The foundation of a corporate archive in 1936 was a necessary step for the then Daimler-Benz AG. The timing was chosen for its symbolic significance – exactly 50 years after the invention of the automobile. The aim was to preserve this half-century using the documentary records and lay the groundwork for collecting these kinds of documents in future.
It was an eventful era that ushered in groundbreaking technical developments for the evolution of the automobile. In this period the automobile became an important mode of transport and powerful item of sports equipment, new plants were set up, and in 1926 the Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft from Stuttgart merged with Benz & Cie. from Mannheim to create Daimler-Benz AG, thus giving rise to the Mercedes-Benz brand. But these decades also bore witness to the First World War and the Great Depression, along with the massive blaze that engulfed the Daimler plant in Cannstatt.
This era must actually have left behind a wealth of documentary records. And yet anyone looking in the mid-1930s for a central location where documents would cast light on the former Daimler-Benz in this period would be sadly disappointed. Clearly nobody was really aware of the historical potential of documents from daily operations. Since Carl Benz and Gottlieb Daimler changed individual mobility forever with their Patent Motor Car and motorised cab in 1886, many documents had simply been lost – a fact Max Rauck quickly realised while completing the preparatory research for setting up the archive. In September 1935 the engineer reported to the Board of Management that there was “only very little historical material [...] in our company.” Meanwhile, the company’s employees still failed to appreciate the importance of the archive: in response to a circular dated March 1935, the engineer received “only a handful of historical material.”
In the company there was a realisation early on that innovation arose particularly against the background of tradition. In 1899, Daimler not only showcased the latest models at the Paris Automobile Salon but also the motorised cab from 1886 – visitors of the day viewed the 13-year-old vehicle as a bizarre classic vehicle, with the new automobiles worlds apart from the comparatively simple technology in their forerunner.
A key milestone in this analysis of the product history through exhibits comes in the shape of the museum work, which began back in the days of DMG in Untertürkheim. But only with the inauguration in 1936 of the first Mercedes-Benz Museum open to the public does the museum become an integral part of the public perception of the brand and company.
A New Culture of Document Management
The gaps in the material for the fledgling archive collection essentially related to documents. For instance, the Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft decided in November 1924 to destroy almost without exception the contents of its archives that covered the period from the company’s foundation through to January 1919. The decision may have been taken for entirely practical reasons: in May 1924, DMG founded a community of interests with Benz & Cie., which was an important step along the way to the merger in 1926. Against the backdrop of this new cooperation, DMG at the time no longer believed their old archive material from the period before the First World War important enough to transfer to a new, joint archive.
Nonetheless, two copy books belonging to Gottlieb Daimler and Max Duttenhofer were retained, along with vehicle records, order books and engine books. Rauck also turned up historical letters as well as newspapers and magazines. A copy book was an accounts book – required under law at the time in Germany – that was used to enter business correspondence. Other periodicals existed in the plant library – in total these printed sources went back to the year 1898. The collection of photographs (“some in albums, some collected loosely, unfortunately with no details of the type of the object or the year of construction”) and catalogues as well as operating instructions (“unfortunately not complete”) nonetheless also formed a sound base.
[sws_pullquote_left]“I didn’t manage to find any historical material whatsoever on the company Benz” [/sws_pullquote_left] By contrast, the material found at Benz & Cie was extremely sparse: “I didn’t manage to find any historical material whatsoever on the company Benz”, Rauck reported back to the Board of Management, “even though apparently all the historical documentation is supposed to have been transferred to Untertürkheim when the companies merged in 1926.” Where the material ended up is uncertain. In any case no historical documents whatsoever were left at the Mannheim plant – despite the budding archivist asking on several occasions.
