The Little Known Division of Carl Zeiss – East vs West after World War 2

Carl Zeiss is a renowned company in the optical industry, with a rich history that spans more than a century. The division of the company after World War II is a particularly intriguing chapter in its story, influenced by the geopolitical climate of the time. Let’s dive deep into the origins, development, and the eventual split of Carl Zeiss.

The Founding and Early Years

Carl Zeiss AG was founded by Carl Zeiss in Jena, Germany, in 1846. Initially, the company was a small workshop specializing in the production of microscopes. Carl Zeiss was an adept mechanic and optician who had previously worked in the optical industry, gaining invaluable experience.

Zeiss’s microscopes quickly gained a reputation for their quality and precision. In 1866, Carl Zeiss partnered with physicist Ernst Abbe, who brought a scientific approach to the design and production of optical instruments. Abbe’s contributions were significant; he developed the Abbe sine condition, a critical principle in the design of optical systems. Abbe’s involvement marked a turning point for the company, leading to innovations that would solidify Zeiss’s reputation as a leader in optics.

In 1884, Otto Schott, a chemist, joined forces with Zeiss and Abbe. Schott’s expertise in glassmaking led to the creation of the Jena Glassworks, which produced high-quality optical glass. This collaboration resulted in the development of new types of glass that improved the performance of optical instruments.

Expansion and Diversification

The late 19th and early 20th centuries were periods of significant growth and diversification for Carl Zeiss. The company expanded its product line to include photographic lenses, binoculars, and other optical instruments. The reputation of Zeiss lenses grew, and they became highly sought after by photographers and scientists alike.

One of the most notable products from this period was the Planar lens, introduced in 1896. Designed by Paul Rudolph, the Planar lens featured a symmetrical design that minimized optical aberrations, resulting in sharp and clear images. This innovation established Zeiss as a leading manufacturer of photographic lenses.

World War I and the Interwar Period

World War I had a profound impact on Carl Zeiss. During the war, the company was involved in the production of military optics, including periscopes and rangefinders. The war effort necessitated rapid advancements in optical technology, and Zeiss was at the forefront of these developments.

After the war, the Treaty of Versailles imposed severe restrictions on German industry, including the optical sector. Despite these challenges, Carl Zeiss continued to innovate. In 1926, the company introduced the Tessar lens, designed by Ludwig Bertele. The Tessar lens was renowned for its compact design and exceptional image quality, becoming one of the most popular lenses in the history of photography.

The interwar period also saw the establishment of Zeiss Ikon, a merger of several camera manufacturers under the Zeiss umbrella. Zeiss Ikon became a prominent player in the camera industry, producing a range of cameras that were highly regarded for their quality and precision.

World War II and the Aftermath

World War II had a significant and lasting impact on Carl Zeiss. The company was once again involved in the production of military optics, supplying the German military with a variety of instruments, including gun sights, binoculars, and rangefinders. The war effort led to further advancements in optical technology, but it also brought destruction and upheaval.

As the war came to an end in 1945, Germany was divided into occupation zones controlled by the Allied powers. Jena, where Carl Zeiss was headquartered, fell within the Soviet occupation zone. This division had profound consequences for the company.

The Division of Carl Zeiss

The division of Germany into East and West had a direct impact on Carl Zeiss. The company’s headquarters in Jena were located in what would become East Germany, under Soviet control. Meanwhile, many of the company’s leading scientists and engineers were in the western part of the country or fled to avoid Soviet occupation.

The Soviets, recognizing the strategic value of Zeiss’s optical expertise, moved quickly to take control of the company’s assets in Jena. In 1946, the Soviet Military Administration in Germany (SMAD) expropriated Carl Zeiss and nationalized it, integrating it into the planned economy of East Germany. This led to the establishment of VEB Carl Zeiss Jena (VEB standing for “Volkseigener Betrieb,” or “People’s Enterprise”).

