Skip to content

Digital Conspiracy? Edwin Black, Henry Ashby Turner Jr., and General Motors in Nazi Germany

April 28, 2013

If we have learned anything from pondering the implications of history in the digital age, there is a sense among those who have written about such things that a profound change is occurring. Throughout the past several months of blog postings here, I have attempted to draw attention to some of the central ideas behind the transformative and disruptive influence of new media on history: Consumers of historical inquiry are demanding more interactivity from the results of historical research; professionals in the humanities are finding new ways of gathering and analyzing data from the exponentially growing body of information on the web; instant communication is breaking down and changing concepts of intellectual authority and learning; and models of productivity and profitability have been dramatically destabilized as access widens to large amounts of information.

Indeed, it has even changed the way I approach history. Before we delve into the subject of this article, the changing relationship of digital media and its effect on a narrow slice of my field of research (in this case, General Motors and the Nazis) it is worth noting that my methodology in producing this work has been purposefully altered for this piece. First, this writing is entirely “born digital,” produced exclusively on this blog. Second, I am writing in the first person, common to blog formats in order to personalize the exploration of this historical problem. As regular readers of this blog will notice, this is a departure from most of the academic writing found here, written in the “objective” third person. Finally, I have chosen to avoid footnotes where possible and hyperlink my sources instead, so that the reader can follow my train of inquiry to the conclusions I have reached.

So what does General Motors, the Third Reich, Edwin Black, Henry Ashby Turner, Jr., and digital history have in common? As it turns out, they are more interrelated than one might think. It is a sorted story of colorful personalities, war profiteering, accusations of conspiracy, and historiographical controversy. In order to understand its breadth and depth, hang on with me I present some background on the topic.

General Motors and the Nazis

General Motors (GM) was already a sprawling, worldwide company with a strong presence in Europe by the time Hitler was appointed chancellor of Germany. The most comprehensive histories of GM, like Alfred Chandler’s Strategy and Structure (1969) and Scale and Scope (1990) as well as the memoirs of long time president and chairman Alfred Sloan’s My Years at General Motors (1963), provide a myriad of technical details about GM’s business during the 1930s and 1940s; however, none these texts explicitly discusses GM’s business connections to the Nazis. Likewise, a perusal of GM’s history and heritage website, http://www.gm.com/company/historyAndHeritage.html reveals almost nothing about the company’s wartime activities. If one pays close attention to GM’s own account of its history on the above website, an observer might note that GM had acquired three major overseas subsidiaries by 1933: Vauxhall in England, GM-Holden in Australia, and Adam Opel AG in Germany.

From my own reading of the above texts, as well as primary and secondary sources I will discuss a bit later, we can fill in the details. Opel, located in the industrial suburb of Russelheim outside of Frankfurt, was purchased by GM in the late 1920s and was already the largest automotive manufacturer in Europe by market share. The Great Depression hit the company pretty hard, as it did to most businesses, but was already heading into recovery by the early 1930s. Its products were chiefly cars and trucks built and distributed in Europe, although GM also exported vehicles to the continent manufactured in United States.

The Nazi seizure of power in Germany affected the automotive market in Germany in two important ways: Hitler was keenly interested in stimulating consumer demand by promoting small, affordable automobiles for the German public. This came in tandem with the large Nazi public works highway project, the Autobahn, meant to increase employment. Thus, he fostered competition among automakers (an interesting story unto itself) which was eventually won by Ferdinand Porsche and led to the creation of Volkswagen. Although they lost this competition, this led to efforts by Opel’s management, including the head of General Motors Overseas Operations, James Mooney, to align Opel’s business operations with Nazi demands. It would not be long before that relationship would come to fruition by causing the company to focus on increasingly large orders for the Opel “Blitz” truck by the German military. These were manufactured at a new expansive factory in Brandenburg, near Berlin. As it turned out, these trucks were critical to the overall military strategy of the Nazis, which focused on rapid, massive attacks deep into foreign territory. This made the need for reliable supply lines, and vehicles to service them, increasingly important.

