. Ernst Leitz knew that a failure of the project could ruin the whole company and its good reputation.
As early as in 1925 the miraculous device was presented to the worldwide public at the Leipzig Spring Trade Fair. All the visitors were equally impressed and enthuasiastic, and so for Ernst Leitz everything went according to plan. For the optical factories in Wetzlar the Leica meant new markets for centuries to come, paving the way for what would later become the most important business branch of Leitz.
The camera manufactured by his own company documented a further passion of the photo pioneer. Ernst Leitz was not only a full-blooded businessman but also a passionate hunter. In 1920 he leased the magnificent red deer hunting reserve Schwobach in the Taunus, about 20 kilometers from Wetzlar. Pictures taken in the 1920s and 1930s show the laid-back businessman among hunting dogs and stag trophies wearing leg warmers and a Tyrolean hat. His grandson Knut Kühn-Leitz remembers the hunting lodge at Schwobach as Ernst Leitz’s personal place of retreat, where he spent every free weekend. “During the rutting season from mid September to the beginning of October he even stayed there for up to two weeks in a row”, Kühn-Leitz says.
In a letter he wrote to two of his hunting companions in October 1939 Leitz describes how deeply impressed he was by the primal rutting ritual of the roaring stags: “A mighty concert could be heard on the field of Kraftsolms. There must have been an enormous stag with at least nine hinds. The stag was always busy keeping the other minor stags at bay, without forgetting his actual duty. Although the moon was full, more and more mist was rising. I had trouble adjusting my riflescope.
Shooting was becoming increasingly difficult, even more so as the raised hide did not have a rifle rest. I was still determined to attempt a shot, but that meant shooting without the possibility of resting my rifle. As we found out the next day, the distance was about 250 meters. I took the shot and Bender (Leitz’s game keeper, editor’s note) was sure that I had hit one of the stags. He thought he had heard the impact of the bullet. The next day we searched everywhere, but couldn’t find anything.”
Such experiences with the targeting optics motivated the inventor Leitz to countless new improvements. The hunting reserve in Schwobach had long since become an open-air optical lab. The Leitz products were constantly put to thorough practical tests by hunting guests, and suggestions for improvement were implemented directly in the factory. According to grandson Kühn-Leitz, “among the technical developments of that time were, for example, the angled spotting scope, optical rangefinders, and of course riflescopes which were exclusively designed for hunting.”
For Ernst Leitz hunting was also a wonderful opportunity to keep up old friendships or form new ones. In this tradition, Leitz invited his former head forester and his family to spend their holidays in his private hunting lodge. There the whole family clan enjoyed idling, partying and using the bath house. Unfortunately, on one occasion the holiday guests overheated the bathing furnace or were careless when poking the fire. As a result, some embers fell out of the oven and the whole log cabin burned to the ground. Luckily, nobody got hurt.
Due to his generous nature, Leitz took it easy and had the lodge rebuilt without further ado. The lodge was built in stone this time because the Nazis didn’t allow the use of wood as building material, as it was needed for the arms industry. The joyful roofing ceremony took place in a local pub, and the carpenter, bricklayer and architect praised their generous and likeable client. Leitz responded to their words of gratitude with a sense of humour: “That is all very well, but you should address your thanks to Oberförster (head forester) Ehlers. If the old house hadn’t burned down, we wouldn’t be here today.”
Despite such joyful moments and a deep sense of community, the first dark clouds began to gather over the Leitz business empire. The Nazis had just started their barbaric war of extermination and infested half the world with their racial hatred. For them the keen democrat Ernst Leitz had always been a thorn in the side.
As a member of the left-liberal party DDP the head of the Leitz company dynasty had run for a Reichstag membership of the Weimar Republic several times. Furthermore, Leitz was committed in the initiative “Reichsbanner-Schwarz-Rot-Gold” dedicated to protecting the unstable democracy against radical powers. With his company lorries Leitz helped to transport members of the initiative to parliamentary sessions, and he publicly called the Nazis “brown monkeys”, who at that time were gaining influence fast. Only after the war it was revealed that the Nazis had repeatedly planned to eliminate and dispossess the highly influential industrialist. After all, his optical factories in Wetzlar possessed material as well as know-how that was vital to the war effort.
Ernst Leitz and his family got into life-threatening situations, when they protected Jewish employees and provided them with jobs at the comany subsidiary in New York City. As early as in 1938 the Nazis arrested the sales manager of Leitz, Alfred Türk, because he had provided Jewish emigrants with letters of recommendation for the USA. Some years later the Gestapo arrested Leitz’s daughter Elsie, who had helped many Jewish refugees from Wetzlar and saved them from deportation to the extermination camps. She narrowly escaped the camp herself, because her father used all his connections and was able to prevent the worst from happening.
Ernst Leitz died in 1957 and was posthumously honored with the “Courage to Care Award”. He had saved the lives of more than 60 people of Jewish descent.
Author: Günther Dachs
This article was first published in ‘Halali Magazin’ in January 2013.