GDR History

»Original Wolfen« magnetic tape and film production in the GDR

The GDR company »ORWO« was known for its technical products, from cassettes and magnetic tapes to photographic film. In this blog post, you can find out how the company came into being and developed over the years. (7 Feb 2023)

Everyone who was interested in technology in the GDR knew the products of the company »ORWO«. This is barely surprising, considering the company had a monopoly on the production of chemical data carriers in the GDR. However, many people are less familiar with the history of the Wolfen production site.

»ORWO COLOR NC 19 « negative colour film

Early years of the company and founding of Filmfabrik Wolfen

The »Gesellschaft für Anilin-Fabrication« was founded by Paul Felix Abraham Mendelssohn Bartholdy and Carl Alexander Martius in 1867 in Rummelsburg near Berlin. Barely six years later, it became the »Actien-Gesellschaft für Anilin-Fabrikation«. The name »Agfa«, which is still well-known today, was registered in 1897 as a trademark for »chemical preparations for photographic purposes«. The expanding company quickly became the largest manufacturer of photographic film and laboratory equipment in Europe, holding this title for decades. To meet the demand for film, new production sites were established outside Berlin.

In 1909, Agfa AG founded its film factory in Wolfen, not far from the pre-existing large chemical industry sites between Dessau and Halle. From 1925 Agfa was part of I.G. Farben, and four years later Wolfen even became the lead plant of its third division. In the 1930s, the first viable colour film, »Agfacolor Neu«, was developed in Wolfen. After the end of the Second World War, the Wolfen factory was transformed into a Soviet joint-stock company (SAG). In the years that followed, large parts of its production facilities and process went to the Soviet Union as reparations. The West German »Agfa« sites also began producing its well-established products shortly after the end of the war. From 1953, the Wolfen plant operated under the name »VEB Film- und Chemiefaserwerk Agfa Wolfen«. The »chemical programme« adopted by the GDR in 1958 led to a massive expansion of the film division and a simultaneous reduction of the man-made fibre division. Chemical fibres were now increasingly produced at other locations.

ORWO »Audio Fe I LH 60« cassette

From »Agfa« to « ORWO«

Following a years-long dispute over name and patent rights between the GDR and the Federal Republic of Germany, the company’s trademark was changed from »Agfa« to »ORWO« (Original Wolfen) in 1964. With this new name, the GDR leadership hoped to distinguish itself from the West German »Agfa« division. From then on, the products from Wolfen were marketed under a new name but still with the same proven quality. In 1970, the »Fotochemische Kombinat« was founded with its headquarters in Wolfen. In addition, there were other operating units, such as VEB Chemiefaserwerk »Friedrich Engels« Premnitz, VEB ORWO-Plast Schmölln and VEB Fotopapierwerk Dresden.

Selection of ORWO products

Consequences of the Fall of the Berlin Wall

Following political events in 1989 and 1990, attempts to privatise the parent company of the photochemical combine in Wolfen failed. The company was liquidated in 1994. From the end of the 1990s, small parts of the broken-up company resumed operations under the brand name »ORWO«. In 2014, about 300 people had already been re-employed at the divisional companies in Wolfen. 

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