Many German businesses were involved in the policies of the Third Reich, from arms manufacturing to the expropriation of Jewish property to the use of forced labor to even more direct support for Nazi policies. The Topf and Sons (in German, Topf und Söhne) company is an example of how one company became involved in the worst of the Holocaust.
Topf and Sons sold ovens to the SS for most of the major concentration camps in Germany.
The company was also responsible for parts of the gas chambers as well as ovens at Auschwitz, where its employees supervised the construction.
Neither of the executives of Topf and Sons were prosecuted after the war.
Many German businesses were involved in the policies of the Third Reich: from arms manufacturing to expropriation of Jewish property, from the use of forced labor to even more direct support for Nazi policies. Most were not punished after the war. These business-people rarely if ever actually harmed anyone directly: many of them fall into the category of “desk murderers.” However, their actions were often indispensable to the execution of the Holocaust.
The Topf and Sons company is an example of how one company became involved in the worst of the Holocaust and reminds us of the importance of the roles played by ordinary people in genocide.
Johann Andreas Topf founded Topf and Sons in 1878 in Erfurt, Germany. It remained a family company. The firm built a variety of products including steam boilers, chimneys, and incinerators for trash and animal remains. In the early 20th century, human cremation as an alternative to burial became more accepted both in society and religion. As a result, Topf and Sons began producing crematory ovens for funeral homes. There were strict 1934 government regulations for hygiene and for decorum in handling human remains, regulations with which the company complied.
By the 1930s, the company was led by two third-generation brothers, Ludwig and Ernst-Wolfgang Topf. Topf and Sons employed up to 1,150 workers. Among these workers was Kurt Prüfer. He was a crematorium engineer who worked for the company his whole life. He would become one of the more significant workers in the company.
In 1933, both Topf brothers joined the Nazi Party, as did Prüfer.
Topf and Sons entered into business with Adolf Hitler’s Reich in 1939 when they delivered portable incineration ovens to the Buchenwald concentration camp after an outbreak of disease killed large numbers of prisoners. Further, engineer Kurt Prüfer designed a “double-muffle” portable oven (a muffle is the space in which the body goes). However, by doing this, Prüfer already in 1939 was violating the 1934 cremation guidelines (still in effect) which prohibited the burning of more than one body at a time or the mixing of ashes.
By 1941, Topf and Sons regularly contracted with the SS, supplying ovens to Buchenwald, Dachau, Mauthausen, Gusen, and Auschwitz. Forty percent of Topf oven sales were to the SS. By the end of the Holocaust, at least twenty-five Topf and Sons ovens were in operation in Germany, occupied Poland, and the Soviet Union.
Beyond knowingly supplying ovens for the unlawful cremation of concentration camp victims, Topf and Sons anticipated the demands of its new customers and engineered “better” equipment. For example, new designs incorporated a rounded opening (rather than the standard square coffin-sized opening) in order to allow multiple bodies to be burned simultaneously despite the fact that this was still illegal under German law.
Topf and Sons’ collaboration in the Holocaust reached its peak with the production of ovens for Auschwitz. As mass gassing began to take place there, corpse disposal became even more urgent. Prüfer and the engineers at Topf designed new “eight-muffle” ovens capable of burning many more bodies simultaneously. Further, the crematorium complexes in Auschwitz-Birkenau included the gas chambers themselves. Topf designed and provided ventilation systems to remove Zyklon B from the underground gas chambers.
Collaboration went beyond design and production. At least four fitters from the company travelled to Auschwitz to oversee the installation of the systems and to ensure they functioned properly. These tasks required them to observe the murder of Jews. Engineer Kurt Prüfer also visited the camp to inspect the operation of Topf ovens and systems. Prüfer himself, with the approval of the company leadership, continued to cater to the needs of the SS killers: on October 26, 1942 he applied (through Topf) for a patent for a four-storey crematorium complete with conveyor belts intended to dramatically increase the speed at which bodies could be burned. The speed of corpse disposal was the fundamental obstacle slowing killing process at Auschwitz.
Immediate postwar justice for the criminals of Topf and Sons was insufficient at best. In 1948, the Soviets arrested, tried, and convicted Kurt Prüfer and four other employees implicated in work at Auschwitz. They were sentenced to 25 years. Prüfer died in prison. After Prüfer was first arrested in 1945, co-owner of the company Ludwig Topf committed suicide. He claimed in his suicide note that “I was always decent.” His brother, Ernst-Wolfgang, fled to West Germany where he attempted to reestablish the company. A journalist revealed his Nazi past in 1957, however, and his company collapsed six years later. Ernst-Wolfgang was never tried and maintained his innocence until the end, claiming that his company’s products had simply been misused by the Nazis.
The role of Topf and Sons in the Holocaust was not systematically investigated until 1980 when its archival materials became more accessible. Today, the site of the Topf and Sons factory in Erfurt houses a museum and memorial site.
Schüle, Annegret, and Rikola-Gunnar Lüttgenau. The Engineers of the Final Solution: Topf and Sons—Builders of the Auschwitz Ovens. Weimar: Stiftung Gedamstätten Buchenwald und Mittelbau-Dora, 2005.
Van Baar, Annika, and Wim Huisman. "The Oven Builders of the Holocaust." British Journal of Criminology 52, no. 6 (2012): 1033–50.