As visitors to this blog may have noticed, the academic articles I have posted here over the last seven years have reduced in frequency due to the demands of dissertation writing and my ongoing work at the National Academy of Sciences. I am also working on several projects with an eye toward publishing. This is a tricky prospect when it comes to blogging. I want to share all the incredibly interesting things I have found, but I also need to eventually make a living writing interesting stories about the history of American business in Nazi Germany, the history of scientific research in the U.S., etc.
Thus, what I would like to do today is not necessarily share specific information-but more of a guide that I wish my past self had read as I embarked on the journey to become a competent historian and writer. Here is a list of important tips in no particular order:
1. Keep a journal when doing research.
I cannot emphasize how important this is – and it is never too early to start doing this in your academic career. In the archives, write down your impressions. No matter how good your memory is, you are not going remember everything. Describe your sources in detail. What box are you looking at? What record group? Is this a document? What are your initial reactions to it? How does this relate to the research questions you are asking? Moreover, this method is good not just for writing about your research sources, but also about the archives themselves. Where are the bathrooms? Where do you get something to eat? What are the idiosyncrasies of the staff? What is local transportation like? This will help, especially if you revisit archives later. This information can also help your peers, who may be planning to visit the research facility in question. Finally, keeping a journal is very important if you forget something or miss something that you later believe is important. This will allow you to do forensics on your own research methods and trace back where you found something (or what you might need to examine next!).
2. Give yourself time at the beginning of an archive visit to simply figure out how to navigate the facility.
If I had a dime for how many times I underscheduled the amount of time I would need at an archive, I’d be a rich man. Give yourself time to figure out how to get to an archive on your first day. When I was in Koblenz recently, I decided to walk to the Bundesarchiv from my hotel. Even with google maps, I still ended up walking the wrong way, and did not anticipate the steep hills I would need to hike up. This ate up time (but was good exercise!). Because I had given myself extra time to make these kinds of mistakes, I was not stressed out when I got there.
Also, give yourself extra time to figure out things all things I just mentioned like food, transportation, bathrooms, and how to fill out the necessary forms to request research materials. This will help you have a more smooth experience. Also, be nice to archivists. They are experts and can be very valuable sources of information.
3. Contemplate and update your research questions.
If you can help it, do not confine yourself when doing research. Good research questions often lead to more questions. You should have something to guide your search, and I am the first person to admit that I consistently get my butt kicked by my dissertation committee for making sure I have well thought out research question. A research question is your guide in the archives. It will help you narrow your search and use your time effectively, rather than getting lost in details that, while interesting, do not help you complete your project.
4. Evaluate your sources.
Remember: Humans are not infallible. Everyone has motivations for why they put something to paper. It is never too early to think about the intentions behind the information you are looking at. Read critically and skeptically. Not everything is a conspiracy, but you cannot always take what you are looking at at face value. Crappy historians and conspiracy theorists often create “smoking guns” simply by not evaluating a piece of information and looking at the context in which it was created. It never hurts to ask yourself questions that might be raised by others about your sources. Is what is being said actually accurate? Is there a possible reason why it might not be? This is good to keep in mind. Also, any good librarian will tell you to use the CRAAP test when evaluating sources. I cannot stress how important information literacy is in our current age. Use it!
5. Record box and file numbers!
There is very little that is more annoying for a scholar than to look at the footnotes in a book that just made some major point, and find an incomplete footnote. This essentially means that if you really want to follow up (which is the whole point of a footnote!) then you have to redo the research. This could take hours, weeks, or years to figure out what the writer was referencing. You may never find it. There are certainly cases where this is true in my own research quests.
Write down box and file numbers! If you’re at the U.S. National Archives, keep in mind that there are often Entry numbers, each with their own numerical sets of boxes. The more information you can provide on how to find this source, the more appreciative future scholars will be. A good method, if you are allowed to use digital photography, is taking a picture of the label on the box you are looking at. It also helps to take pictures of any labels or writing on folders, too.
6. Digital Photography
If you are allowed to take photos, here are a couple pointers. Pick a place in the reading room with decent light and less glare, if possible. Take a picture that captures a little more than the page you are looking at. I learned this lesson working with a good friend who is an expert in FBI docs. He pointed out that there were often important codes printed on the edges of reports, which contain designations that help tell you what topic the source is about and the agency analyzing the source.
Also, if time permits, take photos of whole folders in their entirety. Get every page. You never know when a page before or after the document that interests you might also have important information on it. I realize that this is not always possible because of the sheer volume of paper in some collections; however, given the increasing cheapness of digital storage, storing lots of photos should not be a major problem. Also, digital collections can be very useful in the future and help create a backup of important historical documents.
7. Organize your time. AKA To-do lists!
I am a big fan of to-do lists when I do research. I am not slavish when it comes to making a schedule. Instead, I make a schedule, do my best to stick to it, and then rewrite my list depending on my progress. I’ve found that momentum can work both ways – whether you are ahead of schedule or behind. If you are behind, it’s easier to stay behind – if you are ahead, it’s easier to stay ahead. I noticed that one thing that helps me stay ahead, or at least making steady progress, is by creating and updating schedules and to-do lists on a regular basis. This helps you track your progress and makes you feel like you are getting somewhere. This isn’t a magic bullet, but it does help you get an overview of your goals and the steps to accomplishing them.
That’s all I’ve got for now! Be sure to revisit this blog periodically, as I will try to add more tips of the trade in the near future. Not only is it good to share wisdom (often from time-consuming mistakes), but also serves as a helpful reminder, too.
Hello! For those of you visiting my blog for the first time, welcome! I primarily post articles I’ve written in my specialized field of American business with Nazi Germany. Recently, I’ve been talking to publishers and finishing up my dissertation, so posts here have been scant. I don’t want to give everything away! That said, there’s about eight years of articles I’ve written on the topic (click the “Corporations & Nazi Germany” tab above) and plenty to read.
There have been many revelations and surprises in the course of the heaviest part of research for my upcoming book and I’m excited to share them with you. The major part of research and writing should be completed around this time next year. In addition, it’s been really great to work as a consultant at the National Academy of Sciences on their history of the years between the two World Wars. They’ve been supportive and the work has been enlightening. Our team should also be done with a majority of our research at the end of 2016.
As always, I encourage visitors to leave comments and feedback. Historical research is a conversation, not just between historians past and present, but also between the researcher and their audience. I look forward to hearing from you.
Baltimore is in the thoughts of many people all over the world today. Last night’s violence is now another page in the annals of the often tragic relationship between black people and the police in the United States.
I am a historian of institutionalized violence and I live in Baltimore. It is impossible for me to stand aside and not reflect on recent events. Indeed, if there were ever important roles for a historian to play in troubled times – reflection is probably chief among of them. I study many things: science & technology, economic and political history, the history of war and genocide in Nazi Germany, and other related subjects. Even though it is not my area of specialization, when you pursue multiple advanced degrees in US history, a considerable amount of time is spent studying the legacy of racism in America – particularly as it relates to African-American slavery, Jim Crow, and the defacto and dejure discrimination that still plagues the country. It’s unavoidable. Take my qualifications for what you will. Alexis de Tocqueville once wrote that the frustrating beauty of American thought was that people were free to be their own experts. In any case, some will come here seeking perspective and that is provided below.
First, the precedents: Unfortunately, mob violence is not new to Baltimore. In April of 1861, there were clashes between Union troops traveling through Baltimore on their way to Washington, D.C. and pro-Confederate militias. About a dozen people died. John Merryman, one of the militia leaders, was later arrested and denied legal counsel. Despite the need to prevent further sabotage to the Union war effort, historians still debate the wisdom of the suspension of habeas corpus at that time – a fateful moment in the expansion of police power in America. Today, we have unconfirmed reports that protesters are also being held without representation.
An outpouring of specifically black discontent is also not new. When the news of Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination hit Baltimore in the first week of April 1968, black citizens rioted for several days. Six people died and hundreds were injured.
April seems to be a bad month for Baltimore.
For the first time since 1968, Governor Hogan has called in the National Guard to deal specifically with black discontent. Just like in 1968, a state of emergency and curfew has also been declared. And, just like in 1968, the words “they are burning their own neighborhood” were on the lips of white onlookers. Why does the cycle continue?
First, some facts: There was a largely, peaceful protest in Baltimore on Saturday, April 26th, 2015. For the record, this protest was planned because of the death of Freddie Gray, who was arrested for making eye contact with the police (no joke). He was in good health when he was arrested, but when he arrived to booking, 80% of his spinal column had been severed. He died shortly after. Because of the national prominence of police brutality in recent months and years – which include the murders of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, and Michael Brown, the #blacklivesmatter movement, the Dream Defenders, and other national groups have endeavored to organize large scale protests to focus national attention on police brutality and the murder of black people. Only a few weeks earlier on April 7, Walter Scott was shot in the back and killed by a South Carolina police officer in a traffic stop. A bystander caught the action on their phone, including the officer planting a weapon on Scott’s body to justify his murder.
It seemed appropriate to protest yet another unjust death. It appears as though the April 26 march started fine and then devolved into violence as it approached the baseball stadium. Why? Because white attackers provoked the crowd.
Didn’t hear this part of the story? Here’s some pics:
What did the police do when violence broke out? They attacked the protesters. Which then provoked a reaction against the police – who were, of course, the reason for the protest in the first place. News outlets reported property damage and violence to police vehicles, while mostly ignoring why this event occurred. Ignoring the point of the protest and the desire for redress only increased frustration and anger of the black community and their allies.
Then came Monday, April 27th.
The day started with a “credible threat” to Baltimore Police, who claimed that local gangs had joined forces to attack them. This became an excuse to come out heavily armed and shut down public transit. Ironically, what had actually occurred was a truce between gangs to help keep the peace. You can watch an interview with some of the gang leaders involved discussing their plans to help create calm and unity here. Students at the predominantly black (and aptly named) Frederick Douglass high school had planned a walkout and a protest, and found themselves immediately beset by riot police and a lack of means of transportation to get home. The situation exploded.
In case this needs to be clearly mentioned: Neither the presence of riot police nor the shutdown of city transportation needed to have happened. The responsibility to avoid further violence and provocation of an already volatile situation was in the hands of adults not the children who reacted to the situation.
This is where most people know the rest of the story. Buildings burned. Businesses were looted. There were hundreds of arrests.
If you needed more irony, the property damage occurred in close proximity to the areas that were damaged in 1968. Some of those parts of Baltimore were never rebuilt. And this is really the main issue. When Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was murdered, he was working on “The Poor People’s Campaign” in 1968. King realized that economic justice was closely tied to racial justice. If people are able to provide for their families, the fear, hate, and racism of one group being pitted against another to fight over scarce resources begins to become more irrelevant. Here is noted King scholar Adam Fairclough on this topic:
Blacks were not simply confronting irrational prejudice on the part of individuals but also systemic economic exploitation by the majority. [King] likened the ghettos to internal colonies: whites controlled an perpetuated them because they profited from them. The movement’s demand to end slums, he now realized, had challenged powerful economic interests. “You can’t talk about ending slums,” he warned his staff, “without first seeing that profit must be taken out of slums. You’re really…getting on dangerous ground because you are messing with folk then. You are messing with Wall Street. You are messing with captains of industry.” The white backlash, he contended, had only a superficial connection with the spread of black rioting: white racism was coming out into the open because whites saw their privileges being threatened. [emphasis mine. p. 110]
Unfortunately, it should not be a surprise that economic injustice in the black community is not a new issue; however, it is complicated by the racial dynamics in Baltimore where we have a black mayor and a black police commissioner blaming “criminality” and using respectability politics to deny people their longstanding grievances. If you live in Baltimore, you don’t need to watch The Wire to know that there are whole sections of the city that have been abandoned by civil society. Baltimore has become the land of crime statistics. By focusing on assaults, burglaries, and vandalism, those that have done well can abdicate themselves of helping those that have been left behind. Khalil Gibran Muhammad, in his book, The Condemnation of Blackness, explains it this way:
By illuminating the idea of black criminality in the making of modern urban America, it becomes clear that there are options in how we choose to use and interpret crime statistics. They may tell us something about the world we live in and about the people we label “criminals.” But they cannot speak for themselves. They never have. They have always been interpreted, and made meaningful, in a broader political, economic, and social context in which race mattered. The falsity of past claims of race-neutral crime statistics and color-blind justice should caution us against the ubiquitous referencing of statistics about black criminality today, especially given the relative silence about white criminality. [p. 277]
And white criminality is the real issue here. Although there is obviously an intersection of race and class problems in Baltimore, the reigns of power in the US are still primarily held by white people. Furthermore, not all crime is illegal. The reason there are poverty ridden areas and crumbling infrastructure all over America is primarily due to the offshoring of large amounts of money by the richest individuals and companies. Draining all the resources that were meant to support schools, hospitals, and programs to help the most vulnerable among us is morally reprehensible even while it remains (somewhat) legal. The continuation of this process, which has only accelerated in recent years, will exacerbate the unrest in impoverished black communities. The police will continue to deal with the problem the only way they know how: with more force. Thus, the cycle of violence may continue.
