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Ford and the Führer | The Nation

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Ford and the Führer

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Research assistance provided by the Investigative Fund of The Nation Institute.

We have sworn to you once,
But now we make our allegiance permanent.
Like currents in a torrent lost,
We all flow into you.

About the Author

Ken Silverstein
Ken Silverstein is a Washington, DC–based investigative reporter.

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Even when we cannot understand you,
We will go with you.
One day we may comprehend,
How you can see our future.
Hearts like bronze shields,
We have placed around you,
And it seems to us, that only
You can reveal God's world to us.

This poem ran in an in-house magazine published by Ford Motor Company's German subsidiary in April of 1940. Titled "Führer," the poem appeared at a time when Ford maintained complete control of the German company and two of its top executives sat on the subsidiary's board. It was also a time when the object of Ford's affection was in the process of overrunning Western Europe after already having swallowed up Austria, Czechoslovakia and Poland in the East.

I found "Führer" among thousands of pages of documents compiled by the Washington law firm of Cohen, Milstein, Hausfeld & Toll, which sought damages from Ford on behalf of a Russian woman who toiled as a slave laborer at its German plant. This past September, a judge in New Jersey, Joseph Greenaway Jr., threw the case out on the grounds that the statute of limitations had expired. Greenaway, who did not exonerate Ford, did accept the company's argument that "redressing the tragedies of that period has been--and should continue to be--a nation-to-nation, government-to-government concern."

Ford argues that company headquarters in Dearborn, Michigan, lost control of its German plant after the United States entered the war in 1941. Hence, Ford is not responsible for any actions taken by its German subsidiary during World War II. "We did not do business in Germany during the war," says Lydia Cisaruk, a Ford spokeswoman. "The Nazis confiscated the plant there and we lost all contact." She added that Ford played a "pivotal role in the American war effort. After the United States entered the war, Ford threw its entire backing to the war effort."

That Ford and a number of other American firms--including General Motors and Chase Manhattan--worked with the Nazis has been previously disclosed. So, too, has Henry Ford's role as a leader of the America First Committee, which sought to keep the United States out of World War II. However, the new materials, most of which were found at the National Archives, are far more damning than earlier revelations. They show, among other things, that up until Pearl Harbor, Dearborn made huge revenues by producing war matériel for the Reich and that the man it selected to run its German subsidiary was an enthusiastic backer of Hitler. German Ford served as an "arsenal of Nazism" with the consent of headquarters in Dearborn, says a US Army report prepared in 1945.

Moreover, Ford's cooperation with the Nazis continued until at least August 1942--eight months after the United States entered the war--through its properties in Vichy France. Indeed, a secret wartime report prepared by the US Treasury Department concluded that the Ford family sought to further its business interests by encouraging Ford of France executives to work with German officials overseeing the occupation. "There would seem to be at least a tacit acceptance by [Henry Ford's son] Mr. Edsel Ford of the reliance...on the known neutrality of the Ford family as a basis of receipt of favors from the German Reich," it says.

The new information about Ford's World War II role comes at a time of growing attention to corporate collaboration with the Third Reich. In 1998 Swiss banks reached a settlement with Holocaust survivors and agreed to pay $1.25 billion. That set the stage for a host of new Holocaust-related revelations as well as legal claims stemming from such issues as looted art and unpaid insurance benefits. This past November NBC News reported that Chase Manhattan's French branch froze Jewish accounts at the request of German occupation authorities. Chase's Paris branch manager, Carlos Niedermann, worked closely with German officials and approved loans to finance war production for the Nazi Army. In Germany the government and about fifty firms that employed slave and forced labor during World War II--including Bayer, BMW, Volkswagen and Daimler-Chrysler--reached agreement in mid-December to establish a $5.1 billion fund to pay victims. Opel, General Motors' German subsidiary, announced it would contribute to the fund. (As reported last year in the Washington Post, an FBI report from 1941 quoted James Mooney, GM's director of overseas operations, as saying he would refuse to do anything that might "make Hitler mad.") Ford refused to participate in the settlement talks, though its collaboration with the Third Reich was egregious and extensive. Ford's director of global operations, Jim Vella, said in a statement, "Because Ford did not do business in Germany during the war--our Cologne plant was confiscated by the Nazi government--it would be inappropriate for Ford to participate in such a fund."

The generous treatment allotted Ford Motor by the Nazi regime is partially attributable to the violent anti-Semitism of the company's founder, Henry Ford. His pamphlet The International Jew: The World's Foremost Problem brought him to the attention of a former German Army corporal named Adolf Hitler, who in 1921 became chairman of the fledgling Nazi Party. When Ford was considering a run for the presidency that year, Hitler told the Chicago Tribune, "I wish that I could send some of my shock troops to Chicago and other big American cities to help." (The story comes from Charles Higham's Trading With the Enemy, which details American business collaboration with the Nazis.) In Mein Kampf, written two years later, Hitler singled Ford out for praise. "It is Jews who govern the stock exchange forces of the American Union," he wrote. "Every year makes them more and more the controlling masters of the producers in a nation of one hundred and twenty millions; only a single great man, Ford, to their fury, still maintains full independence." In 1938, long after the vicious character of Hitler's government had become clear, Ford accepted the Grand Cross of the German Eagle, the Nazi regime's highest honor for foreigners.

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