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Research Proposal for Graduate European History Seminar

October 5, 2009

The historiography of corporate complicity with the Nazis can be separated in terms of Military, Political, Ideological, and Economic support, though there is some understandable overlap considering the extensive scope of some of the organizations involved. Additionally, a fifth ‘category’ has more recently emerged: that of corporate history, or work that was commissioned by some of the very companies accused of collaboration to whitewash their image.

Military aid is perhaps the most concrete 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. Much of the research done thus far on this topic has been recent, though its beginnings originate with work done by Bradford Snell, a U.S. Senate staff attorney who was hired to inquire into anti-competitive practices of Ford and GM in 1974. What was surprising to both the Senate and the public was that the backdrop of this report contained new evidence, which Snell used to argue that both of these organizations also monopolized the Nazi war effort, building a majority of the Third Reich’s planes, tanks, and trucks.[1] This argument was expanded upon by the team of researchers, Reinhold Billstein, Karola Fings, Anita Kugler and Nicholas Levis, who published Working for the Enemy: Ford, General Motors and Forced Labor in Germany during the Second World War. Not only did they argue that Ford and GM were instrumental to the Nazi war effort building trucks, warships, tanks, and aircraft, but also helped in develop advanced munitions.[2]

By contrast, the research done on the chemical giant, I.G. Farben, has continued since the Allied victory. Writing not long after the war’s end, both Josiah Du Bois and Richard Sasuly argue that this organization was both critical to the building of Nazi armaments and well connected to American corporate entities.[3]

Information technology was also a major resource to Nazi war aims. According to historian Edwin Black in IBM and the Holocaust, 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.[4]

The line is blurred in surveying the historiography of political support for the Nazis. Many leaders of corporations discussed earlier, such as Henry & Edsel Ford, James Mooney of GM, and Thomas J. Watson of IBM all held U.S. government positions or at least had strong influence on domestic and international policy. These facts are included in the arguments of Black, Billstein and Kugler. Other figures, such as Ernst Hanfstaengl, were less well known; but as historian Stephen Norwood argued, equally crucial to shoring up political support for the Hitler regime early on.[5]

The historiography of ideological support for the Nazis in America not only has overlap with the previous topics, as political support does, but is also situated more widely within context of American culture. The currents of racist ideology were present in many circles of American life in that era. Therefore, there is a wide array of historical literature to draw upon, such as the work by Donald Warren, who argued that the American radio evangelist Charles Coughlin received briefings from Nazi officials as he purposefully fanned the flames of racial hatred over the airwaves.[6] Additionally in the book War Against the Weak, Edwin Black contends that American eugenics pseudo-scientists were not only a direct inspiration to Hitler, but actually assisted Nazi genocidal goals.[7]

Before turning to the historiography of economic support originating in America for the Third Reich, it is important to consider the corporate historiography of this field. While the core arguments of many of the previous texts noted here espouse the idea that these companies that had business relations with Nazis did so purposefully and took steps to retain their majority ownership and American management, this next group is decidedly different.[8] Each organization exhibited a different response to this research. For instance, Ford was fairly candid about their involvement, opening their archives to a team of researchers and publishing the findings on their website.[9] GM, on the other hand, hired the controversial business historian, Henry Ashby Turner, who wrote several books on the subject, including the widely cited Big Business and the Rise of Hitler.[10] According to Edwin Black, Turner was given exclusive access to GM archives, which he then restricted in his own collection at Yale.[11] I.G. Farben also retained a corporate historian, Peter Hayes, who was paid directly by the corporation to argue that the company lost control to Nazi officials.[12]

To manage my exploration into the growing field of research into the interactions of U.S. business entities and Nazi Germany, I have chosen economic aid as a specific topic to focus on. Because all other businesses, namely automotive, aeronautic, communications, and chemical industries were fully dependent on access to financial capital to operate, it is appropriate to isolate the financial industry as a critical component of all of these interactions. Therefore, in my seminar paper I plan to address the following lines of inquiry: Which American financial organizations did business in Nazi Germany and what mechanisms did they employ to do so? How do they interrelate to these other industries?

