The Holocaust Historiography Project
Auschwitz, by J.-C. Pressac
Meanwhile. a certain Kurt Prüfer [Document 1], born in Erfurt on 21st April 1891, had been hired by the firm on 15th June 1911 at a monthly salary of 90 RM. He started work the next day as building foreman ["Bauführer"]. The new man was admittedly short on education, but he had ambition and was not afraid of work. After finishing basic secondary schooling ["Realschule"], he worked on building sites from the age of l4 to 17 and there he quickly realized that his rudimentary education offered no future. At 16 he started attending courses in building subjects, then for two years he studied structural engineering ["Hochbau"] at the Erfurt Royal Vocational School of Building. From the age of 19 to 20, he was employed as building technician and foreman by two other firms before being taken on by Topf. Although Topf by now had a “crematorium construction” division, Prüfer cannot have worked there, for when he was called up on 12th October 1912, he was employed in the malting installations division. By now he was much better qualified: he could produce design, construction and installation drawings. perform static calculations and install the equipment produced. He was out of luck however, for while he was doing his military service with the Erfurt 71st Infantry Regiment, the Great War broke out on 2nd August 1914. He went right through the war without injury, and by the time it was all over, on 9th November 1918. he had the rank of Sergeant of the Reserve ["Vizefeldwebel der Reserves"]. The temptation to remain in the army may have touched him at this precarious time, for he was not demobilized until March 1919, having had to work on winding up the affairs of his unit. Back in civvy street, Prüfer continued his education. From April 1919 to 12th March 1920, he spent two semesters studying civil engineering ["Tiefbau"], at the Erfurt National Vocational School of Building. He was taken back by Topf on the following 1st April. In 1925 he was promoted to engineer and was thus entitled to a commission of 1% on any sales he made. In 1928, he became head of the “Krematoriuimbau” [crematorium construction] division. The runaway inflation of the years 1922-24 does not seem to have had any effect on Messrs Topf, thus confirming that this inflation was above all a defensive economic weapon aimed at preventing payment of the “reparations” demanded by the Allies.

In 1929, Ernst-Wolfgang Topf entered the firm to assist his elder brother, Ludwig Junior, and his mother. It was an inauspicious time. The Wall Street “Black Friday” of 24th October 1929 was disastrous for the world economic situation. Protectionism, falling volumes of trade and mass unemployment resulted. In Germany. there were one and a half million unemployed at the end of 1929. The country was on the verge of bankruptcy several times in 1930, 1931, and 1932, and in July 1932 there were seven million unemployed and a further ten million who worked scarcely half time. Nothing was going right: the government was floundering and business was at a standstill. 1932 was a dark year for Topf. There were few if any orders, and the two directors, probably after having made many of the workers redundant, were considering pruning the supervisory staff. Hitler came to power on 30th January 1933, but the situation did not improve overnight and the first few months of the new year remained catastrophic. On 29th March, Prüfer was warned that he would probably lose Itis job on 30th September. However, the two directors were reluctant to get rid of him and gave him the means to defend himself commercially: on 13th April, his commission was increased from 1 to 2%, with retroactive effect from 1st April. Losing Prüfer would have been a real blow to Topf, as the entire crematorium division was now dependent on him. Outside Topf, competing firms had got to know of his impending departure and it seems that in June or July, Didier of Berlin expressed interest in hiring him. The two directors were warned about this by their Berlin representative. On 28th September, the threatened redundancy was postponed until 31st March 1934. The Nazi regime was becoming established, internal unrest was waning and business was picking up. On 15th March 1934, the threat of dismissal was finally removed. Engineer Prüfer had had a very close call, and he was never to forget it.
Document 1
Document 1
[Weimar State Archives, Bestand 2/555a]
Photograph from Kurt Prüfer's personal file taken between 1935 and 1940 showing him at the age of about 45, when he was senior engineer and in charge of Topf's, Division D IV “Crematorium Construction.” Having escaped threatened redundancy following Hitler's accession to power, and being afraid of becoming unemployed at his age, he subsequently did not hesitate to do deals with the Devil. Legitimately involved in cremation activities, in order to help his firm and strengthen his position within it, he did everything to pull off the deal of a lifetime in selling furnaces to KL Auschwitz, and at the same time involving Topf in the creation of homicidal gas chambers at Birkenau.
It is not known when Prüfer joined the Nazi Party [Document 2]. but it was probably in 1934 or 1935, after the threat of redundancy had been removed and his position in the firm had been consolidated. Finding himself unemployed at the age of 42 would have been terrible for Prüfer, as so many others are unfortunately finding for themselves today. Only two Berlin firms. Didier and Kori, would have been able to offer him a position similar to that he held with Topf, but as the situation in 1933 was scarcely any better for those two firms, it is doubtful that he could have been taken on. Having arrived at his position thanks to working his way up, he was vulnerable in the face of younger men with better paper qualifications and a lower starting salary. His only hope lay in the new regime that was being established, and he must certainly have known some of the new elite from his war years. What is more, Prüfer fitted the profile of those now in power or close to them: war veteran, self-taught, versed in construction techniques, an engineer. The New Germany was based on people like him, and his enrolment in the Nazi Party was at one and the same time both his thanks to those who had saved his situation and his licence to enter future markets.

