On April 14, 1945, as a group of American soldiers were leading him down the road in the village of Wittbräucke, German steel magnate Albert Vögler bit into a concealed cyanide ampoule, collapsed against an armored car, and died almost instantly. “I am ready to take part in the reconstruction of Germany,” he had told fellow industrialist Friedrich Flick earlier that year. “But I will never let myself be arrested.” Across the country, businessmen were doing the same thing: Siemens alone saw five of its board members kill themselves as the Red Army advanced through the streets of Berlin and captured its factory.
Those industrialists who remained behind, shredding documents and wrenching portraits of Hitler off the walls, would soon find themselves on the list of candidates for war crimes prosecution at Nuremberg—executives from Krupp, IG Farben, Daimler-Benz, Volkswagen, and elsewhere whose companies had collectively smelted steel for tanks and purified aluminum for gunbarrels, formulated the synthetic rubber and gasoline necessary for tires and engines, built airplanes and U-boats and V-2 rocket circuit boards, and manufactured nerve gas and Zyklon B. They had seized Jewish property and swallowed up businesses sold off for pennies by those fleeing Nazi persecution. They had contracted with the German government to exploit the labor of concentration camp internees and sited factories with the specific goal of better leveraging this free and disposable workforce. They had planned, profited from, and above all else made possible the Nazi war machine and its genocides.
This year marks the seventy-fifth anniversary of the conclusion of the most famous of the Nuremberg trials, the International Military Tribunal, which began in November 1945. While the tribunal—which sentenced Hermann Göring, Joachim von Ribbentrop, and other prominent Nazi military and political figures—has dominated our memory of the Nuremberg trials, it was only the first of a series of criminal proceedings against doctors, administrators, jurists, and others—including private businessmen, whose prosecution was seen by many at the time as essential to both reaping justice and establishing a lasting peace.
The Trials of the Industrialists have become, in the words of historian S. Jonathan Wiesen, “undoubtedly one of the most overlooked aspects of postwar German business history.” When the prosecutors presented these cases before the judges, they were asking them to consider, implicitly and explicitly, the connection between capitalism and warfare, and where—or even whether—it was possible to draw a line between legitimate pursuit of profit and immoral greed. The conclusions these judges arrived at would shape not only the future of international law but the arc of Western Europe’s postwar reconstruction as a whole.
Links between the world of big business and the Nazis were extensive: over 50 percent of companies listed on Berlin’s stock exchange in 1932 had significant ties to the Nazi Party, and they experienced a boom in stock value after Hitler seized power the following year. It did not take corporate leaders long to realize the profits their businesses could reap from German aggression. In 1933 Gustav Krupp von Bohlen und Halbach, whose metalworks would churn out everything from Panzers to anti-aircraft cannons during the war, submitted to Hitler a plan for the complete reorganization of Germany’s industry “guided by the idea of bringing [it] into agreement with the political aims of the Reich Government.” Steel giant Hermann Röchling encouraged Hitler to invade the Balkans and leveraged his ties with the regime to cherry-pick which factories and mines his firm would take over in occupied territory; these same production sites were then policed by SS officers and staffed with forced laborers over whose heads hung the constant threat of imprisonment in a company-run labor camp at Etzenhofen. The understanding that economic imperialism had played a major role in Germany’s aggression was therefore widely held, not just among Soviet thinkers but among the Western Allies as well.