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Ford and the Führer | The Nation

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Ford and the Führer

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The Ford family and company executives in Dearborn repeatedly congratulated the management of Ford Werke on the fine work they were doing under the Nazis. In October of 1940 Edsel Ford wrote to Heinrich Albert to say how pleased he was that the company's plants in occupied lands were continuing to operate. "It is fortunate that Mr. Schmidt is in such authority as to be able to bring out these arrangements," said Edsel, who died of cancer during the war. The same letter indicates that Ford was quite prepared to do business with the Nazis if Hitler won the war. Though it was difficult to foresee what would happen after the fighting ended, Edsel told Albert, "a general rearrangement of the ownership of our continental businesses may be required. You will no doubt keep as close to this subject as possible and we will have the benefit of your thoughts and suggestions at the proper time."

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

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"To know that you appreciate our efforts in your and the company's interests is certainly a great encouragement," Albert replied the following month. He went on to praise Schmidt, who had been forced to shoulder immense responsibilities after war broke out. "In fulfilling his task his personality has grown in a way which is almost astonishing." Indeed, Schmidt grew to such a great degree that the Nazis kept him in charge of Ford Werke after they put the company in trusteeship. In February of 1942, when the question of who would run the Cologne plant was still up in the air, a local Nazi official wrote to Hitler's Chancellery in Berlin to put in a good word for Ford's man. The official said he saw "no reason to appoint a special custodian for the enterprise" since Schmidt was "a Party member [who] enjoys my confidence and...the confidence of the German Armed Forces."

Ford's behavior in France following the German occupation of June 1940 illustrates even more grotesquely its collaborationist posture. As soon as the smoke had cleared, Ford's local managers cut a deal with the occupation authorities that allowed the company to resume production swiftly--"solely for the benefit of Germany and the countries under its [rule]," according to a US Treasury Department document. The report, triggered by the government's concern that Ford was trading with the enemy, is sharply critical of Maurice Dollfus, a Ford director in France since 1929 and the company's manager during the Vichy period. "Mr. Dollfus was required by law to replace directors, and he selected the new directors exclusively from the ranks of prominent collaborationists," says the Treasury report. "Mr. Dollfus did this deliberately to curry favor with the authorities." The report refers to another Ford employee, a certain Amable Roger Messis, as "100% pro-German."

The Treasury Department found that Ford headquarters in Dearborn was in regular contact with its properties in Vichy France. In one letter, penned shortly after France's surrender, Dollfus assured Dearborn that "we will benefit from the main fact of being a member of the Ford family which entitles us to better treatment from our German colleagues who have shown clearly their wish to protect the Ford interest as much as they can." A Ford executive in Michigan wrote back, "We are pleased to learn from your letter...that our organization is going along, and the victors are so tolerant in their treatment. It looks as though we still might have a business that we can carry on in spite of all the difficulties."

The Ford family encouraged Dollfus to work closely with the German authorities. On this score, Dollfus needed little prodding. "In order to safeguard our interests--and I am here talking in a very broad way--I have been to Berlin and have seen General von Schell himself," he wrote in a typed note to Edsel in August of 1940. "My interview with him has been by all means satisfactory, and the attitude you have taken together with your father of strict neutrality has been an invaluable asset for the protection of your companies in Europe." (In a handwritten note in the margin, Dollfus bragged that he was "the first Frenchman to go to Berlin.") The following month Dollfus complained about a shortage of dollars in occupied France. This was a problem, however, that might be merely temporary. "As you know," he wrote Dearborn at the time, "our [monetary] standard has been replaced by another standard which--in my opinion--is a draft on the future, not only in France and Europe but, maybe, in the world." In another letter to Edsel, this one written in late November of 1940, Dollfus said he wanted to "outline the importance attached by high officials to respect the desires and maintain the good will of 'Ford'--and by 'Ford' I mean your father, yourself and the Ford Motor Company, Dearborn."

All this was to the immense satisfaction of the Ford family. In October of 1940, Edsel wrote to Dollfus to say he was "delighted to hear you are making progress.... Fully realize great handicap you are working under." Three months later he wrote again to say that Ford headquarters was "very proud of the record that you and your associates have made in building the company up to its first great position under such circumstances."

Dearborn maintained its communication with Ford of France well after the United States entered the war. In late January of 1942, Dollfus informed Dearborn that Ford's operations had the highest production level of all French manufacturers and, as summed up by the Treasury report, that he was "still relying on the French government to preserve the interests of American stockholders."

During the following months, Dollfus wrote to Edsel several times to report on damages suffered by the French plant during bombing runs by the Royal Air Force. In his reply, Edsel expressed relief that American newspapers that ran pictures of a burning Ford factory did not identify it as a company property. On July 17, 1942, Edsel wrote again to say that he had shown Dollfus's most recent letter to his father and to Dearborn executive Sorenson. "They both join me in sending best wishes for you and your staff, and the hope that you will continue to carry on the good work that you are doing," he said.

As in Germany, Ford's policy of sleeping with the Nazis proved to be a highly lucrative approach. Ford of France had never been very profitable in peacetime--it had paid out only one dividend in its history--but its service to the Third Reich soon pushed it comfortably into the black. Dollfus once wrote to Dearborn to boast about this happy turn of events, adding that the company's "prestige in France has increased considerably and is now greater than it was before the war."

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