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Hitler’s carmaker: How General Motors helped jump-start the Third Reich’s military machine

by Edwin Black

November 30, 2006 | 7:00 pm

The Last Word: How will posterity remember General Motors' conduct? The epilogue of the tumultuous saga of General Motors during the New Deal and Nazi era is still being written.

That saga is the subject of a four-part JTA investigative series that concludes with this story. Thousands of pages of decades'-old documents were scrutinized and re-examined to produce this series, which sheds new light on GM's relationship with the Third Reich -- and on the company's activities in America.

They reveal that even as GM and its president, Alfred P. Sloan, were helping jump-start the resurgent German military, they were undermining the New Deal of Franklin D. Roosevelt and undermining America's electric mass transit, and in doing so helped addict America to oil.

In 1974, a generation after World War II, the company's controversial history was resurrected by the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee's subcommittee on Antitrust and Monopoly.

GM and Opel's collusion with the Nazis dominated the opening portion of the subcommittee's exhaustively documented study, which mainly focused on the company's conspiracy to monopolize scores of local mass transit systems in the United States.

The report's author, Judiciary Committee staff attorney Bradford Snell, used GM's collaboration with the Third Reich as a moral backdrop to help explain the automakers' plan in more than 40 cities, to subvert popular, clean-running electric public transit and convert it to petroleum-burning motor buses.

The Senate report, titled American Ground Transport, was released shortly after the Arab-imposed 1973 oil shock -- and it accused GM of significantly contributing to the nation's petroleum woes through its mass-transit machinations.

GM had been convicted in 1949 of leading a secret corporate combine that funded a front company called National City Lines that systematically replaced electric trolleys with oil-guzzling motor buses across America. After Snell's report was presented, GM immediately went on the counterattack, denying Snell's charges about both its domestic conduct and its collusion with the Nazis, and demanding that the Senate Judiciary Committee cease circulating its own report. That, of course, did not happen.

But following the release of the Snell report, the automaker then created its own 88-page rebuttal report titled, "The Truth About American Ground Transport," whose entire first section, as it turns out, had nothing to do with American ground transport. It was headlined: "General Motors Did Not Assist the Nazis in World War II."

GM has also consistently denied domestic wrongdoing.

Thus, GM's involvement with Nazi transportation in Germany juxtaposed with its conspiracy to convert electric mass transit at home became inextricably linked by virtue of the Senate's investigation, the company's own rebuttal and the compelling historical parallel between the company's conduct in the United States and its conduct in Germany.

GM further demanded that the Senate never permit its own report, American Ground Transport, to be distributed without GM's rebuttal attached. The Senate agreed -- a rare move indeed. Snell, however, labeled the GM rebuttal a document calculated to mislead historians and the public.

Yet another generation later, in the late 1990s, GM's collaboration with the Nazis was again resurrected when Nazi-era slave laborers threatened to sue GM and Ford for reparations. At the time, a GM spokesman told a reporter at The Washington Post that the company "did not assist the Nazis in any way during WWII." The effort to sue GM and Ford was unsuccessful, but both Ford and GM, concerned about the facts that might come to light, commissioned histories of their Nazi-related past.

In the case of Ford, the company issued its 2001 report, compiled by historian Simon Reich, plus the original underlying documentation, all of which was made available to the public without restriction. Ford immediately circulated CDs with the data to the media. Researchers and other interested parties may today view the actual documents and photocopy them. The Reich report concluded, among other things, that Ford-Werke, the company's German subsidiary, used slave labor from the Buchenwald concentration camp in 1944 and 1945 and functioned as an integral part of the German war machine. Ford officials in Detroit have publicly commented on their Nazi past, remained available for comment, apologized and have generally helped all those seeking answers about its involvement with the Hitler regime.

As for GM, it commissioned eminent business historian Henry Ashby Turner Jr. in 1999 to conduct an internal investigation and report his findings. Turner, author of several favorably reviewed books, including "German Big Business and the Rise of Hitler," was well known for, among other things, his insistence that big business did not make a pivotal contribution to the rise of Hitlerism.

GM, however, declined to release Turner's internal report or discuss the company's Nazi-era or New Deal-era history or archival holdings when originally contacted by this reporter. In February 2006, corporate spokeswoman Geri Lama twice refused to give this reporter the location of the company archive. In November of this year, Lama was again asked for an on-the-record response. She said she was referring the question to "staffers," but after more than a week, no reply had been received.

GM has maintained a special combative niche in the annals of American corporate history, achieving a reputation for suppressing books, obstructing access to archival records and frustrating critics from Ralph Nader to Bradford Snell. GM attorneys even fought efforts by Alfred P. Sloan himself to publish his own memoirs, although the autobiography was finally published in 1964 after a long court fight.

In July 2005, Turner published the book "General Motors and the Nazis: The Struggle for Control of Opel, Europe's Biggest Carmaker" (Yale University Press). The book features 158 chapter text pages of carefully detailed and footnoted information, plus notes, an index and a short appendix. Although the book has been reviewed, BookScan, which tracks about 70 percent of retail book sales for the publishing industry, reported in late October that only 139 copies of the Turner book had been sold to the key outlets monitored by the service since the publication's release.

In his book, Turner, relying on his work as GM's historian, disputed many earlier findings about GM's complicity with the Nazis, concluding that charges that GM had collaborated with the Nazis even after the United States and Germany were at war "have proved groundless." Turner rejects "the assumption that the American corporation did business in the Third Reich by choice," asserting, "Such was not the case." Turner also states that GM had no option but to return wartime profits to its stockholders, since "the German firm prospered handsomely from Hitler's promotion of the automobile and from the remarkable recovery of the German economy."

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