Three years after Swiss banks became the target of a worldwide furor
over their business dealings with Nazi Germany, major American car
companies find themselves embroiled in a similar debate.
Like the Swiss banks, the American car companies have vigorously denied
that they assisted the Nazi war machine or that they significantly
profited from the use of forced labor at their German subsidiaries
during World War II. But historians and lawyers researching
class-action suits on behalf of former prisoners of war are busy
amassing evidence of collaboration by the automakers with the Nazi
The issues at stake for the American automobile corporations go far
beyond the relatively modest sums involved in settling any lawsuit.
During the war, the car companies established a reputation for
themselves as "the arsenal of democracy" by transforming their
production lines to make airplanes, tanks and trucks for the armies
that defeated Adolf Hitler. They deny that their huge business
interests in Nazi Germany led them, wittingly or unwittingly, to also
become "the arsenal of fascism."
The Ford Motor Co. has mobilized dozens of historians, lawyers and
researchers to fight a civil case brought by lawyers in Washington and
New York who specialize in extracting large cash settlements from banks
and insurance companies accused of defrauding Holocaust victims. Also,
a book scheduled for publication next year will accuse General Motors
Corp. of playing a key role in Hitler's invasions of Poland and the
"General Motors was far more important to the Nazi war machine than
Switzerland," said Bradford Snell, who has spent two decades
researching a history of the world's largest automaker. "Switzerland
was just a repository of looted funds. GM was an integral part of the
German war effort. The Nazis could have invaded Poland and Russia
without Switzerland. They could not have done so without GM."
Both General Motors and Ford insist that they bear little or no
responsibility for the operations of their German subsidiaries, which
controlled 70 percent of the German car market at the outbreak of war
in 1939 and rapidly retooled themselves to become suppliers of war
materiel to the German army.
But documents discovered in German and American archives show a much
more complicated picture. In certain instances, American managers of
both GM and Ford went along with the conversion of their German plants
to military production at a time when U.S. government documents show
they were still resisting calls by the Roosevelt administration to step
up military production in their plants at home.
After three years of national soul-searching, Switzerland's largest
banks agreed last August to make a $1.25 billion settlement to
Holocaust survivors, a step they had initially resisted. Far from dying
down, however, the controversy over business dealings with the Nazis
has given new impetus to long-standing investigations into issues such
as looted art, unpaid insurance benefits and the use of forced labor at
Although some of the allegations against GM and Ford surfaced during
1974 congressional hearings into monopolistic practices in the
automobile industry, American corporations have largely succeeded in
playing down their connections to Nazi Germany. As with Switzerland,
however, their very success in projecting a wholesome, patriotic image
of themselves is now being turned against them by their critics.
"When you think of Ford, you think of baseball and apple pie," said
Miriam Kleinman, a researcher with the Washington law firm of Cohen,
Millstein and Hausfeld, who spent weeks examining records at the
National Archives in an attempt to build a slave labor case against the
Dearborn-based company. "You don't think of Hitler having a portrait of
Henry Ford on his office wall in Munich."
Both Ford and General Motors declined requests for access to their
wartime archives. Ford spokesman John Spellich defended the company's
decision to maintain business ties with Nazi Germany on the grounds
that the U.S. government continued to have diplomatic relations with
Berlin up until the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941.
GM spokesman John F. Mueller said that General Motors lost day-to-day
control over its German plants in September 1939 and "did not assist
the Nazis in any way during World War II."
For GIs, an Unpleasant Surprise
When American GIs invaded Europe in June 1944, they did so in jeeps,
trucks and tanks manufactured by the Big Three motor companies in one
of the largest crash militarization programs ever undertaken. It came
as an unpleasant surprise to discover that the enemy was also driving
trucks manufactured by Ford and Opel -- a 100 percent GM-owned
subsidiary -- and flying Opel-built warplanes. (Chrysler's role in the
German rearmament effort was much less significant.)
When the U.S. Army liberated the Ford plants in Cologne and Berlin,
they found destitute foreign workers confined behind barbed wire and
company documents extolling the "genius of the Fuehrer," according to
reports filed by soldiers at the scene. A U.S. Army report by
investigator Henry Schneider dated Sept. 5, 1945, accused the German
branch of Ford of serving as "an arsenal of Nazism, at least for
military vehicles" with the "consent" of the parent company in Dearborn.
Ford spokesman Spellich described the Schneider report as "a
mischaracterization" of the activities of the American parent company
and noted that Dearborn managers had frequently been kept in the dark
by their German subordinates over events in Cologne.
