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Collaboration in Context: New Historiographical Approaches to Alleged American/Nazi Business Ties

May 17, 2011

The contentious issue of corporate collaboration between Nazi Germany and businesses in the United States has been fermenting ever since the end of World War II. Although historical analysis of this phenomenon has continued ever since, in recent years there has been significant growth of scholarship that deals with this subject. This has been due in part to revelations that have emerged in lawsuits from the former victims of the Nazi regime against American corporations, which has also produced correspondent histories sponsored by the organizations to defend, legitimize, or obscure their activities.[1] Additionally, particularly since the end of the Cold War, there has been a steady declassification of documentation that exposes this activity both in the U.S. and elsewhere, which has provided fresh source material for new historical investigations.

The study of this subject matter is challenging for several reasons. First, the field itself is quite diverse. Historical investigations have involved a multitude of different types of organizations, from automotive firms to financial institutions. Second, primary source materials often reside behind the closed doors of large corporations and law firms. Privileged access to this documentation and corporate funding of historical studies further complicates this already controversial issue. Third, national narratives from the World War II period tend to obscure, rather than illuminate the highly complex transnational phenomena of cross-border corporate activity, capital flows, and wartime industrial development.

In the face of these difficulties, the implications of this field of research are profound. Several major narratives could be called into question. For Americans, the notion of the “Good War,” in which the U.S.plays the incorruptible good guy in a Manichean struggle against Nazi Germany is still used as a moral standard for U.S. foreign policy, which often intimately affects the rest of the world. For Europeans, particularly German historians, the inclusion of outside actors in the culpability of the horrors of the Holocaust and Nazi militarism further complicate an already expansive, diverse, and deeply emotional subject matter. Finally, in the realm of research on globalization, transnational history, and international diplomacy in the twentieth century, this field presents a challenge, not only for the study of the relationships between multinational corporations and international relations, but also for the study of the Cold War, which naturally involves all of these aspects.

It is not surprising then, given all of these complicating factors, that the emerging standpoints in this study of American business collaboration with Nazi Germany have engaged in a “dialog of the deaf,” writing past each other in an effort to seize hold of the narrative. For lack of better terms, I have labeled these two dominant groups the “collaborationists” and the “corporatists.” For their part, the corporatists argue that business relationships between American corporations and the Hitler regime were sparse, small scale, uncoordinated, and had no relationship with U.S.policymakers. Furthermore, this group contends that American parent companies lost control of their European subsidiaries when these businesses were seized by the Nazis and retooled for war. The collaborationists argue the opposite: that these business interactions were widespread, large scale, coordinated, and had connections to influential American personalities.

If there is insight to be gained from this historiographical controversy, a more accurate portrayal of these events lies between these two camps. Despite unknown amounts of corporate funding and avid public interest in the subject, neither side has taken into account the infinitely large volumes of historical research that can help provide context for American businesses’ alleged Nazi ties. Thus, the goal of this paper is to evaluate the representative literature on both sides of this debate and then explore the larger history of economics across social boundaries during World War II by bringing into context historical works in multiple fields in order to approach a more nuanced and solid foundation for future research.

The Collaborationists

There are not many defining features of this group of literature other than the notion that, as mentioned earlier, many of the writers argue that corporate collaboration between American firms and the Nazis was more widespread and more coordinated than originally thought, and control of German subsidiaries were actually retained by their U.S. based parent companies through the use of lawyers, intermediaries, and managers loyal to the organizations. Additionally, many of the texts in this group involve single businesses or industries rather than the topic of business collaboration as a whole. Problematically, sensationalism also tends to be a common theme that undermines their empirical value. With titles like America’s Nazi Secret by John Loftus and American Swastika by Charles Higham, these books are specifically marketed to the conspiracy crowd. Finally, one problematic feature of this collection is that many, but not all, of the works have been produced by journalists rather than academics, which has caused this field of research to be glossed over or dismissed by specialists.

It is worth noting that this field has deep roots going back to World War II itself. For instance, formal inquiries into collaboration with both Japan and Germany started near the war’s end with a congressional committee established by U.S. Senator Harley Kilgore to oversee war production efforts and investigate the relationship of monopolies and international chemical cartels. This committee reported that patent agreements, specifically between American and German firms to produce materials essential to building armaments such as synthetic rubber, beryllium, tungsten carbide, optical glass and plastics, were monopolistic in nature and designed to keep all competitors out of the market. The revelations of the Kilgore committee prompted writers Joseph Borkin, Charles A. Welsh, Richard Sasuly, and Josiah DuBois to argue that these business relationships were essential to Nazi war production both before and after the U.S.and Germany were at war.[2]

Moving forward several decades, one of the more comprehensive books on the subject of corporate collaboration with Nazi Germany is Charles Higham’s Trading with the Enemy (1983). Oddly enough, Higham is an author who writes tabloid-style accounts of Hollywood personalities.[3] In Trading with the Enemy Higham identifies a group he calls “the Fraternity,” a collection of prominent and wealthy Americans who lent their fortunes and their businesses to the Nazi cause. Of all the individuals he discusses, Higham pays special attention to German lawyer Gerhard Westrick, who helped companies like International Telephone and Telegraph (ITT) keep their subsidiaries in American hands both before and after a state of war existed between Germany and the U.S. Another innovative aspect to his study is Higham’s treatment of the activities of American banker Thomas H. McKittrick, who utilized his presidency at the Bank for International Settlements (BIS) to launder stolen gold for the Nazis.[4]