This is not the only story, though.
Because then April 28th happened.
People from all over the city came to clean up the areas that had been damaged overnight. So many Baltimorians came to help, that there were not enough projects for them to work on.
What will befall Baltimore tonight? No one can say. But I can tell you this: While economic opportunities are limited, while media focuses on property damage rather than the grievances that need to be heard, while officials abdicate their responsibility to calm people, and instead provoke them in an already volatile situation, this won’t be the last uprising. There is work to be done: Tackling big problems like climate change could bring about huge economic opportunities, which have the potential to mitigate long standing problems. Education and information literacy can help us improve our news media and communication skills so we are better equipped to understand the problems we face. Finally, we need to listen to the people, rather than judge them. Of course, that’s just a suggestion.
Thank you for visiting my research and publications blog! I have been very busy lately working on new projects – but I hope you’ll go back and read the many articles I’ve posted here since 2008. The pictures above are from the National Academy of Sciences, where I currently work as a historical consultant. Writing and conducting research on the history of science is fascinating and rewarding – and stay tuned for more articles related to that topic!
The big projects in the works are as follows: Last fall, my dissertation proposal was approved for Lawyers, Spies, and Industry: The Dulles Brothers and Transnational Business in Nazi Germany. Research for this project has been ongoing in and around DC, and I hope Europe in the coming months!
National Academy of Sciences has commissioned a 150 year history of their institutions, which I referenced above. Our team is hoping to complete work on this late in the year – although this may be subject to change. I will post updates about this as we get closer.
I am also currently working as a drummer and band leader for the Baltimore Rock Opera Society’s latest production entitled “6 Pack,” which is made up of six mini rock operas. This is production is going to huge, hilarious, and filled to the brim with righteous rock and roll! If you are anywhere near the Baltimore area in late May, I highly suggest attending this event. Learn more about it here.
In other news, lots of publications have come out recently that I’ve either been cited or acknowledged. One book of particular note is the fourth volume of Jewish Responses to Persecution I worked on with Dr. Emil Kerenji at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, which I’m happy to have been a part of. Additionally, it would seem that my work is making an impact on new scholarship on business in Germany during World War II. I’m gratified that people have found the writing here on this blog an important part of the ongoing discussion about this history. As I have mentioned before in previous pieces, but probably deserves a reiteration: All the work on this blog has, in fact, been subject to peer review. Unlike an academic journal, the research found here was not reviewed via blind distribution among experts; instead, the pieces here were stewarded directly by significant scholars in various fields such as US foreign policy, US legal history, business history, Nazi Germany, Cold War culture, and transnational history. These scholars are: Drs. Richard Breitman, Allan Lichtman, Peter Kuznick, Heather Elms, and Max Paul Friedman at American University, Seth Jacobs, Devin Pendas, Kevin Kenny, and Alan Rogers at Boston College, and Martin Ederer at Buffalo State College. Special distinction is also reserved for Dr. Franziska Seraphim at Boston College for her work with me on my 2010 “Contradiction of Neutrality” piece about the Bank for International Settlements, which ended up as an integral part of Adam Lebor’s Tower of Basel book published last year, and cited by numerous publications since.
So as you are reading the pieces here on this blog, know that many fantastic scholars asked critical questions, provided important insights, and helped the work become a significant part of ongoing scholarly discussions.
Thank you for visiting and happy reading! More updates to come.
I have previously written that blogging is liberating because it allows you to express yourself more personally and directly to your audience. For those of us in academia, this is often not our primary method of communicating, since our goal is to dispassionately present a sober analysis of verifiable facts whenever possible. We usually do not use first person and usually do not mix our scholarly analysis with personal stories. The truth of the matter is, however, that we are all human. We are subjective creatures observing and writing about other subjective creatures. We have personal connections to our research subjects. Thus, this mode of writing is sometimes helpful.
Some have used the human lack of objectivity to argue that all historical investigation is fundamentally flawed. I disagree. If we work at it, and continue to research, write, debate, and interrogate our perceptions, I believe we can get a better sense of what actually happened in the past. Then we create the possibility making an informed decision about our present. This is the essence of why the study of history matters.
We work at it. And sometimes we make mistakes.
I am reviewing Peter Hayes’ work here in an attempt to correct some of my mistakes. Hayes has written two books about businesses and Nazi Germany: Industry and Ideology is about IG Farben, the company that built Auschwitz. From Cooperation to Complicity is about Degussa, the company that melted down stolen gold and manufactured Zyklon B, the delousing agent used in the infamous Nazi gas chambers.
When I was first exposed to Hayes’ scholarship I had some mistaken perceptions about these two books. This led me to make a grave error. Today, my opinions and contentions about Hayes’ work are more nuanced. I hope that those who read this blog in order to find clarity about business and Nazi Germany will be better served by what is written here. Moreover, this essay is also a personal observation about being a researcher in this field, which hopefully helps provide a lesson about how my peers may navigate it in the future.
Let me make a major disclaimer here: The books I am reviewing by Peter Hayes are very important to my field. The more I study them, the more respect I have for the great amount of work that went into them. I am not the only one who has held a mistaken perception of Hayes’ scholarship; therefore, my attempt to understand how the work might be perceived falsely may appear quite critical at times. I must underline, however, that this essay is not an attempt to justify my error. I genuinely want others who are interested in the challenging topic of business and Nazi Germany to learn how I came to make such a mistake and avoid it themselves.
* * *
My entry into the field of business in Nazi Germany was coming across Edwin Black’s book, IBM and the Holocaust in 2002. At the time, I was quite disillusioned; I was an art school dropout working for rock bottom pay doing questionable things for a large financial institution with an unsavory reputation. Black’s dramatic indictment of a well-known corporation resonated strongly with me at the time. If you were going to make a point about the lack of accountability in big business, why not talk about their work with the Nazis? In 2006, I decided to go back to school to make a serious attempt at studying the topic.
I knew that some would consider what I was working on to be conspiracy theory, so I was a diligent student. I did well and my professors recommended graduate school. I got into one. I attempted to interrogate the books I was reading critically, but it was clear that I still had a lot to learn, considering what I did next: On the eve of completing my undergrad degree in 2009, I wrote to Edwin Black to thank him for inspiring me.
Edwin Black wrote back and offered me a volunteer position as an editor for his website. The word “volunteer” should have raised alarm bells for me, but I was starstruck at the time. It took me a few months, but it eventually dawned on me that his “news” website I was working on was basically a platform for reactionary views, particularly of the pro-Zionist, anti-Arab variety. Because I was raised Jewish, Black simply assumed I was in the “support Israel, right or wrong” camp. He was mistaken.
Black’s main interest was not calling for accountability in big business. After the crash of 2008, I felt strongly about exploring the historical roots of business corruption. Instead, Black was fixated on finding enemies of the Jews everywhere. This is not hard to do, and antisemitism is very real. However, Black’s opinions guided his research, which was a big problem. This meant he sometimes created conspiracies where they did not exist.
I admit I was seduced by Black at the time, especially when he criticized Peter Hayes and his mentor, Henry Turner, Jr. Both Turner and Hayes argued that moral outrage reduced the ability to objectively assess what had actually occurred with businesses and Nazi Germany. At the time, I was particularly hostile to this argument, especially since I saw very little accountability in the business world, presently or historically. Moral outrage is what fueled my passion to learn more about corporate malfeasance so I could help work towards a solution. How could I give that up?
Despite my misgivings, I worked with Edwin Black into the early months of 2010. In one of our phone conversations, Black pointed me to a paragraph from Industry and Ideology in the acknowledgments, page xxx. Here, Hayes noted several organizations that “funded or lent ancillary support” to his research and writing. He lists several organizations and then goes on to thank archivists for their help with several collections he used for this book, including IG Farben, the company Industry and Ideology is about. Black, who often lacks the ability to see shades of gray, said, “See! Here is where Hayes got funding from IG Farben for his research.”
I should have looked more closely at the passage in Hayes’ book. Here it is:
I am also grateful to several organizations that funded or lent ancillary support my research and writing: the Social Science Research Council, the Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst, the Giles Whiting Foundation, and the Department of History and the University Research Grants Committee at Northwestern. The archivists and staffs of the Sterling Memorial Library at Yale, the Bayer-Archiv in Leverkusen, the Firmenarchiv der Hoescht AG in Frankfurt, the Unternehmensarchiv der BASF in Ludwigshafen, the Bundesarchiv in Koblenz, the Historisches Archiv of the Gutehoffnungshütte Aktienverein in Oberhausen, the Historisches Archiv of the Metallgesellschaft AG and the IG Farbenindustrie AG in Abwicklung in Frankfurt, the Historisches Archiv of the Fried, Krupp GmbH in Essen, the Werener von Siemens Institut in Munich, and the Center for Research Libraries in Chicago were all extremely helpful, as were the personnel of the Interlibrary Loan Office of the University Library at Northwestern.
It is clear that one sentence here indicates where funding for the book was derived, while another tells us where Hayes did his research. This is a common practice in order to give credit to archivists, who are very important to historians, where it is due. Hayes, of course, also adds at the end of the paragraph: “None of these institutions or individuals sought or exercised any control over my findings or bears responsibility for them” (xxxi).
Did I attribute much importance to this other sentence at the time? No. Instead I started simply footnoting the page and stating that Hayes received “ancillary support” from IG Farben. There were several historians who were commissioned by companies in the late 1990s and early 2000s to assess their role and legal liability in the Holocaust, and Hayes fit neatly into that category. His relativistic position was certainly similar to those that were commissioned.
I eventually became frustrated with working for Edwin Black and stopped answering his emails later in 2010; however, I continued to use the “ancillary support” footnote in many of may papers, several of which are published here on this blog.
It was not until earlier this year that I seriously began to question my own perceptions of Hayes’ work as I spent time putting together the literature review for my dissertation proposal. Two of my past mentors, Devin Pendas and Max Paul Friedman, had already warned me that dismissing the work of Hayes and others because I believed them tainted by corporate influence was not a smart strategy as a historian. Instead they implored me to spend more time actually reading what they said and re-examining their sources, if necessary.
This led me to an extremely embarrassing discovery. Hayes was not commissioned by IG Farben. As it stands, Farben has not even operated as a company since 1945. The cartel was essentially broken up at the end of World War II into four pieces: Bayer, Agfa, BASF, and Hoescht, now part of the pharmaceutical company, Aventis. What remained of Farben was preserved in a “liquidation” status to make Holocaust reparations payments. The firm is still subject to protests from time to time for not doing this transparently enough, but that is a story for another time.
In any case, I became a source that spread an untruth about Peter Hayes and for that I would like to direct a personal apology to him: I was wrong and I apologize.
What is worse is that people have listened to me and spread this misinformation. For reasons I will get to in a moment, Industry and Ideology received sizable portion of negative reviews. Particularly on Amazon.com. Ironically, in a positive review, my own scholarship was referenced as a signpost for schools of thought about business and Nazi Germany.
Meanwhile, Hayes himself responded to a commenter on Amazon who also insinuated that he was commissioned by IG Farben to write Industry and Ideology. As you can see, he flatly denies it.
I was blinded by my own perceptions about corporate influence over scholarship. I am still skeptical about the power dynamic present between commissioned historians and big business, but now I spend more time investigating and less time jumping to conclusions. I daresay that is an essential part of growing as a student. I do not have a PhD yet. And even though I have taught, done a great deal of research, and been considered by some to be an expert in my field, I am also still a student.
I would like to think that the hallmark of a good scholar is someone who turns their mistakes into a lesson for themselves and others. Therefore, we need to go further here. Are there reasons why the conclusion that Peter Hayes was commissioned by IG Farben is plausible? His work deserves a closer investigation so others do not make the same mistake I did.
* * *
An introduction can tell you a lot about a text. First off, there are two versions of Industry and Ideology. It was first published in 1987, as a revised version of Hayes’ doctoral dissertation. The second edition came out in 2001. It is worth noting that, because this book was based on a dissertation, this should immediately take a lot of air out of the allegation that this was a commissioned history. Writing a dissertation takes years. For Hayes, this was a process that started way before 1987, and many years before the late 1990s when commissioned histories actually became a phenomenon.
For the purposes of this review, we are going to look at the more recent edition. Again, the introduction provides some useful information. Hayes notes in his updated version that he should have taken a sharper tone toward Farben (xii). This gives you some idea that he was responding to criticism that he was initially not critical enough. He also spends some time arguing that IG Farben’s involvement with Auschwitz is incidental. Hayes maintains that the company’s choice to locate near Auschwitz was a primarily due to local natural resources, and not primarily for access to forced labor. Nevertheless, he convincingly argues that IG Farben would have imported forced labor even if location was different (xv).