The search for documentation of the company’s own history therefore proved a challenge. One exception came in the shape of the patents filed by Daimler-Benz AG and its predecessor organisations: “The Patent Department has kept all the old patents”, Rauck reported in his letter to the Board of Management in 1935. The oldest patents filed by Daimler and Benz, virtually the birth certificates of the automobile, currently form part of the archive, while the Patent Department still looks after collecting all the other historical patent documents. And further successes were also reported in 1935: Rauck described the photo archive taken over from Berlin-Marienfelde as “very interesting and complete”, and he got back from Berlin a file believed to have been lost that included old newspaper reports about Benz & Cie.
In summer 2011, UNESCO underscored just how visionary preserving the patents from the early days of the company’s history actually was: Carl Benz’s patent document from 1886 for a “vehicle with gas-engine drive” together with a bundle of other documents on the invention of the automobile were added to the World Document Heritage on 15 July. This accolade is not just testimony to the unique importance of these documents, but also to Daimler’s ongoing archival work.
The Green Light for the Archive
The Daimler-Benz AG Board of Management decided shortly after receiving the report to turn the project of a corporate archive into reality. As such, Daimler-Benz AG was following the lead taken by large German corporations such as Krupp and Siemens. The historical archive of Friedrich Krupp AG was regarded in its day as the most important industrial archive in Germany, having been founded in 1905. The Siemens archive followed in 1907. These models would be the benchmark used in Stuttgart in the future: “Anyone wanting to look seriously at the history of the automobile and engines will need our historical archive”, was the conclusion of a report drawn up shortly after the archive was founded, which compared the archives maintained by Krupp and Siemens with the new Daimler-Benz archive.
The issuance of administrative order number 1145 dated 9 December 1936 is regarded as the official foundation date of the Daimler archive. Yet the planning and preliminary work started earlier, with Rauck’s research dating back to early 1935. And on 16 September 1935, Rauck was commissioned to start systematically documenting the existing material, at the instance of Board member Wilhelm Kissel.
A space “in which all historical material (photos, written works, printed papers, etc.) should be preserved” – the idea was to open up the archive in the winter of 1935/36. As early as 1935, senior management stressed that the history of the entire Group including all its locations should be documented centrally: “This measure is naturally not only limited to the Untertürkheim plant, but extends to the other Group plants.”
A start was made on setting up the archive by searching for existing historical material on the one hand and setting up an infrastructure to hand over important documentation from current daily business on the other. This second aspect also lay at the heart of administrative order no. 1145 dated 9 December 1936, which is regarded as the official foundation date of the corporate archive. The order, which was made public by means of notices and circulars to the departmental heads, read:
“We have commissioned Mr Max Rauck Dipl.-Ing. to collect and sort through our historical written and pictorial material in order to set up and manage a historical archive, and hereby order that all our company’s locations assist Mr Rauck in carrying out the said task and, in particular, point out at their own initiative any existing material in their working area and provide him with appropriate access. Mr Rauck is entitled to add any pictorial and written works, provided these no longer have any current practical value, to the archive he is about to set up.”
The importance of the archive for Daimler AG is also manifest in the current “Group policy on the corporate archive.” Similar to the administrative order from 1936, the policy sets out at Board of Management level for all companies and employees of the Daimler Group worldwide that the corporate archive as Daimler AG’s memory fulfills all tasks of archive management and has a guideline function for Group-wide uniform standards when taking over, evaluating, opening up and preserving archive material. The policy expressly emphasises that the tasks of the archive extend equally to digital and analogue documents and information, thus ensuring proper archiving for the present and future.
In 1937, the archive presented its organisational plan in which the importance of collaboration between individual locations was once again highlighted: it was “urgently required to make all plants within the Group aware of the extraordinary value of the historical central archive and to ask them to preserve all material of historical value and to transfer the material to the historical central archive when requested to do so.”
Organisationally the archive unit was assigned to the Exhibitions department, which was also responsible for representing the company at motor shows as well as for designing exhibition spaces at sales and service outlets, and dealers. The tasks of the associated unit, the “Historical Area”, were set out in an internal report dated 20 October 1937 and included “setting up and continuing the archive, collecting and supporting hist[orical] objects and documents belonging to the Group, preparing lit[erary] work in this connection, museum issues, managing the historical material.”