Walter Göpfert 1932

In memory of my grandfather Walter Göpfert (1899-1988), I make his photos from Barentsburg on Spitsbergen accessible to the public.

My grandfather worked as a construction engineer from Germany with the 'Nederlandsche Spitsbergen Compagnie N.V.' (NESPICO) from 1926-1927 and with the Soviet company Trust 'Artikugol' (Арктикуголь) from 1932-1933. Both job assignments correspond directly to the maximum points of the unemployment rate in Germany.

Some photos are subtitled in the album, some are not. I’m interested in sharing information with descendants of other employees during the downtime or construction phases 1926-1933. If you have any affinity to that thread for a particular reason, don't hesitate to contact me.



After the Dutch explorer Willem Barentsz had discovered Spitsbergen (Norwegian: Svalbard) in 1596 the archipelago was characterized by unregulated resource exploitation i.e. whaling, hunting, trapping and mining. Different European nations considered Spitsbergen as a kind of duty free shop of unlimited natural resources. In 1920 the Spitsbergen Treaty declared the full sovereignty of Norway over Spitsbergen. Nevertheless the same rights were granted to all signatory States to start economic activities on the island. But it took another 5 years until the treaty was ratified.

Also in the year 1920 the 'Nederlandsche Spitsbergen Compagnie N.V.' (NESPICO) bought a coal-mining area at the Green Harbour Fjord (Norwegian equivalent: Grønfjorden), which was launched by a Russian company a few years before. The settlement was renamed to Barentsburg in honour of the Dutch explorer.

At that time the more than 50 years lasting super-cycle of the coal mining industries entered a period of long-term decline. In the mid-1920s coal traded sideways in a commodity market with high volatility. The steam engine and the coal industry faced a growing competition from trucks and oil. The following chart shows the first eye-catching peak of the coal consumption that happened exactly at the time of an increasing demand for oil. Note: a calculation per head would be a more suitable presentation to underline the decline in coal consumption after the peak. The US data represents the development in other countries as well:
Germany Unemployment Rate 1921-1932

Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) - Copyright: Public Domain

In 1926 NESPICO had decided to stop the production temporarily and to improve the labor intensive workflow. The capacity of the mine could be increased until 1927. But the production has never been resumed since the economic environment hadn’t recovered. Keep in mind, the stock market crash of 1929 was followed by the Great Depression. To avoid bankruptcy NESPICO sold the claim to the Soviet company Trust 'Arktikugol' (Арктикуголь). The name Barentsburg (Баренцбург) has been retaining by Arktikugol until today ( In 1932 former employees of NESPICO returned to Spitsbergen to work with Artikugol for restoring and expanding the mining operations.

As someone who was born at the time of Cold War, I found it difficult to understand that enterprises from Western Europe sent their skilled personnel to a Soviet-managed company, setting up a state-of-the-art industrial plant. I read an interesting point of view in a newsletter, which helped me to understand the time of the 1920s better:

“In the Soviet Union, the communist experiment was still young and initially looked like a success story. Many considered the economic model organised by central planners as a modern and rational alternative for the ‘irrational anarchy’ of free markets. In Europe as well as in the U.S., the economic dispute between the socialist - interventionist ideas of J.M Keynes' and the classic liberal ideas of the ‘Austrian school’ of von Mises and Hayek was at the centre of the political debate.” (Source: The Great 1929 Depression; Paul Vreymans;

In this context it’s better to understand why the Soviet economist Nikolai Kondratiev, who discovered the 50-70 year cycles in market economies, was a worldwide respected scientist at that time. But the so called ‘New Economic Policy’ (NEP) was refused with the growing influence of Stalin. Kondratiev was executed in the year 1938 in the Soviet Union.