In the United States, World War II is generally known as "the good war." In contrast to some of America's admittedly bad wars, such as the near-genocidal Indian Wars and the vicious conflict in Vietnam, World War II is widely celebrated as a "crusade" in which the US fought unreservedly on the side of democracy, freedom, and justice against dictatorship. No wonder President George W. Bush likes to compare his ongoing "war against terrorism" with World War II, suggesting that America is once again involved on the right side in an apocalyptic conflict between good and evil. Wars, however, are never quite as black-and-white as Mr. Bush would have us believe, and this also applies to World War II. America certainly deserves credit for its important contribution to the hard-fought victory that was ultimately achieved by the Allies. But the role of corporate America in the war is hardly synthesized by President Roosevelt's claim that the US was the "arsenal of democracy." When Americans landed in Normandy in June 1944 and captured their first German trucks, they discovered that these vehicles were powered by engines produced by American firms such as Ford and General Motors. 1 Corporate America, it turned out, had also been serving as the arsenal of Nazism.
Mussolini enjoyed a great deal of admiration in corporate America from the moment he came to power in a coup that was hailed stateside as "a fine young revolution." 2 Hitler, on the other hand, sent mixed signals. Like their German counterparts, American businessmen long worried about the intentions and the methods of this plebeian upstart, whose ideology was called National Socialism, whose party identified itself as a workers' party, and who spoke ominously of bringing about revolutionary change. 3 Some high-profile leaders of corporate America, however, such as Henry Ford liked and admired the Führer at an early stage. 4 Other precocious Hitler-admirers were press lord Randolph Hearst and Irénée Du Pont, head of the Du Pont trust, who according to Charles Higham, had already "keenly followed the career of the future Führer in the 1920s" and supported him financially. 5 Eventually, most American captains of industry learned to love the Führer.
It is often hinted that fascination with Hitler was a matter of personalities, a matter of psychology. Authoritarian personalities supposedly could not help but like and admire a man who preached the virtues of the "leadership principle" and practised what he preached first in his party and then in Germany as a whole. Although he cites other factors as well, it is essentially in such terms that Edwin Black, author of the otherwise excellent book IBM and the Holocaust, explains the case of IBM chairman Thomas J. Watson, who met Hitler on a number of occasions in the 1930s and became fascinated with Germany's authoritarian new ruler. But it is in the realm of political economy, not psychology, that one can most profitably understand why corporate America embraced Hitler.
In the 1920s many big American corporations enjoyed sizeable investments in Germany. IBM established a German subsidiary, Dehomag, before World War I; in the 1920s General Motors took over Germany's largest car manufacturer, Adam Opel AG; and Ford founded a branch plant, later known as the Ford-Werke, in Cologne. Other US firms contracted strategic partnerships with German companies. Standard Oil of New Jersey — today's Exxon — developed intimate links with the German trust IG Farben. By the early 1930s, an élite of about twenty of the largest American corporations had a German connection including Du Pont, Union Carbide, Westinghouse, General Electric, Gilette, Goodrich, Singer, Eastman Kodak, Coca-Cola, IBM, and ITT. Finally, many American law firms, investment companies, and banks were deeply involved in America's investment offensive in Germany, among them the renowned Wall Street law firm Sullivan & Cromwell, and the banks J. P. Morgan and Dillon, Read and Company, as well as the Union Bank of New York, owned by Brown Brothers & Harriman. The Union Bank was intimately linked with the financial and industrial empire of German steel magnate Thyssen, whose financial support enabled Hitler to come to power. This bank was managed by Prescott Bush, grandfather of George W. Bush. Prescott Bush was allegedly also an eager supporter of Hitler, funnelled money to him via Thyssen, and in return made considerable profits by doing business with Nazi Germany; with the profits he launched his son, the later president, in the oil business. 6
American overseas ventures fared poorly in the early 1930s, as the Great Depression hit Germany particularly hard. Production and profits dropped precipitously, the political situation was extremely unstable, there were constant strikes and street battles between Nazis and Communists, and many feared that the country was ripe for a "red" revolution like the one that had brought the Bolsheviks to power in Russia in 1917. However, backed by the power and money of German industrialists and bankers such as Thyssen, Krupp, and Schacht, Hitler came to power in January 1933, and not only the political but also the socio-economic situation changed drastically. Soon the German subsidiaries of American corporations were profitable again. Why?
After Hitler came to power American business leaders with assets in Germany found to their immense satisfaction that his so-called revolution respected the socio-economic status quo. The Führer's Teutonic brand of fascism, like every other variety of fascism, was reactionary in nature, and extremely useful for capitalists' purposes. Brought to power by Germany's leading businessmen and bankers, Hitler served the interests of his "enablers." His first major initiative was to dissolve the labour unions and to throw the Communists, and many militant Socialists, into prisons and the first concentration camps, which were specifically set up to accommodate the overabundance of left-wing political prisoners. This ruthless measure not only removed the threat of revolutionary change — embodied by Germany's Communists — but also emasculated the German working class and transformed it into a powerless "mass of followers" (Gefolgschaft), to use Nazi terminology, which was unconditionally put at the disposal of their employers, the Thyssens and Krupps.
Most, if not all firms in Germany, including American branch plants, eagerly took advantage of this situation and cut labour costs drastically. The Ford-Werke, for example, reduced labour costs from fifteen per cent of business volume in 1933 to only eleven per cent in 1938. (Research Findings, 135–6) Coca-Cola's bottling plant in Essen increased its profitability considerably because, in Hitler's state, workers "were little more than serfs forbidden not only to strike, but to change jobs," driven "to work harder [and] faster" while their wages "were deliberately set quite low." 7 In Nazi Germany, real wages indeed declined rapidly, while profits increased correspondingly, but there were no labour problems worth mentioning, for any attempt to organize a strike immediately triggered an armed response by the Gestapo, resulting in arrests and dismissals. This was the case in GM's Opel factory in Rüsselsheim in June 1936. (Billstein et al., 25) As the Thuringian teacher and anti-fascist resistance member Otto Jenssen wrote after the war, Germany's corporate leaders were happy "that fear for the concentration camp made the German workers as meek as lapdogs." 8 The owners and managers of American corporations with investments in Germany were no less enchanted, and if they openly expressed their admiration or Hitler — as did the chairman of General Motors, William Knudsen, and ITT-boss Sosthenes Behn — it was undoubtedly because he had resolved Germany's social problems in a manner that benefited their interests. 9