The relationship of Ford and GM to the Nazi regime goes back to the
1920s and 1930s, when the American car companies competed against each
other for access to the lucrative German market. Hitler was an admirer
of American mass production techniques and an avid reader of the
antisemitic tracts penned by Henry Ford. "I regard Henry Ford as my
inspiration," Hitler told a Detroit News reporter two years before
becoming the German chancellor in 1933, explaining why he kept a
life-size portrait of the American automaker next to his desk.
Although Ford later renounced his antisemitic writings, he remained an
admirer of Nazi Germany and sought to keep America out of the coming
war. In July 1938, four months after the German annexation of Austria,
he accepted the highest medal that Nazi Germany could bestow on a
foreigner, the Grand Cross of the German Eagle. The following month, a
senior executive for General Motors, James Mooney, received a similar
medal for his "distinguished service to the Reich."
The granting of such awards reflected the vital place that the U.S.
automakers had in Germany's increasingly militarized economy. In 1935,
GM agreed to build a new plant near Berlin to produce the aptly named
"Blitz" truck, which would later be used by the German army for its
blitzkreig attacks on Poland, France and the Soviet Union. German Ford
was the second-largest producer of trucks for the German army after
GM/Opel, according to U.S. Army reports.
The importance of the American automakers went beyond making trucks for
the German army. The Schneider report, now available to researchers at
the National Archives, states that American Ford agreed to a
complicated barter deal that gave the Reich increased access to large
quantities of strategic raw materials, notably rubber. Author Snell
says that Nazi armaments chief Albert Speer told him in 1977 that
Hitler "would never have considered invading Poland" without synthetic
fuel technology provided by General Motors.
As war approached, it became increasingly difficult for U.S.
corporations like GM and Ford to operate in Germany without cooperating
closely with the Nazi rearmament effort. Under intense pressure from
Berlin, both companies took pains to make their subsidiaries appear as
"German" as possible. In April 1939, for example, German Ford made a
personal present to Hitler of 35,000 Reichsmarks in honor of his 50th
birthday, according to a captured Nazi document.
Documents show that the parent companies followed a conscious strategy
of continuing to do business with the Nazi regime, rather than divest
themselves of their German assets. Less than three weeks after the Nazi
occupation of Czechoslovakia in March 1939, GM Chairman Alfred P. Sloan
defended this strategy as sound business practice, given the fact that
the company's German operations were "highly profitable."
The internal politics of Nazi Germany "should not be considered the
business of the management of General Motors," Sloan explained in a
letter to a concerned shareholder dated April 6, 1939. "We must conduct
ourselves [in Germany] as a German organization. . . . We have no right
to shut down the plant."
U.S. Firms Became Crucial
After the outbreak of war in September 1939, General Motors and Ford
became crucial to the German military, according to contemporaneous
German documents and postwar investigations by the U.S. Army. James
Mooney, the GM director in charge of overseas operations, had
discussions with Hitler in Berlin two weeks after the German invasion
Typewritten notes by Mooney show that he was involved in the partial
conversion of the principal GM automobile plant at Russelsheim to
production of engines and other parts for the Junker "Wunderbomber," a
key weapon in the German air force, under a government-brokered
contract between Opel and the Junker airplane company. Mooney's notes
show that he returned to Germany the following February for further
discussions with Luftwaffe commander Hermann Goering and a personal
inspection of the Russelsheim plant.
Mooney's involvement in the conversion of the Russelsheim plant
undermines claims by General Motors that the American branch of the
company had nothing to do with the Nazi rearmament effort. In
congressional testimony in 1974, GM maintained that American personnel
resigned from all management positions in Opel following the outbreak
of war in 1939 "rather than participate in the production of war
However, according to documents of the Reich Commissar for the
Treatment of Enemy Property, the American parent company continued to
have some say in the operations of Opel after September 1939. The
documents show that the company issued a general power of attorney to
an American manager, Pete Hoglund, in March 1940. Hoglund did not leave
Germany until a year later. At that time, the power of attorney was
transferred to a prominent Berlin lawyer named Heinrich Richter.
GM spokesman Mueller declined to answer questions from The Washington
Post on the power of attorney granted to Hoglund and Richter or to
provide access to the personnel files of Hoglund and other wartime
managers. He also declined to comment on an assertion by Snell that
Opel used French and Belgian prisoners at its Russelsheim plant in the
summer of 1940, at a time when the American Hoglund was still looking
after GM interests in Germany.
