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Presentation for NYSAEH Conference at LeMoyne College for Sept. 20th, 2008

September 19, 2008

FACILITATING THE NAZIS:

THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN

AMERICAN BUSINESS AND THE THIRD REICH

World War II continues be to the most romanticized and analyzed period in American history outside of the Revolutionary War and the Civil War. This era offers us a rich tapestry of anecdotes framing the violent struggle between great powers. Ironically, these stories often expose something quite different from the current popular view. People are constantly immersed in the imagery and symbols of the dominant interpretation of the past, which may omit or ignore any facts that invalidate it. This can create a gulf of understanding between what is believed and what has actually transpired. The World War II era is one of those instances where this disparity presents itself. Americans are unceasingly reminded of the shared memories of the self-titled “Greatest Generation,” that beat back the Nazis and saved the world from fascism. Are their stories worthy of a unifying view of the past? Although historians generally commend the United States as an instrumental force behind the undoing of Hitler’s Nazi regime, many prominent American companies and citizens knowingly aided the inception and military efforts of Nazi Germany.

There are several problems inherent in this line of research. Both Nazism and America’s involvement in WW II are contentious issues. The strong emotional resonance of the topic has created both intense interest and bitter debate. Recently, due to increasing criticism of American foreign policy and access to more primary source material, the story of this relationship has taken on new dimensions. Nonetheless, the binary view of America vs. Nazis as Good vs. Evil is still frequently espoused by US politicians and in popular culture. The question then remains: When has enough evidence been supplied to change this form of thinking? A holistic view of the various studies on this subject is important to providing a complete picture. Although a growing volume of information involves numerous businesses and individuals, there are far too many aspects of this discussion to detail how extensive the Military, Political, Financial and Cultural support was for the Third Reich originating in the United States. For the purposes of this conference I will focus solely on the Military aspect.

Military aid is perhaps the least esoteric place to begin this discussion. This type came in the form of building tanks, warplanes, munitions, poison gas, and most importantly, research and development of new military technology. Not only were US companies involved in all of these aspects, each organization took steps to maintain control of management and assets.

Ford Motor Company and General Motors played an instrumental role in the Nazi military industry.[1] Awareness of this fact comes from government investigation, historical research, and more recently, from lawsuits brought by former forced laborers. Although many individual executives from both of these companies, such as Henry Ford and James Mooney, sympathized with Nazis ideologically, it is worth looking at the actions of these companies as a whole.

Ford Motor Company first established its German subsidiary, Ford-Werke, in Berlin in January of 1925. By the following year, Ford trucks and Model-Ts were being rolled out for commercial and private consumption in Germany. In 1929, Henry Ford himself laid the cornerstone of a new manufacturing plant on a fresh 52-acre tract of land on the Rhine River in Cologne. Even though depression-related financial problems ravaged Germany and much of the rest of Europe, the Ford-Werke plant was completed and opened for business three years later in 1931. Ford-Werke was an Aktiengesellschaft corporation, meaning it was a publicly traded company. Despite this fact, except for a brief period in 1928, Ford’s main headquarters in Dearborn has retained majority ownership to the present.[2]

Ford-Werke increased production greatly the year that Hitler took power. Many initiatives were introduced to use native German resources and to increase cooperation with the new Nazi authorities. Additionally, sales increased briskly due to a tax exemption granted to passenger vehicles as part of Hitler’s plan to bring Germany out of the Depression by stimulating consumer spending on automobiles. Problems with the shortage of raw materials, such as oil and iron, were solved as Dearborn pledged to offer any materials necessary.[3] This was partly accomplished through partnership with IG Farben, the chemical combine that built Auschwitz, and its American partners from Dupont, Bayer, and Standard Oil of New Jersey. This increased support led to new expansive state orders and ultimately won Ford-Werke a major contract to supply the Wehrmacht, or German military, in 1938. By this time profits had already increased 400 percent.[4] There is little doubt these profits are due to the enormous production of military trucks, which were later vital to the Blitzkrieg.[5] Ford produced 48% of all the 2-3 ton trucks in Nazi Germany, and an additional 90,000 civilian trucks were used by Nazi troops in occupied Europe.[6] Ultimately, Ford motors powered vehicles on land, sea and air as World War II broke out.

