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The Watchmakers Who Saved Glashütte

Ferdinand Adolph Lange established a horological industry in a poor German town in 1845, and his great-grandson Walter resuscitated it a century and a half later
Elizabeth Doerr
From the Print Edition:
Matthew McConaughey, March/April 2011

(continued from page 1)

If a word were to be used to describe Glashütte's people, it might be tenacious. The persistent spirit that prevails in the small city has been the key to its survival, for this unfortunate region has been afflicted more than once with modern plagues. At the beginning of the 1900s, the town's industry was jeopardized by the development of the wristwatch, which was beginning to replace the pocket watch, although the latter would remain prevalent until the 1920s.

The lifting of an embargo on Swiss products in 1924 finally burst the dam, leading to a flood of comparatively cheap Swiss wristwatches on the market. A. Lange & Söhne countered this by introducing a simplified, machine-manufactured caliber sold alongside its luxury products. Shortly after the Swiss challenge was overcome, however, the world economic crisis set off by the 1929 market crash and ensuing inflation dampened Glashütte's flourishing business. A. Lange & Söhne managed to survive where others did not thanks to its quality products and enthusiasm for watchmaking.

"My parents never let on about the status of the times," remembers 84-year-old Walter Lange, Ferdinand Adolph's great-grandson, who grew up in Glashütte in relative comfort. "I was born in the Weimar era, then came the crash in 1929 and the great unemployment. I can still see it today; it was a childhood trauma for me, when I looked out the living room window and saw all the unemployed men lined up, waiting across the street. I will never forget that view, and it was one of the main reasons I started the company again [in 1990]—to bring work to Glashütte. I saw the same situation heading toward Glashütte again."

The next crisis, in the 1930s, stemmed from National Socialism and the rise of the Nazi party. This bleak period in German history did not leave an isolated region like the Erzgebirge untouched: to the contrary, it was perhaps felt even more strongly here than in a large city, with local representatives of the party not only familiar with neighboring faces and attitudes, but also installed in companies to ensure that party directives were being followed. A. Lange & Söhne was not immune to the unstable political environment which, along with continued rampant inflation, contributed to falling watch sales.

During the Nazis' rise, Walter Lange was a young watchmaker being prepped for the family business. When he was drafted into the army in 1942 at the age of 18, he was attending a watchmaking school in Karlstein, Austria. Though Glashütte's watchmaking school had the best reputation around, at the time it was only taking journeymen headed for master certification. Lange and his family felt that Walter should first get out and see some of the world. During the war, Lange was heavily injured at the Russian front before embarking on a perilous journey westward across Denmark in the midst of a retreat to find medical attention.

A. Lange & Söhne and the other Glashütte watchmakers had also been pressed into military service, ordered to develop pilot's wristwatches for the air force. These watches became legendary for their precision and reliability.

Upon returning home, Walter Lange had yet to experience the worst part of this nightmarish chapter in Saxony's history. After the war, Germany was divided into four zones, with each of the Allied forces in charge of one: Glashütte was located in the zone that belonged to the conquering Soviets, who proceeded to pillage the land.

Among other things, the Soviet Union was interested in Glashütte's wristwatch technology, and it forced A. Lange & Söhne to hand over all construction plans for Caliber 48, the reliable movement used in the pilot's watches. The Soviet forces also dismantled the factory's machinery and sent it off to Moscow, leaving Glashütte with a weakened watchmaking industry—and bombed out to boot: The town had been the victim of an air raid that took place on May 8, 1945, just hours before the war was officially declared over.

Nothing but an energy turbine was left standing, according to Walter Lange.

Lange returned to work in various departments of his family's business. After several years of rebuilding, A. Lange & Söhne was beginning to reclaim its previous global reputation when the next disaster struck: the rise of the socialist German Democratic Republic and the establishment of a planned economy.

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