Monday, November 2, 2009

Reshaping the Invisible

'Success and guilt are inseparable. Men of action cannot achieve great things without shadows falling across their path.' Thus the very first line of Reshaping the Invisible, a book published by the Board of Management of Farbenfabriken Bayer AG of Leverkusen, Germany, on the occasion of the centenary of the firm on 1st August 1963, and from such an explosive start one might expect the rest of the text to grapple with or account for that darkness. This is after all a company that had been part of the industrial arm of the Nazi machine - the IG Farben conglomerate, makers of Zyklon B - and whose board had seen fit in 1955 to appoint as chairman Fritz ter Meer, a former executive who had just finished serving a seven year sentence handed down to him at Nuremberg for his involvement in the planning of the Monowitz camp - where Primo Levi, amongst countless others, had been imprisoned.

Ter Meer had in fact just retired from the post the year before, at the ripe old age of 77. Surely the time had come at such a symbolic juncture for his leadership and the company’s involvement in the Nazi war machine to be acknowledged, but the book does nothing of the sort. Here is in fact the remainder of that opening paragraph:
No one can help his neighbour without lessening the love he owes to another person. But from time immemorial it has been thought sinful to be happy. Our conscience will both spur us and check us. We hear its voice in our greatest moments, when we are about to interfere not only with moral laws but also with the order of nature to make our life easier and happier.

A most grotesque pivot, to be sure. The shadows evoked here by the author - journalist and historian Friedrich Sieburg - have got nothing to do with the role of the industrial concern in medical experiments, extermination or warfare. They are moral shadows of a higher order: the twinge that the conscience feels when the natural order of things is interfered with; a sense of Promethean hubris that grips the scientist, guilty, if he’s guilty of anything, of daring, of loving too much.

Liberation through chemical research: that is the stated business of Bayer AG. If there is any history in play, it’s condensed in that stupendously elliptical phrase. We owe whatever freedom, equality and prosperity we enjoy to the merchants of technoscience, and tragically misguided were the French revolutionaries who arrested Count Antoine Laurent Lavoisier and guillotined him on the same day, when all he asked was to be allowed to complete the experiment he was working on when the commissaries showed up at his door. In Sieburg’s story, Lavoisier is the father figure, the man who before any other understood how to reshape the invisible, that is to say comprehend the nature of matter and how substances can be transformed into other substances, thus unlocking the earth’s ‘inexhaustible riches’ for the benefit of humankind.

There is no other history that matters to the historian Sieburg, no narrative that is allowed to interfere with the linear advance of science and research, measured in the ever-increasing number and usefulness of new products deriving from chemical research, except insofar as a condensed account of the birth of the chemical industry will inevitably intersect with that of the modern nation state. Here Sieburg lets slip an interesting observation on what constitutes the inherent nature not of gases and minerals, but of peoples and cultures:
It is difficult to explain why Germany should have come to the fore in this manner as a leading country in the field of chemistry. Economic reasons alone or a coincidence of calculable and rational factors would not supply a full explanation. The great strides made by some nations in the process of Reshaping the Invisible are partly due to a certain dynamic element that cannot be accurately forecast and which is not governed by reason or by coincidence and which must be regarded as manifestation of that nation’s inherent quality.

If one adds this inherent capacity of the German people to the previous observation that it is not chemistry that must be directed to the fulfilment of human needs, but rather man (sic) that must 'prove himself worthy of the countless means made available to him by chemical research and by chemical industry to fulfil his destiny', Sieburg comes mighty close here to rehashing the Master Race argument, but one must read the book to fully appreciate its utter and consuming lack of self-awareness.

Bayer’s self-penned history is not revisionist, nor does it fall under the rubric of unbecoming: for there is nothing here that is being denied, or rewritten, or obfuscated. There is in fact no mention of the words national socialism or Hitler or Zyklon B or Auschwitz in the whole text - not even in the year-by-year timeline, which in the lead up to the war makes for distressing reading: 1934, Bayer sets up a dental department; 1935, Bayer releases the first therapeutically effective sulpha drug; 1937, Bayer receives an international prize for the synthetic rubber Buna (later to be manufactured at the Monowitz camp); 1938, Bayer produces 350,000 tons of sulphuric acid. It is a seamless transition, and pride in achievement and industry continues unabated. Here’s the entry for 1933:

The Bayer Cross is erected in an elevated position above the Leverkusen works and is lit up on the 20th of February as the largest freely suspended and luminous advertisement of its with time with a diameter of 70 m. It is switched off in 1939 and later taken down. In 1958 it is replaced by a modern lighting arrangement of 51 m in diameter.

