The history of the Völklingen Ironworks is a success story that has also had its ups and downs. Along with the successes and its position as Germany's biggest producer of iron girders and holder of the most patents in the iron and steel sector in the world, it also had its dark sides, which included Hermann Röchling's proximity to Adolf Hitler and the National Socialists and the use of forced labour in both world wars. The upswing in the years of the economic boom was followed by the decline in the global steel crisis of the 1970s and the renewed flourishing of the Völklingen Ironworks from its inclusion in the UNESCO World Heritage List.
In 1873, the metallurgical engineer Julius Buch founded a puddling and rolling mill near Völklingen on the Saar. After six years, he had to close his factory because the business was no longer profitable due to cheap British pig iron imports and the absence of import duties.
The Saarbrücken businessman Carl Röchling buys the closed works in Völklingen. He prefers the production of pig iron. In 1883 the first blast furnace goes into operation.
Between 1882 and 1889, the Röchling Iron and Steelworks built four settlements, known as colonies, with company-owned homes to meet the escalating demand for accommodation for its workers and their families.
The improvement of the infrastructure implemented by Carl Röchling brings success to Völklinger Hütte. The Röchling Brothers Völklinger Ironworks in Völklingen becomes the biggest steel girder producer in the German Empire.
Carl Röchling introduces the Thomas process at the Völklinger Hütte relatively late. Minette from Lothringen can now be mass smelted in Völklingen.
The first coke oven battery is erected directly adjacent to the blast furnace in Völklingen. The Röchling family has considerable experience in the coking of coal having operated one of the largest coking plants, in the Saarland industrial region at Sulzbachtal.
The coal silo, made of sheet steel, which rises up above the coking-plant, dates from the same year and is one of the oldest constructions still preserved at the Völklingen Ironworks.
Carl Röchling initiated the construction of the company's own hospital for the victims of accidents at work. However, it was primarily open to foundry workers and their families. An extension was added just two years later, an indication of how the village of Völklingen had expanded.
Two years earlier experiments concerning the use of blast furnace gas for the driving of power engines were successfully executed. The experiments show blast furnace gas to be necessary for propelling internal combustion engines. The Röchling brothers immediately recognise the significance of the gas engine for the development of the iron and steel industry. They therefore erect a blast engine building some distance away from the blast furnaces.
The building cooperative Arbeiter-Baugenossenschaft 04 was founded by Hermann Röchling, marking the beginning of a new form of housing policy. As well as alleviating the housing shortage that resulted from the rapid development of the population of Völklingen, the aim was also to allow a larger number of foundry workers to own their homes in order to bind them to the company.
As a contribution to the fight against infant mortality, a milk kitchen was set up at the initiative of Carl Röchling's wife Alwine. A doctor prescribed the milk from the works' own farm to be given to babies, toddlers and the sick. Next to the milk kitchen was a welfare station that offered advice to mothers. The milk kitchen remained in existence until 1961.
The railway system for loading the blast furnaces is built. It combined the two leading technologies of the time, the self-propelled suspended railway ladders, corresponding to the Wuppertal suspension railway. In the inclined lift, a cable helped to cross the slope, according to the principle of the American "cable cars". The suspension railway system supplied the six blast furnaces of the Völklingen ironworks.
This year also saw the use of the world's first dry gas purification system. The blast furnace gas produced in the blast furnace process was thus purified of solid components. The gas could then be used to operate the gas blowing machines and to heat the cowper and coke batteries. This technology was so successful that it spread throughout the world.
The burden shed is built in 1913 and like the water tower, is one of the first constructions of this size made from reinforced concrete.
At the outbreak of the First World War production initially came to a standstill. Later, Völklingen also proceeded making armaments: shells for the front and almost 90% of the raw steel required for the new German steel helmet, which went into general issue from 1916. Ironworkers, however, were drafted into military service; their place in the ironworks was taken by women and – illegally – by prisoners of war. During the war the Völklingen works underwent further construction: a Siemens-Martin steelworks was built for the production of armaments.
Le château d'eau est installé. C'est l'un des premiers grands chantiers techniques en béton armé.
Sintering technology offers the opportunity to recycle waste products from the smelting processes - i.e. ore dust, blast furnace flue dust. One of the most modern sintering plants in Europe is built in Völklingen - and one of the biggest at that time. Materials with a grain size that is too fine for use in the blast furnaces at 1300°C are heated to form a sinter cake in the sinter plant and then broken into the correct size pieces.
As a major industrialist, Hermann Röchling actively pursued the annexation of the Saar region to National Socialist Germany, among other things with his polemic "Wir halten die Saar!". In the following years, as a "military economic leader" he was one of the leading players in the pre-war and war economy.
With the construction of the Bouser Höhe housing estate, from 1937 the "Allgemeine Baugenossenschaft Völklingen 1904" realised an urban planning concept that had already proven its value in the 1920s: that of the small housing estate. One key factor in the foundation of the new estate was a concept that was pursued in early projects of binding workers at the Völklingen Ironworks more closely to the company by providing them with their own homes. Following the death of Hermann Röchling, the Bouser Höhe was renamed Hermann Röchling Höhe despite the fact that he was a convicted war criminal. After many years of dispute over the name, a compromise was finally reached in 2013: Röchling-Höhe.
