While any association with Nazi Germany became toxic from a public relations perspective after 1945, prior to that it was acceptable - so long as it was profitable. Unlike today, when any association with an openly Fascistic regime would generate immediate protests, in those days there were not many who kept track of corporate political involvement. So, there were plenty of United States companies doing business behind enemy lines.
I want to stress that this article is not meant as an indictment of any particular person or corporation. However, the more we learn about the past, the more we learn from the past.
That said, there remains little publicity about United States corporations that profited from Nazi Germany. They also helped the German war effort in other ways. Below are just a few controversial examples of US companies that helped Hitler. It is but a sampling of a myriad of corporate interests in Nazi Europe.
International Telephones and Telegraph, now ITT Corporation, was founded in 1920. It was a young and vibrant company during Hitler's rise to power. By the mid-1930s, it had extensive holdings in South America and Europe. It essentially created Telefónica, the premiere telephone utility of the Spanish-speaking world. It also acquired various telecommunications companies in Belgium, England, Germany, Romania and elsewhere in Europe. Its business interests on the Continent ranged far and wide. This all became quite embarrassing for the company in later years, as we will get to below.
|Maurice Deloraine, a top French ITT engineer, and Sosthenes Behn in 1946|
Speaking of Telefónica, unproven rumor has it that its phone lines were used for communications to Nazi naval interests in South America. However, ITT's businesses went way beyond telecommunications, however. From his first year as Chancellor of Germany, in August 1933, Adolf Hitler was working his US contacts for help to the growing Nazi empire. The support reportedly came in different guises: direct cash payments to SS Reichsfuhrer Heinrich Himmler from the 1930s right up to 1944, and also direct investment in German industry. The legendary ITT boss Sosthenes Behn reportedly was a huge fan of the Fuhrer, though it should be stated that this was before the horrors of the concentration camps became widely known.
|A Focke Wulf Fw 190 fuselage assembly plant at Kolleda Germany 1945.|
So, ITT ultimately had $30 million invested in Germany at the time of Pearl Harbor. One of ITT's investments in Germany was 25% of Focke-Wulf. That was a rather modest aircraft manufacturer before the war, but it blossomed into the creator of the deadly Focke-Wulf 190 fighter, which some feel was the best fighter of the entire conflict (and one of the most-produced). It is difficult to fathom now, but in 1943, 13% of ITT's income derived from Nazi Germany.
|When Kurt Tank's Fw-190 first appeared in August 1941, it was considered superior to any existing Allied fighter. It remained a lethal opponent and ground attack plane to the end of the war.|
The weirdness does not stop there. ITT's plants were busy churning out the means of Germany's defense, so of course the Allies bombed those plants. In the 1960s, ITT had the audacity to sue the US government for a share of reparations funds allocated to damaged caused by the war - to compensate for the German Focke-Wulf plants destroyed in the Allied air raids. Probably more amazing is that ITT is said to have won the case and pocketed millions of dollars in compensation (the amount given in the sources varies but is generally held to have been $27 million in 1960s money). The reasoning by the court may have been that ITT was itself a victim of the Nazis by having lost control of the plants during the war, but it remains a very tortured legal decision.
The Associated Press, or the AP as it is more commonly known, was founded in 1846 in New York City as a consortium of newspapers. It developed over time into a dominant news agency, and of course remains so to this day.
|The Völkischer Beobachter (translates roughly to "Racist Observer"), a Nazi house newspaper, used photographs by AP photographer Franz Roth.|
By the 1930s, the AP was pretty much in the position it inhabits now: a global disseminator of news and information. The Nazis, of course, were all about disseminating news stories, so long, of course, as they had a hand in writing or otherwise shaping them. It was a partnership made in ... somewhere. This is where it gets a bit tricky for the AP.
|The 11 December 1941 Nazi declaration of war ended the AP's relationship with the Nazi regime.|
The Nazis swiftly banned foreign news agencies that did not "play ball" after they came to power. By 1935, most bureaus in Germany had been shut down pursuant to the Nazi's "editors law," which prevented any news flow not calculated to further the Nazi war effort. The AP, however, was not banned. In fact, it continued its German operations straight through to Hitler's declaration of war against the United States on 11 December 1941. This has remained somewhat of an irritant for esteemed publications, such as, say, The Guardian (shut down in Germany in 1934), that remain in business alongside the AP.
|Sure, Nazi photographs were informative and scarce in the Allied countries. They also were carefully crafted to create an image of Nazi strength.|
While this may sound innocuous - so they forwarded news stories, so what? - many historians don't see it that way. As can be seen elsewhere on this site, the German Ministry of Propaganda under Joseph Goebbels was artful at creating manufactured photographs and "stories." Passing along such propaganda greatly extended the reach of the German news agency. This included publicizing photographs taken by SS photographers such as Franz Roth - a top AP photographer as well.
|SS Kriegsberichter Franz Roth was killed in March of 1943 in the Kharkov sector. Kriegsberichter is a German word for Combat Photographer.|
Naturally, there are two sides to this story. The AP adamantly denies helping Hitler in any way. It admits disseminating Nazi photographs, but only with clear communication of the tainted source for recipients. Historian Harriet Scharnberg went through all this recently, and if you understand German you might find this abstract of her book interesting reading on the subject. The bottom line is that the AP did indeed profit from Hitler, Goebbels and the SS.