What surprised me reading his new introduction was that Hayes outlines the same problems in the scholarship that I have written about many times, mainly that the writers in the field tend to split between business historians who write sanitized history, and non-historians who indulge in sensationalism to sell books. This is not ideal for helping us understand what really happened. Frustratingly, Hayes provides few examples for this “sanitized history” school, and none are recent or in English. I found this particularly problematic since the commissioned history group I immediately thought of were Hayes’ peers: Harold James, Gerald Feldman, and Henry Turner, Jr. These were the commissioned historians working at the time the new version of Industry and Ideology came out in 2001. I find it troubling that Hayes does not mention these individuals.
In any case, Hayes does a decent job of laying down the historical framework that led IG Farben to the Nazis. He builds a case which is more widely adopted today, that big business was slow to jump on the Nazi bandwagon. I will not go into a lengthy analysis of the scholarly debate that led to this consensus here, but the short version is that businessmen were initially suspicious of the Nazis. There was a lot of anti-capitalist talk coming from the Nazis, often couched in antisemitism, which made corporate leaders worried about what the future would look like if the Nazis were in control of Germany. It was really only in the period directly before their seizure of power that the Nazis made sufficient assurances to corporate leaders that they were more interested in crushing socialists who controlled the unions, rather than reorganizing capitalism in Germany itself. Many businessmen appreciated this strategy and supported the Nazis after they began to destroy the unions.
This is not a view that resonated well with me initially. It is much easier to believe in the willingness for people to want to do nefarious things for nefarious reasons, but this is not a nuanced, or historically accurate view. However, there is a thin line between explaining and justifying, and if one does not read closely, it is easy to miss. For instance, Hayes explains that IG Farben’s interest in currying favor with the Nazis was essentially one of convenience.
Hayes effectively demonstrates that the company’s real interest in partnering with the Nazis came because of a confluence of events: IG Farben was seeking big subsidies for manufacturing synthetic fuel right at a time when the Nazis had big electoral landslides. The Nazis were arguing for nationalistic self sufficiency in a world reeling from economic depression, and it is not difficult to see how IG viewed synthetic fuel production as something that the Nazis would support. This helped spur IG Farben’s interest in the Nazis (66).
As more and more businessmen came into the Nazi fold, some realized the ominous implications of this new political alignment. Carl Bosch, a top IG Farben executive, visited Hitler in the Chancellery in May of 1933. According to Hayes, Bosch tried to discreetly outline the negative effects of Nazi racism on business and scientific development. Hitler allegedly snapped at him and asked him to leave. This permanently poisoned their relationship (92). Ironically, Bosch is maligned as a Nazi collaborator in much of the “conspiracy” literature on corporations and Nazi Germany, and some readers, myself included, were skeptical about this conflict. However, if Bosch was more a collaborator than critic, a lot of work needs to be done to counter the argument Hayes is making. Hayes marshals a great deal of source material to make this claim.
I remember questioning Hayes’ portrayal of Bosch. It is much easier to simply reject scholarship that does not fit one’s worldview; but this is not a reasonable position. This is a warning to future scholars: If you are skeptical about something, take a second look and do more research if necessary.
It is not long after the above story about Bosch that Hayes jumps into a section where he discusses how IG Farben managers identified themselves more closely with the Nazi regime after mid-1933. Probably the most egregious example of this is Max Ilgner. Hayes writes that Ilgner was a salesman and promoter of IG Farben who went abroad to the US to counter negative perceptions of the Nazis and companies operating in Germany. Ilgner went as far as to employ the famous American public relations expert Ivy Lee, to promote Hitler’s Germany and IG Farben (105). As a specialist in US business and Nazi connections, I would have liked to hear a lot more about that episode.
When you dig through the dense prose in Industry and Ideology, there are many incriminating details to be found, but also a number of contradictions; although the book is ostensibly about how IG Farben assisted the Nazis in war and genocide aims, Hayes states that only 3% of IG Farben’s annual sales went to the military until 1938 (136). However, a few pages before that Hayes writes that Farben became the exclusive purchasing agent for numerous raw materials that would be essential to the war effort: oil, benzol, sulfur, nickel, iodine, rubber, molybdenum, chromium ore, tungsten, and phosphates (133).
And here we start to strike at one of the central problems in Industry and Ideology. Hayes contradicts himself frequently. At first, I saw this as a result of academic prose; and indeed, Hayes is particularly poor at writing clearly and summarizing ideas. I get that this was his dissertation; the genre lends itself to in-group academic language and complex writing structures. Nevertheless, we are also talking about a company directly involved with the Holocaust. Given the deeply fraught and emotionally charged nature of the topic, clarity is of tantamount importance. I found clearness is so dramatically absent from Hayes’ work, that it began to become obvious why there were many misunderstandings about it.
As I was taking detailed notes on Industry and Ideology, I noticed the number of contradictory statements increasing from Chapter 5 onward.
For instance, Hayes argues against the “myth” that the Nazi crash rearmament plan, known as the Four Year Plan, was centrally focused on IG Farben’s huge productive capacities as an international cartel. (183-4). Hayes notes that IG Farben’s contribution to the plan was 2.7 billion Reichsmarks (RM) out of a total of 13.25 billion RM. However, Hayes points out earlier that autarky, or national self-sufficency, made IG Farben essential to rearmament due to its unique capabilities and scale.
Right after this section Hayes adds that IG Farben subsidiaries, Brabag, Scholven, Politz, and others account for 4.3 billion RM of the Nazi Four Year Plan making them about a third of total expenditures (183-4). Why then does Hayes make a point about the “myth” of IG Farben’s large contribution to rearmament only to contradict it? Providing a third of all rearmament production is a significantly compelling contribution, not a myth.
Hayes argues that IG Farben already had a large market share of industries the Nazis militarized. Thus, the real argument Hayes is making is that the Nazis militarized IG Farben, rather than the company doing this spontaneously on its own.
Attacking the “myth” starts to seem like a strawman argument. IG Farben contributed greatly to German rearmament, no matter which way Hayes would like to argue the point. In a more lucid passage a little bit later, Hayes notes that IG Farben descended into organizational chaos by the later 1930s. The corporation tried to portray civilian production as military, meanwhile orders came from the military and did not get cleared with the firm’s management hierarchy. Add military secrecy for orders and things get steadily more messy (185). Still, this does not mean it was a “myth” that IG Farben contributed to rearmament.
The lack of clarity gets a bit more pronounced in later chapters. On page 206, Hayes talks about the firm experiencing a funds liquidity crisis, an economic recovery, and an overarching point about atomization of the company (lots of units doing autonomous things) all in the same paragraph. He then contradicts an earlier point about consolidation of firm leadership within the Nazi hierarchy, all without explanation. Honestly, I was lost. Each one of those points needed a topic sentence and a paragraph.
I found myself continually asking as I read, why is everything hyper detailed, yet overarching points are not clear? There were often not clear introductions or conclusions at the end of chapters. Additionally, Hayes’ use of arcane jargon like “vouchsafed” when he could have easily used the word “given,” only made the text more convoluted (216). This type of writing really puts anyone but the experienced specialist at the mercy of Hayes. Either you decide he knows what he is talking about even though you do not understand, or that he has some other agenda. This makes it far too easy for people like Edwin Black to claim that Hayes is burying an apology for the company that built Auschwitz under a mountain of detail and impenetrable language.
Again, clarity is important. This is particularly true when you are writing about a deeply emotional topic. I was continually disappointed by how little effort Hayes seemed to make to to be clear about what he was saying from chapter to chapter.
I also found his attack on Joseph Borkin, who has written a far more critical analysis of the company in The Crime and Punishment of IG Farben (1978) to be a bit unreasonable. Borkin writes a great deal about IG Farben’s takevoer of Austrian and Czech companies after the Nazis annexed these nations. Hayes states that IG Farben took over only a small amount. Hayes says it was “more than 5% of the chemical industries” but does not elaborate (216-17). There is a lot one could mean by more than 5%. Plus, if you are going to attack another author in a very detailed text, why the sudden vagueness?
Moreover, Hayes writes in the above pages, “IG learned to clothe its objectives in appeals to military necessity or the Party’s goals and this ambiguous pattern has been easy to mistake or distort.” Then why is the prose so unclear? Why are conclusions and introductions often missing from chapters? Why is his own discussion filled with ambiguity?
Ironically, right after this comment, Hayes has a somewhat clearer statement. He writes, “These offenses against the victims and international law do not, however, add up to the conclusion that IG conspired to capture and exploit the chemical and related industries of Europe for German military purposes” (218). He continues, “The combine reacted opportunistically and defensively to the regime’s diplomatic and military triumphs, but IG did not foment them” (218). This is one of the few sections in the latter half of the book where I felt I clearly understood a larger point Hayes was trying to make.
Unfortunately, there are more contradictions coming. In Hayes’ following chapter on the Sudetenland, his argument becomes immersed again. Neither at the beginning or the end of this chapter does Hayes state clearly what is happening overall. Buried before the end of this section he states, “The evidence suggests that IG Farben acted in the Sudetenland to protect commercial interests menaced by the incorporation of new chemical works into the Reich and that IG responded to rather than directed German policy in the region” (241). Even when he is lucid, Hayes still fails to clearly articulate that IG Farben compromised on managerial appointments and lost money so that it could buy out competitors on the heels of Nazi conquest. At least, I believe that what the lengthy sixth chapter was about.
The final seventh and eight chapters are where we really get into the meat of IG Farben’s contribution to the Holocaust.
The question of whether IG Farben is malevolent or not is continually framed by the intent of the managers rather than the content of the company’s actions. Hayes writes, “IG Farben’s imperialism was the sort that followed the flag” (264-5). Hayes argues IG Farben’s acquisitions were defensive in order to shut down potential intruders in its sphere of influence in dyes, industrial gases, synthetic rubber, and fuel distribution. Hayes shows the company had to make major concessions in most cases.
Still, this is essentially a distraction from what actually occurred. IG Farben plundered in order to prevent a loss of market share. Again, it appeared that Hayes was riding the thin line between explaining and justifying the corporation’s actions. This is precisely the point where Hayes could have acknowledged this line much more explicitly. Unfortunately, there is no sudden clarity in these last two chapters. Just more very dense prose.
Again, it does not help that Hayes appears to contradict himself repeatedly. When moving on to IG Farben’s move to take over industries in the Balkans, Hayes calls this endeavor “a sideshow” (297). He then proceeds to write about it in detail for another sixteen pages. After this section, Hayes states that IG Farben’s interest in the Balkans increased in importance (299). What is he trying to say?
As Hayes approaches the critical era when IG Farben built Auschwitz and was directly involved in the Holocaust, there are more contradictory conclusions. Hayes writes that in the period from 1939-1945, the Nazi regime had dominance over the economy to the point that industry as a unit didn’t exist; however, economic policy was so diffuse that the regime was nearly matched that with industrial interests (319).
Does IG Farben have agency as a large entity within Germany or not? Presumably, one of the purposes of the book is to assist people in determining how much responsibility for the Holocaust the company bore. This kind of ambiguity is not helpful.
You have to dig for Hayes’ criticisms of IG Farben. It is there, and this is why I am writing this review; but it bothers me that such an important piece of scholarship is so confusing. Obviously this is a critical body of research, but why is it so difficult to figure out what Hayes is trying to conclude about IG Farben’s actions?
This is not to say that clarity is entirely absent. Entering the period from 1943 onward Hayes states that this was the environment when “the concern’s leaders made decisions that blackened its name for all time” (323). I appreciated his candor here.
It is worth noting in this last section that Hayes cites Borkin for scholarship on IG Farben’s holdings in America. This is after criticizing his work pointedly. I found that a bit off-putting, although I suppose that is a bit of what I am doing here in this essay. Hayes utilizes Borkin’s research to talk about IG Farben’s relationship with Standard Oil, the attempt to sell off its American holdings, principally General Analine and Film, and IG Farben’s use of Swiss holding companies to protect assets (335-41). It is likely John Foster Dulles was part of these relationships, but Hayes does not mention him at all, which I personally found disappointing.
Then Hayes really starts digging into Auschwitz. I forgive readers that skip a lot of dense and difficult material to get to this part of the book. Auschwitz is really the reason any layperson knows about IG Farben. Hayes does not discuss this relationship in detail until about twenty pages into his eighth and final chapter. Here I found more contradictions that confused me, particularly in the description Hayes provides about the treatment of foreign workers at Auschwitz. First the company tried to be less harsh, because workers that were treated less so were more productive. When the Nazis started to lose the war and food, building supplies, and other gear were in short supply, the concern resorted “increasingly to severe discipline and punishment” (346). Then the Nazis became “more virtuous” and provoked the ire of the SS. Yes, you read that correctly. Hayes describes the Nazis as instituting a more humane worker treatment policy than IG Farben itself. This makes little sense and I wondered if an explanation was coming later. He simply states, “To Farben’s plant leaders, Nazi policy seemed consistently backward, harsh when gentleness was in order, placating when only severity remained” (346).