During the Second World War a total of almost 70,000 foreign workers and prisoners of war worked in the mines, foundries and factories of the Saar region. At the Völklingen Ironworks and its auxiliary operations more than 12,000 foreign people of various nations were put to work for the ironworks. The great majority were forced labour, French, Italian and Russian prisoners of war or Russian and Ukrainian civilians deported from the Soviet Union. The working conditions were discriminatory and inhuman. More than 250 of the foreign work force, most of whom were forced labourers (male and female), died there.
At the end of the war the ironworks goes back into operation under French management.
After the Second World War, the Völklingen Ironworks was placed under French sequestration. It was only when the Saarland was given back to Germany at the end of 1956 that the Völklingen Ironworks were returned to the Röchling family.
Along with other family members and directors, Hermann Röchling was sentenced to ten years in prison. His entire fortune was confiscated and he was deprived of his civil rights.
More than 17,000 people work at the Völklinger Hütte. The highest number of employees in the history of the works is reached.
The Völklingen Ironworks was also affected by the global steel crisis of 1975. While the Luxembourg steel group Arbed ran the Burbach site in the Saarland until 1971, the Völklingen Ironworks amalgamated with the "Vereinigte Hüttenwerke Burbach-Eich-Düdelingen" to form the jointly operated "Stahlwerke Röchling-Burbach GmbH". Arbed Saarstahl GmbH was created with the integration of the Neunkirchen Ironworks in 1982; the Röchling family parted company with the works in 1978. In 1986 the company was renamed Saarstahl.
A new steelworks goes into operation in the vicinity of the Völklingen Ironworks. Using the basic oxygen process, the pig iron from the blast furnaces is further processed into steel
The Völklinger Hütte blast furnaces are shut down. The Saarland Council of Ministers agrees to preserve significant parts of the closed works as historical monuments
A new phase begins in the history of the ironworks when the Völklinger Hütte is granted a place as the first industrial monument on the UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site List. It is the only surviving ironworks in the world from the heyday of iron and steel production and a unique testimony to an industrial epoch of the past.
The Saarland founded the new sponsoring company, the World Heritage Site Völklingen Ironworks – European Centre for Art and Industrial Culture. Since 1999, more than 4.5 million people have visited the World Heritage Site Völklingen Ironworks.
The following is a compilation of further information for you on individual people and historical events.
The beginning of a new era: in October 1872, when ironworks engineer Julius Buch in Cologne decided to establish an ironworks on the Saar, he could not have had any idea that he was laying the foundations of more than 100 years of iron and steel production in Völklingen. In April 1873, Buch founded the company 'Völklinger Eisenhütte bei Saarbrücken, Actiengesellschaft für Eisenindustrie' (The Völklingen Ironworks near Saarbrücken, limited company for the iron industry). By the end of 1873 the works’ 12 puddle furnaces produced bloom iron and iron girders.
At first business was good. But after only five years there was a slump. Import duties were abolished, meaning 'French, Belgian and English iron products could be delivered at a cheaper rate than the old domestic works could produce', as Julius Buch himself was compelled to admit. In December 1878 the works went into liquidation: operations were ceased and all its workers and employees made redundant.
'Dear Theodor, I bought the Völklingen Ironworks yesterday for 270,000 marks…'
In this telegram, which Carl Röchling sent on 27th August 1881 from Völklingen to his brother Theodor at the parent house of the family in Saarbrücken, he informed him that he had bought the ramschackle Völklingen Ironworks that had recently been put up for auction by the Bros. Haldy company. To supply the Völklingen Ironworks with ore Carl Röchling bought ore fields in Algringen, Lorraine in 1882-1883. Carl Röchling began his development to become an iron and steel industrialist as a merchant involved in commercial and financial capital rather than as an expert and technician. He was very much a 'European' industrialist. He spoke French, he studied in Le Havre and Rotterdam, he ran companies with French business partners and worked closely with French industrialists. Following its prehistory in the depths of bankruptcy Carl Röchling built what became the Röchling‘sche Iron and Steel Works GmbH into one of the highest earning industrial companies of Europe. When the "Geheimer Kommerzienrat" Carl Röchling retired from operational business shortly after the turn of the century, he was one of the wealthiest men of his time. Carl Röchling died in Saarbrücken in 1910.
On the fields of Northern France and Belgium the First World War reached traumatising dimensions. In the course of 1916 each hectare of earth on the battlefield of Verdun was bombarded with an average of 50 tons of steel from grenades. The age of war machines was unfolding. In the forms of iron and steel, coal and coke, industry on the Saar produced the most important raw materials for Germany’s arms production. Ammunition production was the Röchling’sche Iron and Steel Works major task for German weapon production.
The Röchling’sche works also played a vital role in a special new development that emerged out of the First World War: the steel helmet. Völklingen’s newly developed induction furnace produced the best steel for the manufacture of the helmet. The works enlarged the capacity of the furnace enabling the ironworks to produce 80 to 90% of all the materials required for the steel helmet.
