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Ford and the Führer | The Nation

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Ford and the Führer

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Treasury Department officials were clearly aghast at Ford's activities. An employee named Randolph Paul sent the report to Secretary Henry Morgenthau with a note that stated, "The increased activity of the French Ford subsidiaries on behalf of the Germans received the commendation of the Ford family in America." Morgenthau soon replied, "If we can legally and ethically do it, I would like to turn over the information in connection with the Ford Motor Company to Senator [Harry] Truman."

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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Lydia Cisaruk, the Ford spokeswoman, says that Ford Werke's pre-Pearl Harbor support for the Third Reich was largely unknown to company headquarters. Neither of the two Dearborn executives on Ford Werke's board, Edsel Ford and Charles Sorenson, attended board meetings after 1938. "By 1940, Dearborn was becoming less and less involved in day-to-day operations," she says. "There was a gradual loss of control." Asked about Ford Werke's political support for the Nazis, as seen in its in-house newsletter, she replied: "Looking at the years leading up to the war, no one could foresee what was going to happen. A number of countries were negotiating with Germany and Germany was repeatedly saying that it was interested in peaceful solutions. The United States was talking to Germany until the two countries went to war." She concedes that some "foreign" labor was employed at the plant beginning in 1940, but says Dearborn had no knowledge of that at the time. Ford is currently conducting an exhaustive investigation into Ford Werke, she says. When the research is completed this year, the company will make available all of the documentary evidence it has accumulated, including financial records. While Ford did not take part in the German slave-labor talks, Cisaruk says it is in preliminary discussions with Deputy Treasury Secretary Stuart Eizenstat to establish a humanitarian US-based fund for Holocaust survivors. "We do want to help people who suffered at the hands of the Nazis," she says.

Production at Ford Werke slowed at the end of the war, in part because of power shortages caused by Allied bombing runs, but activity never came to a halt. Soon after Germany's capitulation, Ford representatives from England and the United States traveled to Cologne to inspect the plant and plan for the future. In 1948 Henry Ford II visited Cologne to celebrate the 10,000th truck to roll off the postwar assembly line there. Two years later, Ford of Germany rehired Schmidt--who had been arrested and briefly held by US troops at the war's end--after he wrote a letter to Dearborn in which he insisted that he had fervently hated the Nazis. He was one of six key executives from the Nazi era who moved back into important positions at Ford after 1945. "After the war, Ford did not just reassume control of a factory, but it also took over the factory's history," says historian Fings. "Apparently no one at Ford was interested in casting light upon this part of history, not even to explicitly proclaim a distance from the practices of Ford Werke during the Nazi era." Schmidt remained with Ford until his death in 1962.

The high point of Ford's cynicism was yet to come. Before its fall, the Nazi regime had given Ford Werke about $104,000 in compensation for damages caused by Allied bombings (Ford also got money for bombing damages from the Vichy government). Dearborn was not satisfied with that amount. In 1965 Ford went before the Foreign Claims Settlement Commission of the US to ask for an additional $7 million. (During the hearings, commission attorney Zvonko Rode pointed to the embarrassing fact--which Ford's attorney did not dispute--that most of the manufactured products destroyed during the bombings had been intended for the use of the Nazi armed forces.) In the end, the commission awarded the company $1.1 million--but only after determining that Ford had used a fraudulent exchange rate to jack up the size of the alleged damages. The commission also found that Dearborn had sought compensation for merchandise that had been destroyed by flooding.

Ford's eagerness to be compensated for damages incurred to Ford Werke during the Nazi era makes its current posture of denying any association with the wartime plant all the more hypocritical. These new revelations may force Ford to reconsider its responsibilities with regard to slave labor. In the meantime, new legal developments could also create problems for the company. Last year California passed a law that extends the statute of limitations on Holocaust-related claims. In November Senator Charles Schumer of New York introduced a bill in Congress that would do the same thing at the federal level.

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