Because it is written in a highly dramatic and colorful style with very little documentation other than a selected bibliography, scholars have mostly ignored this text; however, Higham states that he was responsible for taking out the initial Freedom of Information Act requests to get information in the book released – including particular documents related to the BIS, other banks (including Chase Bank and JP Morgan), and Gerhard Westrick. My own inspection of his archive at the University of Southern California demonstrates that the author did collect copious documentation from the National Archives to support his claims.[5] These sources include detailed, declassified investigations of Chase Bank, JP Morgan, and the BIS by the offices of U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau. Higham’s documentation also includes postwar interrogations by Allied intelligence agents of Gerhard Westrick and Baron Kurt Freiherr von Shröder, who acted as intermediaries for several of the businesses named above. It is unfortunate that his overwrought writing style and lack of references do not serve his cause.

Higham’s work draws inspiration from another more comprehensive book, Anthony Sutton’s Wall Street and the Rise of Hitler (1976). Sutton argues that multiple financial organizations in the U.S., many of which already had global reach, helped provide finances to the Nazis throughout the twelve-year Reich. Sutton’s argument closely resembles Higham’s, except with more references to primary source documentation. Sutton’s work also suffers from a dramatic retelling of the events and has been subsequently reposted in many places on internet conspiracy websites. Like Higham, Sutton pays particular attention to the BIS, Ford Motor Company, ITT, and Standard Oil. This work has also been ignored by the academic community for its overly conspiratorial overtones, even though later works have established the veracity of a few of his claims. Unfortunately for Sutton, no comprehensive analysis of his work and sources has occurred as of yet; his text remains unreliable for future research until such a review has been done.

One of the books that lend credence to the claims of Sutton and Higham’s work is Working for the Enemy (2004). The argument of this text, encapsulated in a series of essays by historians Reinhold Billstein, Karola Fings, Anita Kugler, and Nicholas Levis, revolves around the premise that Ford and General Motors (GM) controlled a majority of Third Reich armaments industries through their subsidiaries, Ford-Werke & Adam Opel AG, and maintained in contact and control of them throughout the war via managers loyal to the companies. The text also contains oral histories from former forced laborers who worked at the Opel and Ford-Werke plants. These testimonies, including those by Elsa Iwanowa, were published in tandem with Holocaust restitution lawsuits that were brought against both Ford and GM during this period. This text is much more copiously sourced and the language is considerably more measured than the aforementioned books; however, the writers admit that the documentation regarding GM’s German subsidiary is particularly thin, given that their main plant Russelheim was bombed repeatedly by the Allies toward the end of the war.

In the category of “collaborationists” author Edwin Black stands out as one of the most significant contributors. Black has also written similar material about Ford and GM for his book Internal Combustion (2006), a conspiratorially-toned text about the American auto industry’s resistance to the development of the electric car. His main contributions to the study of collaboration with the Nazis are The Transfer Agreement (1986), War Against the Weak (2003), and IBM and the Holocaust (2001) – the latter being the most well known. He also produced an anthology, Nazi Nexus (2009), which contains excerpts from all of these works. The Transfer Agreement, Black’s first book and the one that earned him the most notoriety, involves backroom deals between German Zionists and Nazi officials, who agreed to allow Jews to escape Germany and emigrate to Palestine in exchange for assistance in stymieing Jewish-led boycotts. War Against the Weak describes the work of American eugenicists who both influenced, financed, and worked for Nazi eugenics programs.

IBM and the Holocaust deserves closer scrutiny. Like Working for the Enemy the book was intended for release at the same time as Holocaust era lawsuits were being brought against International Business Machines (IBM). Black argues that the corporation’s biggest client was Germany during the 1930s and 40s and forcefully maintained control of its subsidiary, Dehomag, through the use of lawyers, loyal managers, and Swiss holding companies. Furthermore, Black argues that IBM’s information services were critical to perpetrating the Holocaust by seeking out Jews and organizing their detainment, forced labor, and execution. As a secondary argument, Black also notes that IBM’s organizational services were greatly useful for German war production. Black assembled a large team of researchers to assemble the prodigious source material for the book. He also had it reviewed in its preproduction stage by a few specialists, including Robert Wolfe, a key consultant for the Nazi War Crimes Interagency Working Group (IWG) at the U.S. National Archives, adding credibility to the project.

Black’s sensationalist tone pervades the text, which elicited criticisms in the academic press. Although some made claims of shoddy footnoting, his critics have not elaborated on specific problems. The IBM case itself was dropped, with the insistence of the U.S. State Department, in part due to its late timing with other Holocaust restitution cases that were about to be settled. IBM remained silent on the allegations and agreed to open its archives to historians at a future, undetermined date.[6] Like the other books in the “collaborationist” set, future historians will have to check up on the author’s sources to verify their veracity. Regardless, IBM and the Holocaust remains the most well known text on the subject due to its popularity.