As from 1935, the German economy took a definite turn for the better, and as from 1st January, Ludwig Junior, Johanna and Ernst-Wolfgang officially took control of the firm. In fact, only the two brothers actively managed it, and had been doing so unofficially for five years [as shown by their initials, “LT” for Ludwig Topf and “ET” for Ernst-Wolfgang Topf, found on the firm's correspondence]. The prospects became so favourable that it was no longer a matter of redundancies but rather of recruitment. For example, one Gustav Braun was hired in Berlin as production engineer at the beginning of May. On 30th November, the new structure of the firm was registered with the Erfurt Chamber of Commerce under the number HRA 3234. Immediately afterwards, on 2nd December, Prüfer was made chief engineer ["Oberingenieur"]. In addition to his new status, because of his experience with the secretariat of his army unit in 1914-18 and his membership of the Nazi Party, Prüfer was made delegate for the Topf personnel, a voluntary post that he did not hold very long.

In 1939, Topf had about 1200 employees. The firm became a supplier to the Wehrmacht and stepped up the purchase of materials in order to be able to fulfil these army contracts. Given the status of an enterprise “essential to the war economy” Topf duly contributed to the “Adolf Hitler Endowment Fund of German Industry.” By the end of 1940 the firm had completed 342,328.87 RM worth of contracts for diverse installations for the army. In addition, there were trade links with “Technoimport” in Moscow. For the two directors, these brilliant results were clouded somewhat by the death of their mother, Else Topf, the widow of Ludwig Senior. By this time, Prüfer appeared to be a man who had arrived. He was sure of himself, confident of his own value and that of his products, often preemptory in his manner [report of 15th May 1939 by Herr Machemehl and telephone call of 8th July 1940 transcribed by Herr Kleinhans].

Thanks to his Party card. Prüfer was able to introduce himself into concentration camp SS circles, where the demand for cremation furnaces was increasing for two reasons: high mortality and fear of disease. His first order was to come from Dachau, the camp that had been the first to “open,” on 22nd March 1933, but he was not the only one to have been consulted. The camp administration had first asked the design office of an industrial furnace manufacturer, ["Ingenieurbüro / Industrieofenbau"] W MÜLLER of Allach, to produce a cremation furnace. Allach being the location of the famous SS porcelain factory, part of which was transferred close to Dachau in 1937. Müller had already supplied the SS with furnaces for porcelain. This firm first proposed a gas-fired cremation furnace, then on learning that the camp had no town gas supply, Müller proposed a coke-fired furnace in lune 1937. They seem to have been unsuccessful however, and it was Prüfer who landed the contract In November 1939, he installed in Dachau a two-muffle cremation furnace, of a design not found anywhere else, at a cost of 8,750 RM.