Röhm & Haas experienced not only an economic boom but also a tremendous improvement in its image, both in Germany and at the international level. Acrylic won the Grand Prix and the Gold Medal at the 1937 International Exposition in Paris (Röhm & Haas 1938, 28 and Wittig 2007, 42). The prizes were awarded in recognition not of the military use made of the material but of its aesthetic potential (Röhm & Haas 1938, 3: “Clear as crystal”) and thus of its suitability as a material for the sophisticated and spectacular design of everyday objects, also known as ‘arts and crafts’:
Furniture design: garden chairs with a stylishly shaped green acrylic seat created by the two French architects Jean Prouvé (1901-1984) and Jacques André (1904-1985) (see Buchholz 2007, 22, 26 and 38-39) caused a sensation at the International Exposition in Paris. Two years later, Grosfeld House exhibited its “Glassic” furniture collection, which had been commissioned from the US designer Lorin Jackson (1908-1987), at the New York World’s Fair (Buchholz 2007, 19). Its stools, coffee table or chairs with an acrylic back are popular design classics nowadays. The material was supplied by the US offshoot of Röhm & Haas in Philadelphia, which had been established in 1909, was known in the meantime as Rohm and Haas Company, Inc. and was managed by Otto Röhm’s partner Otto Haas (1872-1960) on his own. The story behind this:
“The US government seized Otto Röhm’s interest in the American subsidiary without compensation in 1917 (during the war, editor’s note). Otto Haas was allowed to keep his interest, because he had in the meantime become an American citizen. He subsequently established the independent Rohm and Haas Company and personally made sure that Otto Röhm enjoyed a generous share of the profits for years. So the German subsidiary in the USA became an independent American company. At the same time, Otto Haas remained co-owner of Röhm & Haas OHG, the company in Darmstadt, Germany. The two companies continued to co-operate very closely for many years to their mutual benefit.” (Wittig 2007, 17)
The politics of the Nazi regime in Germany and the Second World War then forced the two companies apart completely:
“Progress in plastics research in Darmstadt was attributable not only to Otto Röhm personally but also – to a lesser extent – to Rohm and Haas Company in Philadelphia. For this reason as well as due to the 1927 contract about mutual co-operation, Philadelphia was granted the rights to use all monomer and polymer acrylate and methacrylate processes and the products manufactured by them in 1934/35 in return for the payment of royalties. Legal restrictions introduced particularly by the German Ministry of Aviation meant, however, that Röhm & Haas was unable to provide the necessary information to its American partners from the end of 1937 onwards. The contacts ended completely when the Second World War began.” (Wittig 2007, 42)
Fashion design: women’s handbags made out of celluloid with an acrylic cover were all the rage in the USA in the 1940s and “had […] a similarly magical appeal to glass slippers in fairy tales”. (Buchholz 2007, 19 and 34-35)
Jewellery design: Röhm & Haas 1938, 8 advertised its product for “such jewellery and fashionable accessoires as bracelets, necklaces, brooches, buckles and clasps, rings, buttons and fantasy figures”, because “acrylic sparkles like precious stones where it is polished”. Buchholz 2007, 19 claims in this context that the new plastic has a “magical aura”. The low thermal conductivity of acrylic contributed to its popularity, because the material felt less cold on the skin than metal or conventional glass (Röhm & Haas 1938, 9).
Musical instrument production: in the summer of 1936, a “glass violin” caused a particular stir at the “Germany” exhibition in Berlin that has already been mentioned (Trommsdorff 1976, 239). Otto Röhm himself had come up with the idea of making musical instruments out of acrylic and even held a patent as inventor from 28. April 1935 onwards (DRP 649388). The explanation given under the heading “Musical instrument made entirely or partly out of synthetic resin”:
“A technically viable solution to the problem of manufacturing musical instruments out of synthetic resins has not been found with the general proposal of using plastic substances or synthetic resins and with a list of a number of desirable properties. The inventor has now determined that the thousands of known synthetic resins include a small group, i.e. polymethacrylic acid methyl ester, polymethacrylic acid ethyl ester and blends or copolymers of both, that combine all the good properties that are needed to build the bodies of musical instruments and do not have other troublesome properties and side effects. […] The invention enables wind instruments like flutes, string instruments like violins and other instruments like zithers to be produced. All instruments produced in accordance with the invention have impressive sound quality, are to all practical purposes unbreakable, do not change even in humid conditions, are suitable for tropical climates and have other valuable properties.”