Some sources, which constitute what little there is of an economic historiography that addresses these particular questions, already exist: For instance, Charles Higham argues in his book, Trading with the Enemy: The Nazi-American Money Plot, that both Chase Bank and National City Bank were involved in financing various war production activities.[13] Higham also contends that Americans at the helm of the Bank of International Settlements in Switzerland facilitated vital Nazi financial transactions as well.[14] Additionally, the arguments of John Buchanan, Ben Aris, and Duncan Campbell all revolve around the deliberate financial collaboration of the Union Banking Corporation with Nazi organizations.[15] All of these works draw upon Anthony Sutton’s book, Wall Street and the Rise of Hitler, in which Sutton argues that all of these organizations “…aided Nazism wherever possible (and profitable) – with full knowledge that the probable outcome would be war involving Europe and the United States.”[16]

In the course of searching for primary sources regarding this topic, I compared two well known books on the subject: Charles Higham’s Trading with the Enemy and Edwin Black’s IBM and the Holocaust.[17] During this process, I located an archive of Higham’s source material with the help of the lawyer Michael Ravnitzky, who had requested the original documents Higham obtained through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit.[18] I have since made arrangements to examine this archive, located at the University of Southern California, on October 12-14th. The sources contained within this archive have the potential to help answer the questions I have posed, considering Higham’s specific focus on financial corporations.

Research into the financial side of corporate dealings with the Nazis fleshes out the historiography on the topic as a whole. While there are many sources for military, political, and ideological support for Nazism in America, the work on economics has been lagging behind. Both Jacques Pauwels and Edwin Black have agreed and encouraged assertions on this matter.[19] However, Black has suggested that this particular part of the field may not be expandable to a great degree until businesses like Chase open their archives to historians; he believes that new insights may be gained from the sources I have located.[20]

There are theoretical concepts that can be applied to this field of research. In answering the question of how these business deals were negotiated, the work of Michael Mann on the nature of power within societies can be directly related to the widespread military, economic, political, and ideological collaboration between America and the Third Reich. In The Sources of Social Power, Mann utilizes these same categories to argue that “Societies are constituted of multiple overlapping and intersection sociospatial networks of power.”[21] He has expressed willingness to entertain the notion that it is possible to apply this framework to this particular topic.[22]

This line of inquiry is important for several reasons. On a broad scale, exploring the connections between American business and the Third Reich transforms the narrative of the World War II era. Whether for profit, anti-communist ideology, anti-Semitism, or all of the above, the relationship between Nazis and Americans takes on a new dynamic in this context. Additionally, this emerging work also changes the picture of how the U.S. became a superpower coming out of World War II, creating a potentially corrosive effect on its claim to moral authority throughout the world. This research also calls into question how both American and Israeli Jews perceive themselves within the framework of U.S. geopolitical strategy. Finally, the study of historical patterns in the relationship between Business and War may help prevent the reoccurrences of such activity in the future.


[1] Bradford Snell, U.S. Congress Senate Committee on the Judiciary, American Ground Transport (1974) A-22. This prompted GM to write a rebuttal, which it successfully pressured the Senate (in an unprecedented move) into attaching to the report. It would take another three decades before researchers would come forward to contest GM’s argument.

[2] 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)

[3] Richard Sasuly, IG Farben, (New York: Boni & Gaer Press, 1947) 8. Sasuly’s work joins the ranks of others such as Borkin and Welsh (Germany’s Master Plan) and Corwin Edwards, who focused their attention on I.G. Farben before the war actually ended. Edwards published a report for the Kilgore Committee, which was an effort on the part of the U.S. Senate to investigate the relationship of monopolies and cartels in the war effort. The overlapping interests in I.G. Farben exposed in this committee included Standard Oil, DuPont, GM & Ford, all of whom had members on I.G. Farben’s board of directors. Josiah E. Du Bois, The Devil’s Chemists (Boston: The Beacon Press, 1952) 357-63. Du Bois’ work also focuses on I.G. Farben, expanding upon the involvement of its former executives and technocrats in American business in the latter half of the book. Du Bois and his team of researchers argue that these individuals had a direct effect on U.S. ‘bulwark’ policy toward the Soviet Union which prescribed building up Nazi Germany militarily.

[4] Edwin Black, IBM and the Holocaust: The Strategic Alliance between Nazi Germany and America’s Most Powerful Corporation, (New York: Crown Publishing, 2001). 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.

