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Ford and the Führer | The Nation

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Ford and the Führer

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As 1941 progressed, the board of Ford Werke fretted that the United States would enter the war in support of Britain and the government would confiscate the Cologne plant. To prevent such an outcome, the Cologne management wrote to the Reich Commission that year to say that it "question[ed] whether Ford must be treated as enemy property" even in the event of a US declaration of war on Germany. "Ford has become a purely German company and has taken over all obligations so successfully that the American majority shareholder, independent of the favorable political views of Henry Ford, in some periods actually contributed to the development of German industry," Cologne argued on June 18, 1941, only six months before the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

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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In May of 1942, the Superior Court of Cologne finally put Ford Werke in "trusteeship," ruling that it was "under authoritative enemy influence." However, the Nazis never nationalized Ford's German property--plant managers feared it would be turned over to Mercedes or the Hermann Goering Werke, a huge industrial network composed of properties seized by the Reich--and Dearborn maintained its 52 percent share through the duration of the war. Ford Werke even set aside dividend payments due to Dearborn, which were paid after the war. Ford claims that it received only $60,000 in dividend payments. It's not possible to independently verify that--or anything else regarding Dearborn's wartime economic relationship with Cologne--because Ford of America was privately held until 1956, and the company will not make available its balance sheets from the period.

Labor shortages caused by the war--millions of men were at the front and Nazi ideology was violently opposed to the idea of women working--led the Reich to deport millions of people from occupied lands to Germany to work in factories. German companies were encouraged to bid for forced laborers in order to meet production quotas and increase profits. By 1943 half of Ford Werke's work force comprised foreign captives, including French, Russians, Ukrainians and Belgians. In August of 1944 a squad of SS men brought fifteen prisoners from the Buchenwald concentration camp to Ford Werke. The German researcher Karola Fings, co-author of Working for the Enemy, a book on Nazi slave- and forced-labor programs, to be published this spring, says Ford's worker-inmates toiled for twelve hours a day with a fifteen-minute break. They were given 200 grams of bread and coffee for breakfast, no lunch and a dinner of spinach and three potatoes or soup made of turnip leaves.

An account by Robert Schmidt, the man appointed to run Ford Werke in 1939, states that the company used forced laborers even before the Nazis put the plant in trusteeship. His statement, sent to a Ford executive in England immediately after Germany's surrender, says that as of 1940 "many of our employees were called to the colours and had to be replaced by whatever was available.... The same applies to 1941. Some 200 French prisoners of war were employed." In a statement to the US Army in 1945, Schmidt said that the Gestapo began to play an important role at Ford Werke after the first foreign workers arrived. With the assistance of W.M. Buchwald, a Ford employee since the mid-thirties, the Gestapo carefully monitored plant activities. "Whenever there was the slightest indication of anti-Nazi feeling, be it amongst foreigners or Germans, the Gestapo tramped down as hard as possible," Schmidt told the Army.

Meanwhile, Ford Werke offered enthusiastic political support for Hitler as well. The fraternal ties between Ford and the Nazis is perhaps best symbolized by the company's birthday gift to the Führer of 35,000 Reichsmarks in April of 1939. Ford Werke's in-house publication couldn't have been more fanatically pro-Nazi if Josef Goebbels had edited it. "Führer," the poem printed at the top of this story, ran in the April 1940 issue, which celebrated Hitler's 51st birthday by running his picture on the cover. The issue carried an excerpt of a speech by Hitler in which he declared that "by natural law of the earth, we are the supreme race and thus destined to rule." In another section of the speech, the Führer declared that communism was "second in wretchedness only to Judaism." The issue from April of the following year--this at roughly the high point of the Third Reich's military victories--featured a photograph of a beaming Hitler visiting with German soldiers on the front lines. "The management of the Ford-Werke salutes our Führer with grateful heart, honesty, and allegiance, and--as before--pledges to cooperate in his life's work: achieving honor, liberty and happiness for Greater Germany and, indeed, for all peoples of Europe," reads the caption.

Robert Schmidt so successfully converted the plant to a war footing that the Nazi regime gave him the title of Wehrwirtschaftsführer, or Military Economic Leader. The Nazis also put Schmidt in charge of overseeing Ford plants in occupied Belgium, Holland and Vichy France. At one point, he and another Cologne executive bitterly argued over who would run Ford of England when Hitler's troops conquered Britain.

Schmidt's personal contributions to Ford Werke's in-house organ reflect his ardently pro-Nazi views. "At the beginning of this year we vowed to give our best and utmost for final victory, in unshakable faithfulness to our Führer," he wrote in December of 1941, the same month as Pearl Harbor. "Today we say with pride that we succeeded if not in reaching all our goals, nevertheless in contributing to a considerable extent in providing the necessary transportation for our troops at the front." The following March, Schmidt penned an article in which he declared, "It depends upon our work whether the front can be supplied with its necessities.... therefore, we too are soldiers of the Fuhrer."

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