Herbert and Lotte Krippendorff
Herbert and Lotte Krippendorff (1993)
Herbert Krippendorff

A Century and Always With It

When the Brothers Wright flew their first motorized airplane, he had just outgrown his diapers. When Einstein developed his Theory of Relativity, he started grammar school. As a high school student, he heard of the assassination in Sarajevo and the beginning of World War I. As a teenager, he read about the Russian October revolution in the newspapers. As a work-study student in the US, he missed by a few days the Wall Street stock market crash on "Black Friday." He lived through the ups and downs of Germany: the Monarchy, the Weimar Republic, the Nazi-Dictatorship -- megalomania, ruin, reconstruction, economic miracle, partition, and reunification. He was 60 when, at the height of the Cold war, the Cuban Missile Crisis threatened détente and 63 when John F. Kennedy was shot. At 68, he saw Neil Armstrong's first hopping steps upon the moon. When he was 91, he followed the disintegration of the Soviet Union -- a whole century, Herbert Krippendorff was there, active, and alive. This civil engineer, with a remarkable record of professional and academic accomplishments, who has lived in Ratingen, Germany, for more than 50 years, was born in 1900 and is still exceptionally healthy and sprightly. On September 28 he will be 100 years old.

Electricity was a Rarity
Herbert Krippendorff was born in a small town near Dresden, but grew up in this exciting metropolis on the Elbe River. As a child, electricity was something unusual, even in Dresden, the capital of Saxony. In private homes it was virtually unknown, at best it enabled the rich to show their wealth without making their life easier. Heat came from coal stoves and light came from gas lanterns. When he was in elementary school, Prussian drill and celebrations of war heroes dominated education in Germany. Maneuver-like games were common, the Centurion remembers vividly. On the birthday of the German Kaiser, students didn't have to go to school. "By contrast, the public school I attended was exceptionally progressive: there was no corporal punishment!" Studying at the King George's Gymnasium, the young Krippendorff was blessed to be subjected by contemporary pedagogy.

World War I impacted greatly on this young man. His father, already 50, became a reserve officer and died after -- by today's standards -- a rather insignificant medical procedure. He lost his favorite uncle on one of the meaningless battlefields. In the newspapers, then the only source of information for most people, he recalls reading of the Soviet revolution in Russia, the abdication of the German Kaiser, and the rising political turmoil in Germany. The radio was not yet fully developed, and the world was still small, simple, and seemingly comprehensible.

Camel Caravans on the Suez Canal
All the more formative must have been the adventure, when Krippendorff decided in 1922 -- while studying for an academic degree in civil engineering -- to travel into the wide world for nearly half a year. A strike of the mechanics of the merchant marine gave him this chance: he signed up on a 7000-ton freighter en route to India. "We didn't know much about the world. We knew foreign cities only by name: Bombay, Calcutta, Rangoon, and Karachi. It was an unforgettable experience when we passed the last lighthouse on the English Channel and faced the wide open sea. Going through the Suez Canal and seeing camel caravans along the bank, was one of many lasting impressions." As second machinist on board of this steamer, the 22-year-old also made badly needed money. After the death of his father, the financial resources of the family became scarce. His starting salary was 200 Reichsmark. On his return, it had climbed to 9,600 RM, on account of the galloping inflation -- but this was just the beginning.

The Statue of Liberty in the Morning Fog
Back home he was determined: "I had to see more of the world!" After earning his university degree he decided to go to the United States as a work-study student, a concept hardly known at that time. A six-day passage over the Atlantic brought the 24-year-old face to face with the Statue of Liberty, draped in morning fog. "It was one of the most memorable moments of my life. Then skyscrapers came into view, … and so many cars! In Germany, horse carriages and bicycles still dominated street traffic. America was far ahead of the rest of the world."

Thanks to his all-round technical education, he got jobs as lathe operator and mechanic, but soon was attracted by the car metropolis of Detroit where he applied for a job with Ford Motor Company. They needed toolmakers, so he bought himself a box of used tools, hoping to impress the interviewer for the job. Although his boss did not fall for the deception, he hired him anyhow -- "and I learned more than I bargained for." A couple of years later, he was asked to manage the New York office of the now established German-American work-study program.