Ford did not just produce trucks and engines for the Nazis, which on its own could seem innocuous and plausible enough to deflect its critics. The company was also involved in building advanced munitions. To hide its involvement, Ford’s German director, Heinrich Albert, created Arendt GmbH, a front company to handle this production.[7]

As Germany made war on its neighbors in 1939-40, Edsel Ford, who was now running his father’s business, had full knowledge of the activities of its German subsidiary. He made efforts to ensure other Ford plants, now in occupied countries such as Belgium, France and the Netherlands would follow a seamless transition to Nazi stewardship.[8] Edsel responded to Albert’s efforts to oversee this in 1940:

We have a fairly complete impression of the present status of the Ford Companies in Germany as well as the other occupied territories. It is quite evident and very gratifying that you and your organization are looking after our interests successfully and we appreciate your efforts on our behalf. I am glad to hear that outside plants are beginning to operate…Anything that can be done constructively to keep these plants in operation will be a great help for the future.[9]

Ford Motor Company maintained communication with its director throughout the war through a French banker named Maurice Dollfus. Working with the Bank of International Settlements in Switzerland, Dollfus was empowered to help manage many American interests.[10] What makes Dollfus interesting is that he is representative of a pattern of appointments utilized after the U.S. and Germany were at war to manage American owned businesses.

No discussion of business within Nazi Germany is complete without explaining its use of slave labor. Due to massive conscription, work shortages were widespread. In order to counteract this, Nazis allocated POW’s and concentration camp inmates, or KZ (Konzentrationslager) to all available industries. Ford-Werke began using “foreign workers,” as the Nazis called them, in the winter of 1940. These workers were subject to brutal treatment via the racist Nazi hierarchy, particularly pregnant females. By the end of 1943, half of its workers were forced laborers. Ford had essentially sponsored one of the largest labor camps in Cologne.[11]

In comparison, General Motors’ Adam Opel AG dwarfed the efforts of Ford-Werke. By the late 1920’s this company was the largest car manufacturer in Europe. Opel was also an Aktiengesellschaft corporation, which allowed all of its stock to be purchased between 1929-31 by General Motors (GM). American managers were then sent to Germany and remained there until the war began in 1939. Also the beneficiary of the Nazi tax exemption on automobiles, Opel’s production soared at its plant in Russelsheim. Although this economic stimulation led to the consumption of more passenger vehicles, Opel’s direction was increasingly geared toward military construction. Just like Ford, GM built boats, tanks, and warplanes.[12] One of the most useful vehicles to Nazi war aims, the Opel Blitz truck, was developed by GM in 1936.

It is important to note that many within Hitler’s government disliked American companies, labeling them a “foreign” influence. Ultimately more pragmatic voices won out, arguing that Hitler’s vehicle consumption program and military buildup would not be possible with out U.S. money and know-how.[13]

In 1938 Opel was granted a major military contract to increase the fleet of the Luftwaffe to five times its original size. This was incorporated through a partnership with Volkswagen and IG Farben.[14] GM had supposedly dispensed with the Opel plant as a tax write-off, claiming Reich authorities had confiscated the plant. Nazi opponents took notice, calling for an immediate seizure of the “foreign enemy property.” GM Overseas Director James Mooney personally intervened and installed Heinrich Richter, who would remain loyal to the company. Richter worked directly with Hitler to insure that his company remained independent. When he met Richter in Russelsheim, Hitler was so impressed with the speed and efficiency that the operation was able to produce, that he officially ended debates on expropriating the company in 1943 by an official certification of Opel’s “Germanic” origins.[15]

GM’s Opel also utilized slave labor during the war. By 1942, over 4,000 “foreign laborers” were working in Russelsheim and its sister plant in Brandenburg. After this time records are sparse, but available information regarding the brutal treatment of laborers, especially Russian POW’s is explicit.[16]

Just as in the case of Ford, GM resumed direct control of its subsidiary after the war’s end with little resistance and brought many of its own authoritarian management personalities back into the fold.[17] There are no records of profits recovered by GM, but Mooney’s own estimate appears to be exceeding 100 million dollars in 1940 alone.[18] According to Anita Kugler’s research, GM recovered “…a tax value of $4.8 million requiring a U.S. tax payment of 1.8 million…about $21 million less than the company saved on its 1941 tax bill.”[19] According to an accounting of GM’s tax breaks relative to the war in 1967 by writer Charles Levinson, the corporation was awarded $33 million in tax exemptions for “troubles and destruction occasioned to its airplane and motorized vehicle factories in Germany and Austria in World War II.”[20] An appropriate conclusion to this section on GM and Ford comes from Bradford Snell, a U.S. Senate staff attorney who reported on the dealings of these businesses during the war to Congress in 1974:

