Forced labor and multinational corporations

What role did American multinational auto companies play in the rearmament of Germany during the early period of Nazi rule? And to what extent did these companies participate in Nazi practices like forced (slave) labor and Aryanization for which they should have been held morally responsible?

An early discussion of the responsibility of American corporations for their conduct in Nazi Germany was provoked by Bradford Snell’s testimony to Congress in 1974 (link, pp. 16-23). Snell, a specialist Congressional staff member, argued that the auto companies played a crucial role in supplying the German state with the vehicles and equipment needed for its conduct of war in Europe:

In Germany, for example, General Motors and Ford became an integral part of the Nazi war efforts. GM’s plants in Germany built thousands of bomber and jet fighter propulsion systems for the Luftwaffe at the same time that its American plants produced aircraft engines for the U.S. Army Air Corps. (17)

Snell makes clear the economic and business cost of non-cooperation by the auto companies:

Refusal to aid in prewar preparations, of course, was unthinkable. It would have resulted in confiscation and irreparable economic harm to GM and Ford stockholders. In any event, due to their concentrated economic power in both economies, they were able to shape the conflict to their own private corporate advantage. Whether in fact their profit-maximization determinations were also in the best interests of international peace or, more specifically, in accord with the national security objectives of the United States at that time is entirely unclear. (17)

It was, of course, in the best interests of GM and Ford to cooperate in the Axis war effort. Although GM, for example, was in complete management control of its Russelsheim warplane factory for nearly a full year after Germany’s declaration of war against the United States on December 11, 1941, its refusal to build warplanes at a time of negligible demand for automobiles would have brought about the economic collapse of its Opel plant. (22)

Here is Snell’s summary conclusion: “In sum, they maximized profits by supplying both sides with the material needed to conduct the war” (16). Importantly, however, Snell does not provide detailed evidence or analysis of the degree to which the US-based corporate headquarters of these companies were in a position to exert management control over their German subsidiaries. And he does not address the question of internal management decision-making at these companies and their use of forced labor. In fact, significant data about forced labor in these plants only became available to researchers in the 1990s.

In 1974 there was only limited documentation of the decision-making and management structure of the auto companies in their German subsidiaries. However, a series of class-action lawsuits emerged in the 1990s that prompted the auto companies to open their private business archives to inspection, and several books have been written since 1998 that document the kinds of collaboration that occurred between multinational companies and the Nazi regime. Two in particular are of special interest here: Billstein, Fings, Kugler, and Levis, Working for the Enemy: Ford, General Motors, and Forced Labor in Germany during the Second World War (2000), and Henry Ashby Turner, Jr., General Motors and the Nazis: The Struggle for Control of Opel, Europe’s Biggest Carmaker (2005). Also important in this context is Neil Gregor’s book, Daimler-Benz in the Third Reich (1998), which provides a great deal of documentation of Daimler-Benz’s willing use of forced (slave) labor in its factories. 

These books are important for our concerns because they address the issue of how to understand the evils of the twentieth century, including mass killings, slave labor, and the destruction of human lives and dignity on a grotesque and massive scale. There is the question of evil state action to consider; the question of the evil deeds of particular individuals, from Rudolph Hoess to the ordinary policemen of Reserve Police Battalion 101 described by Christopher Browning (link), to the question of the public that accepted these horrendous actions. But along the way, there is the question of the actions and decisions of business firms that continued to operate in Germany, supplying the crucial war materials needed for blitzkrieg and operating according to Nazi principles. Those principles included official anti-Semitism and the use of forced labor of civilians and prisoners of war. There are many important questions that need to be addressed in this field, but the most important is the question of responsibility and culpability. To what extent were the US-based corporate executives aware of these practices, and to what extent did the company have effective control over their German subsidiaries?

The use of forced labor in auto and truck manufacturing plants

Labor shortages were a critical problem throughout wartime Germany, and at the Russelsheim Opel plant in particular. (Extensive documentation of Nazi use of forced and slave labor between 1933 and 1945 is provided by Ulrich Herbert, Hitler’s Foreign Workers: Enforced Foreign Labor in Germany under the Third Reich.) Billstein et al and Turner provide a good deal of detail about the practices of Opel with regard to forced labor. Skilled workers were drafted into the armed forces from the GM-owned Opel ranks in large numbers, and plant managers were unable to persuade the labor control authorities Arbeitsamt to exempt skilled workers from further conscription cohorts. Conscription then broadened to include unskilled workers. A possible solution was seen in enemy prisoners of war. The first Opel Russelsheim prison camp was built in July 1940 and was soon occupied by 600 French and Belgian prisoners (Billstein et al, 47). In October 1941 the state authorized the use of Soviet POWs as industrial workers under severe conditions of oversight and confinement, but few of the several million POWs taken during the Barbarossa operations survived to be deployed as industrial slave workers (Billstein et al, 54). In February 1942 the SS central agency approved the Ostarbeiterlasse permitting the conscription of Soviet civilians (and later other civilians from Eastern European conquest zones), and Opel Russelsheim was the first location to receive a consignment of forced workers from the East. A report from September 1942 lists 2449 forced laborers, including Russian civilians, French POWs, and other foreign civilians (Billstein et al, 56). Opel did not make use of concentration-camp labor, according to Billstein et al:

