John S. Friedman is the editor of The Secret Histories: Hidden Truths that Challenged the Past and Changed the World (Picador). His most recent documentary film is Stealing the Fire, about the nuclear weapons underground.
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New information recently uncovered at the National Archives reveals that subsidiaries of the Eastman Kodak company traded with Nazi Germany long after America had entered the war. A number of US firms have been identified previously as having been involved with the Nazi regime; most recently IBM was cited in a lawsuit filed in early February. The archive documents also provide a glimpse of the attitudes of some US and British government officials during that period who were unwilling to impose any sanctions against the firm, recommending instead that Kodak continue trading to preserve its market position. Though there is no current evidence that Kodak headquarters in Rochester, New York, exercised direct control over its operations in Germany during the war, it did control branches in neutral Switzerland, Spain and Portugal--all of which did business with the Nazis, providing markets and foreign currency.
Kodak's Swiss branch bought photographic supplies from Germany in 1942 and 1943 for 72,000 wartime Swiss francs, from occupied France for more than 24,000 Swiss francs and from Hungary (a German ally) for 272,000 Swiss francs. For 1943 alone, these transactions were described by the American Embassy in London as "fairly substantial purchases from enemy territory." "The idea that he has been helping the enemy seems never to have occurred" to Kodak's Swiss manager, noted Howard Elting Jr., a US vice consul in Switzerland, in November 1943. "I pointed out to him that our sole interest is to shut off every possible source of benefit to our enemies, regardless of what American commercial interests might suffer."
But other officials disagreed. In early 1942 Kodak's branch in Spain imported items from Germany worth at least 17,000
Reichsmarks. In March 1942, more than three months after America had declared war on Germany, Willard Beaulac, chargé d'affaires at the American Embassy in Madrid, recommended to the Secretary of State that Kodak headquarters be given "an appropriate license" for its Madrid subsidiary to import "films, chemicals, spools, and other supplies from Germany." He reasoned, "Shutting off of German sources of supply would seriously embarrass the company without serving any useful purpose since the demand for services in the Spanish market which could not be met by Kodak would simply be taken over by its German and Italian competitors. The position of these competitors in this market would thereby be considerably strengthened and the recapture of the business by Kodak after the war greatly handicapped." An official at Britain's Trading With the Enemy Department in 1943 agreed that Kodak should "continue to get supplies from Germany so that the market may not be lost to German competition." (But licenses were not granted. Kodak executives had known that licenses were required. Their branch in Turkey had been given a British license in 1940 to import from Hungary. It was revoked in February 1942.)
A.D. Page, legal adviser to Kodak in London, told the British government in 1943 that Kodak branches "have been able to obtain some goods from Kodak factories in Germany, France and Hungary," which he said "resulted in their being able to maintain the Kodak name alive in their territories and to supply their customers with more goods than they would have been able to do had they been limited to purchasing from England and America only."
Kodak's Portuguese subsidiary helped the enemy in still another way: It sent its profits to the company's branch in the Nazi-occupied Hague in mid-1942, a dispatch from Kodak Lisbon to the general comptroller in Rochester revealed. No penalties for Kodak's trade with the enemy were ever imposed by the United States or Great Britain, according to available records.
German historian Karola Fings discovered that in 1941 Kodak had transferred its German operations to two Kodak trustees and an attorney to represent Kodak's interests in case of war with America: Carl Thalmann, supervisory board chairman of Kodak's German operations; Hans Wiegner, a board member; and Gerhard A. Westrick, a German attorney who acted as an intermediary between US corporations and the Third Reich. (Wilhelm Keppler, Hitler's personal economic adviser, was dubbed "a Kodak Man" by US military intelligence for his close business and personal connections to the firm, Edwin Black writes in IBM and the Holocaust. Once Hitler had come to power, Keppler advised a number of US firms on letting their Jewish employees go.)
Kodak's revenues and employees in Germany increased during the early years of the war as the company expanded to manufacture triggers, detonators and other military hardware. "Business doing well," Thalmann cabled Rochester at the end of 1942. The branch in occupied France also thrived. In May 1943, C. de Julian, a former staff member of Kodak in Italy and son of the Kodak manager in Madrid, wrote to Kodak executives: "Anticipating that the Management would surely be interested to know the state of affairs of the French Kodak Company, I succeeded in getting a permit to stop in Paris." He reported that the branch had made so much money during the war that it had purchased real estate, a coal mine and a rest house for the staff.
In Germany Kodak used slave laborers, according to Fings and Roland Wig of the Milberg Weiss law firm, which has been active in Holocaust-related lawsuits. At Kodak's Stuttgart plant, there were at least eighty slave laborers, and at the Berlin-Kopenick factory there were more than 250 slave laborers. Asked to comment, a Kodak spokesman said that in recognition of its use of slave labor, Kodak had contributed $500,000 to the German fund for the victims of forced labor, adding: "I have every confidence that Kodak did not do business with any enemy country during the war and that it cooperated fully with US government regulations and sanctions. At no time was Kodak in violation of any proscriptions from the US or UK war offices. The Swiss subsidiary was never notified to stop trading. Once it received notification it stopped."
The US State Department declined to comment. A spokesman for the British Embassy in Washington said he was unable to respond without a search of the documents.
Kodak was not the only US firm that maintained relations with the enemy; others involved included Standard Oil, ITT and Ford [see Ken Silverstein, "Ford and the Führer," January 24, 2000]. To set the historical record straight, Kodak and the others should divulge the full extent of their wartime transactions with Germany and the Axis nations. And the US government should release all files that pertain to any trade with the enemy by American companies.
On a related subject, Professor Saul Friedlander, the historian who chairs the commission investigating Bertelsmann's Nazi past, said that a final report, which could be as long as 500 pages, is expected to be released by the end of the year.