Opel Blitz Truck courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Opel Blitz Truck courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Growing friction between the xenophobic Nazis and the American-owned car company eventually resulted in GM executives choosing a few Nazi Party insiders who could be reliably depended on to lead their subsidiary in Germany. This way, the American parent company could maintain ownership and managerial control of its overseas operations while appearing to the Nazis to be under their leadership. Profits were more problematic for GM, as the Nazis had strict rules against profits leaving Germany. Thus, like many other foreign companies, these gains were either reinvested to expand operations, or sequestered in blocked accounts.

After Germany attacked Poland, military production at Opel increased. GM executives were unable to resist Nazi pressure to push Opel’s operations in this direction. Brandenburg continued to produce Blitz trucks. Also, consumer automobile production had all but halted at their man factories in Russelheim, which were retooled to build engines for the workhorse bomber/fighter of the German airforce, the JU-88. This was the military hardware the Nazis used to rain down bombs and destruction on London.

Junkers JU-88 Bomber courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Junkers JU-88 Bomber courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Opel’s fate progressed rapidly thereafter. When Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941, its ally Germany declared war on the US. Remaining American personnel were withdrawn from Opel and the parent company dispensed of its subsidiary as a tax write-off. Behind the scenes, Opel’s lawyer maintained US ownership of the company. Opel continued to produce military equipment for the Nazis for a little less than four years before the Third Reich was ultimately destroyed by the Allies. During this last phase, the company used slave labor as part of the Nazi work/death camp system set up in the places in Europe it occupied. In the aftermath of the Nazi defeat in Europe, the US military authorities took control of what was left of Opel factories in Russelheim. By 1947, GM was in a formal process to regain ownership of its property and finally was able to take full control and repatriate profits from the Nazi period in 1951.

The above story of GM and Nazi Germany was not well known until 1974. At that time, there was a high profile hearing against the Big Three automakers (General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler) for alleged monopolistic and anti-competitive practices. The Judiciary Committee staff attorney, Bradford Snell, issued a report demonstrating that these companies had been buying up the mass transit infrastructure in various American cities with purpose to dismantle it and sell vehicles directly to these municipalities. What was innovative about the report, however, was that Snell highlighted the past Nazi connections of both Ford and General Motors. A copy of the report can be found here: http://www.worldcarfree.net/resources/freesources/American.htm

There was predictable protest from the car companies after the issuing of the above report, but since that time, a growing body of literature has explored the topic of American automotive companies and the Nazis. Unfortunately, much of it was conspiracy theory and of dubious scholarly merit. This changed, however, when the topic of corporate collaboration with the Nazis gained wider prominence with a large number of Holocaust restitution cases were brought against companies, including GM, in the late 1990s.

Enter Henry Ashby Turner, Jr. and Edwin Black

Although there are others, Turner and Black are probably the most well-known historians of business and Nazis. Black is responsible for the best-selling book on the topic, IBM and the Holocaust. Likewise, Turner’s contribution to the field is General Motors and the Nazis. But what does all this have to do with digital history, you ask? Turner and Black’s scholarship intersect in ways that bring out some important issues around digitization, accessibility, and copyright. Thus, we need to take a closer look at how these two individuals are involved with the topic.

Henry Ashby Turner, Jr. had a long, illustrious academic career. Soon after finishing his PhD at Princeton, Turner was hired as a professor at Yale in 1958. Specializing in German history, Turner spent much of the first two decades of his career there mentoring students and formulating his own ideas on the Third Reich. This came to fruition with his book, German Big Business and the Rise of Hitler, published in 1985. Turner had come to oppose the historiographical consensus that industrialists were major supporters of Hitler, instead arguing that they feared the Nazis for their sometimes anticapitalist rhetoric. Furthermore, Turner brought a lassiez-faire, pro-business bias to the fore in this seminal work, enthusiastically promoting the work of Knut Borchardt. Borchardt was the subject of fierce controversy in the German scholarly world in the 1970s, when he conflated the collapse of the Weimar Republic and the coming of the Nazis on the Republic’s purportedly overly generous social safety nets, an argument that has been repeatedly utilized to criticize Keynesian economics more broadly.

