Born 150 years ago: Ernst Leitz II

March 1, 2021

Without him, the Leica would probably not even exist: Ernst Leitz II. He was born 150 years ago.
“I hereby decide: it will be risked”. With this determination, Ernst Leitz Jr. achieved far more than writing company history; his instruction to go ahead with the construction of the Leica would lead, above all, to the establishment of 35mm photography, and would change the history of photography, forever. To advocate the manufacturing of a novel type of camera in June, 1924 - contrary to the advice of numerous company representatives - was a courageous decision that meant an entrepreneurial risk. Leitz had a good feeling for innovation, having already experienced the initial Ur-Leica, ten years earlier during a business trip to New York. The Ur-Leica was the prototype that Oskar Barnack, then Head of Research and Development, had constructed. It was in no way perfect, but Leitz immediately recognised the potential of the Lilliput camera, as it was called at the time. He continued to follow work on the Ur-Leica very closely, and supported all the necessary technical improvements.

The company had become the largest manufacturer of microscopes in the world, thanks to new production methods introduced by his father; but after Ernst Leitz II assumed control, he took the business in a new direction. He had become part shareholder in 1906, and the company’s sole shareholder in 1920, following his father’s death. The entrepreneurial decision in favour of the Leica represented a risk, during economically difficult times. Despite the challenges, 35mm photography was to become established very quickly, not least thanks to the photojournalists who served the rapidly growing market for illustrated magazines in the twenties. They soon realised the advantages offered by the small, handy and easy-to-use camera. By 1925, over 900 units of the Leica A model had been produced, and turnover doubled every year. The camera models, and photo-technical accessories that followed, increasingly became the mainstay of the company.

Ernst Leitz II was an entrepreneur who did more than contribute to German business history. His political and social commitments were also noteworthy. It was not only the long-term security of the company and all its workplaces, during turbulent economic and political times, that was important to him; as a Democrat, he also stood firmly by his convictions. He became a member of the German Democratic Party in 1918. During the National Socialist (Nazi) dictatorship, he provoked the regime by supporting persecuted Jews. Targeted rescue operations led to his daughter’s arrest by the Gestapo, and the company was threatened with expropriation. Even so, Leitz continued to pursue his humanistic efforts.

When Ernst Leitz II handed over the running of the company to his three sons, in 1949, it was economically stable, despite the consequences of the war. In 1951, as a special honour, he was presented with the 500,000th Leica. When he passed away on June 15, 1956, aged 85, 850,000 Leica cameras had already found their way out into the world. On the occasion of his 80th birthday, the Federal President at the time, Theodor Heuss, characterised Ernst Leitz II as follows: he was “a man, unperturbed in himself, sober and daring, defined by his own individuality.” March 1, 2021, marks the 150th anniversary of his birth. (Ulrich Rüter)

Book recommendation:
Knut Kühn-Leitz (editor), Ernst Leitz II
“Ich entscheide hiermit: Es wird riskiert.” …und die Leica revolutionierte die Fotografie (Ernst Leitz II “I hereby decide: it will be risked”… and the Leica revolutionised history)
280 pages
Heel Verlag

All images on this page: © Leica Camera AG

Born 150 years ago: Ernst Leitz II