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Remembering Julius Berger

Remembering Julius Berger

Julius Berger, the founder of one of Bilfinger’s three predecessor companies, was born 150 years ago. The company is endowing a prize in his memory.

Bilfinger’s transformation to an engineering and services group is not the first remarkable metamorphosis in the company’s long history. The first took place when Julius Berger won a contract to construct a two kilometer long avenue in 1890 - he was actually the owner of a transport company that he had taken over from his father before the age of 20. Five years later, he founded his first construction company, which was to become Julius Berger Tiefbau AG in 1905 and later Bilfinger + Berger Bauaktiengesellschaft.

Julius Berger was what would today be called a selfmade man. Born into a modest Jewish family, he rose to become one of the leading construction contractors in the Weimar Republic. He was born in 1862 in Zempelburg, a small town with a population of 3,000 in western Prussia 125 kilometers southwest of Gdansk. His father sent him to Berlin at the age of 12 to take up an apprenticeship with a leather wholesale firm. He returned to the family transport business three years later in 1878. He soon found himself more frequently transporting building materials instead of grain. It was this, along with his own small avenue contract, that led to his becoming increasingly familiar with the construction industry. When he had learned enough, he switched professions.

Berger relocated his company, which had become a major contractor carrying out the construction of roads, drainage systems and railways in the eastern Prussian provinces, to Berlin in 1910. He secured his first contract abroad in 1911: the construction of the eight-kilometer long Hauenstein base tunnel between Zurich and Basel. This project proved a masterstroke, earning the company bonus payments and enhancing its reputation in society.

Teliv Tunnel construction site
Julius Berger was a contractor through and through. The photo shows him in 1925 together with members of his staff at the Teliv Tunnel construction site in Romania.

After the First World War, Berger took part in the peace negotiations in Versailles as a representative of the German construction industry. He warned that if France and Germany failed to reach reconciliation this would “certainly not be in the best interests of the German people.” His firm grew to become one of the leading construction companies in the Weimar Republic. Berger was involved in the expansion of the Berlin underground rail system as well as the extension of the port of Königsberg and the construction of the Neckar barrages near Heidelberg. The company was also increasingly active abroad, with activities in Turkey, Iran, Romania and Egypt.

After the National Socialists seized power in Germany, Julius Berger suffered the same fate as many other Jewish entrepreneurs of the time. Under pressure from anti-Semitic propaganda, he stepped down as the managing director of his company at the end of 1933. Two of his daughters emigrated to Uruguay, and he took the son of a deceased daughter to safety in Switzerland. Flora and Julius Berger were deported to a concentration camp in Terezin in September 1942 where they died of hunger and exhaustion. Just a few weeks before his deportation, Berger wrote: “As someone born and raised in Germany and who from a young age has managed a successful business that has contributed to the German economy, I did not assume that I would have to leave my fatherland. This is why my wife and I chose not to emigrate.” Bilfinger will endow the Julius Berger Prize to commemorate this great entrepreneur. The prize will honor courageous entrepreneurial activities relating to Berlin’s urban development. In the spirit of the award’s namesake, it is to provide an incentive to make Berlin a place of cultural and social diversity. The prize, which will be jointly endowed by Bilfinger and the Verein Architekturpreis Berlin e.V. (Berlin Architecture Prize Association), was awarded for the first time in 2013.

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