“When you see something that is techically sweet, you go ahead and do it and argue about what to do about it only after you’ve had your technical success. That is the way it was with the atomic bomb.”
J. Robert Oppenheimer, director of the Manhattan Project
The period of the Second World War is a great example of this phenomenon. That brutal and prolonged conflict which concluded in September 1945 following the use of a new devastating weapon that would forever change the course of human history. Undoubtedly, the Manhattan Project and the scientific achievements that led to the world’s first nuclear weapons were paramount proof of the ability of wartime urgency to expedite scientific progress.
In retrospect, it would be easy to stand in the shadow of that mushroom shaped cloud and conclude on the supremacy of Allied intelligence. However, plenty of terrifying progress was made by the Axis powers, Nazi Germany especially, that threatened to turn the tide of war against the Allies.
The world’s first operational jet-powered aircraft (the Me 262), the world’s first jet-powered bomber (the Arado Ar234), the world’s first ballistic missile (the V2), the world’s first series produced helicopter (Flettner Fl 282 Kolibri)…the list goes on.
In the midst of all this lethality, there were also some shining examples of positivity: many people would be genuinely surprised to find that there was in-fact a connection between the introduction of the humble bicycle reflector and Adolf Hitler’s regime.
The manufacture and distribution of this often overlooked component that, quite bizarrely, helped to fund the research carried out by one of Nazi Germany’s most insidious institutions – the Ahnenerbe – which sought through its work to lend credence to some of the regime’s worst racial theories.
This unusual story starts with the man who would rise to become the chief of the German police and infamous Reichsführer SS – Heinrich Himmler.
The 'Inheritance from our Ancestors'
“The best political weapon is the weapon of terror. Cruelty commands respect. Men may hate us. But, we don’t ask for their love; only for their fear.”
From a young age, Himmler nursed a fascination with legends of the distant past.
His father, Gebhard, an eccentric school teacher with strong nationalist leanings, often read aloud to his sons in the evenings – introducing young Heinrich to the Nibelungenlied, the medieval tale of Siegfried, and the Edda, a collection of ancient Norse sagas. Both inspirations for Richard Wagner’s epic Ring Cycle.
Despite the family’s pronounced middle class standing, an entire room of Himmler’s childhood home was dedicated to Gebhard’s conjured image of the family’s distinguished heritage – an Ahnenzimmer (ancestor room).
As Der treue Heinrich (loyal Heinrich) later rose through the ranks of the Nazi party, his seniority would grant him the opportunity to turn his personal passion into a state enterprise and in 1935, he founded the Ahnenerbe (‘inheritance from our ancestors’), an institute for archeological and cultural research dedicated to procuring evidence of the superiority of the Germanic race. The organisation would eventually find a permanent home in a luxurious Berlin mansion house on Pücklerstrasse, in the quiet neighbourhood of Dahlem, just a few blocks away from where Himmler himself lived.
Ambitious expeditions to Sweden, Finland, and as far away as Iraq and Tibet were organised, with these assignments sometimes jointly serving as military intelligence gathering opportunities. The Ahnenerbe recruited an assortment of scholars, scientists, archaeologists, historians, doctors and researchers – all awarded honorary SS titles.
Excavations soon became an exclusively political endeavour, where artifacts were expected to serve as the title deeds of the nation and a measure of the people’s spiritual currency. Misusing science and scholarship for political ends would become the status quo, as the Nazis sought to pervert the past to justify their persecution of the living. Not only did the organisation attempt to document the racial heritage of the Germanic people but also illustrate the group’s racial supremacy. Special effort was made to identify the origins and classify the characteristics of designated foreign threats.
Researchers endeavoured to produce an index system to help identify, isolate, and eventually annihilate, the inferior jewish race. Undertaking Rassenkunde studies (racial research projects) in the form of increasingly grotesque and sadistic medical experiments that would lead to one of the most notorious war crimes of the period – the procurement of a Jewish skeleton collection.
Despite its central role in Himmler’s quest to legitimise Nazi racial theory – the institute receive little but ridicule from Hitler – who found the glorious achievements of Greek and Roman civilisation far superior to anything Himmler could unearth of the gloomy German past.
Expected to raise its own funding for expeditions and research, the Ahnenerbe was plagued by chronic funding issues from its inception. Himmler, however, ultimately devised a plan that would see the entire country helping foot the bill for his pet project.
Bicycle Reflectors - A Unusual Opportunity and Source of Funding
“The state, which is simply the Nazi Party, is in control of everything. It controls investment, raw materials, rates of interest, working hours, wages. The factory owner still owns his factory, but he is for practical purposes reduced to the status of a manager. Everyone is in effect a state employee, though the salaries vary very greatly. The mere efficiency of such a system, the elimination of waste and obstruction, is obvious. In seven years it has built up the most powerful war machine the world has ever seen.”