Trommsdorff 1976, 239 qualifies this description: “Due to acrylic’s relatively low modulus of elasticity, the string instruments were only suitable for chamber music […]. The sound produced by flutes and clarinets made out of it was, however, definitely the equivalent of those made from wood or metal, so they were used by military bands too.” The long-established company Mönnig in Markneukirchen/Vogtland developed a complete set of acrylic wind instruments (Buchholz 2007, 18). “Röhm & Haas finally presented the use of PMMA in instrument production with resounding success at the 1937 International Exposition in Paris.” (Buchholz 2007, 18) And when Otto Röhm needed to be in Berlin in the years before the Second World War started, he liked to stay at the Eden Hotel near the zoo, because an acrylic string quartet – featuring two violins, a viola and a cello – played on the roof garden there (Edschmid 1957, 63, Trommsdorff 1976, 239 and Buchholz 2007, 18).
Glass art and sculpture: like ivory, acrylic could be used “as a material for carving art and craft objects” (Trommsdorff 1976, 238; see also Trommsdorff 1937, 10). It could be etched too: “Ornaments and figures are cut into the acrylic with a rotating milling tool.” (Röhm & Haas 1938, 19) In order to encourage artistic development, Otto Röhm set up a special studio at the company in 1937 that was called “New Darmstadt Glass Art” (Trommsdorff 1976, 238) and was meant to be a productive source of impressive creations. Attention should be drawn to the following acrylic artists: the Darmstadt painter Meta Deutsch (1891-1989), the Darmstadt painter and sculptor Walter Cauer (1905-1995) and the Swiss painter Ernst Georg Haller (1902-1980), who – for example – welded colourful acrylic panels together to make church windows (Trommsdorff 1976, 238). The response to Deutsch’ acrylic etchings – flowers, animals, portraits, symbols – was particularly good, but the “New Darmstadt Glass Art” was not an economic success (Trommsdorff 1976, 239). Incidentally: the company boss himself posed as a model for an acrylic sculpture. O. E. Weber created a lifesize sculpture of Röhm’s head from a block of coloured PMMA, although the Nazis had forbidden him to work as an artist, because he had a Jewish grandfather … Otto Röhm deliberately defied this ban by commissioning Weber (Trommsdorff 1976, 239).
Car manufacturing: as a substitute for glass, acrylic provided unparalleled “freedom to design aerodynamically streamlined structures” as well as “cylindrically or spherically shaped windows” (Röhm & Haas 1938, 16). Most of them were limited in practice to luxury limousines or special models like the world record cars produced by Mercedes-Benz and Auto-Union (Röhm & Haas, 1938, 13), which are on show nowadays as design highlights in museums. What were also found impressive were acrylic body parts like roofs, bonnets or boots that made the inside of the car visible, as was the case with the Opel Olympia that was on show at the International Motor Car and Motor Cycle Exhibition in Berlin from 20. February to 7. March 1937: “Car enthusiasts were as a result supposed to be able to examine the new self-supporting body closely. Because it was normal at this time for cars to consist of a stable chassis with a frame to which the body was attached. In the Opel Olympia, on the other hand, the basic body structure and the frame of the chassis were combined to form a truss-like, self-supporting steel structure.” (Vaupel 2011, 28) The highlight: “The engine – hitherto a black box – was to some extent opened and made transparent with the help of acrylic.” (Vaupel 2011, 29) For the International Motor Car and Motor Cycle Exhibition from 18. February to 6. March 1938 in Berlin, Bauer & Schaurte Schraubenfabrik from Neuss had a lifesize “crystalline” Opel Olympia engine made, “to demonstrate how many steel bolts were normally used in an engine at the time. The company located by the River Rhine wanted to draw attention to a new bolt it had developed, that was very much lighter than its predecessors. The aim of making the acrylic engine transparent was to show how much weight was saved by using the new bolts – about 26 kilograms!”. (Vaupel 2011, 29)
Transparency also meant an unobstructed “insight into operations” (Röhm & Haas 1938, 7), which had previously taken place invisibly, and into mechanisms that could now be watched (Röhm & Haas 1938, 22). The “crystal engine” from Bauer & Schaurte did at any rate work; “It was possible to observe the pistons, valves and gearwheels through the acrylic.” (Vaupel 2011, 29) A second “glass engine”, i.e. the engine from the new Wanderer W 23 from Auto Union AG in Chemnitz, revealed the ignition sequence of a four-cylinder, four-stroke petrol engine at the exhibition in Berlin: “Thanks to lamps in different colours, visitors were able to watch the suction, compression and ignition of the petrol, the subsequent release of exhaust gas, the path taken by cooling water as well as how a clutch works.” (Vaupel 2011, 29) It goes without saying that the Nazis took advantage of this to present themselves as the driving force behind progress: Hitler had himself photographed in front of the “glass” engines when he visited the car exhibition. (Vaupel 2011, 28-29)
