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Maximilian Kolbe, saint of Auschwitz and entrepreneurs?

Polish innovators have launched an initiative to proclaim Saint Maximilian Kolbe the patron saint of entrepreneurs. They have created a petition for the pope to name this great Catholic saint the official intercessor of “entrepreneurs and start-ups beginning their business journey.” Although he is known as a holy priest and martyr who gave his life to save another man in Auschwitz, he was also an entrepreneur and innovator.

A child of the industrial era

Fr. Maximilian Maria Kolbe, was born as Rajmund Kolbe in 1894 into a working-class family in Zduńska Wola near Łódź, the very center of industry in the Russian-dominated Congress Kingdom of Poland. His parents owned a small business before moving to larger cities (Łódź and Pabianice), where his father worked in a factory. As a child, he frequented a commerce school. In 1912, he moved to Kraków to start his seminary formation and ultimately earned a doctoral degree in theology.

On October 16, 1917, Kolbe founded the Militia of Mary Immaculate “for the conversion of sinners.”

The man behind a growing start-up

In 1919, Fr. Kolbe returned to Poland which had just regained its independence. Understanding the power of media, he endeavored in Kraków to create a magazine to become the voice of the Militia of Immaculata. The first issue of his monthly Knight of Immaculata was printed in Kraków, in a run of 5,000 copies. Soon, Kolbe was moved to Grodno (located in modern Belarus), where he continued his Catholic publishing efforts. Five years later, in 1927, the circulation of his monthly climbed to 70,000. The fact that he left Kraków with just one suitcase and, when he was leaving Grodno later in the 1930s, he had to hire a train is cited as an example of his success at running a start-up.

St. Maximilian Kolbe exemplifies the marriage of virtue and hard work in realizing extraordinary business and professional achievements.

Maximilian used a unique business model, which we could call the “economy of gratitude,” and which is still used today. His magazine was distributed for free. The cost of printing was on the cover. If the reader was satisfied, he could donate any amount toward that expense.

A missionary and fundraiser

In the late 1920s, he managed to convince the ecclesiastical authorities to allow him to depart for Asia in order to fund mission centers in Japan, China, and eventually India. He and some fellow Franciscan brothers left Poland in 1930 with little money and no knowledge of Asian languages or culture. Only one month after his arrival to Nagasaki, Japan, the first printing of the Knight of Immaculata in Japanese took place, running 10,000 copies. In a few years the monthly circulation tripled. Maximilian bought land for a future monastery and publishing house on the outskirts of the city. The monastery, funded by Fr. Kolbe, exists to this day, as does the Japanese version of his magazine, Seibo no Kishi.

A manager and visionary

In 1936, Maximilian returned to Poland to become the superior of Niepokalanów (“Town of Immaculata”), in Teresin, not far from Warsaw, which he had funded before. In just over 10 years this monastery, which he had founded this shortly before leaving for Japan, grew from 20 to almost 800 people, including priests, friars, and seminarians. It also became home to his press “empire.”

Fr. Kolbe asked professors from the best Warsaw universities to craft the managerial structure of his new “factory.”

An undertaking of this scale required complex managerial practices. Fr. Kolbe asked professors from the best Warsaw universities to craft the managerial structure of his new “factory.”  The solutions he implemented reflected the newest currents of managerial thought, in this case strongly inspired by scientific management or “Taylorism.” These practices proved effective. The circulation of Knight of Immaculata reached one million on the eve of World War II.  

Cutting-edge technology helped him spread the Gospel. His printing machines ranked among the most modern in Europe. Foreseeing the evolution of the media, Fr. Kolbe launched a new start-up, Radio Niepokalanów, which began its broadcasts in 1938. Fr. Kolbe planned to streamline the distribution of his publications by using airplanes, sending two friars to receive pilot’s training and drawing up plans to open an airfield in Niepokalanów. However, he never realized these projects.

The martyr of Auschwitz is declared a saint

In September 1939, Germany and the Soviet Union invaded Poland. The German occupation brought persecutions and ethnic cleansing. Most of the friars from Niepokalanów were ordered by their superior to return home for a limited time. Those who remained on site, including Fr. Kolbe, were arrested but finally freed.

In December 3,500 Poles (both Christian and Jewish) who had been cast out of their homes in western and northern Poland by the Reich arrived at the monastery. Maximilian ordered the monks to care for all of them, regardless of their religion.

He, too, began to feel the hand of his occupiers, which confiscated the machines in his printing shop and sent them to Germany. Later, as the Nazis learned that the monastery had sheltered Jews, the Knight of Immaculata was discontinued. Fr. Kolbe manage to receive the authorization to print just one issue in December 1940/January 1941 … printing 120,000 copies. In February 1941, the monastery was shut down by the Germans, and Fr. Kolbe together with four others were arrested and imprisoned in the Pawiak prison.

In May, Maximilian was transferred to Auschwitz. In late July 1941, three prisoners disappeared from the camp, prompting Karl Fritzsch, deputy camp commander, to pick 10 men to be starved to death in an underground bunker as an example. Fr. Kolbe volunteered to take the place of one of them, the father of a family. Maximilian led the other nine men in prayer to the Mother of God, then remained calm and peaceful during his two weeks of starvation. The last one alive, he was eventually killed by an injection of poison on the eve of the Feast of Assumption of Our Lady: August 14, 1941.

In the last 75 years, his importance has only grown in the West. He was canonized by the Roman Catholic Church in October 1982. He is one of 10 twentieth-century martyrs carved in statue form above the Great West Door of the Anglican Church’s Westminster Abbey in London.

St. Maximilian Kolbe exemplifies the marriage of virtue and hard work in realizing extraordinary business and professional achievements. His ascetic life not only did not prevent him from using the most recent achievement of business theory and technology but was for him an inspiration and incentive to tirelessly preach the Gospel through every available medium, both in words and action. Another Auschwitz prisoner, Viktor Frankl, said that success and happiness ensue only as the unintended side effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself, or as the by-product of one's surrender to a person other than oneself. For Fr. Kolbe, business techniques and technology were a means to achieve his goal of proclaiming the kingdom of his God, to Whom he surrendered everything.

(Photo credit: Dennis Jarvis. This photo has been cropped. CC BY-SA 2.0.)


Marcin Rzegocki is a Ph.D. student at the Warsaw School of Economics.