The Villa Hügel & Krupp Stahl

Just outside Essen, and right alongside the railway tracks (appropriately) lies a stately manor house called The Villa Hügel. It was built in the early 1870s as the residence for a famous German steel family, the Krupps. It is now open to the public and is used for cultural events, such as piano recitals and plays. The dramas that are now contained within its walls reflect the many dramas that the Villa has experienced over the years of history as can be seen in the museum displays that chart the troubled life of both the building and the family it once housed.

The Villa is quite a sight to behold. One walks up from the Essen-Hügel railway station, constructed in 1890 so that guests could visit the Villa at greater ease; and with its view across Baldeneysee (and remember that see = ‘lake’, not ‘sea’!). There is a beautiful little two story workman’s hut where you now purchase your entry ticket and complimentary map. Walking up the steep incline toward the property, one is confronted by the retaining wall of the Villa which is more like a castle bulwark; and then one enters the gardens, meticulously up-kept, and pass through several follies and cute constructions until, finally, one arrives at the well patrolled doors. Huge trucks still rumble back and forth to pick up or deposit heavy goods—one way then the other—maintaining a kind of industrial vibe despite the current repurposing of the site for tourism.

Germany is renowned for its engineering and manufacturing, and has been for quite some time, and the Krupp family was a part of both establishing and maintaining that tradition in the modern era.

The Krupp family in the region of Essen can be traced right back to an Arndt Krupp in 1587, who made his fortune in real estate at a time when prices were low due to people fleeing the plague. Certainly not a man then averse to risk… He also acquired several other resources including iron forges, but it wasn’t until the time of Friedrich Krupp during the Napoleonic wars that things really started happening and a dynasty was formed. A Gussstahlfabrik (cast steel works) was established in 1816 which allowed for the smelting of steel. His son, Alfried Krupp, went on to oversee the company becoming the major arms supplier of the Prussian state and then the German Empire. Interestingly, Alfried adopted the English spelling of his name, ‘Alfred’, after visiting England and enjoying the country so much. And due to how he had conquered his rivals in industry, he was sometimes even called Alfred the Great.

The young Alfred worked very hard, both alongside his workers, and in experimenting with new processes. Eventually, through carefully research innovations and patents, the family were able to make some real money and hit the big time. Alfred was also a tireless promoter of his brand, and he was not above creating record-breaking spectacles at events and trade shows, producing record-breaking sized flawless ingots at numerous shows around the world. Most historians consider that Krupp steel was the pivotal advantage that the Prussians had that led to the defeats of France and Austria in the wars of German unification, and caused perhaps the first international arms race.

And while Alfred “the Great” demanded a kind of loyalty from his staff similar to that which a King would demand, he also had very liberal views (for his time) as far as staff benefits and protections. He created free housing and education services, as well as insurance, social services and widow-benefits. His staff became fiercely loyal and Essen almost became its own Kingdom under his rule.

However, his wife, Bertha, refused to live for any extended amount of time at the magnificent Villa Hügel. She spent most of the time abroad with their son, Friedrich, due to the pollution from the works in nearby Essen. However, now, the air is now fresh and clear. And a visit to the Greek restaurant just under the Essen-Hügel railway station overlooking the See is a welcome way to end one’s visit.

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