The showpieces made out of acrylic that were appropriate for teaching or advertising purposes at this time naturally did not relate to cars alone; they also included a typewriter with a see-through housing or a transparent kettle, in which it was possible to see the heating coils in the base (Vaupel 2011, 27 and 29). Everything was taken to an ideological extreme at the huge propaganda exhibitions that the Nazi regime organised to celebrate the creative powers of the people, state and business community: an etched acrylic globe was on show and could not be overlooked in the Henkel pavilion at the national exhibition “Creative People” that was held in Düsseldorf from May to October 1937 and attracted more than six million visitors (Röhm & Haas 1938, 25). And at the hygiene exhibition “Healthy Living – Keep Up The Good Work” that was held in Berlin from 24. September to 6. November 1938, the transparent models communicated the message “that every living organ, every technical component, every department of a company and every substructure of a complex government body has a precisely defined function and that tremendous achievements are only possible with carefully arranged interaction between all the individual parts.” (Vaupel 2011, 31)
Wary of the Nazi ideology
Although the development of the acrylic business proved to be very beneficial to Röhm & Haas, Otto Röhm was still privately unhappy with the fact that the Nazi regime was his main business partner. What bothered Röhm were not so much economic misgivings, which – as the company lawyer Rudolf Mueller (1904-1997) put it in a nutshell in the summer of 1938 – were due to the “unreliability of the armaments business” (Wittig 2007, 53). The main problem was his wariness of the Nazi ideology due to differences in worldview: “Otto Röhm was opposed to the new regime right from the start.” (Wittig 2007, 48) His biographers describe him as a conservative democrat who stood for Christian values (Edschmid 1957, 49 and Wittig 2007, 54) and at the end of the 1920s had advocated defending the republic against “attacks from the left and the right”, (Wittig 2007, 48) “In this context, he was by no means against a movement that promised to combat the economic and social distress of the time by taking decisive action. What appalled him were the abuse and reversal of lofty human values, which he considered to be the basis for coexistence in Western society.” (Trommsdorff 1976, 270). In his diary, he wrote in January 1934: “The state is there for the people and not the people for the state.” (Trommsdorff 1976, 270). On 5. July 1934, he added: “I cannot remember every having seen greater contradictions than at the present time. On the one hand, we in Germany sing “unity and justice and liberty”; on the other hand, about twenty people have just been shot without being tried and we are not allowed to talk about it. Before 30. January 1933, it was always said that everything is being done legally. Since then, it has suddenly been claimed that a revolution is happening. The Jews are being treated badly, while on the other hand better treatment of the German is being demanded where they are in a minority.” (Edschmid 1957, 59 and Trommsdorff 1976, 270-271). And the entry for 1. January 1935 is as follows: “So far the Nazi regime has demonstrated absolutism towards the powerless and liberalism to those who are all-powerful, i.e. the opposite of heroism. Because the latter is missing, the people are also being told again and again that it is in fact there.” (Edschmid 1957, 58 and 59)
Röhm was in addition convinced that the rearmament process carried out by the Nazis meant war, although this did not stop him – who “had received a […] medal for bravery during the First World War” (Edschmid 1957, 56) – from benefitting from the military use of acrylic. Röhm could not afford to fight openly against the regime – neither as a businessman who was determined to be successful nor as a loving husband and father: his wife was brandmarked as a Jew by the Nazis, while their children, daughter Maria Anna (1910-1991) and son Otto Gustav Hermann Alfred (1912-2004) were brandmarked as half-Jews. Röhm had married Elisabeth Soyka (1880-1936) on 28. August 1909. She was the daughter of the sugar manufacturer Adalbert Soyka from Außig in Bohemia (now Ústi nad Labem in the Czech Republic) (Edschmid 1957, 33). Since Röhm was in what the Nazis called a mixed marriage, he was forced to leave “a number of bodies of importance to the company that he belonged to at the Association of German Engineers, the Association of German Chemists and […] other technical committees after 1933 (Trommsdorff 1976, 271). Although he avoided “causing misery to himself, his family and his company by taking political action” (Trommsdorff 1976, 271), his son Otto was treated badly. Otto junior had to discontinue his chemistry studies in Heidelberg in 1935, after which he continued them in Paris (Trommsdorff 1976, 281). In 1937, he returned to Darmstadt to help his ailing father at the company. “On the instruction of the Nazi leader in Hesse Jakob Springer (1884-1945, editor’s note), he was, however, “expelled from the company after 1940 and was forced to work down a salt mine”. (Wittig 2007, 54; see also Trommsdorff 1976, 259) It was not until the Nazi regime ended that he was able to work for Röhm & Haas again and he joined the company management in June 1945, taking over the position of Managing Director (Trommsdorff 1976, 259 and Wittig 2007, 64).
