The Pentacon Six System
by TRA

The History of the Pentacon Six

The end of Production
 


“Pentacon will be shut down” reads the title on the German TV news
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Production of the Pentacon Six ceased in 1990.  This was an inevitable consequence of the collapse of the communist system in East Germany.

Uneconomic production costs

In 1990, the parts used in Pentacon cameras came from 58 different production centres in East Germany.  Just to transport these parts to the factory where they were assembled resulted in 250,000 transport kilometers per year, a massive additional manufacturing cost, according to an article in the October 1990 issue of “foto MAGAZIN”.  As an example, the Praktica BX20 35mm camera consisted of 800 parts, of which 90% or 720 parts were manufactured by Pentacon (in one of its 58 centres!).  The plan in October 1990 was to source 50% of the parts elsewhere, which would have resulted in massive savings in production costs.  Merely by buying in parts that were substantially cheaper on the (new for East Germany!) open market, the production costs of the camera would fall from 300 Marks to 140 Marks.

Unfortunately, these proposed changes came too late.

Loss of overseas and home markets

Like British photographers forty years earlier, living in a country where imports of foreign equipment were on the whole forbidden, the communist bloc of countries was shielded from the real world and largely ignorant of the technological advances that were taken for granted elsewhere.  Just as the end of import controls in the UK in 1960 led to the speedy collapse of Agiflex sales in the face of an avalanche of Nikons, Pentaxes, Hasselblads, Canons, Minoltas and Rolleis, so the dismantling of the border controls that surrounded all communist countries (and that is most obviously remembered by the dramatic fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989) led to the collapse in demand for communist products, even in communist countries themselves.  Aware of the stifling of development, the shoddy workmanship (more in the USSR than in East Germany), and the absence of quality control, the citizens of communist countries demanded “western” and Japanese goods – even if, in fact, they may in some cases have been of inferior quality!

Not only did East Germans not want to buy East German cameras; they didn’t want to buy East German motorbikes, cars, TVs or virtually anything else.  The communist bloc had been held together by a virtual barter system in which one country (East Germany) made quality cameras, another (Czechoslovakia) made enlargers, another (Hungary) made buses and coaches, and so on.  Suddenly, this whole system collapsed, and overseas markets disappeared so fast that the Soviet Union, which was itself disintegrating, cancelled the contracts it had already signed for Carl Zeiss Jena microscopes and other technological equipment.

Loss of staff

Even before the final collapse came, Pentacon and Carl Zeiss were affected when workers with specialist expertise succeeded in fleeing to “the west”.  Some specialist items were made in very low quantities, in some cases, even to order.  The same applied in equivalent circumstances elsewhere in the world.  Nordin reports concerning the Hasselblad SWC/M – made, of course, in Sweden: “For most of the period of production, one staff member specialized in the assembly of this camera...  If you have a SWC or SWC/M made in the 1970’s or 1980’s, your camera was likely put together by a skilled woman named Florence ...” (p 107).

However, it was one thing for a highly-skilled worker in Sweden to work contentedly on this specialist project for decades (presumably enjoying foreign holidays anywhere in the world that took her fancy), and quite another thing for East Germans to accept their lot, denied the freedom to travel to non-communist countries and even cut off from family members in West Germany.  When suddenly, on 11th August 1989 the authorities of communist Hungary took down the barbed wire and machine guns that prevented people travelling from there to neighbouring (and free) Austria, within days thousands of East Germans took an unplanned holiday “to Hungary” – to which they were allowed to travel – but then they slipped through the “gap in the Iron Curtain”, and never returned.  Jehmlich states (p 203), “This was also perceptible in VEB Pentacon.  On occasions one could hear in the factory, as elsewhere in the country, the sarcastic saying: ‘The last person must put the light out’, even spoken by those who had never thought of leaving the GDR.”

According to some reports, only two people in Carl Zeiss Jena were involved in the assembly of the 1000mm “Spiegelobjektiv” mirror lens, and when they suddenly disappeared, no-one else had the skill needed to assemble this item.

The communist system crumbles

Suddenly, the whole communist system crumbled in country after country, and the East German communist régime was forced to let its people leave.  For many, of course, East Germany was the only country they had ever known or seen.  It was where they had their homes, their loved ones and their jobs.  One of the slogans of demonstrators in East Germany in October and November 1989 was “Wir bleiben hier” (“We’re staying here”).  They didn’t want to leave; they just wanted to have freedom, within their own country.  In the early months of 1990 the whole, costly, apparatus of communist party members spying on production workers was dismantled in the midst of great bitterness, and fears about the future.  Western and Far Eastern investors were sought to privatise companies, modernise them and guarantee jobs, but most Far Eastern potential investors who came to visit factories never made any offers, and most Western investors made promises that the reality of world markets made impossible of fulfilment.

Given this situation, it was not only the Pentacon Six that ceased production, but also Pentacon’s pride and joy: the 35mm BX20 camera – and in fact also most industrial production throughout the whole of the country.

Re-unification

East and West Germany were re-united, with West Germany exchanging East Germans’ “Ostmarks” (the official currency of the GDR) at the profligate rate of one West German Deutschmark (DM) to one, when market conditions before the collapse of communism had valued the East Mark at one quarter of the value of the West Mark.  At the time of reunification, some analysts calculated that the Ost Mark was in fact only worth one eleventh (!) of the Deutschmark.  So East Germans were given the bonus of substantial sums of money in a stable currency that was respected throughout the world, but many of them became unemployed.

But now let us return to photography, and in particular, the further development of the Pentacon Six.
 

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34 What might have been

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© TRA First published: June 2010 Revised: August 2010