Friday December 1, 2006
How General Motors helped mobilize the Third Reich
May 2, 1934, the president of General Motors Overseas Corp. found
himself in a meeting with Adolf Hitler in his chancellery office. James
D. Mooney took with him two executives from GM’s German division, Adam
In June 1934, GM’s publication, General Motors World,
effusively recounted the meeting between Mooney and Hitler,
proclaiming, “Hitler is a strong man, well fitted to lead the German
people out of their former economic distress ... He is leading them,
not by force or fear, but by intelligent planning and execution of
fundamentally sound principles of government.”
Few could have imagined the monster that Hitler would become.
That 1934 meeting launched a strategic business relationship
with the Third Reich, a relationship that continued long into Hitler’s
barbaric regime. GM’s trucks would become the wheels that drove Nazi
troops into Europe.
For Mooney and for Germany’s branch of GM, the relationship was
first and foremost about making money — billions in 21st century
dollars. The auto company’s dealings with Hitler were well documented
in thousands of pages of little known and restricted Nazi-era and New
Deal-era documents that were uncovered in this JTA investigation.
GM has declined comment for this story, but the company has
steadfastly denied for decades that it actively assisted the Nazi war
The documentation and other evidence uncovered during this JTA
investigation revealed that GM and Opel were eager, willing and
indispensable cogs in the Third Reich’s rearmament juggernaut, a
rearmament that became evident as the 1930s progressed, would enable
Hitler to conquer Europe and destroy millions of lives.
The documentation also reveals that while GM was mobilizing
the Third Reich and cooperating within Germany with Hitler’s Nazi
revolution and economic recovery, GM and its president in New York,
Alfred P. Sloan Jr., were undermining the New Deal of Franklin D.
GM and the Nazis were a natural match.
Hitler knew that the biggest auto and truck manufacturer in
Germany was not Daimler or any other German carmaker. The biggest
automotive manufacturer in Germany — indeed in all of Europe — was
General Motors, which since 1929 had owned and operated the longtime
German firm Opel. GM’s Opel, infused with millions in GM cash and
assembly-line know-how, produced some 40 percent of the vehicles in
Germany and about 65 percent of its exports. Indeed, Opel dominated
Germany’s auto industry.
Hitler was well aware that, to conquer Europe, Germany needed
to rise above the horse-drawn divisions it deployed in World War I. It
needed to motorize, to “blitz,” to attack with lightning speed. Germany
would later unleash a Blitzkrieg, a lightning war. Opel built the 3-ton
truck named “Blitz” to support the German military. The Blitz truck
became the mainstay of the Blitzkrieg.
GM hoped it also eventually would become the car of choice for
all Germans. In 1928, just before the U.S. Depression hit, one in five
Americans owned a car, while in Germany, ownership was one in 134.
But sales to the German army yielded a greater per-truck profit than civilian sales — a hefty 40 percent more.
GM became one of Germany’s leading employers, giving jobs to
17,000 Germans in 1934, a number that would increase to 27,000 in 1938,
plus slave laborers.
By 1937, Opel had grown to triple the size of Daimler-Benz and
quadruple that of Ford’s fledgling German operation, known as
Ford-Werke. By the end of the 1930s, Opel was valued at $86.7 million,
which in 21st-century dollars, translates into roughly $1.1 billion.
GM president Sloan and overseas president Mooney both made efforts to obscure Opel’s U.S. ownership and control.
Beginning in 1934, the two 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 where GM was Opel’s
Not unlike other German companies, Opel vigorously joined the
anti-Jewish movement. Jewish employees and suppliers became verboten.
Established dealers with Jewish blood were fired, including one of the
largest serving the Frankfurt region. Even longtime executives were
discharged if Jewish descent was detected.
In 1938, just months after the Nazis’ annexation of Austria
and only months before Kristallnacht, Mooney received the German Eagle
with Cross, the highest medal Hitler awarded to foreign commercial
collaborators and supporters.
In the months leading up to the feared 1939 invasion of
Poland, GM president Sloan defended his close collaboration with
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.”
How General Motors helped mobilize the Third Reich
A special JTA investigation
The German military in early August 1939 urgently ordered Blitz
truck spare parts to be delivered to the Reich bases near the Polish
border. Days later, nearly 3,000 Opel employees, from factory workers
to senior managers, were drafted into the Wehrmacht. Moreover, at about
that time, GM 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.
Nevertheless, GM was still masquerading as if it had no
control of the Opel operation. However, 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 was still “actively
represented by two American executives on the Board of Directors.”
Throughout the war, GM in the United States controlled all
voting stock and could veto or permit all operations. GM’s-approved
president of Opel, Carl Luer, continued to run Opel during America’s
Back in the United States, Sloan tried to obstruct FDR’s
war-preparedness planning. He tried to dissuade GM executives with
manufacturing and production experience from helping Washington’s early
By mid-1940, GM had been drafted by Washington to become a
major war supplier for the Allies. Sloan had no choice but to comply,
and GM and its employees would ultimately make enormously valuable
contributions to the Allied war effort.
In June 1940, Sloan brought Mooney back to America to head up
GM’s key participation in America’s crash program to prepare for war.
Mooney’s mere appointment sent shivers through the anti-Nazi boycott
and protest committee, which well remembered his 1938 medal for what
the Nazis had termed “service to the Reich.”