Hayes repeats his argument that the location and growth of Auschwitz was tragically incidental. However, he does get a bit more explicit when judging the corporation’s deeds, which is welcome. Hayes states: “these observations do not reduce Farben to a merely passive victim of Auschwitz’s tragic history. The combine’s decision to occupy the site, however unintended and unforeseeable the consequences, contributed mightily to the camp’s expansion and its eventual evolution into a manufacturer of death” (351).
There is a point worth noting on the following page. SS Chief Heinrich Himmler assigned Lieutenant General Karl Wolff to negotiate with IG Farben over shipments of prisoners at Auschwitz who would provide labor for manufacturing the synthetic rubber, also known as buna, at Auschwitz. Just four years later, Wolff surrendered to Allen Dulles as part of a deal to provide intelligence against the Soviet Union. Both Dulles brothers are connected to Auschwitz, yet there is no mention of them at all. Not even to dispel conspiracy theories about them.
For all Hayes’ effort to dispel myths, he missed the corporate collaboration with Nazis on the American side completely. Again, I found this personally disappointing.
Hayes does take time to describe the internal mechanisms that led to the horrors of Auschwitz, which is really the core of what makes this book important. Hayes argues that local managers were too committed economically and politically to change course. This led to a “steady barbarization” at IG-Auschwitz (356). The needs for buna became more desperate as the Nazis continued to lose ground to the Allies. Brutal madness ruled its setting. Monowitz, the Farben subcamp, started the “grisly human conveyor belt” as the SS Captain Heinrich Schwarz would pick prisoners to either stay and work or return to Auschwitz (358-59). These workers were literally worked to death with subpar food, lengthy workdays, and murder if they dropped. Then they were replaced by more. Workers survived four to six weeks.
Hayes argues that so long as more workers were supplied, managers could turn their backs on what was happening. He states that foremen had a dulled sense of sympathy in bad conditions and could simply blame the SS for what was happening (360). Here Hayes directly addresses the mass murder in the gas chamber at Auschwitz.
Hayes argues that IG executives had plausible deniability about what was happening with the gassings for three reasons: Frist, the SS did not consult IG Farben or Degesh. the supplier of Zyklon B, on building the gas chambers. Second, Gerhard Peters, the general manager at Degesh, learned what Zyklon was being used for and took an oath of secrecy. And third, IG Farben executives did not tour Birkenau, an Auschwitz sister camp where Jews were held. or see the gas chambers.
But eventually the Nazis couldn’t hide the stench of burning bodies at Monowitz. Hayes notes that it was spoken of openly. Some IG supervisors “not only spoke openly of the gassings, but wielded them as an incentive to work harder” (364).
This is where I ponder Hayes’ comments about “suspending our moral outrage.” By 1943, word spread from local managers to the top ranks of IG Farben that Auschwitz was a killing center. Hayes states that there is no direct evidence Farben’s chief executive Hermann Schmitz knew, but information about the gassing was circulating so widely, it is very difficult to deny the he knew what was happening (365). Hayes’ relativistic tone that pervades the book really starts to rub raw against the complicity IG Farben had with Nazis. Hayes is asking quite a bit for us to try and “understand” the motives of the company.
In the section detailing the aftermath of the war, Hayes notes that Farben execs were aware that admission of knowledge of the mass killings at Auschwitz was an admission of guilt in 1947-8 postwar trials (367). Thus, we cannot trust their testimony to any great degree. Schmitz probably knew he would be prosecuted by the Allies for all sorts of things: gassing, supply of drugs for medical experiments on Jews, and gas experiments. And if the US did not get him, the Russians were even scarier and more vengeful (370).
Hayes states that to the IG Farben’s loyalists, this was victor’s justice. To the victims of Nazism and critics of big business, the punishments were mockingly light proof that “capital is thicker than blood or water” (378-9). I did appreciate his characterization there.
In the conclusion to this lengthy and detailed text, Hayes contends that IG Farben was both indispensable and inconsequential. The former made them the latter. The Nazis treated them as they treated everything else, a means to an end. Hayes writes, “They became not so much guilty of the Nazi horrors, since they lacked Hitler’s intent, as co-responsible for them” (379). Moreover, IG Farben was complicit, according to Hayes, because the firm’s managers became prisoners of the process they prized most: competition.
Ambition, achievement, and the avoidance of punishment were the guiding elements in the thinking of IG Farben executives. According to Hayes, “Their sense of professional duty encouraged them to regard every issue principally in terms of their special competences and responsibilities, in this case to their fields and stockholders” (382). Hayes argues that this is why professionalization has triumphed in the modern world: it excuses opportunism while rewarding adherence to standards. It has contributed significantly to “the nature of modern sin, the withdrawal of moral concerns from public role in our lives” (382).
Hayes concludes: “To depict the actions of Farben’s managers as products of these processes is not to relieve them of responsibility. It is, instead, to connect their world with ours. Any society or part of one that ceases to grapple with the old preoccupation of history and philosophy, the problem of power and its proper use, and succumbs to an amoral fatalistic historicism, as did the leaders of the firm here described, will surely end as they did – momentarily prosperous and ultimately discredited” (383).
* * *
After all of this, I have questions for Hayes: How far should we go trying to “understand” the perpetrators of crimes? How important is the intent of IG Farben managers?
Regardless of intent, the actions of IG Farben contributed to genocide. That much is abundantly clear in Industry and Ideology.
What is the purpose of knowing the intent of Nazi collaborators? Is knowing that IG Farben managers were not enthusiastic Nazis a consolation to the victims? Does this information provide consolation to their business partners?
Is a purpose for this information even needed? Should we consider this book a product of “knowledge for knowledge’s sake”? If that is the case, was it worth opening wounds to achieve this?
Hayes’ main point appears to be present in the conclusion presented above. Professionalization has led to what Hannah Arendt calls “the banality of evil.” That is, people in offices separated from the destructive results of their actions can easily avoid facing their moral consequences.
Let us return to Hayes’ introduction to understand what he is really trying to do in this book:
“My work differs from its predecessors in tone as well as the strength and breadth of its underpinnings. Every historian must both enter into the subject at hand and stand back from it, attempting, in a sense, the impossible task of being in two places at one time.” (xxv)
Yes, objectivity in history is important, even if it is difficult to achieve. Hayes seems to be less than objective when assessing his own work. Stating that your scholarship is stronger than its predecessors is really up to the critics.
“For this book, that attempt has entailed efforts both to reimagine the situation and reasoning of Farben’s leaders from 1925 to 1945 and to analyze at some remove what their deeds really signified.”
Is everyone still with Hayes so far? This thesis statement is awkward, but it is clear enough that Hayes is trying to dispassionately study the motivations of IG Farben’s managers.
“In so doing, I have been guided, as on many specific points, by an observation of Tim Mason, namely, that “if historians do have a public responsibility, if hating part of their method and warning part of their task, it is necessary that they should hate precisely.” At the same time, I have also borne in mind Franklin Ford’s admonition that “standing aghast is an unrewarding posture for anyone trying to pay close attention to the thread of history.”
Hayes’ reference to Mason and Ford is his way of attempting to illustrate the impossible task of objectivity in history writing.
And finally, here is the crux of Hayes’ thesis:
“The studied neutrality of my account reflects my desire not to reindict or to exonerate the leaders of IG Farben, but to highlight the mainsprings of their actions. Those mainsprings are with us still. The amoral pragmatism and professionalism that propelled Farben’s executives dwell within all large-scale organizations, whether they be corporate or political, whether they seek to maximize power or profits, whether they claim to serve the individual, a class, or a race. These drives make Farben an instructive case study in the plasticity of private interests and the consequences of permitting any single-minded doctrine to grasp the levers of a state. Lest that point be lost and readers distance themselves too far and easily from Farben’s behavior, I have emphasized here the specious rationality of the concern’s deeds and largely let the self-evident wickedness of some of them speak for itself”(xxvi).
I have two observations about this critical passage: First, Hayes misses an important opportunity for clarity. Why is he using words like “mainspring” when “motivation” works just as well? Why is he using a word like “plasticity” when “amoral” is a much clearer way of saying the same thing?
Second, Hayes is claiming neutrality and letting the “wickedness” of some managers speak for itself. This is contradictory if we already know that neutrality is impossible. Howard Zinn once wrote, “There is no neutrality on a moving train.” Standing in a neutral zone can easily be seen as moral cowardice. I presume this is absolutely not the impression Hayes wants to give.
The goal of the historian is not to just to share information and let it speak for itself, but to provide analysis. Information is plentiful. Analysis is not. People look to historians to lend their opinions on important past events like war and genocide. Hayes’ work is extraordinarily valuable because he has provided a great deal of information to digest.
My main question to Hayes is: Why not take a stand on the side of justice, particularly if the depth and breadth of your work is strong enough to stand on its own? Regardless of what you want, others will decide if your bias harms your analysis anyway.
* * *
This detailed critique is not meant to excuse my mistake of insinuating that Hayes was hired by IG Farben. What I am attempting to demonstrate is how easily the intent of an author can be mistaken.
When you are not clear and go to great lengths to preserve an impossible neutrality in the face of great crimes, this can very easily cause confusion.
Hayes’ fantastic use of sources is both a blessing and curse. Hayes’ work is a massive wealth of documents from IG Farben, but the managers will only give us their side of the story. There are no other sources to provide perspective to the crimes described here. In a 2002 review of Industry and Ideology in the The Canadian Journal of Sociology, Jay Winestein highlighted this point:
Much of the early portion of the book is dedicated to revealing the relative political impotence of IG (after all, the Depression and inflation hit it very hard). But at some point, the fact that the company did prosper so significantly under the Nazi regime stretches one’s credulity concerning its essentially passive role.
After all, when a capitalist enterprise sees the opportunity for free labor, it is hard to believe that it was not in some way responsible for creating – or at least sustaining – the policies that created such a fortuitous situation. Yet, and with all due qualification, this is essentially the kind of case that Hayes makes. One can imagine that another analyst, given the same material, might successfully “prove” that the Nazi’s were a bit more inclined to follow the lead of IG, and that IG played a more important policymaking role than the book would lead us to believe. Thus, without in any way wishing to demean the important work that Peter Hayes has done, I do find it advisable to close with a sociological caveat emptor In part because of the huge scope of the undertaking, there is after all something of an ideological bent in Industry and Ideology.
The Canadian Journal of Sociology / Cahiers canadiens de sociologie, Vol. 27, No. 2 (Spring, 2002), pp. 275-277.
I believe it is fair to say that claiming neutrality will cause people to question your intentions.
This is exactly why we need to take into account his other major work in the field, From Cooperation to Complicty about Degussa. If Hayes is using neutrality as a means to avoid condemning business perpetrators, then this should be apparent in other works. Thankfully, this is not the case, but this book also deserves a close read.
* * *
Indeed, if there is a theme in this essay, it is about how individual scholarship evolves. Likewise, it is clear that Peter Hayes’ scholarship evolved considerably in From Cooperation to Complicity. I distinctly remember my adviser for my Master’s degree at Boston College, Devin Pendas, implore me to take a look at the Degussa book when I complained about the relativistic tone of Industry and Ideology. Pendas noted that Hayes makes a much clearer judgment about business and Nazi Germany in From Cooperation to Complicity. Therefore, it makes sense to provide a detailed review here to compare it to Industry and Ideology.
Hayes opens up his preface with straightforward discussion of how history is written from both the perspective of the writer, but also of its sources (xviii). I cannot help but think this is a direct response to criticisms that he let the sources speak too much for themselves in Industry and Ideology.
However, Hayes immediately restates the old argument of holding back criticism for corporate managers. He contends that people generally act out of self-interest rather than altruism. I found that to be a cynical, if not debatable view; one might respond then by asking why write history at all, but this is a discussion for another time. Highlighting this point, Hayes writes, “That Degussa’s managers could and should have known better and found ways of acting differently is now generally understood; but that does not justify overlooking the impediments to such clarity and courage at the time” (19). Hayes again asks a tall order. He contends, “Contempt should be reserved, nonetheless, for the movement that mobilized and manipulated their [Degussa’s] talents and weaknesses” (19).
Why, exactly, do we need to reserve contempt? Is it a finite resource? Yes, we should preserve historical clarity in order to understand the past, but does that mean we cannot be outraged about the company that sold the Nazis the Zyklon B canisters it needed for mass murder? I continue to find such a viewpoint a bit unnerving.