In a positive development, historical commissions designed to address Nazi war crimes are also useful in expanding the scope of the field of research on alleged American/Nazi business ties. One such text to come out of these commissions is Richard Breitman’s U.S. Intelligence and the Nazis (2005). The book itself is the work of four independent historians, Richard Breitman, Norman Goda, Timothy Naftali, and Robert Wolfe, all consultants to the IWG, who actually did the declassification work. What has resulted is a commentary and sampling from some of the eight million declassified pages organized around three basic questions: What did American intelligence agencies know about the Holocaust? Did American corporations benefit from Nazi activities? And finally, which American agencies used former Nazis during the Cold War? The authors make several general conclusions in their survey of this collection of documents: There was a war on, and the Final Solution and its components were known by Allied intelligence agencies but never actively studied. Additionally, they add credence to the collaborationist school by noting that some American corporations did benefit from Nazi activities. Finally, the authors note that substantial numbers of Nazi intelligence and policy officials remade their reputations late in the war or immediately thereafter and worked for western intelligence agencies during the Cold War. Brief mentions are made of IBM, Chase and JP Morgan bank, although the emphasis is on intelligence agents and their Nazi counterparts, rather than corporate collaboration.

As a final addition to this survey of the so-called collaborationist historiography, The Myth of the Good War (2003) by Jacques Pauwels may represent a future direction for the field. Pauwels argues that despite the view espoused by American popular history, media, and politicians, U.S. corporate involvement in World War II was primarily for materialistic rather than ideological aims. Drawing influences from the revisionist school of U.S foreign policy that grew up around the questioning America’s motives in the Cold War, Pauwels demonstrates that the major concern of U.S. business leadership during World War II were markets for their products and political leverage over as much territory as could be gained. Pauwels selectively integrates material from Working for the Enemy and Edwin Black’s books to show how various corporations acted in concert, rather than separately, in order to support the funneling of profits from neutral Switzerland back to the U.S. Although this final claim is tenuous, Pauwels backs up this argument with numerous references to secondary literature. Unlike Black, Higham, and Sutton, Pauwels tempers his argument with a more measured and careful tenor.

Despite the revelations that have come out of this body of research, there are significant shortcomings worth addressing. Many of the works presented here are dramatically toned and not academically rigorous, making the job of separating fact from conjecture challenging. While some claims have been identified as factual, many others still require close and careful scrutiny. Scrupulous sourcing also continues to be problematic and primary source documentation needs be clearly identified. Finally, few of the books engage the larger context of scholarship that has been done on the Holocaust, Nazi Germany, or World War II in general. This tendency isolates the field from other scholars and academia more generally, where more scrutiny could strengthen their claims.

The Corporatists

Like the collaborationists, the corporatists are a diverse group; however, their work also shares a handful of common themes worth mentioning. First, several of the monographs have either been commissioned directly by corporations indicted in Holocaust-era business exploitation, or have provided funds directly to the historian to produce the works in this category. Second, many of the authors in this group argue that the businesses they study lost managerial control to the Nazis. Third, some of the works suggest that only individuals can be guilty of genocide, not institutions. Whether or not this is a convenient argument for businesses accused of collaboration with the Nazis remains to be seen; suffice it to say that it is a common contention among the works reviewed here.

Regarding commissions, Gerald Feldman was hired by the Allianz insurance company to look into its own role in Nazi Germany while it was being sued by Holocaust victim groups. Because of the company’s historic ties other insurance agencies, particularly within the U.S., this work is worth looking closely at. The result of Feldman’s commission was Allianz and the German Insurance Business (2001). As with other histories in this section, the author contends that companies do not commit crimes; their directors do. Feldman also argues that the insurance company’s managers did their best to honor their policyholders’ contracts while adhering to Nazi policies. He notes that Allianz insured Nazi military hardware, expropriated assets in occupied territories, and underwrote concentration camp-related machinery. Feldman focuses on the psychology of survival of the managers in their business dealings with the Nazis. In the process, he affirms a more general thesis about group behavior, particularly within businesses, stating that they are heavily affected by the external institutional incentives in which these groups operate, and that these incentives are to a great degree the product of political processes. Thus, whether or not the narrowly rational pursuit by businesses and their material interests lead to a socially beneficial or destructive outcome, they are contingent on the environment in which they operate.

While nearly all the books discussed here involve American parent companies, it is worth noting the work by Neil Forbes, Doing Business with the Nazis (2000) for comparison. Forbes sees Britain’s economic interconnections with Germany during the interwar period as a larger problem involving Britain’s soul searching as a declining imperial power intent on preserving the fidelity of its markets while simultaneously wrestling with the growing concern that these connections were contributing to grave external threats. The author’s main sources are parliamentary debates, the pronouncements of industry leaders, and major media responses. Forbes’ fairly terse explanation that British multinational corporations collaborating with German armaments industry was that they were “largely left to decide for themselves whether to exercise self-restraint.”[7] Thus, the author’s text is remarkably free of judgment. Forbes also does not explain the activities of the corporations he explores, such as Dunlop, after the war begins. Although Forbes does not note any ancillary connection to the corporations he discusses, his uncritical assessment of Unilever belies a fairly pronounced pro-business standpoint.[8] As with the other corporations he looks at, Forbes is convinced it was self-interest and political naiveté, rather than capriciousness, which drove British corporations to operate against their home country’s self-interest.

