In an event that at times felt more like a wedding than the anniversary of the founding of a major chemical company, leaders of German industry and politics gathered in Ludwigshafen to toast the success that is BASF, the world’s largest chemical company.
The celebration took place on Thursday, April 23, almost 150 years to the day after the firm was founded. Guests included German Chancellor Angela Merkel, former German chancellor Helmut Kohl, Bayer Chairman Marijn Dekkers, and Wacker Chemie Chairman Rudolf Staudigl.
Maríe-Luise (Malu) Dreyer, prime minister of Rhineland-Palatinate, the region where Ludwigshafen is located, kicked off the celebration with a speech that listed a raft of BASF achievements, including the firm’s early adoption of workers’ councils, its policies for promoting disabled workers, and its positive impact on the local economy.
Then, in a speech clearly uncensored by BASF’s media team, Chancellor Merkel silenced the audience of about 1,000 by ripping into the company for inventing chemical weapons used in the First World War. She went on to chastise it for “being responsible” for manufacturing gas used to murder Jews in the Second World War. “In the history of BASF we see reflections of our country, including its darker moments,” she said.
In the end, Merkel managed to receive a standing ovation from the largely German audience by also stressing how important BASF is as a force for innovation, for R&D jobs, for a better Germany, and for a better world faced with limited resources and a growing population.
She commended BASF on Creator Space, its anniversary program of collaboration with stakeholders to identify solutions to the problems of energy, nutrition, and urbanization. “I really welcome this initiative. We need more open-mindedness toward new technologies,” Merkel said.
Merkel’s exit from the Ludwigshafen stage was followed by a concert featuring the first public performance of Water Dances, a symphony written for BASF’s anniversary by British composer Michael Nyman. It was played by London’s Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.
The upbeat symphony was inspired by 1,500 sounds of chemical manufacturing plants, offices, and R&D centers recorded by BASF employees from around the world.
The performance was prefaced by a musical montage, also by Nyman, comprising some of the actual sounds of BASF. It was accompanied by multiscreen video images and synchronized with flashing lights on wristbands handed out to guests. The 1,500 sounds included machines whirring, clocks ticking, electronics bleeping, air rushing, and water flowing.
If there is such a thing as the sound of chemistry, then perhaps this was it. If there was a defining event for celebrating the chemistry enterprise, then perhaps this was it as well.