Due to their multinational dominance of motor vehicle production, GM and Ford became principal suppliers for the forces of fascism as well as well as for the forces of democracy. It may, of course be argued that participating in both sides of an international conflict, like the common corporate practice of investing in both political parties before an election, is an appropriate corporate activity. Had the Nazis won, General Motors and Ford would have appeared impeccably Nazi; as Hitler lost, these companies were able to emerge impeccably American.[21]

Rubber and Oil were also crucial to making the Nazi domination of Europe possible. Facilitating this task was the chemical company IG Farben. Like many other major corporations deeply involved in the Nazi war effort, IG Farben was as brutally efficient and expansive as the Nazis themselves. According to historian Richard Sasuly:

IG Farben factories were dotted all over the map of Germany…As fast as the Wehrmacht moved forward in the years from 1939 to 1943, IG Farben followed close after picking up control of plants in the conquered countries.[22]

IG Farben was principally an international chemical cartel with links to many American businesses, including Standard Oil of New Jersey, Dupont, GM and Ford. Top personalities from all of these companies would sit on the board of IG Farben. To administer the sprawling and sometimes contentious arrangement of these huge companies, they formed a group called the Joint American Study Company collectively in 1930.[23] Essentially, this was a deal to consolidate major areas of chemical and petroleum production. At this time IG Farben was able to gain more effective control over certain corporations, like Bayer in America, to produce chemicals for Nazi war aims.[24]

The most egregious example of this collusion occurred with increased manufacture of Zyklon B.[25] This cyanide-based chemical was originally used as an insecticide to fight the spread of typhus. The Nazis used Zyklon B in the gas chambers of Auschwitz and other concentration camps to implement the so-called “Final Solution”. Essentially this plan was utilized, not only to murder millions of Jews, but also untold numbers of Poles, Russians, Gypsies and anyone else deemed undesirable in the Nazi worldview. Although it has never been made clear exactly what components were sent to factories in Germany to produce this infamous gas, most historians on the subject contend that American subsidiaries were indispensable to IG Farben’s chemical production.[26] To complete the discussion on IG Farben, it also important to note that it utilized the largest amount of slave labor of any corporation in Nazi Germany. At its height in 1941, IG Farben employed 83,000 forced laborers.[27]

It is important to state that before America’s entry into the war, none of these activities were illegal. Despite growing worldwide concern about Germany’s rearmament, American firms were engaged in explicitly military enterprises. By 1938 International Telephone & Telegraph of New York (ITT) had included Germany in its growing system of worldwide communications via its subsidiaries, Telefunken and Siemens, two of the largest communications technology companies in Germany.[28] ITT supplied telephones, aircraft intercoms, submarine and ship phones, electric buoys, alarm systems, radio and radar parts, and fuses for artillery shells to the Nazis. In 1942, ITT CEO Sosthenes Behn met personally with top Nazis Walter Schellenberg and Baron Kurt von Schroder to renegotiate this deal.[29] By 1944 not only had ITT continued and increased its supply of fuses, crucial to the war effort, it also was in the process of developing new technologies used in rocket systems and high frequency radio equipment for the Nazis.[30] ITT also worked directly with the State Department to ensure uninterrupted trade after the implementation of the Trading with the Enemy Act, instated when the U.S. declared war on Germany.[31]

Like ITT, International Business Machines (IBM) also sought special license for its subsidiary, Dehomag after hostilities between Germany and the U.S. commenced. In fact, IBM was deeply involved with Nazi Germany from its inception. According to historian Edwin Black, Hitler was very interested in being a partner with this corporation because of the early version of its revolutionary new tool, the computer. With this, the Nazis could achieve its two main goals: organizing Germany’s rearmament and committing genocide. Black puts this period in stark terms:

IBM had almost single-handedly brought modern warfare into the information age. Through its persistent, aggressive, unfaltering efforts, IBM virtually put the “blitz” in the krieg for Nazi Germany. Simply put, IBM organized the organizers of Hitler’s war.[32]

With IBM’s help, Hitler would gain the ability to use census data to locate and kill all the people he felt were racially inferior, or turn them into slaves for other corporations.[33] Thomas J. Watson personally supervised this process from his offices in New York.[34]

