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Jewish Journal

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

by Edwin Black

November 30, 2006 | 7:00 pm

Shifting Gears: From war profiteer to U.S. public transit conspirator During the late 1930s, Hitler's persecution of Jews was building to a frenzy even as fears of a war escalated. Nevertheless, General Motors' German automotive subsidiary, Opel, remained a loyal corporate citizen of the Third Reich -- content to obediently do the Nazi regime's bidding, and unstintingly supporting Hitler's program on many fronts. These included economic and employment recovery, anti-Jewish persecution, war preparedness and domestic propaganda. In return, Opel prospered.

Hitler was pleased -- very pleased. In 1938, just months after the Nazis' annexation of Austria, James D. Mooney, head of GM's overseas operations, received the German Eagle with Cross, the highest medal Hitler awarded to foreign commercial collaborators and supporters.

On Nov. 9-10, 1938, shortly after Mooney's decoration, nationwide pogroms broke out in Germany against the Jews -- Kristallnacht. The American public was finally shocked onto its heels by the night of officially orchestrated burning, looting and mob action again Jews.

President Roosevelt recalled America's ambassador, plunging German-American relations to their lowest point since Hitler assumed power. All things American came under special scrutiny in Germany.

By now, the truth about GM's ownership of the Opel car and truck operation was out in the open among Germans. Reich armament officials increasingly directed Opel's output, including mandating that nearly all vehicles be devoted to military use.

These are among the many findings of a multipart JTA investigation that culled and re-examined thousands of pages of Nazi-era and New Deal-era documents that shed new light on GM's relationship with the Third Reich. They reveal that even as GM and its president, Alfred P. Sloan, were helping mobilize 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 the United States to oil.

GM has declined comment for this story. The company has steadfastly denied for decades that it actively assisted the Nazi war effort or that it simultaneously subverted mass transit in the United States.

Laissez Faire, Sloan-style

In the months leading up to the feared 1939 invasion of Poland, Sloan, GM's president, defended his close collaboration with Hitler. Brushing off attacks for his partnership with a Nazi regime already notorious for filling concentration camps, taking over Austria and now threatening to install the Master Race across Europe, Sloan was stony and proud.

He stated, in a long April 1939 letter to an objecting stockholder, that in the interests of making a profit, GM shouldn't risk alienating its German hosts by intruding in Nazi affairs.

"In other words, to put the proposition rather bluntly," Sloan said in the letter, "such matters should not be considered the business of the management of General Motors."

Indeed, in August of 1939, the world wondered when Hitler might invade Poland. During those days, Opel, under the direct day-to-day supervision of GM's senior executive, Cyrus Osborn, played its role in Germany's fast-paced military plans. The company was already manufacturing thousands of Blitz trucks that would become a mainstay of the Reich's upcoming Blitzkrieg.

The German military in early August urgently ordered Blitz truck spare parts to be delivered to Reich bases near the Polish border. Days later in August, nearly 3,000 Opel employees, from factory workers to senior managers, were drafted into the Wehrmacht. Moreover, at about that time, GM's Osborn began evacuating most of the American employees and their families to the Netherlands. Soon, virtually all Opel civilian passenger car sales were eliminated in favor of military orders.

At 6 a.m. on Sept. 1, 1939, Germany launched its Blitzkrieg against Poland, with troops arriving in Blitz trucks manufactured by GM's Opel. The night before, Sloan reportedly told stockholders that GM was "too big" to be impeded by "petty international squabbles," according to a congressional investigation.

Shortly after war broke out in Europe, however, GM executives in Germany tried to distance the American company from its involvement in the brutal German war machine. The Opel board was restructured to ensure that GM executives maintained a controlling presence on the board of directors but continued invisibility in daily management. This was accomplished in part by bringing in GM's reliable Danish chief, Albin Madsen, and maintaining two Americans on that board.

The company's 1939 annual report, released in April 1940, stated: "With full recognition of the responsibility that the manufacturing facilities of Adam Opel A.G. must now assume under a war regime, the Corporation has withdrawn the American personnel formerly in executive charge and has turned the administrative responsibilities over to German nationals."

However, GM was still masquerading. By the summer of 1940, a senior GM executive wrote a more honest assessment for internal circulation only. He explained that while "the management of Adam Opel A.G. is in the hands of German nationals," in point of fact, GM is still "actively represented by two American executives on the Board of Directors."

The construction and German-American balance of the many management entities created in the facade of control was constantly shifting during the Hitler years. But regardless of the number of members -- German or American -- on the various directing, managing or executive boards and committees, GM in the United States controlled all voting stock and could veto or permit all operations.

For all intents and purposes, though, once war began, Wehrmacht requirements and orders determined the specifics of military manufacturing at Opel. Like any nation at war, including the United States itself, the Reich alone determined what weapons would be made by its militarized factories. That said, it was GM's decision to remain operating in Germany, to continue to subject itself to Reich military orders, and answer the Reich's call for ever more lethal weapons.

As anticipated, Opel's Brandenburg facilities were conscripted and converted to an airplane-engine plant supplying the Luftwaffe's JU-88 bombers. Later, Opel's plants also built land mines and torpedo detonators. The factories and infrastructure that GM built during the 1930s were in fact finally used for their intended purpose -- war. Opel-built trucks on the ground, Opel-powered bombers in the sky and Opel-detonated torpedoes in the seas brought terror to Europe.

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