Another exemplary work in the corporatist category is Peter Hayes’ Industry and Ideology (1987). In this case the company under investigation is IG Farben, which constructed the notorious Auschwitz concentration camp. Although this was primarily a German company, the organization shared a cartel with other large American chemical producers, managed American subsidiaries, and retained the legal advice of American corporate lawyer and policymaker, John Foster Dulles. For his part, Hayes argues that throughout the twelve years of Hitler’s rule, IG attempted to influence German state policy on multiple levels. Hayes demonstrates that these endeavors basically failed; however, the corporation benefited greatly from its relationship with the Nazis: it enjoyed low labor overhead, courtesy of “leased” slave labor, monopolistic protection, huge government contracts, and opportunities to expand into conquered nations.

Hayes concedes that the managers of IG Farben were hardly innocent. He notes that after the war, several directors were tried for war crimes, albeit most served short prison sentences. Nevertheless, Hayes demonstrates that Nazi society was structured so that individuals within organizations could perpetrate heinous acts without particularly malevolent motives. Such was the case of IG Farben. Likewise, much of the book is dedicated to revealing the political impotence of the corporation’s managers. Hayes concedes that the company did prosper significantly under the Nazi regime, which stretches the credulity of its supposedly passive role; however, with a reasonable amount of qualification, this is the type of argument that Hayes makes. Jay Weinstein, another scholar reviewing Hayes work noted, “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.”[9] Thus, more research may be required to determine IG Farben’s precise role within Nazi Germany, not to mention its relationship to American companies like DuPont, who shared a cartel arrangement with the German company.

The defining factor of this work may be in the acknowledgements. Hayes states that he received undefined “ancillary support” from IG Farben to produce the text.[10] This fact raises questions about the conclusions Hayes comes to in this work. Although respected historian Hans Mommsen has supported the objectivity of Hayes research, author Edwin Black has drawn similarities between Hayes and other authors that have been hired by corporations specifically to produce histories that could be used as plausible legal defenses against further Holocaust restitution lawsuits.[11] Whatever the case may be, Industry and Ideology, represents an openly pro-business orientation.

This orientation may be due to Hayes’ mentor, the late Henry Ashby Turner, who presided over Hayes’ doctoral studies at Yale. Turner produced two books worth mentioning here: German Big Business and the Rise of Hitler (1987) and General Motors and the Nazis (2005). Turner argues that businesses played a minor part of Hitler’s ascension compared to the sway of right-wing ideology. Furthermore, he contends that business executives only came on board and subscribed to the Nazis’ political agenda once it was clear that they would become the dominant political force in Germany. Turner contends that businessmen initially took Nazi anticapitalist rhetoric seriously, a view opposed by several later historians.[12] Rather than analyze business activity within Germany once the Nazis took power, Turner takes the opportunity to promote Knut Borchardt’s controversial thesis that the preceding Weimar Republic’s excessively generous welfare policies were the main cause of Germany’s economic problems.

While German Big Business and the Rise of Hitler stakes out Turner’s pro-business standpoint, General Motors and the Nazis is more controversial. Turner claims that GM’s German subsidiary, Opel, was drawn into the German armaments industry against the wishes of the parent company’s managers and efforts were made to pull American board members back to camouflage its involvement. The author argues that there was no real alternative for American managers but to allow this collaboration to continue. Turner notes that Opel was designated as enemy property even though it was not confiscated by the Nazis.

At the end of his career, Turner may have softened a bit – conceding that Opel was liable for compensation of surviving victims of forced labor. That being said, his methods and conclusions raise questions worth further consideration. GM provided Turner exclusive access to their archives in order to produce the text. When author Edwin Black tried to access the same material, which was moved to the Yale University Sterling library, he claims he was denied access and was forced to threaten to sue in order to obtain it.[13] Subsequently, he found the material in an unusable computer database that none of the Yale librarians knew how to operate. Furthermore, Turners’ conclusions of GM’s misgivings are contradicted by overseas manager James Mooney’s own memoirs, which praised the partnership.[14] Finally, and most controversially, Turner clearly and unequivocally states at the beginning of General Motors and the Nazis that he was not sponsored by GM in any way to produce the book.[15] When Turner died three years later, it came out that he had been hired by the company to do exactly that.[16] Despite these shocking revelations, his former student, Hayes, has asserted that Turner was not commissioned by GM to produce his last work in an obituary on the American Historical Association website.[17]