The Ford Motor Company has had international interests since shortly after its founding by Henry Ford early in the 20th Century. Those interests always set it apart somewhat from General Motors, which also had international operations, but never on the scale of Ford. However, let's not get sidetracked and look at Ford and its influence on the Nazi state.
|Henry Ford receiving the Grand Cross of the German Eagle from Adolf Hitler's Third Reich, presented by Karl Kapp, German consul-general of Cleveland (left), and Fritz Hailer, German consul of Detroit (right).|
Henry Ford became something of a folk hero long before World War II. If any one person created the modern middle class, it was Henry Ford. He did a lot of good in his life. However, his international involvements and personal beliefs led him into some very unsavory situations.
|The Dearborn Independent was the Ford house organ and regularly featured stories about Henry Ford's favorite topics.|
Henry Ford was a well-known anti-Semite. While that would automatically disqualify him from any position of leadership today, before World War II it was somewhat fashionable in certain quarters. Ford was one of Hitler's earliest backers; the New York Times reported in its 20 December 1922 edition - before almost anyone had heard of Adolf Hitler, and before even the 1923 Beer Hall Putsch - that Ford was financing the Nazis in Munich, Germany. In fact, this became a matter of deep concern to the Weimar Republic government, and it indirectly asked the US Ambassador to Germany to put a stop to Ford's involvement with opposition parties. Ford, though, continued his support.
Hitler greatly admired Henry Ford, and is said to have had a portrait of the American tycoon in his Munich offices and copies of Ford's books displayed on tables. It was Ford money that financed the Beer Hall Putsch. After that failed, Hitler wrote "Mein Kampf," which directly quoted from some of Ford's own books.
|Ford trucks were on every European Front.|
Ford remained very much on the Nazis' minds. Hermann Goering always traveled on his command train with several Ford automobiles, which he preferred to more ponderous German cars. Hitler gave Ford the Grand Cross of the German Eagle in 1938 for Ford's 75th birthday in August 1938.
|Ford trucks in service with the Afrikakorps|
At this point, you are probably saying to yourself, "Well, so much for Henry Ford being a Hitler friend, but that doesn't mean that Ford itself helped the Nazis." Well, the thing is, Ford the company did help the German war effort. It had a German subsidiary Ford-Werke A.G. It technically became a wholly German company shortly before the war, but it obtained its raw materials such as rubber from the American Ford company. Ford also had plants in Amsterdam, Antwerp, Paris, Budapest, Bucharest, and Copenhagen - all cities ultimately taken over by the Nazis. Oh, and let's not forget numerous operations in North Africa, which the Nazis also held for a few years.
|Ford France trucks used by the Wehrmacht|
So, how did Ford actually help the Nazis? Its plants produced some 20 trucks per day in France alone. It also produced spare parts for Nazi vehicles. Ford was raking in profits from these operations throughout the war, and the Allies knew all about it. The USAAF and RAF would bomb Ford plants and take pictures of the devastation for the press, but then carefully tip-toe around actually pointing out that it was a Ford plant that had been bombed.
|A US Ford assembly line for Jeeps.|
Naturally, these sorts of things don't make it into the company's annual reports. However, reviewing the evidence from that time does not show much unhappiness by Ford executives at building vehicles for Hitler. It is important to point out, though, that Ford did not play favorites: it also created Molotov trucks for the Soviet Union, and of course was a huge producer of trucks and planes and related parts for the United States military. Ford's Willow Run plant that produced B-24 bombers is legendary. But facts are facts: those bombers were produced in Ford plants to bomb other Ford plants churning out equipment in Europe for the Wehrmacht.
Could US Companies Have Acted Otherwise?
It is easy to look back in hindsight and take a moralistic viewpoint. However, the German market could be quite lucrative, and businesses are created to make money. Not too many corporate executives could resist the temptation of doing business with Germany regardless of rumors and even hard news about its domestic practices. As noted above, British media companies forced to curtail business on the Continent greatly resented the continued business there by US companies. It was, though, perfectly legal.
One company that did take a stand, half-hearted and tenuous as it may have been, was film studio Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
On 14 June 1940, while the US remained at peace with Germany, MGM released its films "The Mortal Storm." Directed by Frank Borzage based on the book by British writer Phyllis Bottome, and produced by Frank Borzage and Victor Saville, "The Mortal Storm" starred Margaret Sullavan, James Stewart, Robert Young, Frank Morgan and Robert Stack. The film was set in contemporary Germany and depicted some of the sadism and cruelty inflicted by the Nazi regime, although it carefully avoided pointing fingers at anyone in particular. While long forgotten by most movie fans, "The Mortal Storm" was an extremely controversial and widely discussed film in its day.
"The Mortal Storm" was a good film, though not as good as you might think from the many glowing reviews that it receives now. The difference is because reviewers then and now tend to review the politics of the film rather than its actual artistic merit. "The Mortal Storm" was a very rare instance in which a US corporation did something almost certain to antagonize the then-current rulers of Germany. The Nazis banned MGM from the German film market due to "The Mortal Storm."
While not the most stunning profile in courage in history, it did require some fortitude for MGM management to greenlight the film and then distribute it despite the obvious potential financial consequences. It also provides a prime example of a US corporation which did, in fact, put some kind of principle ahead of making money.
What does all this mean? Put simply, it means that many highly respected US corporations that remain so today were active profiteers from the devastation of World War II and aided the rise of Nazi Germany. How things get built and who builds them matters. In some cases, you might have a company building planes that bombed ships which were using that same company's equipment.
This article is not meant to have a political slant or agenda. The truth is all we are after. Wars can be fought for good and noble purposes, but it also pays to follow the money to see who is making a profit from all the bloodshed.