This Day in Jewish History

1837: A Man Who Would Make Sewing Machines, Then Guns, Is Born

Thus Ludwig Loewe built a business empire that merged with AEG, before Nazi Germany took it all.

Ludwig Loewe & Co., maker of sewing machines.
Wikimedia Commons

November 27, 1837, is the birthdate of Ludwig Loewe, the German-Jewish entrepreneur who founded a sewing-machine manufacturing firm which eventually evolved into a conglomerate that included under its roof AEG, one of Europe’s largest producers of electrical goods.

Toward the end of the 19th century, the company was undermined by the spurious accusations of a notorious anti-Semite, who charged that weapons produced by Ludwig Loewe were defective and would sabotage German military efforts during the next war. Those calumnies were eventually debunked. But several decades later, under the Third Reich, together with most of Germany's other Jews, the Loewe family would have their holdings expropriated.

It began with sewing machines

Loewe was born Louis Levy, in Heiligenstadt, in Thuringinia, Prussia, the second of three brothers. Both of his siblings, Sigmund and Isidor, later were involved in the business he created.

Ludwig attended gymnasium in his hometown, and then moved to Berlin. There he began a career as a wool merchant before moving into the field of machine manufacture.  

In 1869, after a working trip in the United States, Loewe returned to Germany with the license to begin building sewing machines there. Within a few years, he had set up a subsidiary company to assemble rifles for the Prussian army, on the one hand, and Smith & Wesson revolvers for the Russians.

He also acquired the rights to adapt and build American machine tools for European use, taking into account local materials and market variables.

Parallel to his groing business empire, Loewe became involved in politics, starting in 1864 as a left wing-member of the Berlin city council, where his particular concern was education. In 1877 he was selected for the Prussian House of Representatives, and a year later to the German Reichstag, representing Berlin for the National Liberal Party. He also was involved in efforts to improve life in the city for Jewish migrants from eastern Europe.

'Jewish' rifles

Ludwig Loewe would die on September 11, 1886, and be buried in the Jewish cemetery on Schoenhauser Allee, in Berlin. But that was far from the end of the family business. He was succeeded as director of the family firms by his brother Isidor, who, that same year, traveled to Constantinople with two other German arms-makers, Paul Mauser and Alfred von Kaulla. There they closed a deal to sell the Ottoman army 500,000 rifles and 100 million rounds of ammunition.

One of the company’s employees (by then Loewe had evolved into the larger Deutsche Waffen und Munitionsfabriken) was Georg Luger, who in 1894 designed the Parabellum pistol, later dubbed for its creator, which served soldiers of a number of different German regimes during the course of the 20th century.

In 1892, Hermann Ahlwardt, a former defender of the Jews turned notorious anti-Semite, published a pamphlet called “Judenflinten” – “Jewish Rifles” – where he made the claim that the Loewe group, through bribery and fraud, had supplied the German army with a half-million defective weapons. The Loewes, he claimed, were part of a sophisticated  international Jewish conspiracy that intended no less than to take over the world.

Isidor Loewe responded aggressively to the outrageous charges, and sued Ahlwardt for libel. Ahlwardt was convicted and sentenced to five months’ imprisonment, yet at the same time, he was elected to the Reichstag and remained for some time a popular speaker in Germany.   

In the early 1930s, the firm purchased a controlling share in the struggling electric appliance firm AEG. After the Nazis came to power, they forced all Jewish or part-Jewish executives and owners to resign from their positions in the Loewe companies, and many ended up leaving the country. In this way, both Ludwig Loewe and AEG passed into non-Jewish hands.