At the same time, key personnel from Zeiss, including executives and engineers, fled to the American-occupied zone in the west. These individuals regrouped in Oberkochen, West Germany, and reestablished Carl Zeiss there. This effectively resulted in the creation of two separate entities: Carl Zeiss Jena in the east and Carl Zeiss Oberkochen in the west.

Post-War Reconstruction and Growth

Both branches of Carl Zeiss faced significant challenges in the immediate post-war years. In East Germany, VEB Carl Zeiss Jena had to rebuild its operations under a socialist planned economy. Despite these constraints, the company managed to continue producing high-quality optical instruments. The East German government prioritized industries that could contribute to economic recovery, and Zeiss was seen as a valuable asset.

In West Germany, Carl Zeiss Oberkochen also faced the daunting task of reconstruction. The company had to rebuild its facilities from scratch and reestablish its reputation in the optical industry. However, the free-market economy of West Germany provided opportunities for growth and innovation. Carl Zeiss Oberkochen quickly became a leader in the optical industry, benefiting from the economic miracle that propelled West Germany’s recovery.

Technological Advancements and Innovations

Both branches of Carl Zeiss continued to innovate and develop new technologies in the post-war years. In East Germany, VEB Carl Zeiss Jena focused on producing optical instruments for scientific and industrial applications. The company maintained a strong emphasis on research and development, resulting in several significant innovations.

One notable achievement was the development of the Praktica series of cameras in the 1950s and 1960s. These cameras were known for their durability and high-quality lenses, making them popular with photographers worldwide. VEB Carl Zeiss Jena also continued to produce advanced microscopes, contributing to scientific research in various fields.

In West Germany, Carl Zeiss Oberkochen expanded its product line to include a wide range of optical instruments, from camera lenses to surgical microscopes. The company’s commitment to quality and precision ensured that Zeiss lenses remained highly regarded by photographers and filmmakers. In the 1960s, Carl Zeiss Oberkochen introduced the Contarex camera system, which featured interchangeable lenses and advanced metering systems. The Contarex cameras were known for their precision and build quality, further cementing Zeiss’s reputation in the photographic industry.

The Cold War Era

The division of Carl Zeiss into two separate entities mirrored the broader geopolitical division of Germany during the Cold War. Both companies operated independently, with their own research and development programs, production facilities, and market strategies. Despite these differences, there was an undeniable connection between the two, rooted in their shared heritage and expertise in optics.

During the Cold War, the two branches of Carl Zeiss found themselves on opposite sides of the Iron Curtain. This separation led to distinct trajectories for each company. In East Germany, VEB Carl Zeiss Jena became a flagship enterprise of the socialist state, while in West Germany, Carl Zeiss Oberkochen thrived in a capitalist economy.

VEB Carl Zeiss Jena in the DDR

In East Germany, VEB Carl Zeiss Jena played a crucial role in the planned economy of the German Democratic Republic (DDR). The company was a significant contributor to the scientific and industrial capabilities of the state. Despite the challenges of operating under a centrally planned economy, VEB Carl Zeiss Jena maintained a strong focus on research and innovation.

One of the key areas of focus for VEB Carl Zeiss Jena was the development of scientific instruments. The company produced a wide range of microscopes, spectrometers, and other analytical instruments that were used in research institutions and universities across the socialist bloc. The high quality of these instruments ensured that VEB Carl Zeiss Jena maintained a strong reputation in the scientific community.

Additionally, VEB Carl Zeiss Jena continued to produce photographic and cine lenses, contributing to the field of visual arts. The company’s lenses were used by filmmakers and photographers in the Eastern Bloc, helping to document and shape the cultural landscape of the time.

Carl Zeiss Oberkochen in the FRG

In West Germany, Carl Zeiss Oberkochen thrived in the free-market economy of the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG). The company benefited from the economic growth and technological advancements that characterized the post-war period. Carl Zeiss Oberkochen became known for its high-quality optical products, which were sought after by professionals and enthusiasts alike.

