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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

Unleashing The Blitzkrieg Opel became an essential element of the German rearmament and modernization Hitler required to subjugate Europe. To accomplish that, Germany needed to rise above the horse-drawn divisions it deployed in World War I. It needed to motorize, to "blitz," that is, to attack with lightning speed. Germany would later unleash a blitzkrieg, a lightning war. Opel built the three-ton truck named "Blitz" -- to support the German military. The Blitz truck became the mainstay of the blitzkrieg.

Quickly, Sloan and Mooney, GM's overseas chief, realized that the Reich military machine was, in fact, the corporation's best customer in Germany. Sales to the army yielded a greater per truck profit than civilian sales -- a hefty 40 percent more. So GM preferred supplying the military, which never ceased its preparations to wage war against Europe.

In 1935, GM agreed to locate a new factory at Brandenburg, where it would be geographically less vulnerable to feared aerial bombardment by allied forces. In 1937, almost 17 percent of Opel's Blitz trucks were sold directly to the Nazi military.

That military sales figure was increased to 29 percent in 1938 -- totaling some 6,000 Blitz trucks that year alone. The Wehrmacht, the German military, soon became Opel's No. 1 customer by far. Other important customers included major industries associated with the Hitler war machine.

Expanding its German workforce from 17,000 in 1934 to 27,000 in 1938 also made GM one of Germany's leading employers. Unquestionably, GM's Opel became an integral facet of Hitler's Reich.

More than just an efficient manufacturer, Opel openly embraced the bizarre philosophy that powered the Nazi military-industrial complex. The German company participated in cultic Fuhrer worship as a part of its daily corporate ethic. After all, until GM purchased Opel in 1929 for $33.3 million, or about one-third of GM's after-tax profit that year, Opel was an established carmaker with a respected German persona. The Opel family included several prominent Nazi Party members. This identity appealed to rank-and-file Nazis who condemned anything foreign owned or foreign made.

For all these reasons, during the Hitler years, Sloan and Mooney both made efforts to obscure Opel's American ownership and control. As a result, the average storm trooper, Nazi Party member or German motorist accepted the company's cars and trucks as the product of a purely Aryan firm that was working toward Hitler's great destiny: "Deutschland uber alles."

The Masquerade

Opel became an early patron of the National Socialist Motor Corps, a rabid Nazi Party paramilitary auxiliary. Ironically, most of the members of corps were not drivers but Germans seeking to learn how to drive to increase national readiness. Opel employees were encouraged to maintain membership in the Motor Corps.

Furthermore, Opel cars and trucks were loaned without charge to the local storm trooper contingents stationed near company headquarters at Russelsheim, Germany. As brown shirt thugs went about their business of intimidation and extortion, they often came and went in vehicles bearing prominent Opel advertisements, proud automobile sponsor of the storm troopers.

The Opel company publication, Der Opel Geist, or The Opel Spirit, became just another propagandistic tool of Fuhrer worship, edited with the help of Nazi officials. Hitler was frequently given credit in the publication for Opel's achievements, and was frequently depicted in Der Opel Geist portraits as a fatherly or stately figure.

Hitler's voice regularly echoed through the cavernous Opel complex. His hate speeches and pep rallies were routinely piped into the factory premises to inspire the workers. Great swastika-bedecked company events were commonplace, as Nazi gauleiters, or regional party leaders, and other party officials spurred gathered employees to work hard for the Fuhrer and his Thousand-Year Reich.

Opel contributed large cash donations to all the right Nazi Party activities. For example, the company gave local storm troopers 75,000 reichsmarks to construct the gauleiter's new office headquarters.

In the process, Opel became more than a mere carmaker. It became a stalwart of the Nazi community. Working hard and meeting exhausting production quotas were national duties.

Employees who protested the intense working conditions, even if members of the Nazi Party, were sometimes visited by the Gestapo. SS officers worked as internal security throughout the plant. Order was kept.

Of course, GM's subsidiary vigorously joined the anti-Jewish movement required of leading businesses serving the Reich. Jewish employees and suppliers became verboten. Established dealers with Jewish blood were terminated, including one of the largest serving the Frankfurt region.

Even long-time executives were discharged if Jewish descent was detected. Those lower-level managers with Jewish wives or parentage who remained with the company did so stealthily, hiding and denying their background.

To conceal American ownership and reinforce the masquerade that Opel stood as a purely Aryan enterprise, Sloan and Mooney, beginning in 1934, concocted the concept of a "directorate," comprised of prominent German personalities, including several with Nazi Party membership. This created what GM officials variously termed a "camouflage" or "a false facade" of local management. But the decisions were made in America. GM as the sole stockholder controlled Opel's board and the corporate votes.

Among the decisions made in America beginning in about 1935 was the one transferring to Germany the technology to produce the modern gasoline additive, tetraethyl lead, commonly called "ethyl," or leaded gasoline. This allowed the Reich to boost octane that provided better automotive performance by eliminating disruptive engine pings and jolts. Better performance meant a faster and more mobile fighting force -- just what the Reich would ultimately need for its swift and mobile blitzkrieg.

As early as 1934, however, America's War Department was apprehensive about the transfer of such proprietary chemical processes. In late December 1934, as GM was considering building leaded gasoline plants for Hitler, DuPont Co. board director Irenee du Pont wrote to Sloan: "Of course, we in the DuPont Co. have always recognized the propriety and desirability of closely cooperating with the War Department of the United States. In any case, I know that word has gone to the War Department and have the impression that they would be adverse to disclosure of knowledge which would aid Germany in preparing that chemical." The profits were simply not worth it, argued Du Pont.

Sloan had already bluntly told Du Pont, "I do not agree with your reasoning to this question." Days later, Sloan appended that GM's commercial rights were "far more fundamental than the question of making a little money out of lead in Germany." GM moved quickly -- in conjunction with its close ally, Standard Oil. Each company took a one-quarter share of the Reich ethyl operation, while I.G. Farben, the giant German chemical conglomerate, controlled the remaining 50 percent.

The plants were built. The Americans supplied the technical know-how. Captured German records reviewed decades later by a U.S. Senate investigating committee found this wartime admission by the Nazis: "Without lead-tetraethyl, the present method of warfare would be unthinkable."

Years after the war, Nazi armaments chief Albert Speer told a congressional investigator that Germany could not have attempted its September 1939 blitzkrieg of Poland without the performance-boosting additive. continued....

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