Blogs > Cliopatria > Michael Berligh: Review of Henry Ashby Turner Jr.'s General Motors and the Nazis: The Struggle for Control of Opel, Europe's Biggest Carmaker (Yale)

Jan 22, 2006 5:41 pm

Michael Berligh: Review of Henry Ashby Turner Jr.'s General Motors and the Nazis: The Struggle for Control of Opel, Europe's Biggest Carmaker (Yale)

[Michael Burleigh, whose The Third Reich: A New History, won the Samuel Johnson Prize for nonfiction, is author of the forthcoming Earthly Powers: The Clash of Religion in Europe from the French Revolution to the Great War.]

WHEN I STARTED TEACHING THE history of modern Germany 20 years ago, it was still obligatory to devote considerable attention to Marxisant attempts to pin the blame for fascism on this or that element of big business. Much of the literature was by scholars of a leftist disposition, while classes on fascism or Nazism tended to attract a disproportionate number of students from the radical fringes. Things have moved on since then, it being more common nowadays to discuss Nazism as a species of "racial state," or even as a surrogate religion, a notion that owes much to conservative scholars like Raymond Aron or Eric Voegelin writing in the 1930s.

Reference to the Nazis is de rigueur to anyone wanting to take a low shot at anything or anyone they don't care for, the "safety Nazis" being a striking case in point.

Twenty years ago, one strong voice, that of Henry Ashby Turner, stood out against the left's attempts to criminalize large-scale capitalism on the back of events in the Third Reich, his German Big Business and the Rise of Hitler being a very precise audit of where real moral culpability lay. Following a fascinating detour into the possible alternatives to Hitler's chancellorship, Turner has returned to his former stomping ground with a first-rate study of General Motors's German automotive subsidiary, Opel.

His book builds on preparatory archival work that General Motors commissioned in 1999-2000 when it faced class action suits concerning its subsidiary's wartime exploitation of foreign forced labor. Entirely independently of these extra-historical concerns, Turner has used the materials he assembled as the basis for his fair-minded and tightly argued book.

General Motors acquired Opel in 1928 for slightly over $33.3 million, part of a wave of U.S. investment in a Weimar economy that had weathered hyperinflation and currency stabilization. Opel had been founded in 1862, branching out from sewing machines to bicycles, and then trucks and high-end cars after the turn of the century. Although General Motors held all the stock, and senior U.S. executives called the shots, local sensitivities and linguistic realities were respected by the retention of many Germans in senior positions.

The acquisition of Opel could not have been more poorly timed. Large-scale losses and layoffs almost immediately ensued as the waves of Depression crashed into Germany. General Motors had to pump a further $8 million into its ailing subsidiary at a time when its own corporate profits had sunk to a paltry $165,000. Currency restrictions meant that GM could not simply roll up its costly mistake.

The advent of Hitler's regime in January 1933 was a mixed blessing. If the hyper-nationalist sole party seemed unlikely to tolerate foreign ownership of a major strategic company, its enthusiasm for rapid motorization as a lever of economic recovery augured well for the company's order books and balance sheets. Since it was near impossible to take profits out of Germany, by reinvesting them, General Motors more than doubled the value of its initial outlay, with Opel becoming the biggest car manufacturer in Europe. This was a handsome return, even if Opel lost out on the competition to manufacture the Volkswagen to the designer-genius Ferdinand Porsche.

Both General Motors and Opel rapidly adapted to life under a totalitarian dictatorship. The representation of the workforce was instantly Nazified and the factories infested with spies. One or two Jewish managers were transferred elsewhere, and a metallurgist was sent to Vauxhall, GM's British subsidiary. When 260 workers at the Rüsselheim plant near Frankfurt briefly downed tools, the Gestapo arrived to arrest the ringleaders and discipline the rest. The local Nazi gauleiter, Jakob Springer, proved to be a bullying pest. His repeated attempts to rig appointments within the company were stymied by Opel's cultivation of the army and Luftwaffe, for whom the firm began manufacturing not only heavy Blitz trucks but aircraft gears and components for the Junkers 88 bomber. The outbreak of war brought moral issues that the firm preferred not to notice.

In a calculated act of deception, GM's head of overseas operations, James Mooney, assured U.S. senior management that "it shall be the firm policy of the Adam Opel A-G that the Company shall under no circumstances become engaged in the manufacture of material peculiar to war alone," even as his products were killing tens of thousands in bombing raids on London and other British cities. American executives knew perfectly well what the Opel subsidiary was producing, resorting to such euphemisms as "special products" to make this more morally palatable. This was in conformity with GM's senior executive, Alfred P. Sloan, whose philosophy held that "an international business operating throughout the world, should conduct its operations in strictly business terms, without regard to the political beliefs of its management, or the political beliefs of the countries in which it is operating." This did not inhibit Mooney's meddling in high politics. Mooney was an Irish American, with an amorally simplistic view of the world, and an inflated sense of his importance in it. He tried to insert himself as a peace broker, shuttling between Hitler, Roosevelt, and the British Foreign Office, under the illusion that businessmen such as he could achieve the impossible, provided one left out such sentimentalities as international morality.

Although mounting tension between the United States and Germany meant that the ties between GM and Opel became increasingly exiguous, profits derived from manufacturing land mines and torpedoes, as well as military vehicles and aircraft, were scrupulously booked to the parent corporation's advantage. Opel followed other German firms into the vortex of criminality that the Nazis spread over German life, as the wartime factories became heavily reliant on foreign forced labor. These workers, who in 1944 comprised a quarter of the workforce, were not only miserably treated, but also corralled in barracks where they were sitting ducks for Allied bombers.

Turner may be technically right when he says that "it is an elementary principle of all equitable systems of law that owners of property cannot be held liable for uses made of it when, in their enforced absence, it is controlled by others, as was Opel during the time of forced labor," but a large moral question mark hangs over GM's decision in 1951 to reclaim Opel's wartime dividends. Sometimes Turner gets bogged down in the minutiae of office politics, making passages of the book sluggish. There is also no comparative dimension with, for example, Woolworth's, which pulled its business out of Germany in disgust at its government's anti-Semitic policies. But these are minor criticisms of a book that, in its quiet way, proves the old adage that when you sup with the Devil you had better bring a long spoon--or better still, decline the invitation.

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