This would not be the only controversy that Turner would become embroiled in. He is probably most well known for his involvement in the “David Abraham Affair,” which appears prominently in Peter Novick’s That Noble Dream (1988). In that episode, Abraham had worked on the same topic as German Big Business and the Rise of Hitler, except from a Marxist perspective, arguing that industrialists had been natural allies with the Nazis. Turner found errors in Abraham’s citations and translations and aggressively attacked Abraham for academic dishonesty. Turner attempted to block the publication of Abraham’s work. Other colleagues of Turner’s, including former student Peter Hayes, and Gerald Feldman, also leveled criticism against Abraham. This led some early supporters of Abraham, including Carl Schorske, Natalie Zemon Davis, and Thomas Bender to come to Abraham’s defense. They accused Turner and his ilk of “fetishing facts,” which barely concealed an ideological attack on Abraham’s work. Ironically, both Hayes and Feldman were also subsequently hired by companies accused of Nazi-era collaboration. A short encapsulation of these events can be found here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henry_Ashby_Turner

Thus, when GM found itself targeted for criticism in the late 1990s when Holocaust survivors began to sue, Turner, who had conservative, pro-business credentials, was a likely choice to investigate the company’s Nazi past. The New York Times noted that Turner was among the “academic all-stars” hired by various corporations to investigate their past http://www.nytimes.com/1999/02/18/business/chroniclers-collaboration-historians-are-demand-study-corporate-ties-nazis.html?pagewanted=all&src=pm. Furthermore, Turner was well established with institutional support at Yale with a large number of graduate students to assist in helping GM investigate its business with the Third Reich.

According to Turner, he spent one year in GM’s employ working on their Nazi-era documentation project. Subsequently, Turner published the book General Motors and the Nazis in 2005, utilizing this documentation. Turner opens his preface (viii) with a description of his role in the project:

With the goal of assessing the validity of these accusations and setting the record straight, this book examines GM’s relations with Opel and the German government. It was made possible by a documentation project that I directed during the years 1999-2000 under the sponsorship of the General Motors Corporation. Initiated by GM in response to pending class action suits on behalf of victims of forced labor against American corporations that had owned German firms during the Third Reich, the project was designed to locate all available relevant records and provide information to GM.

Crucial to our discussion on digital history, Turner then provides a glimpse of his methodology in putting together the GM collection. Turner continues:

To that end, GM granted full and unrestricted access to its files and those of its subsidiaries. The relevant records of GM, Opel, and some of the corporation’s other foreign subsidiaries were copied onto compact discs and cataloged, along with those located in other repositories, in a compact-disc database. Upon completion of the documentation project, a complete set of the discs, designated as the General Motors-Opel Collection, was donated to GM to the Manuscripts and Archives Division of Yale University’s Sterling Memorial Library, where all are available to other researchers.

Finally, Turner concludes his preface by asserting his independence from GM:

This book was not commissioned by General Motors. It was written after the documentation project was completed and without any financial support from GM. Its contents were seen by no one at GM prior to publication. It is therefore an independent undertaking by the author, who bears sole responsibility for its contents.

And there we are to take Turner’s words at face value. The result is a book that is written primarily from the perspective of GM’s managers. Turner argues that the corporation did not do business with the Third Reich by choice. He concludes:

Implicit in much of the criticism of GM’s role at Opel is the assumption that the American corporation did business in the Third Reich by choice. Such was not the case…A failing subsidiary can be written off, but dropping one that was generating rising profits was simply not feasible for an American corporation answerable to its shareholders and subject to stock-market forces at home during a period of lingering depression in the United States…Like other American companies with operations in Germany, GM therefore opted under the circumstances to hold on to what amounted to a hostage of the Third Reich in hopes of better times (151).

To paraphrase, Turner’s analysis of GM’s actions boils down to the assumption that profit motive outweighed any moral concerns among the corporate management. According to Turner, GM eventually recovered a mere $261 thousand dollars in profits in 1951, which included a complex calculation of tax write offs, compensation from the US for war damage, and currency devaluations under the new West German Government (149). In a footnote, however, Turner concedes that GM was awarded over $10 million dollars in tax refunds, which is less than the $33 million dollar refund other texts have claimed (Working for the Enemy, Trading with the Enemy) – and still a drop in the bucket compared to GM’s total profits during this period (190).