Another book that does not strictly deal with World War II business but is worth mention here is Michael Salter’s Nazi War Crimes, US Intelligence and Selective Prosecution at Nuremberg (2007). Salter offers a detailed examination in his study of the role played by United States Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the precursor of today’s CIA, in the pursuit of Nazi war criminals. A central figure in Salter’s investigation is SS General Karl Wolff, a notorious Nazi who oversaw the murder of thousands of Jews. Salter argues that Wolff and his associates surrendered to Allen Dulles, a high level OSS agent, who sheltered them in order to gain intelligence that could shorten the war and limit Allied casualties. The first part of the book focuses on Dulles’ violation of Nuremberg War Crimes Tribunals as well as treaties made with the Soviets by granting Wolff immunity from prosecution. In the second half, Salter presents a defense of the OSS and Dulles’ actions. Salter makes a blanket argument that the rule of law is often subverted by pragmatic, geo-political considerations; however the legal normality which Salter grounds much of his analysis of the Wolff/Dulles bargain is more problematic than the author expresses in the text. Salter concludes that we should “discard the mainstream reaction of one-sided and partisan outrage at the existence of such deals.”[18] Likewise, Salter’s relativism puts him more into the orbit of the corporatist camp. Critically, Salter fails to mention that Dulles and his older brother were also the corporate lawyers for Chase, JP Morgan, Ford, GM, IG Farben, the BIS, Standard Oil, IBM, and ITT – all companies that had alleged ties to the Nazis.

As this group of representative works demonstrates, there is a significant divide in opinion about the implications of transnational business activity during World War II. Although it is quite likely that the historians featured here had a pro-business orientations prior to producing the works in question, the influence of corporate money and privileged access to sources casts a shadow over their scholarship. Allowing access to their source materials for further investigation would help allay some of these concerns. Like the collaborationists, the corporatists tend to be myopic in their focus and ignore the wider scope of the transnational business activities in question. While the selection of books reviewed here is quite limited, many historians share a dismissive attitude toward further research in this field. For instance, Richard Evans concludes in the final pages of his extensive trilogy on the Third Reich, “…the businesses and companies that profited from the Nazi regime and its policies have opened their archives and admitted their complicity.”[19] Such an unequivocal statement denies the complexity of the issue.

Contextualizing the Field

In order to widen the scope of alleged American business collaboration with Nazi Germany, it is worth looking at a few selected works outside the realm of these two fields. In the interest of providing empirical insights, it is important to note that direct connections to collaborative business relationships are not explored by these works; the purpose of this section is to highlight other historical contexts that are missing from the aforementioned schools of thought in order to provide a more holistic perspective to the field.

One useful place to look is at the historiography of Holocaust restitution, where many of the businesses in question are also discussed. This literature also necessarily involves some aspects of American business ties to the Nazis as individuals have brought suit against these organizations for multiple reasons, including forced labor, appropriated bank accounts, and unfulfilled insurance claims. Additionally, these books be can be useful in exposing the way information on the topic is presented in legal frameworks, political action groups, and corporate public relations.

In Some Measure of Justice (2009) by Michael Marrus and William Schabas, there are some similarities to the corporatist school. For his part, Marrus is critical of the restitution cases, and worries that “monetizing justice” has more negative outcomes than positive ones. Thus, the book promotes an overriding ambivalence to the possibility of justice for the crimes of the Holocaust. One distinctive element of his argument is his dismissal that corporations should be included in the list of perpetrators. As observed earlier with the corporatists, Marrus argues that only people can be guilty of perpetrating genocide. This argument stands in direct opposition to much of the litigation against banks and industrial concerns, verging on reproducing their own legal defenses. Problematically, Marrus announces in his acknowledgement that he was funded in part by the Ford Foundation, a charitable organization linked to a corporation that has been subject to a Holocaust reparation lawsuit in the forced labor case of Iwanowa v. Ford Motor Company. Whether or not this represents a conflict of interest for the authors, this work demonstrates that scholars are still formulating policy positions relative to the topic.

More useful historical context is found in the collection of essays edited by Roger P. Alford and Michael Bazyler in the book Holocaust Restitution (2007). Bazyler, who specializes in the history of Holocaust restitution, argues that the legal actions against corporations were justified and that most businesses involved received fairly light penalties in the amount of restitution they were forced to pay in comparison with their crimes. Many in Europe considered Holocaust restitution blackmail, and in response Bazyler produces balanced indictments for the individual companies’ behavior. Elsewhere, Bazyler has noted, in a somewhat bitter fashion, that claimants attorneys were often shut out of restitution agreements between corporations and governments.[20]

Peter Hayes also has contributed an essay for Holocaust Restitution. Hayes argues that Holocaust restitution groups have a “fixation” on corporate profits and that penalizing corporations after the fact is simply “collateral damage.” Hayes contends that corporate profits derived by the Nazis had been consumed by the war effort and the destruction that followed. Hayes comes to this conclusion by citing his own research on the company Degussa – which manufactured the poison Zyklon B, used in the Nazi gas chambers. This reasoning is questionable, as Hayes characterizes all companies that collaborated with Nazis like Degussa, when in fact, many corporations’ parent companies were overseas and were not only free from war damage, but were able to repatriate profits after the war.

