Jewish Journal

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

by Edwin Black

Posted on Nov. 30, 2006 at 7:00 pm

GM president Alfred Sloan, right, with GM chairman Pierre du Pont. Photo courtesy Library of Congress

GM president Alfred Sloan, right, with GM chairman Pierre du Pont. Photo courtesy Library of Congress

Who was Sloan?

Mr. Big Sloan lived for bigness. Slender and natty, attired in the latest collars and ties, Sloan commonly wore spats, even to the White House. He often out-dressed his former GM boss, billionaire Pierre du Pont. An electrical engineer by training, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduate was a strategic thinker who was as driven by a compulsion to grow his company as he was compelled to breathe oxygen.

"Deliberately to stop growing is to suffocate," Sloan wrote in his 1964 autobiography about his years at GM. "We do things in a big way in the United States. I have always believed in planning big, and I have always discovered after the fact that, if anything, we didn't plan big enough. I put no ceiling on progress."

For Sloan, motorizing the fascist regime that was expected to wage a bloody war in Europe was the next big thing and a spigot of limitless profits for GM. But unlike many commercial collaborators with the Nazis who were driven strictly by the icy quest for profits, Sloan also harbored a political motivation. Sloan despised the emerging American way of life being crafted by Roosevelt. Sloan hated Roosevelt's New Deal and admired the strength, irrepressible determination and sheer magnitude of Hitler's vision.

For Sloan, the New Deal -- with its Social Security program, government regulation and support for labor unions -- clanged an unmistakable death knell for an America made great by great corporations guided by great corporate leaders.

In a 1934 letter to Roosevelt's Industrial Advisory Board, Sloan complained bitterly that the New Deal was attempting to change the rules of business so "government and not industry [shall] constitute the final authority." In Sloan's view, GM was bigger than mere governments, and its corporate executives were vastly more suited to decision-making than "politicians" and bureaucrats, whom he felt were profoundly unqualified to run the country. Government officials, Sloan believed, merely catered to voters and prospered from backroom deals.

Sloan's disdain for the American government went beyond ordinary political dissent. The GM chief so hated the president and his administration that he co-founded a virulently anti-Roosevelt organization, and donated to at least one other Roosevelt-bashing group. Moreover, Sloan actually pressured GM executives not to serve in government positions, although many disregarded his advice and loyally joined the government's push for war preparedness.

At one point, Sloan's senior officials at GM even threatened to launch a deliberate business slowdown to sabotage the administration's recovery plan, according to papers unearthed by one historian. At the same time, Sloan and GM did not fail to express admiration for the stellar accomplishments of the Third Reich, and went the extra mile to advance German economic growth.

Indeed, Sloan felt that GM could -- and should -- create its own foreign policy and back the Hitler regime, even as America recoiled from it.

"Industry must assume the role of enlightened industrial statesmanship," Sloan declared in an April 1936 quarterly report to GM stockholders. "It can no longer confine its responsibilities to the mere physical production and distribution of goods and services. It must aggressively move forward and attune its thinking and its policies toward advancing the interest of the community at large, from which it receives a most valuable franchise."

In ramping up auto production in the Nazi Reich, Sloan understood completely that he was not just manufacturing vehicles. Sloan and Hitler both knew that GM, by creating wealth and shrinking unemployment, was helping to prop up the Hitler regime.

When explaining his ideas of mass production to Opel car dealers, Sloan proudly declared what the enterprise would mean: "The motor car contributes more to the wealth of the United States than agriculture. The automobile industry is a wealth-creating industry."

What was true in America would become true in Germany.

Ironically, GM chose the alliance with Hitler even though doing so threatened to imperil GM at home. Just days after Hitler came to power on Jan. 30, 1933, a worldwide anti-Nazi boycott erupted, led by the American Jewish Congress, the Jewish War Veterans and a coalition of anti-fascist, pro-labor, interfaith and American patriotic groups. Their objective was to fracture the German economy, not resurrect it.

The anti-Nazi protesters vowed not only to boycott German goods, but to picket and cross-boycott any American companies doing business with Germany. In the beginning, few understood that in boycotting Opel of Germany, they were actually boycotting GM of Detroit. Effectively, they were one and the same.

By the spring of 1933, the world was beginning to learn about the lawlessness and savagery of the Nazi regime, and the Reich's determination to crush its Jewish community and threaten its neighbors.

Sloan knew what was happening in Germany. Sloan and GM officials knew also that Hitler's regime was expected to wage war from the outset. Headlines, radio broadcasts and newsreels made that fact apparent. America, it was feared, would once again be pulled in.

Nonetheless, GM and Germany began a strategic business relationship. continued....

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