Opel was the only large German vehicle producer not to employ KZ camp prisoners in the period that followed, at either of its two production plants. The company’s tradition was conservative, and not at all anti-Semitic. Opel’s forced laborers, both prisoners of war and civilians, were guarded by company Werkschutz. Concentration camp prisoners were guarded by SS henchmen. (Billstein et al, 63)

What about Ford Motor Company and the extensive use of forced labor in Ford Werke Cologne? More insight into this question has emerged as a result of the same class-action lawsuits initiated in 1998 by former forced workers. In 2001 Ford Motor Company completed a very extensive review of its corporate archives as well as those of Ford Werke and German and US government sources (link), in a report supervised and validated by Simon Reich, a well known scholar of the period. The findings of this review are quite different from those offered by Billstein et al. The Ford Archive Report provides a fairly extensive set of facts about the use of forced and slave labor at Ford Werke Cologne. Here is an overview:

The use of foreign and forced labor at Ford-Werke began in 1940, and generally followed the same pattern as at other industrial facilities in Germany. Foreigners from Eastern and Western Europe, as well as Italian and French POWs were put to work at Ford-Werke. These men and women lived in barracks constructed by Ford-Werke adjacent to its plant site, in what became known in Cologne as the “Ford camp.”[308] After the Reichsbahn [the German railways], Ford-Werke was the next largest employer of forced workers in Cologne.[309] Late in the war, men from the concentration camp Buchenwald worked at Ford-Werke as slave laborers. (See Section 7.7.) (49)

Postwar reports indicate that the first civilians from Eastern Europe began working at Ford-Werke in the spring of 1942. An internal Ford-Werke memorandum written in June 1945 stated, “As far as we can remember, the first Russian men and women came to us in March 1942.”[319] Other postwar documents reported that the Eastern[320] workers arrived in April 1942.[321] In oral history interviews conducted during the 1990s, several Russian and Ukrainian former workers recalled arriving between April and June 1942.[322] Wartime financial records from Ford-Werke reported 320 Eastern workers in May 1942, with the numbers increasing each month to a maximum of 900 workers in October 1943. Between November 1943 and August 1944, the number of Eastern workers indicated in these records varied between 777 and 882.[323] (50)

Forced and foreign workers were a sizable percentage of the total workforce at Ford Werke. The Archive Report indicates that “the highest number of foreign and forced workers at any point during the war was approximately 2,000. This peak occurred in August 1944” (51). This is roughly 40% of the workforce. Here is a graph of the composition of the Ford-Werke labor force from 1941 to 1944 (52):

The report makes an attempt to assess pay rates and living conditions, and notes consistently that conditions and pay were substantially worse for eastern workers than western workers. Food rations for Russian and eastern European workers were especially poor:

Statements from denazification files report that Russians – children as well as adults – received poor food rations.[439] In an interview conducted in the 1990s, one former Eastern worker recalled that her rations typically consisted of three slices of bread and unsweetened coffee for breakfast, soup made from turnips and flour siftings for lunch, and bread and coffee again for dinner. (64)

This is clearly a starvation diet for an adult worker, amounting to perhaps 700-800 calories per day.

The report also provides clear documentation that Ford Werke made use of slave labor from the Buchenwald concentration camp:

On the same day that Schmidt and von Gusmann attended the Schaaf meeting [8/1/1944], the main Buchenwald concentration camp prepared a list of 50 prisoners to send to Ford-Werke.[467] Included in the group of prisoners deployed to Ford-Werke were Russian and Czech political prisoners, Poles, and two Germans, one of whom was described as a “criminal” and the other as “work shy.” Among them were carpenters, bricklayers, a painter, a tailor, a cabinet maker, plumbers, electricians, agricultural workers, shoemakers, a barber and a nurse.[468] Their first day of work was August 13, 1944.[469] … Buchenwald transfer lists show that at least 65 different men were assigned to the Ford-Werke satellite camp at one time or another, and that several were transported elsewhere or fled from Ford-Werke and new prisoners brought in to replace them.[470] Most documentation from the period indicates that there were 50 or fewer Buchenwald inmates at Ford-Werke at any given time from August 1944 through the end of February 1945.[471] A 1944 list of Buchenwald satellite camps designates “Ford-Köln” with a capacity of 50 prisoners. (68-69)

This is a long list of moral wrongs committed by Ford Werke — extensive use of forced labor, including POWs and civilians from occupied countries; some use of slave labor from the Buchenwald concentration camp; and a pervasive and dehumanizing differentiation across groups of workers concerning their treatment, housing, and food, with harsh and meager conditions for eastern workers and more moderate conditions for workers from France, Belgium, and other countries of western Europe. It would seem evident that the corporate directors of those companies in Germany bear significant moral and legal responsibility for these actions. In a later post I will turn to the question of the possible culpability of the parent companies, General Motors and Ford Motor Company. It will emerge there that careful review of company archives by independent researchers strongly suggests that the US-based corporate leaders had neither knowledge nor control over events in their German subsidiaries after 1940.

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