Throughout World War II, IBM remained in control of Dehomag.[35] With a very similar methodology to the other businesses we have already looked at, IBM ensured adherence to the Nazi program in all branches it owned in occupied countries.[36] Edwin Black offers us a brief synopsis:

Even after the U.S. entered the war in December 1941, IBM never lost control of its companies in Nazi-controlled lands. When German custodians, or receivers, took over, virtually all IBM staff and management remained in place. Only the profits were temporarily blocked as in any receivership. After the war, IBM fought to recover all those Nazi-blocked bank accounts, claiming they were legitimate company profits.[37]

In order to maintain the fidelity of its German assets, IBM employees drafted into the US Army worked directly with some of the Nazi managers to recover assets and ensure production with little interruption after the war ended.[38]

The Americans who fought and died in World War II are often heralded as the victors over fascism. However, the historical context reveals a collaborative element among the most elite and iconic forces in America with Hitler’s goals. There are at least two distinct reasons for this that should be expanded upon: First the fascist command economy was highly profitable. Corporate and fascist interests were intimately tied. Harnessing a terrified working population and concentration camp prisoners, businesses in the Third Reich were able to keep their labor overhead remarkably low. Second, the United States emerged as one of the two “super powers” fighting for global supremacy during the Cold War. Was support for Nazi aggression, and ultimately, the weakening of Europe key to formulating this dominance? Initially building up one camp and then giving tardy support to the weaker side, as a third party in the conflict, is unabashedly Machiavellian. Right after the start of Operation Barbarossa, the Nazi offensive on Russia, then Senator Harry Truman’s statement is instructive: “If we see that Germany is winning, we should help Russia, and if Russia is winning, we should help Germany, so that as many as possible perish on both sides…”[39] A lucid response to U.S. cooperation with the Nazis, perpetrated by businessmen and politicians in the World War II era, is not only vital to understanding the geopolitical nature of that era, but also our current situation.


1. Reinhold Billstein, et al., Working for the Enemy: Ford, General Motors and Forced Labor in Germany During the Second World War, (New York: Berghahn Books, 2000) 1-4. This section is a decent overview of the text, noting in general terms the involvement of these two corporations and the research behind these revelations by the team of historians involved.

2. Ford Motor Company, Research Findings About Ford-Werke Under the Nazi Regime (Dearborn, MI: Ford Motor Company, 2001) Section 2 Historical Background of Ford Motor Company and Ford-Werke, 2. This source is made possible due to the first group of slave labor related lawsuits, starting with Iwanowa vs. Ford, which is still in appeal. Although Ford claims it lost control of its plant, its own report seems to contradict this.

3. Billstein, 110. Billstein picks up where the Ford report leaves off. Relying on Allied military accounts, we are able to set the stage for Ford’s deep involvement with Nazi Germany and its efforts to dominate Europe.

4. Ford, 161. This useful section contains the profit sheets of Ford-Werke from its inception through 1945.

5. Jacques R Pauwels, “Profits uber Alles! American Corporations and Hitler.” Labour/Le Trevail (2003). 18-23.

6. Billstein, 115.

7. Billstein, 115-116. This section is interesting in that the author notes that although Ford wanted to hide its munitions production, it did not obscure its construction of Luftwaffe (Nazi air force) motors or navy craft.

8. Billstein, 117. Much of this information is available due to the efforts of Col. Bernstein, who aggressively investigated Ford’s wartime activities. He was later aided by U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau, an instrumental figure in documenting and prosecuting American/Nazi corporate collaboration.

9. Ibid.

10. Charles Higham, Trading with the Enemy: An Expose of the Nazi-American Money Plot

1933-1949, (New York: Delacorte Press, 1983) 157-162. This book focuses on Morgenthau’s research, among others, contained at his diary collection at the Roosevelt Memorial Library in Hyde Park, NY.

11. Billstein, 142-144. It is important to note that this text provides many primary sources of inmate labor at the Ford Plant to give as detailed a picture as possible. These pages are cited to provide a brief overview.

12. Billstein, 21-24. Anita Kugler’s summation of the early history Opel along side that of Nazism is useful for its contextual value.