But why, what had happened in 1939? The only clue is in the entry for 1945, which contains the one and only mention in the book of the word war (whereas the entries between 1940 and 1944 - believe it or not - enumerated yet more discoveries, including pioneering advances in colour cinematography). Here we also find the only image in any way related to the conflict.

IG Farbenindustrie Aktiengesellschft are seized and dissolved by the Allied Control Council. The works at Leverkusen, Elberfeld, Dormagen and Uerdingen are placed under US control, later under British control. On 11th May 1945 the Military Government issue the first Permit No. 1 RWA for resumption of certain production activities. The Leverkusen sales organisation is built up. Reconstruction of war-damaged sites is initiated. Production in those plants that have either remained intact or have been reconstructed is gradually resumed provided raw materials can be procured. The number of employees which had been 29,563 when the war begun had gone down to less than 3,000.

That is it. The one moment when the author allows for all that history to creep into the account of the life of Bayer reads like the minutes of a board meeting ratifying a change in the company’s organisational structure, mixed with a victim’s report - and the victim is the corporation, whose factories are damaged, whose workforce is severely depleted (an arithmetic that fails to mention the fact that the company ran its own camp at Auschwitz, good for 83,000 slave labourers at its peak in 1944).

I am unsure of the boundary between the callous omission and the pathological excision in this account. ‘All that happens today belongs to the past tomorrow. But which of us engaged in shaping today’s events can judge what will pass into history?’ asks Sieburg, as if soliciting an absolution that cannot be given, and neither is truly, explicitly sought. What is left, when one expunges these statements symptomatic of a profoundly dysfunctional relationship with memory and history, is the lavishly illustrated, occasionally interesting chronicle of the birth of an industry. ‘It started with colour’, explains the author, with light, like the book of Genesis.

‘A rich palette of syntans, special dyes, high-quality leather lacquers and other auxiliaries are available for the leather industry.’

The synthesis of textile dyestuffs from coal tar is what paved the way for the chemical industry, and then of course came photography, its ‘most conspicuous and visible triumph’ and a source of enduring pride for Bayer thanks to the success of its Agfa plant in Leverkusen.

‘Critical eyes examine Agfacolor transparencies and negatives.’

I’m making a mental note to refer to this picture in a future discussion of Coppola’s The Conversation, for it is the correlative of Gene Hackman’s character emblematic failure to understand the content of the audio tape that he replays for us during much of the film. Here we have not one but six specialists hunched over a set of colour pictures, examining them with their ‘critical eyes’. But what are they looking for, what can they see? One doubts that they are making sense of those images the way an end user would, looking for familiar people or places and a socially constructed meaning. I rather think they are looking for other qualities: exactness, sharpness, uniformity and fidelity of the colours. And so does this peculiar and distressing history of Bayer appear to have been written by a technician intent at making certain observations, writing down numbers, weighing, assaying with methodical precision, who yet has trained himself to disregard (certain) human beings with their messy interrelated lives, their vastly greater networks of meanings, and has succeeded in making them truly invisible. Like that Doctor Pannwitz at the Buna factory, another Bayer employee of not so long before, who examined Primo Levi and declared him fit for a purpose. ‘That look,’ writes Levi, ‘was not one between two men; and if I had known how completely to explain the nature of that look, which came as if across the glass window of an aquarium between two beings who live in different worlds, I would also have explained the essence of the great insanity of the Third Reich.’

In the final analysis this book too, which explicitly doesn’t set out ‘to relate in full the history of the achievements of the house of Bayer’ but merely those of the previous one hundred years that seemed significant, is the product of that diseased ideology, which couldn’t process defeat or failed experiments, and had made it its mission to strip whole categories of people not solely of their lives but also of their meanings and their histories.

Addendum: Stephen has very kindly provided a translation of Friedrich Sieburg's German Wikipedia entry - you can find it here.

I wasn't able to work into the post the figure of the young female laboratory assistant evoked by Sieburg in his essay - I try to account for her in a side note to be found here.

For an account of the relationship between IG Farben (therefore Bayer) and the Nazi regime, I recommend Peter Hayes’ IG Farben in the Nazi era and this terrific post by John Ptak. The Levi quotation is from If This is a Man, pp. 111-112 of the 1979 Abacus edition translated by Stuart Woolf. There are no page numbers in the remainder of the post’s quotations because
Reshaping the Invisible is not paginated - make of that what you will. The bibliographical details are as follows.

Kramer, Hans O.R. (ed.).
Reshaping the Invisible. Text by Frierdrich Sieburg. Düsseldorf-Wien: Econ Verlag GmbH, 1963.