In 1929 he returned to Germany, and married his wife Lotte, who had been in the United States for two years as well, pursuing her own dreams. She died in 1997 after 67 years of marriage. His career sent them all over Germany. They had four children, Klaus, 1932, born in Frankfurt; Ekkehart, 1934, born in Augsburg; Ute, 1938, born in Rostock; and Rainer, 1943, born in Halberstadt.

The five years he spent in the United States kept him free of the growing racism and anti-Semitism that he encountered during the Nazi era. "In the States I learned to be open and tolerant." Unsuspectingly, the technical knowledge he acquired in the United States helped him to endure this darkest period in German history and World War II. He was spared the draft by working in the airplane industry and survived Allied bombing of Halberstadt, three days before the U.S. Army entered the burning city without resistance.

Flight in a Farmer's Truck over the East-West Border
The collapse of the Nazi-Regime found the Krippendorffs in a small village near Halberstadt in the Soviet-occupied Zone. The family, having lost everything, lived under the most primitive conditions in a former military shack. He took the initiative to develop a small mechanics workshop, repairing agricultural equipment. Initially, this was tolerated, but in 1949, in the course of the Soviet-style collectivization in the East, his machines were confiscated and he was disowned. Without work and even less hope, he and his wife decided to escape from East Germany with their four children. "We packed our necessities, loaded them on the truck of a friendly farmer, who drove us under the cover of darkness right to the border with the West. The remaining journey past bribed border guards was at our own risk."

Thanks to the network of former America-work-study students, he soon found work in Düsseldorf and moved to nearby Ratingen. "It was astonishing to see how different the two parts of Germany had already become: ideological inefficiency dominated the East while monumental reconstruction efforts could be observed everywhere in the West." Herbert Krippendorff was hired to head an industry-supported office in Düsseldorf, dedicated to help manufacturing firms modernize and remain competitive. He gave lectures at the German Engineering Association and organized workshops. He also wrote many articles and several books on logistics and transportation in manufacturing. He virtually founded this area of technical know-how, which is presently taught at several universities. He thus helped build the future infrastructure of the German industry.

Retirement? Not Yet
With the 50s came the economic miracle and slowly growing affluence. The Krippendorffs acquired a car -- "I always bought a Ford for sentimental reasons." -- A telephone at home was next in line. In the 60s, a television set was added. It started as a luxury that soon became a necessity. It enabled the family to observe how, in July 1968, the first human being, Neil Armstrong, stepped onto the moon. Herbert Krippendorff was 68 years old at that time. Time to retire? "No, not yet. I gave my last public presentation in 1980," said the smiling Centurion, who just a short while ago was invited as the guest of honor of the Carl Duisberg Society, which he co-founded 50 years ago.

How come? After the German-American work-student program ceased in 1929 for economic reasons and never restarted on account of World War II, Herbert Krippendorff had remained in touch with many of the about 300 surviving alumni of this program. Their intercultural experiences had so significantly shaped the course of their lives that the idea to re-establish the student service came quite naturally to them. In 1949 a council was formed which became the Carl Duisberg Society. It now makes the very dream that fuelled Krippendorff's and many other students' explorations of the world a reality for young academics and professionals.

Even at 100, Herbert Krippendorff stays active. He is typing his memoirs and files them together with other documents. He continues a lively correspondence with friends, now mostly younger than him. He lives alone in his apartment, essentially caring for himself. Although his daughter peaks in daily and he has a son in Bonn who visits frequently, he cooks for himself. Nevertheless, he admits: "You know, one becomes a bit lonely as the years go by. The many friends … It's sad not to have them any more."

Is there no "secret" for his sprightliness? "I never smoked, but I do treat myself to a little evening drink." It "annoys" him to have to use a cane to take a walk into the city -- but then he adds, "I am so grateful for what I could do in my lifetime" -- and a century of creative contributions indeed is a remarkable accomplishment.


Adapted by Klaus Krippendorff from an article in the Westdeutsche Zeitung by Joachim Dangelmeyer