It is definite that anti-Semitism was abhorrent to Otto Röhm (Edschmid 1957, 49). It would miss the mark to assume that this was merely a defensive mechanism, because his wife and children were targets: “He helped people who were being persecuted for political reasons or because of their race. He also gave them jobs in his factory and was adept at protecting them from persecution.” (Trommsdorff 1976, 271) In other words: Röhm’s rejection of anti-Semitism was an expression of an ethical conviction that by no means ended where private life began. Otto Röhm can therefore be considered to be one of those who put up resistance after 1933. This included opposition in the form of passive resistance – restraint “where expressions of loyalty to the Hitler regime were expected of him” (Trommsdorff 1976, 271) – but also involved active rebellion:
Röhm “refused […] to fulfil the request made by the party leader in Frankfurt to include a party member on his supervisory board. Instead of this, he liquidated the joint-stock company in which the business was organised at the legal level, adopted the structure of a company with limited liability (on 18. November 1938, editor’s note) and also rejected the attempt to have his company incorporated in the huge IG organisation. He and his company remained independent.” (Edschmid 1957, 62; see also Wittig 2007, 54)
Subject to government control
Röhm was, however, subject to “massive intervention in company autonomy” (Wittig 2007, 47) in the form of “government control measures” (Trommsdorff 1976, 253), particularly where investments in the expansion of his company’s facilities – site extensions and additional locations – to increase the production of acrylic at regular intervals were concerned. Wittig 2007, 53 talks about downright dictation as regards the demand made by the Ministry of Aviation to build another factory, “that would be in less danger from aerial attacks from the west in the case of a war. In August 1938, Röhm & Haas bought what used to be Sunlicht-Werke in Telz and Mittenwalde south of Berlin and equipped the site with machines for the production of MMA (methyl methacrylate, editor’s note) and acrylic. The factory was given the name ‘Mittenwalde facility’.” (Wittig 2007, 50; see also Trommsdorff 1976, 253-254) The state did, all the same, pay more than 60 per cent of the purchase price of the Mittenwalde facility and gave guarantees in the case of capacity utilisation shortfalls. (Wittig 2007, 54) Expansion in Darmstadt had to be funded entirely internally, on the other hand. According to Völkert/Jablonski 2015, the factory there increased in size to 103,000 square metres up to 1943, “which corresponds to the area covered by more than fourteen football fields”. The figure in 1934 had been only 50,000 square metres. (Edschmid 1957, 54)
“Thanks to inclusion in the emergency programme compiled by the air force, production of panelling from MMA supplied by Darmstadt was already able to start in Mittenwalde in early February 1939. Monomer synthesis there did not begin until the autumn.” (Wittig 2007, 53) “Expansion to double the capacity was initiated as early as 1940. At the instigation of the Ministry of Aviation, a third factory was built in Hohenelbe in the Sudetenland, although it never came into operation.” (Trommsdorff 1976, 254) In February 1942, Röhm & Haas AG bought a site with 87,000 square metres of space in Nibelungenstadt from Chemische Fabriken Worms AG. “An immediate start was made on the installation of equipment for the production of prussic acid and methyl methacrylate. It was, however, destroyed by an air raid in 1944, shortly before operations were about to begin.” (Wittig 2007, 56) The aerial warfare “prompted ( ) the authorities to demand relocation of acrylic production and processing to Eberstadt and Weißenburg in Upper Franconia. These plans were never implemented in practice, however.” (Wittig 2007, 61)
