Birthday present bomber

Paul Klee’s students apparently celebrated his 50th birthday by dropping presents through his (flat) roof at the Bauhaus from a Junkers aircraft. An interesting story, although Mark Brown doesn’t pick up on it (Rowan Moore does here but only superficially).

Junkers was the home-town industry of Dessau by then, which is probably why the students were able to arrange the stunt. It’s mildly interesting that Marcel Breuer wanted Junkers to fabricate the alloy tubes for his furniture, but it’s more interesting going the other way.

Hugo Junkers started out working on gas heating systems and two-stroke engines, first as a product of the industrial R&D departments that emerged in Germany before anywhere else and that would later become the key manifestations of J.K. Galbraith’s technostructure, and later as an entrepreneur in his own right. He was the first to build an aircraft entirely out of metal, in 1915.

This was a crucial invention. It combined changes in metalworking and metallurgy with others in structural engineering and aerodynamics. It also meant that aircraft would no longer be craft products of varying quality, like the German fighters of the late first world war, but genuinely industrial ones. Stressed-skin construction would also mean that aircraft would no longer have external guy wires to heave their structure taut, and therefore that their wings would be aerodynamically clean.

In some ways, this would make the original design of the aircraft more important, and its production into a question of mass-producing metal components on standardised machine tools. But that could be overstated. When BAE set about converting the Nimrod MR2s built in the late 1960s to MRA4 standard, they found to their consternation and the Ministry of Defence’s financial horror that the new wings, cut identically on computer-controlled machines, matched the old blueprints but none of the actual aircraft, which had been fabricated mostly by hand. Aircraft still occupy a niche on the scale of industrialisation, rather less mass produced than cars or computers, rather more so than ships.

Of course, the Bauhaus was all about trying to mass-produce the change you wanted to see in the world. So was everybody. As Adam Tooze pointed out, mass production and product design were also part of how the Nazis wanted to escape the uneven economic development of Germany in the 1920s, along with the genocidal imperialism, of course. And it didn’t quite work, as so many of the Volksprodukte remained stubbornly pricey, as the Bauhaus’s had.

As well as aircraft, Junkers wanted to mass-produce buildings, and in fact he did. If you bought their planes, they could also sell you prefabricated hangars to park them in, and that was also how Hugo Junkers made a living between 1933 and 1935, after the Nazis expropriated the company. They had big plans for it, and it grew to enormous size as part of the nationalised Hermann Göring Werke (and part of the man himself’s corruption-empire).

Specifically, they liked three aircraft designs from Junkers – only one of which dates from the company pre-1933, the Ju52 trimotor airliner, which was produced in huge numbers for transport. Then there was the Ju87 dive bomber, the Stuka, the only war aircraft that deliberately screamed at you as it dived in a sort of Gesamtkunstwerk dedicated to violence. When it did so, it was often being filmed, in order to convince Germans at home and everyone else abroad of German power.

In fact, even by 1939 it was rather dated, but it was cheap to build and packing the numbers of front-line bombers with them spoke to the aspirations of pro-Nazi politicians, the fears of the general public, and the empires of airpower bureaucrats everywhere.

It also had a successor, the Ju88, much closer to Hugo J’s vision of a rake-thin streamlined rocket ship.

It’s not too much to say that the hope of a Nazi future rested on it. The air force procurement plan for 1941 foresaw a mammoth build-up to challenge British and US industry, and the Junkers industrial complex began to spread across Europe in search of enough aluminium alloy. In fact, Nazi plans for Norway and the Balkans were heavily determined by the needs of the Ju88. And the Ju88 design was meant to trump the advantages Rolls-Royce and North American Aviation had, by being a multirole combat aircraft before its time, a masterpiece of product design.

Of course, it didn’t work. It wasn’t big enough to make a strategic bomber, it was too big to be a decent fighter, and its high performance made it dangerous as a close-support dive bomber (the role of the Ju87 and interestingly, also of the very first Junkers). They lost and the plants were eventually bombed out to make sure of it. Not only them: the town of Dessau was destroyed to 80% on the night of the 7th March, 1945 by RAF Bomber Command.

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