As we enter the second chapter, the problems in Industry and Ideology crop up again in From Cooperation to Complicity. It is a detailed analysis, but too much so for the lack of obvious structure. Hayes neither sums up his ideas in the beginning nor at the end of this fifty page chapter. It is very easy to lose sight of who is important and what their relationship to the Nazis. Backtracking is tedious. If this was written only for specialists, how much should we blame people like Edwin Black who jump to conclusions?
Essentially Hayes argues in the second chapter that Degussa aligned itself with the Nazis without having to be pressed to do so. According to Hayes, one of the most well-connected Nazis that wanted to take more direct control of Degussa, Werner Lüps, conveniently died when he drove into a bomb crater during a business trip, relieving other managers from worrying about their autonomy. Apparently they celebrated the news of his death with champagne (67,72-3).
Again, some of what Hayes writes stretches my ability to suspend moral outrage. Hayes demonstrates that over half of Degussa’s capitalization (18 million Reichmarks) during the twelve year Reich was due to the acquisition of Jewish owned property seized with the help of the Nazis. This includes at least ten businesses, seven in Germany and three in “protectorate” Czech areas (74). These were profitable properties. In fact, Degussa’s headquarters in Frankfurt stood on some of this formerly Jewish property until 1987 (75). Hayes concludes his third chapter by reiterating that stealing property from Jews was profitable overall, despite the costs from war destruction (110). Hayes does not express this point as clearly as he could.
Hayes has an interesting tidbit on Edwin Black in chapter four. There is criticism of Black’s Transfer Agreement and IBM and the Holocaust here. Hayes argues that Black overstates the effects of the US boycott of German exports. I found this both interesting as a reason for Black’s hostility toward Hayes as well as the implications of this observation: If the world (read: the US) was actually taking more of Germany’s exports, would that mean that the international business community promoting these exports has even more share of blame for helping the Nazis rearm? This is a pertinent question for further research.
Hayes demonstrates that Degussa did not need to worry about exports anyway by 1937 (112). Domestic demand was high. Profits were at an all time high. The normally export-dependent chemical industry firm was doing well.
Not only that, Hayes notes that like other German firms, Degussa had to swap out foreign currency for Reichmarks at the National Bank. Foreign business was mainly done as insurance to preserve market position and guard against future downturns. Hayes notes that overseas money was needed by Nazi Germany in order to obtain indispensable material from abroad it could not produce at home. This was primarily for the purposes of rearmament. Hitler threatened to shut down companies that could not retrieve this foreign capital (113). This is another interesting revelation about overseas business.
In this section, I noticed Hayes often repeats a quote from manager Fritz Roessler: “The executive will work in the future in the truest sense ‘for the King of Prussia,’ only now one says: for the people’s community” (113). Essentially, Hayes uses this quote to demonstrate that corporate leaders within Nazi Germany knew that they were operating within a dictatorship and had little choice.
It is a good quote, but that does not mean Degussa’s managers are beyond judgment.
Hayes goes on to discuss Degussa’s entry into other enterprises as economic activity picked up with the Nazi’s Four Year Plan for rearmament. Hayes argues that Degussa, like Nazi Germany itself, could only maintain competitiveness through conquest. Hayes doesn’t mince words, he says the end result was “implication in pillage and murder” (146). I appreciated Hayes’ lucidity here.
Processing stolen gold and silver is the other really unsavory business Degussa was involved in. In chapter five, Hayes demonstrates that Degussa’s precious metals business was a textbook case of how Nazi goals dictated the parameters of commercial activity, which channeled corporate ambitions into the service of the regime’s exploitative purposes. Germany had limited mineral deposits. Nearly all gold and silver came from foreign sources (148). Hayes points out how important fine metals were to German consumer industries, and industrial applications; not to mention a medium of international exchange. Essentially, Degussa was the principle purchaser of these goods which were a matter of intense long term importance for the Nazis. Degussa had the largest capacity to separate gold or silver from ores and alloys on a large scale of all the other similar German companies (149).
This portion of the text leads to some pretty shocking revelations about stolen gold. According to their own records, Degussa’s minimum intake of plundered gold from 1940-5 exceeds five metric tons. 2.1 tons were stolen from Jews. They also processed 412-420 metric tons. 51 tons of silver out of that total also came from Jews (187). However, Hayes suggests that gaps in Degussa’s records indicate a much higher amount of plundered metals. He suggests they likely processed more than 100 tons of stolen precious metals. Hayes writes, “Given the enormous volumes involved, which came to seveneteen times Degussa’s wartime output, and the paucity of other possible sources, the inference is inescapable that almost all of the gold that entered Degussa’s refineries during the war years was stolen property” (188).
Again, I flash back to Hayes warning to reserve judgment for the Nazis and not Degussa. This is a challenge.
To further underline the criminality of Degussa, Hayes demonstrates that gold output spiked during periods of mass murder during the Holocaust (189). Likewise, Hayes estimated profits from plundered precious metals. From Jews, this was roughly 8 million dollars worth. In case this topic immediately brings the need for reparations to mind, Hayes makes the argument that war damage decimated Degussa’s profits. According to Hayes, the company purportedly lost 15-20 million dollars from the war damage (190-191).
Hayes gives a short run down of the failed lawsuit against Degussa in New Jersey in 1999. The case was closed due to being outside the scope of American judicial review. For reference this is Alice Burger-Fischer et al. v. Degussa AG Civil Action No. 98-3958 Sept 10, 1999.
Hayes also notes that Degussa initially denied the charges of processing plundered gold in 1948 (192). However, when workers at Degussa were interviewed about their memories of working with incoming gold fillings for the company in 1998, they had this to say:
“the crowns and bridges, there were those where the teeth were still attached…That was the most depressing, the fact that everything was still there. It was probably like it had been when broken out of the mouth. The teeth were still there and sometimes bloody and with pieces of gum on them” (193).
And yet Hayes still asks us to suspend our judgment. He writes, “But laboring to establish such specific knowledge conclusively seems – from a historian’s point of view if perhaps not a lawyer’s – almost beside the point. One simply has no reason to believe that the firm’s leaders would have rejected these intakes even if fully informed of the circumstances of their origin, perhaps even if openly confronted with them” (193-194). Hayes argues that Degussa would lose its standing if it refused to cooperate with Nazi crimes. This is still the core argument Hayes was criticized for in Industry and Ideology emerging in From Cooperation to Complicity: Would feelings of shame and disgust processing the spoils of genocide cause people to quit their job? Apparently not.
This is Hayes’ opinion, not historical fact. Should we deny these workers their agency out of cynicism for human nature? This is really the argument Hayes is making.
Degussa also utilized forced labor. The DAF, the German Labor Front, began sending Jewish prisoners to Degussa in 1939. Hayes says company managers did not want this, but the labor market was tight (236-237). The expansion of the Nazi need for both soldiers and goods pushed Degussa to accept more forced laborers between 1940 and 1945. Hayes disputes the profitability of Degussa’s forced laborers, even though he calls it reprehensible, which I appreciated (268).
Hayes argues that it is both easy and hard to calculate profits as a result of forced labor. 1942/43 and 1943/44 were the highest gross profit years; however, there aren’t accurate records of how many forced laborers Degussa had. Calculating inmate rates are easier, because there are clearer records. Hayes calculates that Degussa might have made 20 million dollars worth of extra profits, but because they lost the war, these profits were eaten by war damage and appropriations by the victors (269-70).
Hayes does acknowledge that despite loss of profits, claims for compensation for unremunerated work and physical and mental anguish remained to be paid by Degussa (270). And this is where Hayes states one of his main arguments: He writes, “it is neither morally nor historically sound to measure its evil by its lucrativeness” (270-1). Hayes argues this because it is political rather than economic forces that shaped Degussa’s policies.
This begs the question: Do different contexts remove the agency of historical actors? Hayes reminds us that international law has consistently defined the German state as the culprit, not corporations. However, Hayes does lay blame. In From Cooperation to Complicity, Degussa shows little hesitation; they actually aggravated the regime by attempting to profit, economically rationalizing Nazi goals, which themselves were not rational.
Hayes appears to conclude that these leaders did have some freedom to act, which opens them up to judgment. I found this particularly important, because this is my main contention with his work. If we cannot make a point about the tendency for a corporate entity to do whatever is profitable without oversight, including engaging in the most egregious of human rights abuses, then why are we talking about these corporations in the first place?
I am glad Hayes took a stand here.
Probably the most disturbing, yet anticlimactic portion of the book is on Zyklon B. People recognize the name Zyklon instantly even though only 1% of the chemical manufactured was used to commit mass murder. It was used on a massive scale at Auschwitz, and to a lesser extent in Majdanek, Mauthausen, Stutthof, Neuengamme, Natzweiler, and possibly Dachau and Sachsenhausen. The gas killed approximately 1 million people, the majority of them Jews (272). Hayes concedes that calculations are complex, but estimates that Degussa’s subcontractors Degesh and Testa made somewhere around 120 thousand (in 1999 dollars) and Degussa saw around six thousand dollars in profit from dividends from these companies.
Hayes’ books contain a wealth of information on the Holocaust. I believe that the confusion about his work comes from the lack of clear intentions in presenting this information the way he does. As I noted earlier, no historian can claim complete objectivity. Scholars research the topics they do for various reasons and this helps shape their audience’s reaction to their work.
Hayes’ audience appears to be other specialists, which explains the steep learning curve needed to really dig in to his scholarship. If we want to get a better sense of Hayes’ intentions for working on this material, it is helpful to also look beyond these two books where he makes his position more explicit.
I admit I have not read everything Hayes has written, nor is it my goal to review his entire body of work; however, there is one essay in particular I would like to present and respond to here.
* * *
The book Holocaust Restitution: Perspectives on the Litigation and Its Legacy (2006) is a collection of essays in which Hayes makes a contribution. As one might expect, the topic of his short piece is Holocaust restitution. Since we know that Hayes has intimate knowledge of businesses directly involved with the Holocaust, we can get a better perspective about what he thinks should be done about their crimes.
Hayes starts this article by declaring victory in the battle for disclosure of information and recompense for victims (197). His phrasing arouses my skepticism. Is it fair that he has declared victory? As a researcher in this topic, I can personally attest that there is far too much we still do not know about business and Nazi Germany. I am very shy about speaking for any other group of people that has been subject to crimes against humanity. Should Jews feel satisfied? I believe this is not an answerable question without delving into the dangerous, paternalistic territory of telling others how they should feel about historic losses.
Also, a quick side note: Hayes references this “victory” of disclosure by citing some works that are by no means the last word on business and Nazis. Both Harold James and Gerald Feldman are top scholars, but that does not mean their work does not have problems. For instance, in Deutsche Bank’s commissioned history by Harold James, it is never mentioned that Deutsche Bank destroyed a lot of their own records to cover up stolen gold. This is not a small problem. But this is a discussion for another time; suffice is to say that Hayes’ uncritical citation of James as a “victory” of disclosure has some ironic value.
Hayes then makes an argument which should now be familiar: The pursuit of Holocaust-era recompense and disclosure have created “collateral damage” to accurate historical understanding. Hayes contends that there are persistent distortions about the quantity of personal and corporate profits that were actually gained by those perpetrating the Holocaust. According to Hayes, “emotion has ruled the day” in this battle. He calls survivor group lawyer’s insistence on “disgorgement” of funds “morally and practically” problematic.
To this I would respond: What does Hayes expect? We are talking about about the Holocaust. This event has literally become a symbol of historic criminality. Attempting to account for the harm done is going to be emotional. And yes, lawyers are going to maximize their claims. I find it somewhat unreasonable to have different expectations.
He continues by arguing that many corporations involved with Nazi Germany ultimately experienced financial losses rather than gains. Unsurprisingly, he uses Degussa as an example.
This is also a problem. Degussa is not necessarily representative of all corporations that did business with the Nazis. Likewise, due to very complex and still obscure means of sequestering profits we still do not know exactly where all profits went. Hayes references James in passing in this essay but does not acknowledge that James wrote at length about stacks of stolen gold, which sat for decades in a vault in Switzerland before it was tracked down. And that is just one example we know about. Many records on corporate profits were destroyed or sit in corporate archives which historians do not have access to.
Hayes own calculations about Degussa’s profits also illustrate another problem: If you compare the calculations in this essay to those in From Cooperation to Complicity, there are discrepancies. In the essay in Holocaust Restitution, Hayes acknowledges about 140 thousand dollars in profits (199). This is on the high end. Minus expenses and overhead from subcontractors, he cites a total profit to Degussa of about 23 thousand dollars, which is a more conservative figure. This does match up well to his calculations in From Cooperation to Complicity of around 120 thousand on the high end and about 6 thousand on the low end. In both places I daresay it would help if he gave the main figure first and how he reached that calculation second in order to be clear.