[5] Stephen H. Norwood, “Legitimating Nazism: Harvard University and the Hitler Regime,

1933-1937.” American Jewish History 92, no. 2 (June 2004). 193-199. Norwood explains some political connections of this figure who was “…Scion of a wealthy Munich family, Hanfstaengl had been one of Hitler’s earliest backers, joining his Nazi movement in 1922 largely because he shared Hitler’s virulent anti-Semitism. After the abortive beer hall putsch in 1923, Hitler had taken refuge at Hanfstaengl’s country villa outside Munich, where he was arrested. Hanfstaengl provided important financial assistance to the Nazi party when it was first establishing itself in the early 1920s. He also later claimed to have introduced the stiff-armed Nazi salute and Sieg Heil chant, modeled on a gesture and a shout he had used as a Harvard football cheerleader…Hitler considered Hanfstaengl valuable because his wealth, air of sophistication, and fluency in English helped legitimate the Nazi party in conservative, upper-class circles, both in Germany and abroad. Hanfstaengl was descended on his mother’s side from a prominent Back Bay family, the Sedgwicks, which facilitated his entry into influential Boston Brahmin circles.”

[6] Donald Warren, Radio Priest: Charles Coughlin, The Father of Hate Radio. (New York:

The Free Press/Simon & Schuster 1996), 1-2, 115. 129-160.

[7] Edwin Black,  War Against the Weak: Eugenics and America’s Campaign to Create a

Master Race. (New York: Four Walls Eight Windows 2003).

[8] Both Black and Billstein, et. al. frequently make the point that IBM, Ford, and GM all took steps to retain their management structures and protect assets.

[9] 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. 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 states it lost control of its plant, its own report appears to contradict this claim.

[10] Henry A. Turner, “German Big Business and the Rise of Hitler,” The American Historical Review, 75.1 (1969): 56-70. Turner argues that most businesses lost their autonomy and were under complete control of Nazi authorities. This was particularly stark in the case of his work on GM. He also expanded the ideas in this article with his 1987 book, German Big Business and the Rise of Hitler.

[11] Edwin Black, Nazi Nexus (Washington D.C.: Dialog Press 2009), 123-25. This book is a collection of excerpts from the author’s work which includes sections from Black’s Internal Combustion (Washington D.C.: Dialog Press 2006), from which this particular argument is made. In a phone conversation with Edwin Black on September 26, 2009, Black stated he had to threaten to sue to get access to Turner’s archives.

[12] Peter Hayes, Industry and Ideology, IG Farben in the Nazi era (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), xxx. Right in the acknowledgements he states openly that he received financial support from I.G. Farben to produce the book.

[13] Charles Higham, Trading with the Enemy: An Expose of the Nazi-American Money Plot

1933-1949 (New York: Delacorte Press, 1983), 2-31.

[14] Ibid., 1-19, 131-32, 168-69.

[15] John Buchanan “’Bush – Nazi Dealings Continued Until 1951’ – Federal Documents,” The New Hampshire Gazette Nov. 2003. 1-2. Also: Ben Aris and Duncan Campbell, “How Bush’s Grandfather Helped Hitler’s Rise to Power,” Guardian Unlimited September 25, 2004. http://www.guardian.co.uk/usa/story/0,12271,1312540,00.html (accessed October 28 2004 and October 4 2009).

[16] Anthony C. Sutton, Wall Street and the Rise of Hitler. (Los Angeles: 1976). http://www.reformation.org/wall-st-ch1.html (accessed October 4 2009)

[17] Jason Weixelbaum, “A Review of the Shocking Revelations of U.S. Corporate Collaboration with Nazi Germany,”  History News Network (July 9 2009), http://hnn.us/roundup/entries/98124.html (accessed October 4, 2009) and Jason Weixelbaum,  “IBM and The Holocaust Still Stuns Readers as Big Blue Remains Silent.” The Cutting Edge News (August 24 2009), http://www.thecuttingedgenews.com/index.php?article=11519&pageid=23&pagename=Arts (accessed October 4, 2009) The comparative review itself is located at https://jasonweixelbaum.wordpress.com/2008/11/28/comparative-book-review-of-ibm-and-the-holocaust-by-edwin-black-and-trading-with-the-enemy-by-charles-higham/ (accessed October 4, 2009)

[18] Michael Ravnitzky, email communications, June 3-6, 2009.

[19] Edwin Black, email and phone communications, June 1-7, 2009. Also: Jacques Pauwels, email conversations, September 2008-09.

[20] Edwin Black, email and phone conversations, September 20-27, 2009.

[21] Michael Mann, A History of Power from the Beginning to A.D. 1760, vol. 1 of The Sources of Social Power (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), 1-33. John A. Hall and Ralph Schroeder, eds., An Anatomy of Power (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2006)

[22] Michael Mann, email conversation, October 4, 2009. I will be meeting in person with Dr. Mann at UCLA to discuss this matter further on October 13, 2009.

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