Thus, we are left to make three assumptions based on Turner’s work: That whatever Turner’s relationship was with GM, it had no influence on his conclusions; that criticisms of GM’s actions were groundless based on his reading of the sources he was personally responsible for assembling; and that his accounting of GM’s recovered profits are accurate.

Naturally, there would be those who would question Turner’s conclusions. Unfortunately, Turner passed away in 2008 not long after General Motors and the Nazis was published. Confusion about Turner’s relationship with GM manifested itself in two somewhat contradictory obituaries. The one written by his former student, Peter Hayes, notes that Turner’s last book was “written independently of the firms involved and for which he received no remuneration from them.” http://www.historians.org/perspectives/issues/2009/0905/0905mem7.cfm However, the obit written by William Grimes in the New York Times simply states that he was hired by GM and his research led to the publication of his book. http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/19/books/19turner.html?_r=0 In my own conversations with Grimes last year, he noted that the word “hired” connoted that money changed hands, but that there was not yet solid evidence to suggest how much Turner may or may not have been paid by GM prior to the publication of his book. More on this later.

I was not the first to be skeptical of Turner’s conclusions. You can read about where I place Turner in the historiography here: https://jasonweixelbaum.wordpress.com/2011/05/17/collaboration-in-context-new-historiographical-approaches-to-alleged-americannazi-business-ties/ In any case, when Turner published his book in 2005, Edwin Black was already the most well known writer on the topic of corporate collaboration with the Nazis. His book, IBM and the Holocaust was a worldwide bestseller. Likewise, Turner was already on Black’s radar after Turner wrote an exceedingly negative review of his IBM book in the Business History Review: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3116406. Incidentally, it is worth noting that the other two critical reviews of Black’s book both came from Turner’s peers, Peter Hayes and Michael Thad Allen (also from Yale).

Aside from the possible ideological motivations of the above critics, it is unsurprising that some academics balked at Black’s work. Literally from the first few pages, where he calls the publishing of his research “historic bravery and literary fearlessness” (5) to his self-referential recounting of the review process of his manuscript with “some of the finest editors and translators in the book world” in his conclusion, the text contains plenty of overstated commentary. That said, it is fair to say that a bestseller will also have its share of positive reviews. The famous Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal, Atlantic magazine editor and journalist Jack Beatty, and head of the Anti-Defamation League, Abraham Foxman, all gave IBM and the Holocaust glowing reviews that are present in the book’s front matter. Black also notes that the prolific and well-regarded German historian, Gerhard Hirschfeld, reviewed, and presumably approved of the text before its publication (441). Beyond sensationalism, Black proved to be very aggressive when it came to countering criticisms of his work. He has published an entire page of retractions from various publishers about IBM and the Holocaust: http://www.edwinblack.com/index.php?page=80219

As such, it should not be shocking that Black decided to set his sights on Turner’s work for a subsequent book, Internal Combustion (2006) which happened to also concern automotive corporations. Like Snell, Black highlighted anti-competitive and anti-innovative practices of car companies and used their history of doing business with the Nazis as a vehicle to support his criticism.

This leads us to the crux of our digital history conversation. Black went to Yale and attempted to access Turner’s collection. Black had difficulties looking at the source materials at the archive and wrote a piece in June 2008 on his website, The Cutting Edge News, claiming that a conspiracy existed between Turner, Yale, and GM: http://www.thecuttingedgenews.com/index.php?article=113&pageid=22&pagename=Investigation. This piece has also been published in other places, including the Jewish Virtual Library http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/Holocaust/gm.html. Here is what Black wrote this about his experience at Yale:

The GM Opel documents assembled for the company’s probe and Turner’s commissioned examination were digitized on CD-ROMs and donated to Yale’s Sterling Memorial Library, where the collection is categorized as being “open to the public.” In point of fact, the obscure collection can only be viewed on a computer terminal; print-outs or digital copies are not permitted without the written consent of GM attorneys.