What is clear in his essay is his complaint. And this is what people will see and understand.
Hayes then moves on to stolen gold, which was more profitable than Degussa’s sales of poison gas agents. Essentially, Hayes argues that substantial sums were stolen from Jews which he calculates at about 8 million dollars worth; however, he notes that the victorious Allies appropriated far more than that and that this Jewish stolen gold was only a small portion of Degussa’s profits anyway.
It would appear that the argument Hayes is making is the one present in the Degussa book: Tracking profits has some allure, but the Holocaust is an enormous crime that falls outside the realm of accounting. Hayes does not mention the teeth and gums still attached to some of the gold he talks about in the Degussa book. That might have helped provide some perspective.
Hayes then moves on to forced labor, arguing that Degussa lost money on slaves due to cost overruns elsewhere in the company (201). He then makes a larger point about how forced labor in Nazi Germany was inefficient and often not always profitable. The Nazis had to spend a lot of money on guards.
Ultimately, Hayes argues that Degussa lost money overall due their involvement with the Holocaust. I did find it curious that he did not mention the Jewish real estate the company also held into the 1980s. I did not see calculations on what profits were derived from this stolen property over the years.
Hayes contends that the hyped image of corporate profits were used a club to extract restitution, which occurred out of court between survivor groups and the German government.
Why does Hayes spend so much time arguing from the perspective of the corporations and so little from the survivor groups? His analysis appears consistently one sided.
Is it really a surprise that survivor groups and their lawyers would hype profits? Is it really unreasonable for groups subject to genocide use whatever means necessary to extract justice?
As a junior specialist, let me again underline that we do not know the dimensions of profits. There is plenty we still do not know. If he has yet unpublished work on Swiss holding companies, I would sure like to see it. It bothers me that Hayes believes we have the final word on this already. Has he read the conclusion of the Bergier commission studying how Nazi profits flowed through Switzerland? You can read it here.
The Bergier commission concludes their study by calling for further investigations.
Hayes does acknowledge that “negotiated justice” is better than nothing. I appreciate this. He makes this point with a comparison to Al Capone finally getting caught for tax evasion because there was nothing else officials could charge him for.
However, Hayes immediately raises my ire again by arguing unequivocally that few German firms grew rich off the Holocaust. As I noted above, we simply do not know enough yet to make that broad a statement. I found his lack of qualifiers disturbing.
But this is really the core of what he is saying:
“Perhaps if we talk less in the future about disgorgement of largely fictitious profits on extreme human suffering, we can talk more about finding a way for domestic and international courts to assess appropriate recompense for what really mattered: heartbreakingly huge and irreparable losses” (203).
I wholeheartedly agree.
We should focus on how to achieve justice for the human losses, not for the corporate profits, whether they be large or small. I wish I had more clearly understood the core intention behind his scholarship earlier.
* * *
I hope that this article demonstrates how easy it can be to make a mistake. Despite Hayes’ lack of clarity in a lot of his writing, and his often dogged effort to maintain a neutral position, I made an error by spreading an untruth about his relationship to the company he was studying. Figuring out what he was really trying to say to took serious, time-consuming work. Historians always have motivations for the subjects they choose and how they portray them. One is better served by continuing to strive to understand them better.
As far as I can tell, Peter Hayes is an independent historian and was not on the payroll of any corporation when he produced the two books under review here. Before writing about his alleged “ancillary support” from IG Farben, I should have spent more time with Hayes’ writing. Instead, I formed my opinion before doing the research. For all the criticisms I have about Hayes’ work, it is my responsibility to figure out what the author was actually saying before making public statements about it.
I am not sure if Hayes is even aware of me or my scholarship. I do not know if he will see this. In any case, I hope this essay is seen as a necessary corrective as well as a more nuanced analysis of his work.
Being a good scholar means challenging your own views and learning from your mistakes. Hayes will not have the final word about corporate activity or corporate profits derived by companies collaborating with Nazi Germany. Neither will I. What is important is that we continue a dialog about the topic so that we can approach a deeper understanding, not just between specialists, but for everyone.
It occurred to me that after playing in bands for almost twenty years, it makes sense to post some of my exploits here, even if this is primarily an academic blog.
I started playing guitar in high school back in 1995 and recorded my first album with the band Space Agency the following year. I have yet to digitize this material, but it was noisy and Sonic Youth inspired.
In 1997 I fell in with a bunch of musicians from Berklee College of Music in Boston and formed a band that went through several iterations, most classically, Senior Fiend. We were noisy, jammy, experimental, and irreverent. It started as quartet and later became a trio. Here’s a live track from each alignment, which is raw but intense.
In 2000, I moved to Buffalo, NY and formed a political hip hop/R&B band called Metronoise. Many versions of songs exist, but my favorite stuff (albeit poorly recorded) is also live:
During this time, I also joined a glam rock band called Invisible Children fronted by the amazing gender transgressor, California Kim Preston. Here’s a live track from this group:
Metronoise and Invisible Children both went through drummers. I decided to become one to keep these bands going and to increase my repertoire as a musician. Almost immediately I joined new bands as a drummer. The first was a political post-hardcore group called L’Dorado. Here’s a recording of us playing on the radio in the early 2000s.
I also joined the popular Communist garage punk band named Mockba, who already was on an Italian punk label. After their hit Cheap Vodka, I played drums on their third album, Streets of LA. We wore matching jumpsuits.
At the same time, I also joined a shoe gaze band briefly called Little Dipper. Here’s a radio performance from this band:
Simultaneously, I also formed one of the most favorite bands I’ve ever been in – an instrumental surf rock band with a thrashy, klezmer feel called Dimetrodon. Packing rooms with dancers, this band is still talked about in Buffalo, NY even though we have been disbanded since 2007 due to career-related moves. We recorded two albums, but for some reason, I cannot locate tracks from the first self-titled album. Here are three tracks from the second album, You Thought We Were Extinct:
also a live show on archive.org:
and video from an early lineup of the band:
Around the time Dimetrodon disbanded, the rhythm section of Dimetrodon joined Vic Lazar of L’dorado to form another political, Fugazi-inspired post-hardcore group called Patrons of Sweet. We were heavy.
Then I moved to Boston for graduate school at Boston College toward the end of the first decade of the 2000s. I joined an already up and coming group, Guillermo Sexo. We won second place for the Boston Phoenix music video awards in 2010.
Here is some live footage from O’Brien’s and the Middle East club in Boston:
We then recorded an album, Secret Wild, in 2011 with Justin Pizzoferrato, who has recorded albums with Dinosaur Jr. and Thurston Moore. You can check it out on bandcamp, (and purchase vinyl) here:
After that I moved to Baltimore. PhD work was intense and my musical career slowed down until recently. I am currently recording an album with Ryan Harvey and Tom Morello from Rage Against the Machine, so stay tuned!
Enjoy the tracks.
Although I haven’t been posting here much, there’s plenty going on these days. Several projects I worked on came to fruition this past year: Oliver Stone’s Untold History of the United States documentary series and book, which briefly hit the NYT bestseller list, Adam LeBor’s Tower of Basel, and Richard Breitman and Allan Lichtman’s FDR and the Jews. I also had the pleasure this past spring working as an assistant to Taylor Branch on his King Years class at University of Baltimore.
Most recently I’ve been working at the Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum with Emil Kerenji and Jurgen Matthaus on the fourth and fifth volumes of Jewish Responses to Persecution series. Despite the shutdowns and the furloughs in Washington, we’ve been hard at work.
On the school front, I am rapidly approaching ABD status in the PhD program at American University. I’m shooting for December/January to defend my dissertation proposal and then it’s 18 months of solid research and writing! For those of you who follow this blog, you’ll notice that I have continued to explore the linkages between various transnational corporations and their work with Nazi Germany. I have a bunch of articles in the works, including stuff I just presented at the NYSAEH conference last month. There should be new material up here fairly shortly…so keep reading!
I also recently started playing in bands again in the Baltimore/DC area. Perhaps I’ll see some of my readers at a show in the near future!
Thanks everyone for their continued interest in my work. Feel free as always to leave questions and comments.
If we have learned anything from pondering the implications of history in the digital age, there is a sense among those who have written about such things that a profound change is occurring. Throughout the past several months of blog postings here, I have attempted to draw attention to some of the central ideas behind the transformative and disruptive influence of new media on history: Consumers of historical inquiry are demanding more interactivity from the results of historical research; professionals in the humanities are finding new ways of gathering and analyzing data from the exponentially growing body of information on the web; instant communication is breaking down and changing concepts of intellectual authority and learning; and models of productivity and profitability have been dramatically destabilized as access widens to large amounts of information.
Indeed, it has even changed the way I approach history. Before we delve into the subject of this article, the changing relationship of digital media and its effect on a narrow slice of my field of research (in this case, General Motors and the Nazis) it is worth noting that my methodology in producing this work has been purposefully altered for this piece. First, this writing is entirely “born digital,” produced exclusively on this blog. Second, I am writing in the first person, common to blog formats in order to personalize the exploration of this historical problem. As regular readers of this blog will notice, this is a departure from most of the academic writing found here, written in the “objective” third person. Finally, I have chosen to avoid footnotes where possible and hyperlink my sources instead, so that the reader can follow my train of inquiry to the conclusions I have reached.
So what does General Motors, the Third Reich, Edwin Black, Henry Ashby Turner, Jr., and digital history have in common? As it turns out, they are more interrelated than one might think. It is a sorted story of colorful personalities, war profiteering, accusations of conspiracy, and historiographical controversy. In order to understand its breadth and depth, hang on with me I present some background on the topic.
General Motors and the Nazis
General Motors (GM) was already a sprawling, worldwide company with a strong presence in Europe by the time Hitler was appointed chancellor of Germany. The most comprehensive histories of GM, like Alfred Chandler’s Strategy and Structure (1969) and Scale and Scope (1990) as well as the memoirs of long time president and chairman Alfred Sloan’s My Years at General Motors (1963), provide a myriad of technical details about GM’s business during the 1930s and 1940s; however, none these texts explicitly discusses GM’s business connections to the Nazis. Likewise, a perusal of GM’s history and heritage website, http://www.gm.com/company/historyAndHeritage.html reveals almost nothing about the company’s wartime activities. If one pays close attention to GM’s own account of its history on the above website, an observer might note that GM had acquired three major overseas subsidiaries by 1933: Vauxhall in England, GM-Holden in Australia, and Adam Opel AG in Germany.
From my own reading of the above texts, as well as primary and secondary sources I will discuss a bit later, we can fill in the details. Opel, located in the industrial suburb of Russelheim outside of Frankfurt, was purchased by GM in the late 1920s and was already the largest automotive manufacturer in Europe by market share. The Great Depression hit the company pretty hard, as it did to most businesses, but was already heading into recovery by the early 1930s. Its products were chiefly cars and trucks built and distributed in Europe, although GM also exported vehicles to the continent manufactured in United States.
The Nazi seizure of power in Germany affected the automotive market in Germany in two important ways: Hitler was keenly interested in stimulating consumer demand by promoting small, affordable automobiles for the German public. This came in tandem with the large Nazi public works highway project, the Autobahn, meant to increase employment. Thus, he fostered competition among automakers (an interesting story unto itself) which was eventually won by Ferdinand Porsche and led to the creation of Volkswagen. Although they lost this competition, this led to efforts by Opel’s management, including the head of General Motors Overseas Operations, James Mooney, to align Opel’s business operations with Nazi demands. It would not be long before that relationship would come to fruition by causing the company to focus on increasingly large orders for the Opel “Blitz” truck by the German military. These were manufactured at a new expansive factory in Brandenburg, near Berlin. As it turned out, these trucks were critical to the overall military strategy of the Nazis, which focused on rapid, massive attacks deep into foreign territory. This made the need for reliable supply lines, and vehicles to service them, increasingly important.
Growing friction between the xenophobic Nazis and the American-owned car company eventually resulted in GM executives choosing a few Nazi Party insiders who could be reliably depended on to lead their subsidiary in Germany. This way, the American parent company could maintain ownership and managerial control of its overseas operations while appearing to the Nazis to be under their leadership. Profits were more problematic for GM, as the Nazis had strict rules against profits leaving Germany. Thus, like many other foreign companies, these gains were either reinvested to expand operations, or sequestered in blocked accounts.
After Germany attacked Poland, military production at Opel increased. GM executives were unable to resist Nazi pressure to push Opel’s operations in this direction. Brandenburg continued to produce Blitz trucks. Also, consumer automobile production had all but halted at their man factories in Russelheim, which were retooled to build engines for the workhorse bomber/fighter of the German airforce, the JU-88. This was the military hardware the Nazis used to rain down bombs and destruction on London.