Oliver Rathkolb’s Revisiting the National Socialist Legacy (2004) is also worth looking at for insight in the realm of Holocaust restitution. This collection of essays is derived from the 2001 conference hosted by the Bruno Kreisky Archives Foundation on Holocaust-Era Assets. Edited by Rathkolb, the essays provide a thorough and scholarly discussion on the role and limits of national historical commissions, in both their political and social compositions, which form a kind of contemporary debate over the Nazi Past. These discussions are highlighted by the tensions described between historical scholarship, media coverage and politics surrounding the resolution of Holocaust restitution suits. One interesting feature of the text is the essay by Jean-Francoise Bergier, for whom the commission to investigate the activities of Swiss banks was named.[21] Bergier has reservations about the contradictory nature of the word “neutrality” and how it was used by Switzerland and other places during World War II. Although he does not specifically name American corporations, the commission concludes that there is more to be learned from the declassification of American intelligence documents related to the topic.  In his essay, Bergier also laments the public perception of historians as the ultimate arbiters of historical judgment for Holocaust-related crimes, exposing a frustration with irreconcilable scholarship that has, in part, been explored in this paper.

Business histories can also be useful in filling out the picture in this contentious field of research. The learning curve for this material can be steep in understanding the legal and financial terminology as well as making sense of the large volumes of statistical data, but some of the findings related to the context of studies involved in this paper can help provide a foundation for further scholarship. Business history is also useful in describing how multinational corporations operate, which can help educate future researchers attempting to provide a clearer picture of cross border capital movements during the World War II era.

Visions of Modernity (1994) by Mary Nolan endeavors to explore how the discourses of efficacy in American corporate models shaped economic and social transformations in Germany. Furthermore, she describes how the process of economic restructuring and related political struggles subverted both the assumptions and expectations regarding their results. Nolan demonstrates that at the beginning of the Weimar era, there was great interest in Germany for American economic models. German industrialists traveled to America to investigate rationalized business methods and created lasting ties with U.S. corporate leaders. Likewise, many American corporations expanded their operations in German markets. Nolan describes that German business rationalization efforts did not keep up with political reforms and ended up exacerbating wage, consumption, and unemployment problems. The Depression did not destroy the belief in rationalization, but severely limited its ideological appeal. Elements of American-styled business rationalization were kept into the Nazi era, but crucially, were divorced from their political implications.

Another recent text that addresses Nazi era business is The Wages of Destruction (2006) by Adam Tooze. According to Tooze, Hitler considered his real enemy to be the “Jewish-dominated” United States, a large nation that Germany could only compete with if it acquired a comparable amount of farmland or “living space.” Tooze also contends, as Nolan does, that Hitler wanted Germany to adopt Americanized advanced production methods to develop a bigger consumer economy. Most importantly, the author argues that every major policy initiative of the Nazis reflected Hitler’s efforts to improve economic competitiveness – from the invasion of Poland and the Soviet Union, to the mass murder of Jews. While Tooze ignores the American corporate presence in Germany and tends to fixate on military statistics, his emphasis on economic concerns as a primary driving force behind Nazi expansionism helps to explain the Nazi desire for collaborative interaction between U.S. business leaders and German policymakers.

A significant book that helps tie together some of the disparate studies that have been reviewed so far is Nancy Lisagor and Frank Lipsius’ The Untold Story of Sullivan & Cromwell (1988). Lisagor and Lipsius demonstrate that the law firm Sullivan & Cromwell was centrally involved in helping American corporate leaders consolidate economic and political power in the late nineteenth century.[22] They then explain that under the direction of John Foster Dulles from the early 1920s through the end of World War II, the firm helped create a network of holding companies, corporate managers, and lawyers, to facilitate corporate development within Germany.

Although Lisagor and Lipsius meant to simply produce a history of the firm from its inception to the 1980s, this work inadvertently presents a significant challenge to historians who would argue that American corporate cooperation with the Third Reich was uncoordinated and small scale. The authors demonstrate that Sullivan & Cromwell specialized in both maintaining managerial control and obscuring overseas corporate operations in providing legal representation for nearly all the businesses discussed here: Ford, GM, IBM, the BIS, IG Farben, ITT, Chase Bank, JP Morgan, and Standard Oil. Additionally, the authors show that influential policymakers, John Foster Dulles and Allen Dulles on the American side, and Heinrich Albert and Gerhard Westrick on the German side, were intimately involved in these business relationships – dispelling the notion that their respective governments were completely uninvolved in these collaborative activities. Lisagor and Lipsius have called attention to a crucially important organization involved in these events, exposing the need for more research into the role they played in facilitating Nazi war aims.

Finally, some selected works from U.S. diplomatic history can also help provide some tentative context to the landscape of relations with Germany during the World War II era. Because some of these works deal with the cross-over between American corporate leaders and policymakers, this body of literature has the advantage of exposing the complex linkage between U.S. business activity and its foreign policy.

In order to study the phenomenon of corporative collaboration more closely, American historian Michael J. Hogan founded a school of thought aptly named “corporatism.”[23] In describing this methodology, Hogan emphasizes the importance of examining the role of non-state actors, not only in shaping policy, but also the part they play in creating the international environment in which policy is operated. Hogan notes, as he does in his book The Marshall Plan, that American leaders have tried to build a world order along lines comparable to the economic order domestically. Hogan also contends that a corporatist perspective is useful when doing comparative and transnational history. Referencing Akira Iriye’s work on transnational economics and culture, Hogan stresses that the corporatist approach adds a needed dimension to any study rooted in the relationship between American business and politics.[24]