Sterling reference librarians, who are willing to make the collection available, complained to this reporter as recently as October 2007 that they do not know how to access the digitized GM materials because of a complicated and arcane database never before encountered by them. One Sterling reference librarian answered a question about the document by declaring, “I have spoken to two reference librarians. No one knows anything about it [the GM Opel Collection], no one is in charge of it. No one knows how to access it.”

Yale archivist Richard Szary, who supervised the accession of the collection, said that for the approximate half-decade that the documents have been on file, he knows of only “one or two” researchers other than this reporter who have had access to the papers. Szary, who was previously said to be the only Yale staffer who understood how to access the materials, facilitated this reporter’s on-site access. He has since left Yale. By late November, however, in response to an inquiry by this reporter, a senior Sterling librarian said her staff would “figure out how to make it available” by reviewing technical details.

Between the unpublished GM internal investigation, the restricted files at Yale, and the little-known insights offered in Turner’s book, the details of the company’s involvement with the Hitler regime have remained below the radar.

This led to a historical conundrum. Who’s word does one trust? Did Edwin Black exaggerate his experience there? Was there really a conspiracy? Should we consider Turner the final word on the topic?

I decided to make a trip to New Haven and take a look for myself.

Before I get to my own investigation, some preliminaries are worth noting. First, unlike any other archive I’ve visited to date, I was required to sign up on Yale’s website and request the materials I wanted to review in advance. The FAQ and login instructions were not as easy to find as I would have liked, but are accessible here: http://www.library.yale.edu/mssa/ifr_faqs.html#11. I also noted that you had to request your materials at least two business days ahead of time; however, this was not necessarily unusual for collections stored off-site. By comparison, when I did research using various collections at Harvard Business School, I was required to call ahead and make an appointment, but no electronic registration was necessary. Was this a sign of conspiracy, though? Not really.

The copyright info on the finding aid website http://drs.library.yale.edu:8083/HLTransformer/HLTransServlet?stylename=yul.ead2002.xhtml.xsl&pid=mssa:ms.1799&clear-stylesheet-cache=yes was as stringent as I expected:

Copyright is retained by General Motors Corporation for materials authored or otherwise produced in the course of its business activities. Copyright status for other collection materials is unknown. Transmission or reproduction of materials protected by U.S. Copyright Law (Title 17, U.S.C.) beyond that allowed by fair use requires the written permission of the copyright owners. Works not in the public domain cannot be commercially exploited without permission of the copyright owners. Responsibility for any use rests exclusively with the user.

Copying Restriction: Copies of the documents in this collection may not be made for researcher use without written permission from General Motors. Researchers must also have written permission from General Motors to take digital photographs of documents from this collection. Researchers interested in applying for copying permissions should address a letter to GM Legal Staff care of the Carrie S. Beinecke Director of Manuscripts and Archives, Yale University Library.

Another detail that piqued my interest was the request process for the documents themselves. They were listed by box number. If the materials in question were on CD-ROM, why would I need to request a box? In any case, I perused some of Turner’s footnotes and decided to request the first several entries in the collection, which included annual reports that might give some overview of GM’s Nazi Germany business activities. This led me to take a closer look at the processing notes on the finding aid website:

The original PDF files of documents scanned by Professor Turner’s research team were printed out, partially by Yale University Library staff and partially by staff at General Motors. Legibility issues in some of the PDF printouts result from poor quality in the original scans. The original document numbering sequence established by the research team was maintained and used in lieu of folder numbers; gaps in the document numbering sequence reflect gaps in the original PDF documents.

Now I was a bit confused. What did Black look at? These seemed like paper files, not a digital archive.

To New Haven

So far so good. Then I made the drive to Yale. The grounds are beautiful and gothic, much like my graduate alma mater, Boston College. I snapped a few pics of Sterling library before going in:

IMG_0102

IMG_0105

I was not allowed to snap photos inside.

Everyone was pleasant and friendly. I found the manuscript reading room easily enough, received an ID badge and sat down at the table to review my materials. I was asked which box I wanted to see first, which again, was a bit odd; but I did not question it. I figured someone would eventually lead me to a computer like Black had to do. I did notice that the archivists whispered to each other only somewhat out of earshot that I was not allowed to take any digital images of the files.