13. Billstein, 24-25. Here Kugler references the work by Hans Mommsen, another historian crucial to this subject.

14. Billstein, 37. This section contains an interesting story about James Mooney, arguably one of the most powerful people at GM. His memoirs, which are the sole source of information on what GM knew about what was happening at Opel at this point, are our only source as other records are supposedly either lost or destroyed. Mooney visited Russelsheim soon after this contract was awarded, apparently on a “peace mission” and left for Basel, Switzerland a few days later, presumably to meet with members of the Bank of International Settlements (BIS). At the same time Opel reinvested 40 million Reichmarks in its Russelsheim plant. GM has been able to use this lack of knowledge of Opel’s activities at this point as a defense to date.

15. Billstein, 73-74.

16. Billstein, 69-71. The text describes Opel’s records in detail on the racial differentiation of treatment of its slave workers, similar to Ford.

17. Pauwels, 56-58. This text is telling in its portrayal of the behavior of American corporations as they resumed control of their possessions in postwar Germany. In many cases the forces of anti-fascism were ignored in favor of right-wing controlling personalities, including former Nazi management.

18. Higham, 173. This appears to be another reference to Mooney’s memoirs.

19. Billstein, 75. Quote includes a section from GM executive C. R. Osborn’s report on the postwar corporate assets.

20. Higham, 177.

21. Bradford Snell, U.S. Congress Senate Committee on the Judiciary, American Ground Transport, (1974) A-22. This primary source states in no uncertain terms the involvement of GM and Ford in Nazi war production. Documents like this are important because they are explicit and drastically reduce deniability. Later this source will prove more instructive as we explore the level of involvement of Ford and GM executives within the U.S. government itself.

22. Richard Sasuly, IG Farben, (New York: Boni & Gaer Press, 1947) 8. Published in 1947, this book is the first of many scholarly efforts that came after to study this corporation. IG Farben is arguably the most studied Nazi war businesses. Again, it is the efforts of Col. Bernstein that we have to thank for his vigorous investigation into this company as well

23. Peter Hayes, Industry and Ideology, IG Farben in the Nazi era (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987) 37-38. The interests involved in this organization are truly dizzying. Behind GM, US Steel, and Standard Oil of New Jersey, IG Farben was the fourth largest corporation in the world.

24. Allyn Lite, “Another Attempt to Heal the Wounds of the Holocaust.” Human Rights: Journal of the Section of Individual Rights and Responsibilities 27.2 (2000):12-15. This article is useful in its treatment of post war profit taking on American subsidiaries of IG Farben.

25. Hayes, 362. This chilling chart shows records recovered from IG Farben of increasing orders of Zyklon B, which were explained by Nazis as needed to fight the “growing typhus problem” at places like Aushwitz and elsewhere.

26. Graham D. Taylor & Patricia E. Sudnick, Du Pont and the International Chemical Industry, (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1984) 95-97. This text provides exhaustive detail on the intimate connection between German and American chemical firms at this time.

27. Hayes, 343.

28. Pauwels, 30.

29. Higham, 94.

30. Higham, 99. The author uses this section to emphasize just how essential this equipment was to the Nazi military.

31. Higham, 99-100. This section cites communication between the U.S. State Department legal counsel Yingling and the Assistant Secretary of State Long in 1942.

32. Edwin Black, IBM and the Holocaust: The Strategic Alliance between Nazi Germany and America’s Most Powerful Corporation, (New York: Crown Publishing, 2001) 208. This well sourced documentation of U.S. corporate collaboration with the Nazis provides yet another example of the pattern of deliberate and ruthless implementation of Nazi goals.

33. Black, 7-11. The pages selected are an introduction to the text.

34. Black, 80-88, 111.

35. Black, 7.

36. Black, 247-251. This section contains a transcript between American IBM representative Harrison Chauncey and Nazi leader Karl Hummel reporting on wartime production in all Nazi occupied countries.

37. Black, 448.

38. Black, 405-411. Again, a pattern seems to be exhibited regarding the reintegration of corporate control and rehiring of former Nazi bosses as soon as the opportunity presented itself.

39. Ralph B. Levering, American Opinion and the Russian Alliance, 1939–1945 (Chapel Hill, NC 1976), 46-47. Truman spoke these words on June 24, 1941.

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One Comment
  1. jasonweixelbaum permalink

    This is essentially the section on military aid from the main paper (the previous post) with minor adjustments.
    It will presented in Reilly Hall on the LeMoyne campus in Syracuse, NY on September 20th as part of the Annual New York State European History Conference. This presentation will be part of the Phi Alpha Theta (History Honors Fraternity) in room 338.

    I have omitted bibliography as it is identical to the previous post. Please feel free to leave comments and questions. Thank you!

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