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The Genesis of the German Dye Industry in the Nineteenth Century

Advances in organic chemistry in the 19th century prompted a revolution in German industry. Until the middle of the century the expanding textiles industry had used natural dyestuffs. While England and France were able to draw the required raw materials from their colonial empires, Germany was largely forced to rely on imports.


The first artificial dye, mauveine, was developed by William Henry Perkin in 1856. The basic product for refining artificial dyes was aniline, which is derived from black coal. Coal tar, until then a waste product, was discovered to contain the aniline that could be used in producing coal-tar dyes. This led to a gradual liberation from natural raw materials and, in Germany, to the concerted building of aniline factories and the development of artificial dyestuffs.


The first aniline plant, the Anilinfabrik was built in Ehrenfeld (Cologne) by Joseph Wilhelm Weiler in 1861, after which a number of other new firms were founded. Three were started in 1863: OHG Friedrich Bayer et comp., Farbwerke Meister Lucius et Brüning in Höchst am Main (known as Farbwerke Hoechst after 1880) and Kalle & Co AG in Biebrich. 1865 saw the start of BASF (Badische Anilin und Sodafabrik AG) in Ludwigshafen, followed in 1873 by Agfa in Berlin and also Casella, the aniline factory of Gans and Leonhardt, in Frankfurt-Fechenheim. German research in chemistry underwent enormous progress during this period, and the industry boomed. By 1877, Germany accounted for half of world dyestuff production. By the end of the century, nearly all new dyestuffs were being invented by German coal-tar dye companies.


The dyes themselves were only an end product. The aniline dye industry produced other materials such as sulfuric acid, which could be used in the production of fertilizers; and also the chlorine gas that would be used as a chemical weapon during the First World War. Many of the products that the aniline dye factories produced had dual uses, both for the private civilian economy and for the military. Besides dyestuffs, products for civilian use included cosmetics, fertilizers, pesticides, and medicines, as well as an increasing number of chemical products for the film and photo industries.


In the years 1908 to 1912, Fritz Haber (Professor for Chemistry at the Technical College of Karlsruhe and a contractual consultant to BASF) and Carl Bosch of BASF collaborated in developing a process for synthesizing ammonia from nitrogen and hydrogen under high pressures, known as the Haber-Bosch process. This enabled industrial-scale production of ammonia, which began in 1913 in Oppau at a plant near the main BASF factory in Ludwigshafen. The high-pressure chemicals industry grew especially important because ammonia was vital in the creation of nitrate fertilizers as well as (when oxidized into saltpeter) in the making of explosives.


The German chemical industry was heavily oriented to export and sought to achieve a monopoly position on the world market, establishing many branches abroad and seeking to exploit international patent law. Since the dyestuff industry was very capital intensive and involved costs beyond the means of small firms, the market soon came to be dominated by a few large corporations. By the start of the 20th century, six companies led the market in both Germany and the world in the production and sale of synthetic dyes: BASF, Bayer, Hoechst, Agfa, Cassella and Kalle AG.

(DOP; transl. NL; based on: Karl Heinz Roth: Die Geschichte der I.G. Farbenindustrie AG von der Gründung bis zum Ende der Weimarer Republik)


[pdf] Karl Heinz Roth_The History of IG Farbenindustrie AG from Its Founding to the End of the Weimar Republic



Abelshauser, Werner, ed.: Die BASF. Eine Unternehmensgeschichte. Munich: Beck, 2002.

Borkin, Joseph: The Crime and Punishment of I.G. Farben. New York: Free Press, 1978.

Drummer, Heike / Zwilling, Jutta: Von der Grüneburg zum Campus Westend. Die Geschichte des IG Farben-Hauses. Begleitbuch zur Dauerausstellung. Frankfurt am Main: Goethe-University, 2007.

Hayes, Peter: Industry and Ideology: IG Farben in the Nazi Era. Cambridge/New York: Cambridge UP, 1987.

Plumpe, Gottfried:Die I.G. Farbenindustrie AG. Wirtschaft, Technik und Politik 1904–1945. Berlin: Duncker & Humblot, 1990.

Tammen, Helmuth: “Die I.G. Farbenindustrie Aktiengesellschaft (1925–1933). Ein Chemiekonzern in der Weimarer Republik.” Ph.D. dissertation, Freie Universität Berlin, 1978.