Instead, the archivist brought boxes containing folders and paper files to my desk. They appeared to be freshly printed documents and I immediately began to suspect that the collection had, in fact, gone through some changes since Black’s visit. I decided it was time to get more details on the collection.

I spoke to the current archivist on duty, Michael, about the collection. He said he remembered the collection being put together and even the Edwin Black visit. He also stated that he recalled the CD-ROm files being printed out into paper form not long after Black’s visit. Michael also gave me the name of the archivist in charge of this process, William Landis (there was no mention of Richard Szary as Black had written), who was still in the department. Luckily, he was in the library that day. I was told someone would go get him so we could talk.

William Landis appeared shortly thereafter and informed me he was in charge of taking in the collection. To my surprise, he expressed frustration because Turner’s project was conducted outside the purview of the Manuscript Archive. In a slightly different fashion than what was presented in the finding aid, Landis stated that Turner and his team originally donated the collection to Sterling on CD-ROMs. They were meant to be viewed on library-owned laptops that were set up to prevent users from copying documents or connecting to the internet.

Worse, the PDF files on the CDs were huge, ranging from one gigabyte and larger. Landis said, had he been able to advise Turner, he would have his team set up the collection with one PDF file per scanned page.

Thus, Landis noted, when Black came to visit, he had enormous problems with the laptop and loading these large PDF files. Mind you, this was also several years ago, so it is unsurprising that the library machines meant for public use were probably running slow. Therefore, it was possible for Black to jump to the conclusions and write that this was somehow purposeful on GM’s part to limit accessibility to the collection.

And here is the kicker: Landis said his team decided to print out the PDFs to make them more accessible as a direct result of Black’s troubled visit.

[author’s note: I originally wrote here that the impression I got from the archivists was that Black came off as impatient and cranky during his visit to Yale. I have removed that phrase as it was not directly noted by the archivists, but as I wrote above – an impression I received from talking to them.]

In any case, the CD-ROMs were then returned to GM when they were done. Landis and his team simply used the same numbering system in the collection. In essence, this was just a massive print job.

I spoke to Landis a bit about the situation with Black and Turner, and also told him about the Abraham affair, and how it was possible that Turner, because he had demonstrated his sympathies for the more pro-business, right-wing side of politics, it made sense that GM chose Turner for the project.

Landis had noted that “it was a masterstroke on Turner’s part to allow GM to provide access to these documents.” Also, that there “were probably more documents on GM available [at Sterling] than at GM headquarters itself.” If Michael Moore’s documentary Roger and Me is any indicator of how protective GM is of its public persona, Landis may be on to something.

I inquired to Landis if there was any way to know how much Turner was paid to produce the collection, or if there were any further communications on record between Turner and GM. There was, of course, a collection of Turner’s papers at the library, but he expressed doubts that anything like that would be in there. Still, I consulted the finding aid.

Ironically, there were documents on Turner’s GM project, but they were in database format and not accessible. I was told it would take five business days to put them together. Unfortunately, I was just up there for the day. Would Black continue to believe a conspiracy was taking place if he were in my shoes? The question of Turner’s possible remuneration would have to wait for another time.

However, while I was there at the archives, I had a decent opportunity to evaluate the materials themselves. Did Turner and his team attempt to present a particular story through the documents? I was in a good position to investigate.

My own reading of the documents I had time to view did not match up with Turner’s analysis. While the document organization itself has an internal logic, which begins with James Mooney’s diaries and a collection of documents comprising of a rebuttal to the Snell report, there were other items of interest worth noting.

A collection of reports and memos in the very first box were quite striking. For instance, document 000523 is an internal report provided by C.R. Osborn (a local manager) to Mooney, dated November 22, 1939. Note that this is not long after the Nazi invasion of Poland. Osborn states:

The organization of Adam Opel AG has naturally been designed to make its maximum contribution under peace time conditions. General Motors as owner of the company, however, fully recognized the altered situation which now exists, which makes impossible the full utilization of Opel’s productive organization for the purpose for which it was intended. It appreciates, therefore, the desire of the German government to capitalize the excess productive capacity of Adam Opel AG for purposes made necessary by the present situation.