Hermann Röchling was born in Saarbrücken in 1872. He studied National Economy, Mining and Metallurgy in Heidelberg. In 1895 his father put him in charge of a blast furnace in the Völklingen Ironworks. He broadened his education in the USA and Scandinavia.
In 1905 Herman Röchling became the Managing Director of the Völklingen Ironworks whereupon he had an essential impact on the technological development of the Ironworks. As early as 1936 Hermann Röchling put the company in the service of the arms building and war policy of the Third Reich. Workforce shortage led to the closure of the ironworks in September 1939. At the end of 1939 production was running again. In October 1940 four blast furnaces were in operation. Production was switched to war materials: gun barrels, grenades and aeroplane parts.
From the early summer of 1940 forced labourers and prisoners of war were used in the Röchling works. From 1942 Hermann Röchling belonged to the High Command of the National Socialist war economy. He was one of Adolf Hitler’s greatest admirers and in his book 'Haltet die Saar' (Maintain the Saar) he praised his taking over of power and promoted it on the Saar with great enthusiasm and energy.
Hermann Röchling was convicted of war crimes at the Rastatter Trials in 1948/1949. He was released from prison in 1951.
In 1953, Hermann Röchling was awarded the Siemens Ring, the highest award for technical sciences in Germany.
Hermann Röchling died in Mannheim on 24 August 1955.
Due to its proximity to the front, at the beginning of the Second World War, the Völklingen Ironworks had to vacate its premises. On 30th January 1938, Hermann Göring appointed Hermann Röchling to the position of Wehrwirtschaftsführer (approximating a title of one of its 'war industry leaders'). The shortage in manpower led to the temporary closure of the ironworks in March 1939. However, by the end of 1939 production began again. By October that year four blast furnaces were in full operation.
Production was switched to war materials: gun barrels, grenades and aeroplane parts. From the early summer of 1940, forced labour and prisoners of war were used in the Röchling works. As the front edged ever closer, in autumn 1940 production at the Völklingen Ironworks was reduced. A skeleton staff of 2 to 3 hundred remained at the works.
Carl Theodor Röchling, Herrmann’s son and heir was murdered in the ironworks in December 1944. In the last few months of the war the Völklingen Ironworks was not spared from destruction, but the damages were actually not as great as those of other ironworks on the Saar.
From 16th February to 30th June 1948 the leading representatives of the Röchling’sche Eisen- und Stahlwerke Völklingen were prosecuted by the Tribunal Général in the castle at Rastatt: chairman of the board Hermann Röchling and members of the management executive Ernst Röchling, Hans-Lothar von Gemmingen, Wilhelm Rodenhauser and Albert Meier.
An appeal was lodged against the declared verdict of 30th June 1948. On 25th January 1949 the final judgement was announced: ten years jail, confiscation of property, loss of honour for Hermann Röchling. Three years jail, seizure of half his property and loss of honour for Hans-Lothar von Gemmingen. Wilhelm Rodenhauser was sentenced to three years imprisonment. Albert Maier’s acquittal was upheld. Ernst Röchling, acquitted in the first trial was sentenced to five years in jail, loss of honour and his property was confiscated.
In March 1945 the Völklingen Ironworks was occupied by American troops. In July 1945 Saarland was declared a French occupied zone. The Völklingen Ironworks came under French military administration. As early as 1952 the Völklingen Ironworks re-attained its pre-war production numbers. In 1956 French administration was lifted and the Völklingen Ironworks was returned to the Röchling family. In 1957 Saarland was integrated into the Federal Republic of Germany. The German mark replaced the French franc as currency.
After the Second World War the construction boom brought the economic miracle to the Völklingen Ironworks evidenced by its increase in production numbers. In 1971 the Völklingen Ironworks was merged with the Burbach Ironworks to become the 'Steelworks Röchling-Burbach GmbH'. In Burbach they concentrated on the production of wire: in 1973 an extremely innovative rod mill was created – one of the largest and most modern in the world.
Up to the mid-1970s steel industry production numbers rose constantly. Its peak was reach in 1974. What followed was a crash: in 1975 the steel crisis had established itself. The merging of the ironworks in Völklingen and Saarbrücken-Burbach to become the 'Steel Works Röchling-Burbach GmbH' had already occurred in 1971.
In Völklingen they risked venturing further forward. In 1980 a new steel works was put into operation: the most modern technology was brought in with the hope of staving off the threat of decline. The executive management of the Steel Works Röchling-Burbach GmbH were assigned to the Dillinger Ironworks. A new company was created: 'Saarstahl Völklingen GmbH'.
The steel crisis continued worsening: 8,500 were made redundant. On 4th July 1986 the most momentous measure was taken: the blast furnaces of the Völklingen Ironworks were shut down, production of pig iron ceased, the coking plant and all auxiliary operations of iron production terminated.
The 1986 closure of the Völklingen Ironworks changed the reality of site and its building most abruptly. Blast furnace groups, the coking plant, sintering plant, burden shed, craftsman’s alley and the blower hall were to become monuments.
The placing of a conservation order on the Völklingen Ironworks at the Saarland Preservation Department was followed quickly in 1994 with its nomination as a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site.