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Ford and the Führer | The Nation

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Ford and the Führer

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Ford Motor set up shop in Germany in 1925, when it opened an office in Berlin. Six years later, it built a large plant in Cologne, which became its headquarters in the country. Ford of Germany prospered during the Nazi years, especially with the economic boom brought on by World War II. Sales increased by more than half between 1938 and 1943, and, according to a US government report found at the National Archives, the value of the German subsidiary more than doubled during the course of the war.

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

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

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Ford eagerly collaborated with the Nazis, which greatly enhanced its business prospects and at the same time helped Hitler prepare for war (and after the 1939 invasion of Poland, conduct it). In the mid-thirties, Dearborn helped boost German Ford's profits by placing orders with the Cologne plant for direct delivery to Ford plants in Latin America and Japan. In 1936, as a means of preserving the Reich's foreign reserves, the Nazi government blocked the German subsidiary from buying needed raw materials. Ford headquarters in Dearborn responded--just as the Nazis hoped it would--by shipping rubber and other materials to Cologne in exchange for German-made parts. The Nazi government took a 25 percent cut out of the imported raw materials and gave them to other manufacturers, an arrangement approved by Dearborn.

According to the US Army report of 1945, prepared by Henry Schneider, German Ford began producing vehicles of a strictly military nature for the Reich even before the war began. The company also established a war plant ready for mobilization day in a "'safe' zone" near Berlin, a step taken, according to Schneider, "with the...approval of Dearborn." Following Hitler's 1939 invasion of Poland, which set off World War II, German Ford became one of the largest suppliers of vehicles to the Wehrmacht (the German Army). Papers found at the National Archives show that the company was selling to the SS and the police as well. By 1941 Ford of Germany had stopped manufacturing passenger vehicles and was devoting its entire production capacity to military trucks. That May the leader of the Nazi Party in Cologne sent a letter to the plant thanking its leaders for helping "assure us victory in the present [war] struggle" and for demonstrating the willingness to "cooperate in the establishment of an exemplary social state."

Ford vehicles were crucial to the revolutionary Nazi military strategy of blitzkrieg. Of the 350,000 trucks used by the motorized German Army as of 1942, roughly one-third were Ford-made. The Schneider report states that when American troops reached the European theater, "Ford trucks prominently present in the supply lines of the Wehrmacht were understandably an unpleasant sight to men in our Army." Indeed, the Cologne plant proved to be so important to the Reich's war effort that the Allies bombed it on several occasions. A secret 1944 US Air Force "Target Information Sheet" on the factory said that for the previous five years it had been "geared for war production on a high level."

While Ford Motor enthusiastically worked for the Reich, the company initially resisted calls from President Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Churchill to increase war production for the Allies. The Nazi government was grateful for that stance, as acknowledged in a letter from Heinrich Albert to Charles Sorenson, a top executive in Dearborn. Albert had been a lawyer for German Ford since at least 1927, a director since 1930 and, according to the Treasury report, part of a German espionage ring operating in the United States during World War I. "The 'Dementi' of Mr. Henry Ford concerning war orders for Great Britain has greatly helped us," Albert wrote in July of 1940, shortly after the fall of France, when England appeared to be on the verge of collapse before the Führer's troops.

Ford's energetic cooperation with the Third Reich did not prevent the company's competitors from seeking to tarnish it by calling attention to its non-German ownership. Ford responded by appointing a majority-German board of directors for the Cologne plant, upon which it bestowed the politically correct Aryan name of Ford Werke. In March of 1941, Ford issued new stock in the Cologne plant and sold it exclusively to Germans, thereby reducing Dearborn's share to 52 percent.

At the time, the Nazi government's Ministry of Economy debated whether the opportunity afforded by the capital increase should be taken to demand a German majority at Ford Werke. The Ministry "gave up the idea"--this according to a 1942 statement prepared by a Ford Werke executive--in part because "there could be no doubt about the complete incorporation, as regards personnel, organization and production system, of Ford Werke into the German national economy, in particular, into the German armaments industry." Beyond that, Albert argued in a letter to the Reich Commission for Enemy Property, the abolition of the American majority would eliminate "the importance of the company for the obtaining of raw materials," as well as "insight into American production and sales methods."

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