German National Interests

1. Productive capacity of Adam Opel AG must be adjusted as rapidly as possible to war conditions. Productive capacity should be interpreted to mean all those elements necessary for the manufacture of goods.

2. The products at present manufactured by Adam Opel AG will continue to be essential in the two major phases of Germany’s national life – military and economic.

a. Military – There will continue to be a substantial need for trucks, special vehicles and passenger cars for military purposes. The Opel organization should be in a position to take care of all such requirements as they develop in the future.

I decided to look at the annual reports in Box 10 as I noted I would do earlier. I found more interesting material.

Speaking to the problem of calculating profits, I found in the first folder, 9389-9436, an annual report for 1938 for the Overseas Operations Group written by James Mooney.

At the outset, in document CR009391 (p. 1) Mooney states: “In spite of adverse political and economic conditions throughout the world, the General Motors Overseas Operations overall results in 1938 were actually the largest in the history of the Company, with the single exception of 1937.” Net sales amounted to aproximately 335.2 million dollars for that year alone. Opel’s production accounted for a little less than half of those sales.

That is quite a bit of money.

In any case, I wanted to see how far these annual reports went into the Nazi domination of Europe. File 9540-9576 is even more revealing. This is an Annual Report by Mooney’s replacement, Graeme K. Howard, for 1940. It is dated February 15, 1941. Let us be aware that this is now after the Nazi domination of France and the Low Countries.

The conclusion of this report (p.29, document CR009574) states:

Although the above trends are somewhat adverse to American business, the long term outlook for the Overseas Operations is by no means one of depression and discouragement. As stated in the last report, the longer term profit potentialities will be measured more by the organization’s ability to make the necessary adjustments to new conditions abroad than by any real limitations on true opportunity. The need and demand for both passenger and commercial vehicles will be greater in the years ahead than ever before, and the participation and rewards of the Overseas Operations will be mainly a matter of policies, and accomplishment.

This is not GM lamenting its role in Nazi Germany. This is a company that is preparing for the eventuality of a Nazi dominated Europe.

Conclusions

One must always be wary of conspiracies. Where there other researchers influenced by Black’s assumptions that Turner created digital files that were difficult to use on purpose? It is hard to say. As I perused the collection, I found myself wondering if Black was aware of the irony: his own involvement in trying to access the collection ultimately increased its accessibility.

In this case, digital files were not the wave of the future. Perhaps the timing was not right for the technology. If Turner had partnered directly with the archivists at Sterling, maybe there would never have been a conspiracy theory for Black to make in the first place.

Also, it was not lost upon me that if there was a bias in Turner’s process assembling the GM-Opel collection, it certainly was not present in the documents I was able to briefly review. There is plenty of damning evidence that GM knowingly partnered with Nazis during most of the twelve year Reich, and particularly during the opening of its most lethal phase.

If anything, Turner’s analysis speaks more to his own bias than to the documents he collected. There is irony here as well, considering his place in the annals of American history as one who prominently called out bias and demanded objectivity and transparency from other historians.

Finally, it is now worth knowing that the GM-Opel archives, despite their stringent copyright, are reasonably available to other researchers to verify the role GM played in Nazi war aims. Investigation into GM’s role will continue, not in the realm of zeroes and ones, but on old-fashioned paper.

Advertisements
3 Comments
  1. Fantastic work! It reminds me of Errol Morris’s work on Roger Fenton’s photographs of the Valley of the Shadow of Death. http://nyti.ms/6NlT7n I’m looking forward to seeing what more you come up with.

  2. Samantha Varner permalink

    Any idea where Edwin Black educated? – just curious. I can’t seem to find that information anywhere.

    • Jay Weixelbaum permalink

      Hello Samantha,

      Thanks for reading and stopping by to leave a comment.
      In a phone conversation I had with Black in the spring of 2010, he told me he was a high school dropout. I have no idea if his statement is accurate or not. I did notice that he claims to have attended university on his wiki page, but does not name an institution or what degree, if any, he received.

      I have a lot more to say about this, but I think it may work better in article form.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: