A Drive with the Devil Ford’s affair with Nazi Germany (War creatures, great and small [III])
World War 2… When you think of it, you think of all the pain and destruction that it has caused from 1939 until 1945. Nazi Germany, the United Kingdom, Soviet Russia and the United States have been some of the most important participants in this worldwide conflict, but sometimes we need to look way beyond the battlefields and the bunkers in order to see how some of the biggest companies of the world have also fueled the war. One of the firms that drove the conflict forward was actually the famous Ford Motor Company.
Henry Ford and Antisemitism: the chauffeur
Firstly, let’s take a look at the company’s owner, Henry Ford. Born in the United States, he was a very good businessman who had passion for the automobile industry, turning Ford into one of the biggest companies, not only in their fiefdom, the US, but also one of the greatest in the whole world. But, as we already know, there are two sides of a man, and unfortunately Ford had a quite dark side as well.
He was also known as a conspiracy theorist and a very strong and opinionated antisemite. Ford argued that Jewish internationalism threatened traditional American ideals, which he strongly felt were in danger in the contemporary world. Because he detested jazz and believed that Jews were responsible for its invention, he funded square dance in American schools, leaving a racist and antisemitic legacy. “If fans wish to know the trouble with American baseball, they have it in three words – too much Jew”, wrote Ford in 1920.
In 1918, he bought his hometown newspaper, The Dearborn Independent, in which Ford started writing under his own name, alleging that a huge Jewish conspiracy was hurting America. He later put the articles together, all 91 of them, into four volumes called The International Jew: The World’s Foremost Problem, which was widely distributed throughout the US and Europe and was translated into other languages. He emerged as a supporter of the right-wing extremism and an antisemite. Interestingly, he was the only American which received praise from Adolf Hitler himself, mentioning in his book Mein Kampf that “only a single great man, Ford, [who], to [the Jews’] fury, still maintains full independence… [from] the controlling masters of the producers in a nation of one hundred and twenty million”.
He had to apologize for all the comments that he made on the Jewish population. Before stepping down from the presidency in early 1921, Woodrow Wilson criticized Ford and others for their antisemitic campaign alongside other prominent Americans. Jews and liberal Christians’ boycott of Ford products also had an impact. In the meantime, for the enemies of the free world, he was a seen as an ally of convenience. Ford received the Grand Cross of the German Eagle, the highest honors the Third Reich could bestow upon a foreigner, from the German consul in Cleveland in July 1938, on the occasion of his 75th birthday.
Ford Motor Co. and Nazi Germany: the ride
The management of Ford’s German business felt so threatened by the Third Reich’s antagonism during the 1930s that it made a concerted effort to become friendly with the Nazi Party in order to maintain the company’s viability. It is impossible to overstate the significance of the government’s goodwill for the Ford subsidiary’s success; this was made clear as early as 1936, when Ford in Germany was refused certification as a national producer, which was required in order for it to be granted government contracts for manufacturing. The management of the subsidiary understood that, even if it meant lying to or limiting contact with the Dearborn head office, giving in to government demands was the only way to achieve economic salvation.
The Cologne-based company’s managers also feared for their own personal careers, specifically that they would be replaced by political appointees. Therefore, Cologne’s management made at least three efforts to allay the Nazis’ fears regarding their and the company’s allegiance. They started by adding a race-based hiring requirement for managerial staff. Curiously, Henry Ford vigorously opposed the removal of foreign and Jewish members from the subsidiary’s management board. Ford himself was able to overturn the dismissal of a Jewish manager for the first time (in 1936). Ford, however, was unable to stop more firings until ownership of the subsidiary essentially passed to Cologne later (probably by 1940). Second, the Nazi administration intended to import more of the scarce raw materials before the war. Additionally, it restricted Ford’s use of the raw materials it did own (generally, rubber). The business imported as much scarce raw material as it could in an effort to please the Nazi leadership and alleviate its own shortages.
These efforts in the end did not matter, as the government chose Ford executives in Germany who were more devoted to the Nazi Party and indebted to them than to the business. A few management personnel did continue in their roles during the Weimar Republic, the early Nazi era, and the war. However, it is evident that government-sponsored management, most notably Robert Schmidt, who was chosen and appointed by the Nazi government, took control of the corporation from pre-Nazi or non-Nazi managers. It should be mentioned that slave laborers were used in the Cologne plant between 1941 and 1945. Most of them were prisoners of war and foreign laborers, from Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, but also from France and Italy.
Conclusion: the destination
The American company was among those that turned down attempts to access its wartime records. John Spellich, a spokesman for Ford, justified the company’s choice to continue doing business with Nazi Germany by pointing out that up to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, the American government maintained diplomatic links with Berlin. It did not formally traded with an US enemy (but only with a planetary villain).
Ironically, Americans’ debarkation in Europe in June 1944, with jeeps, trucks and tanks made by the Big Three US motor companies was to be met by enemies also partly motorized by Ford and Opel – a GM-owned subsidiary. The business of business is… business, a corporate saying says, equally valid in times of peace and war. Yet, Ford denied earning huge profits during that period. It may have limited itself to avoid unnecessary losses.
Baldwin, N. (2002). Henry Ford and the jews: the mass production of hate. Public Affairs, pp. 185-89.
Dobbs, M. (1998). Ford and GM scrutinized for alleged Nazi collaboration. The Washington Post. WP Company. Available at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/national/daily/nov98/nazicars30.htm.
Karliner, J. (1998). Ford and the Nazi war efforts. Henry Ford was no Oskar Schindler. Corpwatch. Available at: https://www.corpwatch.org/article/ford-nazi-war-efforts.
Little, B. (2021). How American icon Henry Ford fostered anti-Semitism. History. Available at: https://www.history.com/news/henry-ford-antisemitism-worker-treatment.
Reich, S. (2017). The Ford Motor Company and the Third Reich. ADL. Available at: https://www.adl.org/resources/news/ford-motor-company-and-third-reich.
Photo source: Wikimedia Commons.