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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

GM, Ford Equipped Nazi Army In WWII

WASHINGTON -- Three years after Swiss banks became the target of a worldwide furor over their business dealings with Nazi Germany, major American car companies find themselves embroiled in a similar debate.

Like the Swiss banks, the U.S. car companies have vigorously denied that they assisted the Nazi war machine. But historians and lawyers researching class-action suits on behalf of former prisoners of war have put forward evidence of collaboration by General Motors and Ford with the Nazi regime.

The Ford Motor Co. faces a civil case brought by lawyers in Washington and New York who specialize in extracting large cash settlements from banks and insurance companies accused of defrauding Holocaust victims. Also, a book scheduled for publication next year will accuse General Motors of playing a key role in Hitler's invasions of Poland and the Soviet Union.

"General Motors was far more important to the Nazi war machine than Switzerland," said Bradford Snell, who has spent two decades researching a history of the world's largest carmaker. "Switzerland was just a repository of looted funds. GM was an integral part of the German war effort. The Nazis could have invaded Poland and Russia without Switzerland. They could not have done so without GM."

The German subsidiaries of General Motors and Ford, which controlled 70 percent of the German car market at the outbreak of war in 1939, rapidly retooled themselves to become suppliers of war materiel to the Nazi army.

They also relied on the forced labor of people like Elsa Iwanowa, who at the age of 16 was abducted from her home in the southern Russian city of Rostov by German soldiers in October 1942, and taken with hundreds of other young women to work at the Ford plant at Cologne.

"The conditions were terrible. They put us in barracks, on three-tier bunks," she recalled in a telephone interview from Belgium, where she now lives. "It was very cold; they did not pay us at all and scarcely fed us. The only reason that we survived was that we were young and fit."

Iwanowa and others like here brought a class-action suit against Ford last march. The sums involved in settling any such lawsuits are relatively modest, and GM and Ford both insist they lost control of their subsidiaries and bear little or no responsibility for their war-time operations.

But documents discovered in German and American archives show a

much more complicated picture. In certain instances, American

managers of both GM and Ford went along with the conversion of their German plants to military production - at a time when U.S.

government documents show they were still resisting calls by the

Roosevelt administration to step up military production in their

plants at home.

Ford has backed away from an initial claim that it did not

profit in any way from forced labor at its Cologne plant. Ford spokesman John Spellich said that company historians are still researching this issue but have found documents showing that, after the war, American Ford received small dividends from its German subsidiary worth approximately $60,000 for the years 1940 to 1943.

After three years of national soul-searching, Switzerland's

largest banks agreed in August to make a $1.25 billion settlement

to Holocaust survivors, a step they had initially resisted. Far

from dying down, however, the controversy over business dealings

with the Nazis has given new impetus to long-standing

investigations into old allegations.

Some of the allegations against GM and Ford had surfaced more than 20 years ago, during 1974 Congressional hearings into monopolistic practices in the automobile industry.

When American GIs invaded Europe in June 1944, they did so in

jeeps, trucks and tanks manufactured by the Big Three motor companies in one of the largest crash militarization programs ever undertaken. It came as an unpleasant surprise to discover that the enemy was also driving trucks manufactured by Ford and Opel - a 100 percent GM-owned subsidiary - and flying Opel-built warplanes.

When the U.S. Army liberated the Ford plants in Cologne and

Berlin, they found destitute foreign workers confined behind barbed

wire and company documents extolling the "genius of the F?hrer,"

according to reports filed by soldiers at the scene. A U.S Army

report by investigator Henry Schneider dated Sept. 5, 1945, accused

the German branch of Ford of serving as "an arsenal of Nazism, at

least for military vehicles" with the "consent" of the parent company in Dearborn, Michigan.

Ford spokesman Spellich described the Schneider report as "a

mischaracterization" of the activities of the American parent company and noted that Dearborn managers had frequently been kept in the dark by their German subordinates over events in Cologne.

After the outbreak of war in September 1939, General Motors and

Ford became crucial to the German military, according to

contemporaneous German documents and postwar investigations by the U.S. Army.

James Mooney, the GM director in charge of overseas operations, had discussions with Hitler in Berlin two weeks after the German invasion of Poland. Typewritten notes by Mooney show that he was involved in the partial conversion of the principal GM automobile plant at

Russelsheim to production of engines and other parts for the Junker

"Wunderbomber," a key weapon in the German air force, under a

government-brokered contract between Opel and the Junker airplane

company. Mooney's notes show that he returned to Germany the

following February for further discussions with Luftwaffe commander

Hermann Goering and a personal inspection of the Russelsheim plant.

Mooney's involvement in the conversion of the Russelsheim plant

undermines claims by General Motors that the American branch of the

company had nothing to do with the Nazi rearmament effort. In

congressional testimony in 1974, GM maintained that American

personnel resigned from all management positions in Opel following

the outbreak of war in 1939 "rather than participate in the

production of war materials."

According to documents of the Reich Commissar for the

Treatment of Enemy Property, the American parent company continued

to have some say in the operations of Opel after September 1939.

The documents show that the company issued a general power of

attorney to an American manager, Pete Hoglund, in March 1940.

Hoglund did not leave Germany until a year later. At that time, the

power of attorney was transferred to a prominent Berlin lawyer

named Heinrich Richter.

GM spokesman M?ller declined to answer questions from The

Washington Post on the power of attorney granted to Hoglund and

Richter or to provide access to the personnel files of Hoglund and

other wartime managers. He also declined to comment on an assertion by Snell that Opel used French and Belgian prisoners at its

Russelsheim plant in the summer of 1940, at a time when the

American Hoglund was still looking after GM interests in Germany.

The Nazis had a clear interest in keeping Opel and German Ford

under American ownership, despite growing hostility between

Washington and Berlin. By the time of Pearl Harbor in December

1941, the American stake in German Ford had declined to 52 percent,

but Nazi officials argued against a complete takeover. A memorandum

to plant managers dated November 25, 1941, acknowledged that such a

step would deprive German Ford of "the excellent sales

organization" of the parent company and make it more difficult to

bring "the remaining European Ford companies under German


Even though GM officials were aware of the conversion of its

Russelsheim plant to aircraft engine production, they resisted such

conversion efforts in the United States, telling shareholders thattheir automobile assembly lines in Detroit were "not adaptable to

the manufacture of other products" such as planes, according to a

company document discovered by Snell. In June 1940, after the fall

of France, Henry Ford personally vetoed a U.S. government-approved

plan to produce under license Rolls-Royce engines for British

fighter planes, according to published accounts by his associates.

America's declaration of war on Germany in December 1941 made it

illegal for U.S. motor companies to have any contact at all with

their subsidiaries on German-controlled territory.

The extent of contacts between American Ford and its German subsidiary after 1941 is likely to be contested at any trial. But there appear to have been some indirect contacts. In June 1943, the Nazi custodian of the Cologne plant, Robert Schmidt, traveled to Portugal for talks with Ford managers there. In addition, the U.S. Treasury Department investigated Ford after Pearl Harbor for possible illegal contacts with its subsidiary in occupied France, which produced trucks for the German army. The investigation ended without charges being


Even though American Ford now condemns what happened at its

Cologne plant during the war, it continued to employ the managers

in charge at the time. After the war, Schmidt was briefly arrested

by allied military authorities and barred from working for Ford.

But he was reinstated as the company's technical director in 1950

after he wrote to Henry Ford II claiming that he had always

"detested" the Nazis and had never been a member of the party. A

letter signed by a leading Cologne Nazi in February 1942 describes

Schmidt as a trusted party member. Ford maintains that his name

does not show up on Nazi membership lists.