What is probably the most inglorious chapter in the history of the company is associated with the expansion programme: “The fact that Röhm & Haas was able to satisfy the demands of the Nazi regime for ever-increasing deliveries of acrylic for years was attributable to the allocation of numerous forced labourers and prisoners of war.” (Wittig 2007, 58) In September 1944, they accounted for 26 per cent of the workforce, which was in line with the national average. The proportion at the Mittenwalde facility was considerably higher at almost 44 per cent. (Wittig 2007, 60) “The absolute number of forced labourers at Röhm & Haas was […] definitely no less than 1,000. There is no evidence that these labourers included any prisoners from concentration camps.” (Wittig 2007, 59)
Death at the age of 63
Aerial warfare, which in the final analysis triggered the acrylic boom, was what brought production of the new plastic in Germany to an end. Following bombing attacks on Darmstadt in September and December 1944, the Röhm & Haas factory was in ruins and had to be shut down completely. Although no bombs fell in Mittenwalde, acrylic production there was paralysed by “massive supply problems” (Wittig 2007, 61), before the factory was finally seized by the Soviet army in April 1945.
Otto Röhm did not live to experience most of the war and the demise of his company. He already died in 1939, “on 17. September, shortly after Hitler invaded Poland” (Edschmid 1957, 63; see also Wittig 2007, 55), at the age of only 63. Following the death of his wife, who failed to recover from a gall bladder operation and died seven weeks later on 29. February 1936, her widower was emotionally crushed (Trommsdorff 1976, 280). Röhm wrote in his diary on 10. January 1937: “I am doing my work solely for my children. I no longer have the enjoyment I used to have. I miss having my wife to talk to.” (Trommsdorff 1976, 281) The same year, he had a stroke from which he recovered (Edschmid 1957, 62), but he only lived two more years. Röhm, who “received too little recognition and too few awards and honours” in Nazi Germany “[…] in view of his achievements” (Trommsdorff 1976, 271), can have felt flattered by being appointed Consul General by the King Boris III of Bulgaria (1894-1943) in the year of his 61st birthday:
“Relationships to the Bulgarian business community, in which Röhm enjoyed an excellent reputation, had been maintained for years. […] As the Bulgarian Consul General, Röhm was required to keep an office in Frankfurt a. M., where he employed two secretaries. When it was pointed out to him that the amount of work required hardly justified such luxury, he merely said: ‘I am aware of that; I can afford it’ This brief answer concealed the fact that one of the staff members concerned had been expelled from his position by the Nazi regime and that Röhm provided him and his family a way to earn a living.” (Trommsdorff 1976, 272; see also Edschmid 1957, 62)
Kai Buchholz (2007): Acrylic. Material in architecture and design. Catalogue for the exhibition at the Mathildenhöhe Institute, Darmstadt, 16. 9. 2007 to 6. 1. 2008. Cologne: Wienand, 151 pages
Kasimir Edschmid (1957): In memoriam Otto Röhm. On the 50th anniversary of the establishment of Chemische Fabrik Röhm & Haas Darmstadt. Darmstadt: Carl Winter, 75 pages
Röhm & Haas AG, Darmstadt (1938): Acrylic – an innovative new material with unusual properties, 27 pages
Ernst Trommsdorff (1937): The acrylic resins. [Reprint from: “Kunststoffe“, 27th volume] Munich: J. F. Lehmann, 16 pages
Ernst Trommsdorff (1976): Dr Otto Röhm. Chemist and entrepreneur. Düsseldorf and Vienna: Econ, 294 pages
Elisabeth Vaupel (2011): Transparent technology thanks to acrylic. About the ideology of transparent models in the Thirties. In: Kultur & Technik, 35th volume, No. 2, pages 26-31; www.deutsches-museum.de/uploads/pics/26-31Vaupel_Plexiglas_RZ_web.pdf
Alexander Völkert and Frank Jablonski (2015): Glass that is not actually glass. www.maschinenmarkt.vogel.de/glas-und-doch-kein-glas-a-491533
Eva Wittig: Shaping the future for 100 years. Röhm GmbH from 1907 to 2007. Munich: Peschke, 112 pages