Eschewing the most controversial implications that American policymakers may have purposefully promoted business with the Nazis for geopolitical reasons, Hogan’s school of thought does allow room for some interesting insights. If, in fact, some policymakers were involved in corporate activity with the Nazis, this may help to explain why many businesses did not have their activities exposed until decades later. For instance, Joseph Borkin notes in his book, The Crime and Punishment of IG Farben, that future Secretary of State John Foster Dulles’ principle expertise was obscuring American subsidiaries in European holding companies in order to avoid regulatory oversight.[25] In another example, Bradford Snell, an attorney hired by the U.S. Senate in 1974 to inquire into anti-competitive practices of Ford and General Motors, lamented that policymakers’ relationship with the automotive corporations were exacerbating the problem.[26] As a surprise to his congressional colleagues, Snell’s report also contained detailed evidence that both of these businesses had also been an integral part of Nazi military production, monopolizing the manufacture of the Third Reich’s planes, tanks, and trucks. Snell’s research was later used as a foundation for scholarship in Working for the Enemy, which was reviewed earlier. Although there were plenty of American policy makers who were staunchly anti-Nazi, further study of individuals like John Foster Dulles may be helpful in illuminating the nature of the relationship between policymakers and corporate managers as is applies to the study of American/Nazi business ties.


So what have we learned here after this long procession of diverse and detailed texts? For one thing, many histories outside the realm of alleged corporate collaboration with the Nazis underscore the historical importance of business institutions and markets. The allusion to the growing importance of non-state actors, particularly in the twentieth century, is a recurring theme. These actors, primarily represented by transnational corporations, have yet to be clearly nailed down in an interpretive framework. Many authors introduce the issue and underscore its importance, but avoid engaging it directly. For this reason, it is perhaps unsurprising that the so-called corporatists and the collaborationists cannot find common ground on which to debate their differing interpretations of American business activity in Europe during World War II.

Given the work that remains to be done, the field of corporate collaboration between American businesses and Germany under the Nazis prior to and during World War II is only just beginning. As noted earlier, neither the corporatists nor the collaborationists have made significant efforts to contextualize their research in other historiographies. Authors who avoid this scholarship are likely to extend the “dialog of the deaf” into the future.

Partially, this is a problem of marketing. For their part, the collaborationists benefit from emphasizing the drama and sensationalism of their accounts, which sell books in the already crowded field of popular World War II histories. On the other side, corporatist historians are supported by a more conservative audience that encourages a skeptical, relativistic, and even reactionary approach to the controversy.

Regardless, most of the works presented here miss the opportunity to shed light on instrumental actors that have yet to receive thorough historical treatment. A good example of this is the law firm Sullivan & Cromwell. Here we find a nexus of many industrial and financial concerns with significant reach into European economics: Ford, GM, IBM, ITT, Chase Bank, JP Morgan, Standard Oil, the Bank for International Settlements (BIS), and IG Farben. Their principle contacts were the Dulles brothers, who, as mentioned earlier both played significant political roles during the war and after. It is imperative that more research be done on institutions like this one in order to break the stalemate between scholars and reach a more detailed understanding of exactly what occurred behind the closed doors of powerful corporate interests.

In another respect, the work of understanding the historical dynamics of this business activity is likely to continue. This current period now represents a “first wave” of history writing since the aftermath of restitution lawsuits that occurred in the late 1990s and early 2000s. An opportunity now exists to further analyze and evaluate past studies and break new ground on sources that have been languishing for decades. Future historical analysis of recently compiled archival sources, such as those catalogued by the Nazi War Crimes Interagency Working Group (IWG) at the National Archives in Washington D.C., The Independent Commission of Experts on Swiss Banks (also known as the Bergier Commission), and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Bad Arolsen files, which is in the process of digitizing more than forty-six million documents currently archived in Germany, has the potential to reveal new and interesting insights. Allegations of corporate collusion with Nazis are a not to be taken lightly, particularly for businesses that continue to be patronized today. If evidence of war crimes do emerge, they deserve to be scrutinized carefully both in the academic and public spheres. It is imperative that researchers examine past forays into this topic critically and incorporate their most useful elements in future research.


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[1] Barry Meier, “Chroniclers of Collaboration; Historians Are in Demand to Study Corporate Ties to Nazis,” The New York Times, Feb 18, 1999, C1. In the late 1990s many corporations ramped up their legal and historical defenses against accusations, creating a market for researchers willing to work with these institutions.

[2] Richard Sasuly, IG Farben (New York: Boni & Gaer Press, 1947). Joseph Borkin and Charles A. Welsh, Germany’s Master Plan: The Story of the Industrial Offensive (New York: Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1943), Josiah E. DuBois, The Devil’s Chemists (Boston: The Beacon Press, 1952).

[3] Some representative works include Charles Higham, The Films of Orson Welles (California: University of Berkley Press, 1973), Errol Flynn: The Untold Story (New York: Dell Publications, 1984), and Howard Hughes: The Secret Life (New York: St. Martins, 2004). Higham claims he became interested in sympathy for the Nazis originating in theUnited States when studying Errol Flynn’s alleged Nazi ties.

[4] In the process of verifying and analyzing Higham’s sources and interpolating them with McKittrick’s papers at the Harvard Business School and Morgenthau’s diaries at the FDR Library in Poughkeepsie, New York, I have produced two articles on the subject of American financial firms and the Nazis. See Jason Weixelbaum, “Following the Money: An Exploration of the Relationship between American Finance and Nazi Germany” and “The Contradiction of Neutrality and International Finance: The Presidency of Thomas H. McKittrick at the Bank for International Settlements in Basle, Switzerland 1940-46.” [accessed May 16, 2011]

[5] I have reviewed Higham’s book and documentation in more detail here: Jason Weixelbaum “Jason Weixelbaum: A Review of the Shocking Revelations of U.S. Corporate Collaboration with Nazi Germany” History News Network, July 9, 2009. [accessed May 15, 2011]. This is an excerpt of the original article posted here: [accessed May 16, 2011]

[6] Department of State, Richard Boucher, “IBM Suit and Legal Peace for German Companies,” Feb. 21, 2001.

[7] Neil Forbes, Doing Business with the Nazis: Britain’s Economic and Financial Relations with Germany 1931-1939 (London: Frank Cass Publishers, 2000) 163.

[8] Neil Forbes, “Multinational enterprise, ‘Corporate Responsibility’ and the Nazi Dictatorship: The Case of Unilever and Germany in the 1930s,” Contemporary European History, Vol. 16, No. 2 (2007), 166-7.

Earlier interactions with the Nazis have added fuel for contemporary critics of the corporation in the light of various lawsuits against Unilever in Brazil, China, and Western Europe for massive pollution and misrepresenting the genetically modified content of their products. In the context Unilever’s interwar activities, Forbes gives his opinion on the present moral orientation of the company: “Many profitable businesses espouse philanthropic causes…Unilever itself has always exemplified this tradition.”

[9] Jay Weinstein, “Review: Industry and Ideology: IG Farben in the Nazi Era by Peter Hayes,” The Canadian Journal of Sociology / Cahiers Canadiens de Sociologie, Vol. 27, No. 2 (Spring, 2002), 275-277.

[10] Peter Hayes, Industry and Ideology: IG Farben in the Nazi Era (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1987), xx.

[11] The conflict between Hayes and Black is discussed in Michael Allen’s critical review of IBM and the Holocaust, “Stranger than Science Fiction: Edwin Black, IBM, and the Holocaust,” Technology and Culture, Vol. 43, No.1 (Jan., 2002), 153.

[12] See the historiography section in Eberhard Kolb, The Weimar Republic. (New York: Routledge, 2005), 203-224.

[13] Edwin Black, “GM and the Nazis—Part Four: How will history remember General Motor’s collaboration with the Nazis?” The Cutting Edge News, June 30, 2008.

[14] 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) 37. Documentation of Mooney’s attitude is recounted clearly here.

[15] Henry Ashby Turner, Jr., General Motors and the Nazis: The Struggle for Control of Opel, Europe’s Biggest Carmaker (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005). In the introduction on page viii, Turner states, “This book was not commissioned by General Motors. It was written after the documentation project was completed and without any financial support from GM.”

[16] William Grimes, “Henry Turner, 76, Historian and Author, is dead,” New York Times, Jan. 19, 2009.

[17] Peter Hayes, “Henry Ashby Turner, Jr.: German historian: Designed history major at Yale.” American Historical Association, Perpectives May 2009.  If, in fact, the findings of the New York Times turn out to be baseless, both Hayes and Turner’s family have a responsibility to address the comments of the periodical directly.

[18] Michael Salter, Nazi War Crimes, US Intelligence and Selective Prosecution at Nuremberg: Controversies Regarding the Role of the Office of Strategic Services (Abingdon,U.K.: Routledge-Cavendish, 2007), 446.

[19] Richard Evans, The Third Reich at War (New York: Penguin, 2009) 763.

[20] Michael Bazyler, Holocaust Justice: The Battle for Restitution in America’s Courts (New York: New York University Press, 2003).

[21] Independent Commission of Experts Switzerland – Second World War (Zürich: Pendo Verlag GmbH 2002).

[22] See also Jason Weixelbaum, “Harnessing the Growth of Corporate Capitalism: Sullivan & Cromwell and its influence on late nineteenth century American business.” [accessed May 16, 2011].

[23] Explaining the History of American Foreign Relations (1991). [complete citation] See also Jason Weixelbaum “The Corporatist Approach and the History of U.S. Foreign Policy” [accessed May 16, 2011].

[24] Akira Iriye, The Cambridge History of American Foreign Relations. Vol. 3, Globalizing

of America, 1913-1945 (Cambridge:CambridgeUniversity Press, 2008).

[25] Joseph Borkin, The Crime and Punishment of IG Farben (New York: Free Press, 1978) 164-197.

[26] Bradford Snell, U.S. Congress Senate Committee on the Judiciary, American Ground Transport (1974).

  1. This is an excellent discussion of a contentious field of study. I came at this through the history of law firms and especially Lisagor & Lipsius’s study of Sullivan & Cromwell to which you refer. I’m pleased to see this put into context.

    Good luck with your PhD.

    John Flood

  2. Amazing research and organization, Jay. I love your annotated bibliography at the end. I read your section on Opel with great interest. They are still a major car company here in Germany and I did not know about their connection to GM.

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