George Orwell, 1941
Nazi leader Adolf Hitler was no stranger to the bicycle: he had served as a bicycle messenger during the First World War – a fact clearly visible in Hitler’s military records where he is listed as a Catholic, Artist, and Bicycle Messenger.
Following the Nazi takeover in 1933, one of Adolf Hitler’s former drivers, a part-time inventor and loyal party comrade who had spent time in prison for participating in the 1923 Beer Hall Putsch, had started producing bicycle reflectors, to improve the visibility of riders on the roads at night.
Fastening small pieces of glass to bicycle pedals that would reflect the headlights of oncoming cars.
In 1936, Hitler’s SchutzStaffel (SS) formed a joint-company with the inventor, using his name – Anton Loibl GmbH – sometimes shortened to ToLo. With SS help, Loibl applied for and received a patent for his bicycle reflector design. In his capacity as police chief of the Reich, Himmler then issued a new ordinance on road traffic, in November 1937, that made these bicycle reflectors mandatory for all bicycles on German roads.
The SS company would oversee the marketing of Loibl’s invention and use part of the revenue to fuel Himmler’s research projects.
The official licensing agreement stated that surpluses that would inevitably arrive from the incredibly high income generated by these bicycle reflectors had to be used for “charitable purposes as determined by the Reichsführer-SS”.
Industrial producers, of course, had no choice but to pay licensing fees back to the company for the privilege of producing Loibl’s design and within the first year the Ahnenerbe received 77,740 Reichsmarks (RM) from the scheme.
From 1939, this would rise to between 100,000 and 150,000 Reichsmarks per year.
A fine example of ‘crony capitalism’ in Nazi Germany.
The invention, and Anton Loibl’s involvement, would even be favourably mentioned in the magazine of the Reichführer SS in January 1938:
“SS-Obersturmführer Anton Loibl, the inventor of the step beam. The new Reichsstraßenverkehrordnung, which came into force on January 1, 1938, brings an innovation to the safety of the army of millions of cyclists, which consists in the fact that so-called pedal reflectors are introduced instead of the cat’s eye. This new invention, anchored in the law, is thanks to our SS comrade Anton Loibl, who was one of the first drivers of the Führer.”
However, the question of whether Anton Loibl actually invented the bicycle reflector cannot be conclusively answered by simply looking at his name on the patent. In 1935, a couple from Dresden filed a patent (692 562 and 697 207) for a very similar design – which delayed the recognition of Loibl’s own patent by over a year until eventually a settlement could be reached with the Dresden inventors, Dr Rudolf Sewig and Franz Krautschneider had also filed patents for the actual material used in the bicycle reflectors, whereas Loibl’s patent only extended to the arragement of the material in the form of a bicycle reflector. Ultimately, the Dresden pair would receive a reimbursement of 1.5 pfennigs per bicycle and 1/6 pfennig for each bicycle reflector, up to a total of 100,000 RM, from Anton Loibl GmbH.
Complicated as it seems – the evidence seems to indicate that Anton Loibl did NOT invent the bicycle reflector – rather he filed for a patent for the arrangement of the reflector on a bicycle pedal, and clashed with the two inventors from Dresden who had already filed for patents for both the arrangement and the actual material to be used.
Not only would the SS shakedown industry in order to finance their actions – but use their strongarm tactics to ensure that the bicycle reflector patent ended up in their hands rather than with the couple from Dresden.
Regardless of the question of the exact provenance of the bicycle reflector, its introduction would be a huge success for Heinrich Himmler, and the funding of the Ahnenerbe Institute.
Although the activities of the Ahnenerbe came to an abrupt end in 1945 – the section of the traffic order which relates to reflectors, introduced by Himmler in November 1938, is still part of Germany’s street law for bicycles – the Straßenverkehrszulassungsordnung.
Along with two sets of functioning brakes and lights for travelling at night, all riders are required to display two yellow reflectors on each wheel – pedal reflectors – one white reflector on the front of the bike and one red reflector on the rear.
With the notable exception of Ahnenerbe head, Wolfram Sievers, who was executed after a trial in Nuremburg, and Himmler himself, who committed suicide in British custody in 1945, most of the researchers and scientists involved in the organisation’s work continued to practice in their chosen fields following the end of the war. Often hiding in plain sight.
By strange fate, the object that so benefitted these secretive individuals and their insidious work, has served to make untold numbers of bicycle riders visible – drawing attention to their existence and undoubtedly saving many lives in the process.
Without the Nazi introduction and popularisation of the bicycle reflector, it is possible that may not have been the case.
No – Technically the bicycle reflector could be said to have been invented by a Dr. Rudolf Sewig and Franz Krautschneider from Dresden in 1935, although it was successfully patented by a loyal Nazi Party member, Anton Loibl.
The company founded to produce the Loibl bicycle reflector was established by Heinrich Himmler’s personal office – meaning the ties to the Nazi regime are strong. But this connection does more to highlight the crony capitalism tactics of Nazi officials than it does the provenance of the bicycle reflector.