The Nazis had a clear interest in keeping Opel and German Ford under
American ownership, despite growing hostility between Washington and
Berlin. By the time of Pearl Harbor in December 1941, the American
stake in German Ford had declined to 52 percent, but Nazi officials
argued against a complete takeover. A memorandum to plant managers
dated November 25, 1941, acknowledged that such a step would deprive
German Ford of "the excellent sales organization" of the parent company
and make it more difficult to bring "the remaining European Ford
companies under German influence."
Documents suggest that the principal motivation of both companies
during this period was to protect their investments. An FBI report
dated July 23, 1941 quoted Mooney as saying that he would refuse to
take any action that might "make Hitler mad." In fall 1940, Mooney told
the journalist Henry Paynter that he would not return his Nazi medal
because such an action might jeopardize GM's $100 million investment in
Germany. "Hitler has all the cards," Paynter quoted Mooney as saying.
"Mooney probably thought that the war would be over very quickly, so
why should we give our wonderful company away," said German researcher
Anita Kugler, who used Nazi archives to trace the company's dealings
with Nazi Germany.
Even though GM officials were aware of the conversion of its
Russelsheim plant to aircraft engine production, they resisted such
conversion efforts in the United States, telling shareholders that
their automobile assembly lines in Detroit were "not adaptable to the
manufacture of other products" such as planes, according to a company
document discovered by Snell.
In June 1940, after the fall of France, Henry Ford personally vetoed a
U.S. government-approved plan to produce under license Rolls-Royce
engines for British fighter planes, according to published accounts by
Declaration of War Alters Ties
America's declaration of war on Germany in December 1941 made it
illegal for U.S. motor companies to have any contact with their
subsidiaries on German-controlled territory.
At GM and Ford plants in Germany, reliance on forced labor increased.
The story of Elsa Iwanowa, who brought a class-action suit against Ford
last March, is typical. At the age of 16, she was abducted from her
home in the southern Russian city of Rostov by German soldiers in
October 1942 with hundreds of other young women to work at the Ford
plant at Cologne.
"The conditions were terrible. They put us in barracks, on three-tier
bunks," she recalled in a telephone interview from Belgium, where she
now lives. "It was very cold; they did not pay us at all and scarcely
fed us. The only reason that we survived was that we were young and
In a court submission, American Ford acknowledges that Iwanowa and
others were "forced to endure a sad and terrible experience" at its
Cologne plant but maintains that redressing such "tragedies" should be
"a government-to-government concern." Spellich, the Ford spokesman,
insists the company did not have management control over its German
subsidiary during the period in question.
Ford has backed away from its initial claim that it did not profit in
any way from forced labor at its Cologne plant. Spellich said that
company historians are still researching this issue but have found
documents showing that, after the war, American Ford received dividends
from its German subsidiary worth approximately $60,000 for the years
1940-43. He declined a request to interview the historians, saying they
were "too busy."
The extent of contacts between American Ford and its German-controlled
subsidiary after 1941 is likely to be contested at any trial. Simon
Reich, an economic historian at the University of Pittsburgh and an
expert on the German car industry, says he has yet to see convincing
evidence that American Ford had any control over its Cologne plant
after December 1941. He adds, however, that both "Opel and Ford did
absolutely everything they could to ingratiate themselves to the Nazi
While there was no direct contact between American Ford and its German
subsidiary after December 1941, there appear to have been some indirect
contacts. In June 1943, the Nazi custodian of the Cologne plant, Robert
Schmidt, traveled to Portugal for talks with Ford managers there. In
addition, the Treasury Department investigated Ford after Pearl Harbor
for possible illegal contacts with its subsidiary in occupied France,
which produced Germany army trucks. The investigation ended without
charges being filed.
Even though American Ford now condemns what happened at its Cologne
plant during the war, it continued to employ the managers in charge at
the time. After the war, Schmidt was briefly arrested by Allied
military authorities and barred from working for Ford. But he was
reinstated as the company's technical director in 1950 after he wrote
to Henry Ford II claiming that he had always "detested" the Nazis and
had never been a member of the party. A letter signed by a leading
Cologne Nazi in February 1942 describes Schmidt as a trusted party
member. Ford maintains that Schmidt's name does not show up on Nazi
Mel Weiss, an American attorney for Iwanowa, argues that American Ford
received "indirect" profits from forced labor at its Cologne plant
because of the overall increase in the value of German operations
during the war. He notes that Ford was eager to demand compensation
from the U.S. government after the war for "losses" due to bomb damage
to its German plants and therefore should also be responsible for any
benefits derived from forced labor.
Similar arguments apply to General Motors, which was paid $32 million
by the U.S. government for damages sustained to its German plants.
Washington attorney Michael Hausfeld, who is involved in the Ford
lawsuit, confirms GM also is "on our list" as a possible target.