The Non-Sectarian Anti-Nazi League railed in a letter to
Roosevelt: “How should we interpret the placing of a Hitler sympathizer
and a Hitler servant (one must render service to the Reich to deserve
such a medal) at the throttle of our defense program? Doesn’t that
appear suspiciously similar to the planting of Nazi sympathizers in key
In June 1940, about the same time Mooney returned to America,
Sloan wrote to a colleague, expressing disdain for FDR’s democracy
while grudgingly acknowledging his admiration for Hitler’s fascist
drive, even if that drive had become criminal.
“It seems clear that the Allies are outclassed on mechanical
equipment,” Sloan wrote, “and it is foolish to talk about modernizing
their Armies in times like these — they ought to have thought of that
five years ago. There is no excuse for them not thinking of that except
for the unintelligent, in fact, stupid, narrow-minded and selfish
leadership which the democracies of the world are cursed with.”
When at the end of 1940 the White House began to insist that
GM break off relations with Latin American car dealers suspected of
being pro-Nazi, Sloan defiantly refused. He lashed out at Washington,
accusing it of protecting communists at home while focusing on GM
dealers in South America. “I have flatly declined to cancel dealers,”
Sloan wrote in April 1941 to Walter Carpenter, a GM board member and
vice president of DuPont.
Days later, on April 18, 1941, Carpenter retorted, “If we
don’t listen to the urgings of the State Department in this connection,
it seems to me just a question of time ... The effect of this will be
to associate the General Motors with Nazi or Fascist propaganda against
the interests of the United States ... The effect on the General Motors
Corporation might be a very serious matter and the feeling might last
By now, Assistant Secretary of State Adolf Berle, whose
portfolio included the investigation of Nazi fronts and sympathizers in
Latin America, had had enough of Sloan and GM executives. Berle
circulated a memo asserting “that certain officials of General Motors
were sympathetic to or aligned with some pro-Axis groups. ... that this
is [a] ‘real Fifth Column’ and is much more sinister than many other
things which are going on at the present time.”
Berle called for an FBI investigation.
The FBI’s probe of GM senior executives with links to Hitler
found collusion with Germany by Mooney but no evidence of any
disloyalty to America. The Aug. 2, 1941 summary of the investigation
clearly listed Sloan in the title of the report, but Mooney’s was the
only name mentioned in the investigative results. However, in a
separate report to FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, the agent stated, “No
derogatory information of any kind was developed with respect to Alfred
Pritchard Sloan Jr.”
After the war, starting in 1948, GM began openly running Opel
operations. GM also collected some $33 million in “war reparations”
because the Allies had bombed Opel facilities.
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.
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 — buses that GM would manufacture.
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.”
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
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.
Turner, author of several favorably reviewed books, including
“German Big Business and the Rise of Hitler,” was well known for 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 contacted by this reporter.
Turner’s commissioned examination was digitized on CD-ROMs and
donated to Yale’s Sterling Memorial Library, where the collection is
categorized as being “open to the public.” In fact, the obscure
collection can only be viewed on a computer terminal; printouts or
digital copies are not permitted without the written consent of GM
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.
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
Turner rejects “the assumption that the American corporation
did business in the Third Reich by choice,” asserting, “Such was not
the case.” He adds 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.”
However, Turner does state explicitly that “by the end of 1940
more than 10,000 employees at Opel’s Russelsheim plant were engaged in
producing parts for the Junkers bombers heavily used in raining death
and destruction on London and other British cities during the air
attacks of the Battle of Britain.”
Turner also condemns GM for taking the Opel wartime dividends, which included profits made off of slave labor.
He writes, “But regardless of who [in the GM corporate
structure] decided to claim that tainted money, its receipt rendered GM
guilty, after the fact, of deriving profit from war production for the
Third Reich made possible in part from the toil of unfree workers.”
Aware that questions would arise about his relationship with
GM, Turner’s book states in its preface: “This book was not
commissioned by General Motors. It was written after the documentation
project was completed and without any financial support from GM. Its
contents were seen by no one at GM prior to publication. It is
therefore an independent undertaking by the author, who bears sole
responsibility for its contents.”
Turner did not respond to voice mail and email messages
seeking information about his sponsored GM history project, his
subsequent book or other relevant topics.
Simon Reich, who compiled Ford’s Hitler-era documents,
bristled at the whole idea. “Ford decided to take a very public, open
and transparent route,” he stated. “Any serious researcher can go into
the [Henry Ford] archive, see the documents in paper form, and have
them copied. Compare and contrast this with the fact that GM conducted
a very private study and the original hard-copy documentation upon
which the study was made has never been made available, and today
cannot be copied without the GM legal department’s permission.”
Between the unpublished GM internal investigation, the
restricted files at Yale and the little-known insights offered in
Turner’s book, the details of the company’s involvement with the Hitler
regime have remained below the radar.
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.
The censuring even extended to Sloan himself after he retired.
GM attorneys fought efforts by the Nazi-era GM president to publish his
memoirs. He had to go to court against GM to get his autobiography
published in 1964. Sloan died two years later.
Edwin Black is the author of the award-winning “IBM
and the Holocaust” and the recently published "Internal Combustion: How
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