Opel’s fate progressed rapidly thereafter. When Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941, its ally Germany declared war on the US. Remaining American personnel were withdrawn from Opel and the parent company dispensed of its subsidiary as a tax write-off. Behind the scenes, Opel’s lawyer maintained US ownership of the company. Opel continued to produce military equipment for the Nazis for a little less than four years before the Third Reich was ultimately destroyed by the Allies. During this last phase, the company used slave labor as part of the Nazi work/death camp system set up in the places in Europe it occupied. In the aftermath of the Nazi defeat in Europe, the US military authorities took control of what was left of Opel factories in Russelheim. By 1947, GM was in a formal process to regain ownership of its property and finally was able to take full control and repatriate profits from the Nazi period in 1951.
The above story of GM and Nazi Germany was not well known until 1974. At that time, there was a high profile hearing against the Big Three automakers (General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler) for alleged monopolistic and anti-competitive practices. The Judiciary Committee staff attorney, Bradford Snell, issued a report demonstrating that these companies had been buying up the mass transit infrastructure in various American cities with purpose to dismantle it and sell vehicles directly to these municipalities. What was innovative about the report, however, was that Snell highlighted the past Nazi connections of both Ford and General Motors. A copy of the report can be found here: http://www.worldcarfree.net/resources/freesources/American.htm
There was predictable protest from the car companies after the issuing of the above report, but since that time, a growing body of literature has explored the topic of American automotive companies and the Nazis. Unfortunately, much of it was conspiracy theory and of dubious scholarly merit. This changed, however, when the topic of corporate collaboration with the Nazis gained wider prominence with a large number of Holocaust restitution cases were brought against companies, including GM, in the late 1990s.
Enter Henry Ashby Turner, Jr. and Edwin Black
Although there are others, Turner and Black are probably the most well-known historians of business and Nazis. Black is responsible for the best-selling book on the topic, IBM and the Holocaust. Likewise, Turner’s contribution to the field is General Motors and the Nazis. But what does all this have to do with digital history, you ask? Turner and Black’s scholarship intersect in ways that bring out some important issues around digitization, accessibility, and copyright. Thus, we need to take a closer look at how these two individuals are involved with the topic.
Henry Ashby Turner, Jr. had a long, illustrious academic career. Soon after finishing his PhD at Princeton, Turner was hired as a professor at Yale in 1958. Specializing in German history, Turner spent much of the first two decades of his career there mentoring students and formulating his own ideas on the Third Reich. This came to fruition with his book, German Big Business and the Rise of Hitler, published in 1985. Turner had come to oppose the historiographical consensus that industrialists were major supporters of Hitler, instead arguing that they feared the Nazis for their sometimes anticapitalist rhetoric. Furthermore, Turner brought a lassiez-faire, pro-business bias to the fore in this seminal work, enthusiastically promoting the work of Knut Borchardt. Borchardt was the subject of fierce controversy in the German scholarly world in the 1970s, when he conflated the collapse of the Weimar Republic and the coming of the Nazis on the Republic’s purportedly overly generous social safety nets, an argument that has been repeatedly utilized to criticize Keynesian economics more broadly.
This would not be the only controversy that Turner would become embroiled in. He is probably most well known for his involvement in the “David Abraham Affair,” which appears prominently in Peter Novick’s That Noble Dream (1988). In that episode, Abraham had worked on the same topic as German Big Business and the Rise of Hitler, except from a Marxist perspective, arguing that industrialists had been natural allies with the Nazis. Turner found errors in Abraham’s citations and translations and aggressively attacked Abraham for academic dishonesty. Turner attempted to block the publication of Abraham’s work. Other colleagues of Turner’s, including former student Peter Hayes, and Gerald Feldman, also leveled criticism against Abraham. This led some early supporters of Abraham, including Carl Schorske, Natalie Zemon Davis, and Thomas Bender to come to Abraham’s defense. They accused Turner and his ilk of “fetishing facts,” which barely concealed an ideological attack on Abraham’s work. Ironically, both Hayes and Feldman were also subsequently hired by companies accused of Nazi-era collaboration. A short encapsulation of these events can be found here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henry_Ashby_Turner
Thus, when GM found itself targeted for criticism in the late 1990s when Holocaust survivors began to sue, Turner, who had conservative, pro-business credentials, was a likely choice to investigate the company’s Nazi past. The New York Times noted that Turner was among the “academic all-stars” hired by various corporations to investigate their past http://www.nytimes.com/1999/02/18/business/chroniclers-collaboration-historians-are-demand-study-corporate-ties-nazis.html?pagewanted=all&src=pm. Furthermore, Turner was well established with institutional support at Yale with a large number of graduate students to assist in helping GM investigate its business with the Third Reich.
According to Turner, he spent one year in GM’s employ working on their Nazi-era documentation project. Subsequently, Turner published the book General Motors and the Nazis in 2005, utilizing this documentation. Turner opens his preface (viii) with a description of his role in the project:
With the goal of assessing the validity of these accusations and setting the record straight, this book examines GM’s relations with Opel and the German government. It was made possible by a documentation project that I directed during the years 1999-2000 under the sponsorship of the General Motors Corporation. Initiated by GM in response to pending class action suits on behalf of victims of forced labor against American corporations that had owned German firms during the Third Reich, the project was designed to locate all available relevant records and provide information to GM.
Crucial to our discussion on digital history, Turner then provides a glimpse of his methodology in putting together the GM collection. Turner continues:
To that end, GM granted full and unrestricted access to its files and those of its subsidiaries. The relevant records of GM, Opel, and some of the corporation’s other foreign subsidiaries were copied onto compact discs and cataloged, along with those located in other repositories, in a compact-disc database. Upon completion of the documentation project, a complete set of the discs, designated as the General Motors-Opel Collection, was donated to GM to the Manuscripts and Archives Division of Yale University’s Sterling Memorial Library, where all are available to other researchers.
Finally, Turner concludes his preface by asserting his independence from GM:
This book was not commissioned by General Motors. It was written after the documentation project was completed and without any financial support from GM. Its contents were seen by no one at GM prior to publication. It is therefore an independent undertaking by the author, who bears sole responsibility for its contents.
And there we are to take Turner’s words at face value. The result is a book that is written primarily from the perspective of GM’s managers. Turner argues that the corporation did not do business with the Third Reich by choice. He concludes:
Implicit in much of the criticism of GM’s role at Opel is the assumption that the American corporation did business in the Third Reich by choice. Such was not the case…A failing subsidiary can be written off, but dropping one that was generating rising profits was simply not feasible for an American corporation answerable to its shareholders and subject to stock-market forces at home during a period of lingering depression in the United States…Like other American companies with operations in Germany, GM therefore opted under the circumstances to hold on to what amounted to a hostage of the Third Reich in hopes of better times (151).
To paraphrase, Turner’s analysis of GM’s actions boils down to the assumption that profit motive outweighed any moral concerns among the corporate management. According to Turner, GM eventually recovered a mere $261 thousand dollars in profits in 1951, which included a complex calculation of tax write offs, compensation from the US for war damage, and currency devaluations under the new West German Government (149). In a footnote, however, Turner concedes that GM was awarded over $10 million dollars in tax refunds, which is less than the $33 million dollar refund other texts have claimed (Working for the Enemy, Trading with the Enemy) – and still a drop in the bucket compared to GM’s total profits during this period (190).
Thus, we are left to make three assumptions based on Turner’s work: That whatever Turner’s relationship was with GM, it had no influence on his conclusions; that criticisms of GM’s actions were groundless based on his reading of the sources he was personally responsible for assembling; and that his accounting of GM’s recovered profits are accurate.
Naturally, there would be those who would question Turner’s conclusions. Unfortunately, Turner passed away in 2008 not long after General Motors and the Nazis was published. Confusion about Turner’s relationship with GM manifested itself in two somewhat contradictory obituaries. The one written by his former student, Peter Hayes, notes that Turner’s last book was “written independently of the firms involved and for which he received no remuneration from them.” http://www.historians.org/perspectives/issues/2009/0905/0905mem7.cfm However, the obit written by William Grimes in the New York Times simply states that he was hired by GM and his research led to the publication of his book. http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/19/books/19turner.html?_r=0 In my own conversations with Grimes last year, he noted that the word “hired” connoted that money changed hands, but that there was not yet solid evidence to suggest how much Turner may or may not have been paid by GM prior to the publication of his book. More on this later.
I was not the first to be skeptical of Turner’s conclusions. You can read about where I place Turner in the historiography here: https://jasonweixelbaum.wordpress.com/2011/05/17/collaboration-in-context-new-historiographical-approaches-to-alleged-americannazi-business-ties/ In any case, when Turner published his book in 2005, Edwin Black was already the most well known writer on the topic of corporate collaboration with the Nazis. His book, IBM and the Holocaust was a worldwide bestseller. Likewise, Turner was already on Black’s radar after Turner wrote an exceedingly negative review of his IBM book in the Business History Review: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3116406. Incidentally, it is worth noting that the other two critical reviews of Black’s book both came from Turner’s peers, Peter Hayes and Michael Thad Allen (also from Yale).
Aside from the possible ideological motivations of the above critics, it is unsurprising that some academics balked at Black’s work. Literally from the first few pages, where he calls the publishing of his research “historic bravery and literary fearlessness” (5) to his self-referential recounting of the review process of his manuscript with “some of the finest editors and translators in the book world” in his conclusion, the text contains plenty of overstated commentary. That said, it is fair to say that a bestseller will also have its share of positive reviews. The famous Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal, Atlantic magazine editor and journalist Jack Beatty, and head of the Anti-Defamation League, Abraham Foxman, all gave IBM and the Holocaust glowing reviews that are present in the book’s front matter. Black also notes that the prolific and well-regarded German historian, Gerhard Hirschfeld, reviewed, and presumably approved of the text before its publication (441). Beyond sensationalism, Black proved to be very aggressive when it came to countering criticisms of his work. He has published an entire page of retractions from various publishers about IBM and the Holocaust: http://www.edwinblack.com/index.php?page=80219
As such, it should not be shocking that Black decided to set his sights on Turner’s work for a subsequent book, Internal Combustion (2006) which happened to also concern automotive corporations. Like Snell, Black highlighted anti-competitive and anti-innovative practices of car companies and used their history of doing business with the Nazis as a vehicle to support his criticism.
This leads us to the crux of our digital history conversation. Black went to Yale and attempted to access Turner’s collection. Black had difficulties looking at the source materials at the archive and wrote a piece in June 2008 on his website, The Cutting Edge News, claiming that a conspiracy existed between Turner, Yale, and GM: http://www.thecuttingedgenews.com/index.php?article=113&pageid=22&pagename=Investigation. This piece has also been published in other places, including the Jewish Virtual Library http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/Holocaust/gm.html. Here is what Black wrote this about his experience at Yale:
The GM Opel documents assembled for the company’s probe and Turner’s commissioned examination were digitized on CD-ROMs and donated to Yale’s Sterling Memorial Library, where the collection is categorized as being “open to the public.” In point of fact, the obscure collection can only be viewed on a computer terminal; print-outs or digital copies are not permitted without the written consent of GM attorneys.
Sterling reference librarians, who are willing to make the collection available, complained to this reporter as recently as October 2007 that they do not know how to access the digitized GM materials because of a complicated and arcane database never before encountered by them. One Sterling reference librarian answered a question about the document by declaring, “I have spoken to two reference librarians. No one knows anything about it [the GM Opel Collection], no one is in charge of it. No one knows how to access it.”
Yale archivist Richard Szary, who supervised the accession of the collection, said that for the approximate half-decade that the documents have been on file, he knows of only “one or two” researchers other than this reporter who have had access to the papers. Szary, who was previously said to be the only Yale staffer who understood how to access the materials, facilitated this reporter’s on-site access. He has since left Yale. By late November, however, in response to an inquiry by this reporter, a senior Sterling librarian said her staff would “figure out how to make it available” by reviewing technical details.
Between the unpublished GM internal investigation, the restricted files at Yale, and the little-known insights offered in Turner’s book, the details of the company’s involvement with the Hitler regime have remained below the radar.
This led to a historical conundrum. Who’s word does one trust? Did Edwin Black exaggerate his experience there? Was there really a conspiracy? Should we consider Turner the final word on the topic?
I decided to make a trip to New Haven and take a look for myself.
Before I get to my own investigation, some preliminaries are worth noting. First, unlike any other archive I’ve visited to date, I was required to sign up on Yale’s website and request the materials I wanted to review in advance. The FAQ and login instructions were not as easy to find as I would have liked, but are accessible here: http://www.library.yale.edu/mssa/ifr_faqs.html#11. I also noted that you had to request your materials at least two business days ahead of time; however, this was not necessarily unusual for collections stored off-site. By comparison, when I did research using various collections at Harvard Business School, I was required to call ahead and make an appointment, but no electronic registration was necessary. Was this a sign of conspiracy, though? Not really.