The company continued to innovate in the field of camera lenses, producing iconic lenses such as the Biogon, Sonnar, and Distagon series. These lenses were renowned for their optical performance and build quality, making them favorites among photographers and filmmakers. The partnership with camera manufacturers like Hasselblad further enhanced the reputation of Zeiss lenses in the professional photography community.

Carl Zeiss Oberkochen also expanded its product offerings to include medical and industrial optics. The company’s surgical microscopes and ophthalmic instruments set new standards in precision and reliability, contributing to advancements in medical science. In the industrial sector, Zeiss’s metrology equipment became essential tools for quality control and precision manufacturing.

The Fall of the Berlin Wall and Reunification

The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the subsequent reunification of Germany in 1990 marked a turning point for Carl Zeiss. The political and economic changes that accompanied reunification had profound implications for both VEB Carl Zeiss Jena and Carl Zeiss Oberkochen.

In the wake of reunification, VEB Carl Zeiss Jena faced significant challenges. The transition from a planned economy to a market economy was fraught with difficulties, and many East German enterprises struggled to adapt. For VEB Carl Zeiss Jena, this period was marked by restructuring and modernization efforts aimed at integrating the company into the global market.

Meanwhile, Carl Zeiss Oberkochen emerged as a key player in the reunified Germany’s economy. The company leveraged its strong position in the market to support the integration of its eastern counterpart. This period saw increased collaboration and consolidation between the two branches of Carl Zeiss, culminating in the formal reunification of the company.

Reunification of Carl Zeiss

The reunification of Carl Zeiss was a complex and multifaceted process that involved legal, financial, and operational challenges. The goal was to create a single, unified entity that could leverage the strengths of both the Jena and Oberkochen operations.

In 1991, the process of formal reunification began with the establishment of a holding company, Carl Zeiss AG, which served as the parent company for both Carl Zeiss Jena and Carl Zeiss Oberkochen. This restructuring allowed for greater coordination and integration of the two branches, while also preserving the unique heritage and expertise of each.

The reunified Carl Zeiss focused on consolidating its product lines, streamlining operations, and investing in research and development. The company aimed to position itself as a global leader in the optical industry, building on the strengths of both its eastern and western divisions.

Modern Era and Global Expansion

Since reunification, Carl Zeiss has continued to grow and innovate, solidifying its position as a leader in the optical and optoelectronic industries. The company has expanded its global presence, establishing subsidiaries and production facilities in key markets around the world.

Carl Zeiss’s commitment to innovation is evident in its diverse product portfolio, which includes advanced medical devices, cutting-edge semiconductor manufacturing equipment, and high-performance camera lenses. The company’s focus on research and development has led to breakthroughs in fields such as microscopy, lithography, and imaging technologies.

One of the notable achievements of Carl Zeiss in the modern era is its contribution to the field of digital imaging. The company has developed a range of high-quality lenses for digital cameras and smartphones, partnering with leading technology companies to enhance the imaging capabilities of consumer devices. Zeiss lenses are renowned for their clarity, sharpness, and color accuracy, making them a preferred choice for photographers and filmmakers.


The history of Carl Zeiss is a testament to the company’s enduring commitment to quality, innovation, and precision. From its humble beginnings as a small workshop in Jena to its current status as a global leader in optics, Carl Zeiss has navigated significant challenges and transformations. The division of the company after World War II, driven by the geopolitical realities of the time, resulted in the creation of two distinct entities that operated on opposite sides of the Iron Curtain. Despite this separation, both VEB Carl Zeiss Jena and Carl Zeiss Oberkochen continued to advance the field of optics through research, innovation, and a dedication to excellence.

The reunification of Carl Zeiss following the fall of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of Germany brought together the strengths of both branches, creating a unified company that has continued to thrive in the global market. Today, Carl Zeiss stands as a symbol of German engineering and craftsmanship, with a legacy that spans more than a century of technological advancements and contributions to science, industry, and the arts.

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