The copyright info on the finding aid website http://drs.library.yale.edu:8083/HLTransformer/HLTransServlet?stylename=yul.ead2002.xhtml.xsl&pid=mssa:ms.1799&clear-stylesheet-cache=yes was as stringent as I expected:
Copyright is retained by General Motors Corporation for materials authored or otherwise produced in the course of its business activities. Copyright status for other collection materials is unknown. Transmission or reproduction of materials protected by U.S. Copyright Law (Title 17, U.S.C.) beyond that allowed by fair use requires the written permission of the copyright owners. Works not in the public domain cannot be commercially exploited without permission of the copyright owners. Responsibility for any use rests exclusively with the user.
Copying Restriction: Copies of the documents in this collection may not be made for researcher use without written permission from General Motors. Researchers must also have written permission from General Motors to take digital photographs of documents from this collection. Researchers interested in applying for copying permissions should address a letter to GM Legal Staff care of the Carrie S. Beinecke Director of Manuscripts and Archives, Yale University Library.
Another detail that piqued my interest was the request process for the documents themselves. They were listed by box number. If the materials in question were on CD-ROM, why would I need to request a box? In any case, I perused some of Turner’s footnotes and decided to request the first several entries in the collection, which included annual reports that might give some overview of GM’s Nazi Germany business activities. This led me to take a closer look at the processing notes on the finding aid website:
The original PDF files of documents scanned by Professor Turner’s research team were printed out, partially by Yale University Library staff and partially by staff at General Motors. Legibility issues in some of the PDF printouts result from poor quality in the original scans. The original document numbering sequence established by the research team was maintained and used in lieu of folder numbers; gaps in the document numbering sequence reflect gaps in the original PDF documents.
Now I was a bit confused. What did Black look at? These seemed like paper files, not a digital archive.
To New Haven
So far so good. Then I made the drive to Yale. The grounds are beautiful and gothic, much like my graduate alma mater, Boston College. I snapped a few pics of Sterling library before going in:
I was not allowed to snap photos inside.
Everyone was pleasant and friendly. I found the manuscript reading room easily enough, received an ID badge and sat down at the table to review my materials. I was asked which box I wanted to see first, which again, was a bit odd; but I did not question it. I figured someone would eventually lead me to a computer like Black had to do. I did notice that the archivists whispered to each other only somewhat out of earshot that I was not allowed to take any digital images of the files.
Instead, the archivist brought boxes containing folders and paper files to my desk. They appeared to be freshly printed documents and I immediately began to suspect that the collection had, in fact, gone through some changes since Black’s visit. I decided it was time to get more details on the collection.
I spoke to the current archivist on duty, Michael, about the collection. He said he remembered the collection being put together and even the Edwin Black visit. He also stated that he recalled the CD-ROm files being printed out into paper form not long after Black’s visit. Michael also gave me the name of the archivist in charge of this process, William Landis (there was no mention of Richard Szary as Black had written), who was still in the department. Luckily, he was in the library that day. I was told someone would go get him so we could talk.
William Landis appeared shortly thereafter and informed me he was in charge of taking in the collection. To my surprise, he expressed frustration because Turner’s project was conducted outside the purview of the Manuscript Archive. In a slightly different fashion than what was presented in the finding aid, Landis stated that Turner and his team originally donated the collection to Sterling on CD-ROMs. They were meant to be viewed on library-owned laptops that were set up to prevent users from copying documents or connecting to the internet.
Worse, the PDF files on the CDs were huge, ranging from one gigabyte and larger. Landis said, had he been able to advise Turner, he would have his team set up the collection with one PDF file per scanned page.
Thus, Landis noted, when Black came to visit, he had enormous problems with the laptop and loading these large PDF files. Mind you, this was also several years ago, so it is unsurprising that the library machines meant for public use were probably running slow. Therefore, it was possible for Black to jump to the conclusions and write that this was somehow purposeful on GM’s part to limit accessibility to the collection.
And here is the kicker: Landis said his team decided to print out the PDFs to make them more accessible as a direct result of Black’s troubled visit.
[author’s note: I originally wrote here that the impression I got from the archivists was that Black came off as impatient and cranky during his visit to Yale. I have removed that phrase as it was not directly noted by the archivists, but as I wrote above – an impression I received from talking to them.]
In any case, the CD-ROMs were then returned to GM when they were done. Landis and his team simply used the same numbering system in the collection. In essence, this was just a massive print job.
I spoke to Landis a bit about the situation with Black and Turner, and also told him about the Abraham affair, and how it was possible that Turner, because he had demonstrated his sympathies for the more pro-business, right-wing side of politics, it made sense that GM chose Turner for the project.
Landis had noted that “it was a masterstroke on Turner’s part to allow GM to provide access to these documents.” Also, that there “were probably more documents on GM available [at Sterling] than at GM headquarters itself.” If Michael Moore’s documentary Roger and Me is any indicator of how protective GM is of its public persona, Landis may be on to something.
I inquired to Landis if there was any way to know how much Turner was paid to produce the collection, or if there were any further communications on record between Turner and GM. There was, of course, a collection of Turner’s papers at the library, but he expressed doubts that anything like that would be in there. Still, I consulted the finding aid.
Ironically, there were documents on Turner’s GM project, but they were in database format and not accessible. I was told it would take five business days to put them together. Unfortunately, I was just up there for the day. Would Black continue to believe a conspiracy was taking place if he were in my shoes? The question of Turner’s possible remuneration would have to wait for another time.
However, while I was there at the archives, I had a decent opportunity to evaluate the materials themselves. Did Turner and his team attempt to present a particular story through the documents? I was in a good position to investigate.
My own reading of the documents I had time to view did not match up with Turner’s analysis. While the document organization itself has an internal logic, which begins with James Mooney’s diaries and a collection of documents comprising of a rebuttal to the Snell report, there were other items of interest worth noting.
A collection of reports and memos in the very first box were quite striking. For instance, document 000523 is an internal report provided by C.R. Osborn (a local manager) to Mooney, dated November 22, 1939. Note that this is not long after the Nazi invasion of Poland. Osborn states:
The organization of Adam Opel AG has naturally been designed to make its maximum contribution under peace time conditions. General Motors as owner of the company, however, fully recognized the altered situation which now exists, which makes impossible the full utilization of Opel’s productive organization for the purpose for which it was intended. It appreciates, therefore, the desire of the German government to capitalize the excess productive capacity of Adam Opel AG for purposes made necessary by the present situation.
German National Interests
1. Productive capacity of Adam Opel AG must be adjusted as rapidly as possible to war conditions. Productive capacity should be interpreted to mean all those elements necessary for the manufacture of goods.
2. The products at present manufactured by Adam Opel AG will continue to be essential in the two major phases of Germany’s national life – military and economic.
a. Military – There will continue to be a substantial need for trucks, special vehicles and passenger cars for military purposes. The Opel organization should be in a position to take care of all such requirements as they develop in the future.
I decided to look at the annual reports in Box 10 as I noted I would do earlier. I found more interesting material.
Speaking to the problem of calculating profits, I found in the first folder, 9389-9436, an annual report for 1938 for the Overseas Operations Group written by James Mooney.
At the outset, in document CR009391 (p. 1) Mooney states: “In spite of adverse political and economic conditions throughout the world, the General Motors Overseas Operations overall results in 1938 were actually the largest in the history of the Company, with the single exception of 1937.” Net sales amounted to aproximately 335.2 million dollars for that year alone. Opel’s production accounted for a little less than half of those sales.
That is quite a bit of money.
In any case, I wanted to see how far these annual reports went into the Nazi domination of Europe. File 9540-9576 is even more revealing. This is an Annual Report by Mooney’s replacement, Graeme K. Howard, for 1940. It is dated February 15, 1941. Let us be aware that this is now after the Nazi domination of France and the Low Countries.
The conclusion of this report (p.29, document CR009574) states:
Although the above trends are somewhat adverse to American business, the long term outlook for the Overseas Operations is by no means one of depression and discouragement. As stated in the last report, the longer term profit potentialities will be measured more by the organization’s ability to make the necessary adjustments to new conditions abroad than by any real limitations on true opportunity. The need and demand for both passenger and commercial vehicles will be greater in the years ahead than ever before, and the participation and rewards of the Overseas Operations will be mainly a matter of policies, and accomplishment.
This is not GM lamenting its role in Nazi Germany. This is a company that is preparing for the eventuality of a Nazi dominated Europe.
One must always be wary of conspiracies. Where there other researchers influenced by Black’s assumptions that Turner created digital files that were difficult to use on purpose? It is hard to say. As I perused the collection, I found myself wondering if Black was aware of the irony: his own involvement in trying to access the collection ultimately increased its accessibility.
In this case, digital files were not the wave of the future. Perhaps the timing was not right for the technology. If Turner had partnered directly with the archivists at Sterling, maybe there would never have been a conspiracy theory for Black to make in the first place.
Also, it was not lost upon me that if there was a bias in Turner’s process assembling the GM-Opel collection, it certainly was not present in the documents I was able to briefly review. There is plenty of damning evidence that GM knowingly partnered with Nazis during most of the twelve year Reich, and particularly during the opening of its most lethal phase.
If anything, Turner’s analysis speaks more to his own bias than to the documents he collected. There is irony here as well, considering his place in the annals of American history as one who prominently called out bias and demanded objectivity and transparency from other historians.
Finally, it is now worth knowing that the GM-Opel archives, despite their stringent copyright, are reasonably available to other researchers to verify the role GM played in Nazi war aims. Investigation into GM’s role will continue, not in the realm of zeroes and ones, but on old-fashioned paper.
It is a challenge to write about a textbook in the first place; but probably even more challenging to review one on web site design and planning. My first thought in taking on this task was that it would be like trying to wax poetic on your next set of stereo instructions. Nevertheless, a good how-to book is worth mentioning – if only to leave breadcrumbs for others on similar paths. Dan Brown’s Communicating Design fits the mold.
In order to understand this book, first we have to get with the lingo: This book is about “deliverables,” which outside the design world can be safely referred to as documents. Secondly, the book is about the structure of various web-based projects and how the deliverables fit into that structure. Third, Communicating Design provides some guidance into going about creating these structures for future projects.
So what does any of that actually mean? A lot of this book has to do with planning the presentation of material on the web and how to design the user experience. Thus, a lot of this book has broken down this process into simple bits of advice: Write down what you are actually planning to do, organize your thoughts when you lose focus, put yourself in the shoes of the person who will actually navigate your web page, etc etc. While much of this wisdom seems like a no-brainer, it is good to see these steps broken down into requisite parts.
A few conundrums appear in Communicating Design design that are also worth mentioning. The vexing problem of web site maintenance is one of them. How does one manage the fidelity of links with the chaos of the ever expanding universe of online content? Furthermore, how does your content stay relevant generally? There’s not much about history here, but Brown’s text does provide a road map for historians wanting to present their work in the digital realm.
As we wind up this series of blog posts on the implications of historical inquiry in the digital age, it makes sense to return to a central question: Who owns history? This is an inquiry that is actually much older than the internet itself, posed famously by luminaries like E.H. Carr and Eric Foner. That said, the emergence of open source, widely available platforms for discussion of all things historical has complicated this issue.
For instance, Roy Rosenzweig is guardedly optimistic about Wikipedia in his piece, “Can History be Open Source? Wikipedia and the Future of the Past” http://chnm.gmu.edu/essays-on-history-new-media/essays/?essayid=42. The problem, Rosenzweig notes, is endemic to public history generally; how can you present complicated historiographical disputes in a format meant for public consumption? Likewise, William G. Thomas III writes in “Writing a Digital History Article from Scratch: An Account” http://digitalhistory.unl.edu/essays/thomasessay.php, that both historians and readers need to adapt to the impermanence of historical inquiry. History is, after all, an ongoing project. The speed, accessibility, and temporary nature of digital media only quickens our perception of this fact.
Chuck Tyron argues that the ongoing dialog between historians and the public is nothing new. In “Blogging, Scholarship, and the Networked Public Sphere” http://mediacommons.futureofthebook.org/mla2009/tryon/mla2009draft, Tyron notes that blogging is a natural outgrowth of this timeless exchange. Yes, there are the problems of fragmentation and misinterpretation from the results of professional historical inquiry, but there is also the democratizing element we have been exploring here on this humble blog all along: the walls have broken down between the academy and the public by the new digital tools at our disposal – for better or for worse.
Ultimately, this transformation embodies a continuation of a long running debate over who gets to have intellectual authority. This was true in Leopold von Ranke’s time just as it in ours. The question is: What kind of context will this dialog will play out? Because these changes are happening before our eyes, future historians have a their work cut out for them. Good luck to them.