Once the Second World War had started, Nazi Germany found a way to cut the costs in their factories. The regime seized men and women from around occupied Europe, prisoners of war and concentration camp inmates and put them to work in slavery conditions. Knowing what we do about the brutality of Adolf Hitler and the Nazis, this is hardly surprising. But some of the international brand names that went along with the forced labor system are surprising indeed.
10. Siemens A.G.
Today, Siemens is Europe’s largest industrial manufacturing company. Headquartered in Berlin and Munich, this German company makes everything from medical equipment to wind turbines. It is a hugely successful international firm with some 372,000 staff around the world. In 2017, its revenue was in excess of $96 billion. But this industrial powerhouse has a grim skeleton in its corporate closet.
Siemens was a favorite of Hitler’s, and he even visited one of its factories in 1933 to a rapturous welcome from its employees. During WWII the company took advantage of the slave labor that the Nazis made available to German industry. It even operated a factory making machine tools in the Auschwitz concentration camp. In total, the firm made use of some 80,000 worker-prisoners. After the war, the company gave almost $175 million to war-victim relief funds.
9. Hugo Boss
The contemporary reputation of the German company Hugo Boss rests on the stylishly tailored men’s and women’s clothing it makes. And its luxury clothing generated worldwide revenue of nearly $3.2 billion in 2017. Hugo Boss founded the company in 1923 and as an enthusiastic Nazi, he joined the party in 1931. This membership was advantageous. He gained a license to make uniforms for the SS, Hitler Youth and other Nazi outfits.
But Hugo Boss did more than just make the smartly sinister black uniforms of the SS. He also used forced labor provided by the Nazi regime. A total of 180 workers were used as slave labor, many of them women. Furthermore, 40 French prisoners of war also briefly worked there. After the conflict, as punishment for his collaborationist activities, Boss was fined some $70,000, stripped of his right to vote in German elections, and banned from running a business. He died in 1948.
Today, we know Volkswagen as a builder of automobiles that epitomize the dependability and precision engineering that German manufacturing is a byword for. Despite the setback of the emissions scandal of 2015, in 2017 the company’s operating profit was nearly $19.7 billion. Volkswagen was founded in 1932, and within a couple of years Hitler himself became involved with the company.
Hitler had a dream that every German would be able to afford a car. To help achieve this, another familiar motoring name, Ferdinand Porsche, stepped in and designed the “Beetle.” But the Second World War intervened and the Volkswagen factory now set to work producing vehicles for the military. Like so many German industrial operations, the Volkswagen now turned to slave labor, employing around 15,000 forced workers during the war.
BMW is another German car manufacturer with an excellent contemporary reputation. It is well-known for the production of high-performance cars ranging from sedans to sports models and SUVs. Founded in 1916, it is also has a good reputation for producing powerful motorcycles. BMW was yet another company that profited from the use of slave labor during WWII.
The forced laborers at its Munich plant included prisoners of war, civilians from other countries occupied by the Germans and even inmates from the hideous Dachau concentration camp. BMW employed as many as 50,000 slave laborers during the war, making everything from small arms and ammunition to U-boat batteries and artillery for the Nazi war machine.
The Nazi collaborationist companies we’ve seen so far are all recognizably German. But Kodak was and is an American company, which you may think makes its involvement with the Nazis all the more shameful. And involved with the Nazis the company, through its European subsidiaries, certainly was. And that was the case even after the U.S. had entered WWII.
In fact, there is no evidence that Kodak in America dealt directly with the Nazis during the war, but its subsidiaries in neutral Spain, Portugal and Switzerland did. And the company’s operation in Germany actually expanded and thrived, at least in the early part of the war. It made military equipment such as detonators and triggers, helpful to the Nazi war effort. The German Kodak also used slaves: 250 forced workers in Berlin and 80 in Stuttgart.
Another U.S. company, IBM, also stands accused of helping Hitler and his Nazis during WWII. And the accusation, made in 2001 by Edwin Black in his book IBM and the Holocaust: The Strategic Alliance between Nazi Germany and America’s Most Powerful Corporation, is a serious one indeed. According to the author, the Nazis used IBM technology to aid in the efficient operation of the Holocaust.
The company had developed a system of punch cards which could be used to process large amounts of data. IBM owned 90 percent of German company Dehomag, and its boss, Willy Heidinger, was a keen Nazi supporter. IBM technology was now used in a census of the German population – an ideal way to identify Jews and others for future persecution and eventual murder. And, Black has asserted, IBM helped the Nazis to run their death camps by providing spare parts and supplies for the punch-card technology they used.
Today, Bayer is a German pharmaceutical multinational that also makes chemicals for agriculture, biotechnology products and veterinary medicines. Founded in 1863, it became a household name with aspirin and won a Nobel prize in 1939 for its antibiotic, prontosil. In 1925, Bayer had merged with other companies to form IG Farben.
After the undoubted achievement of winning that Nobel prize, things quickly went downhill for Bayer and IG Farben. By 1943, half of the 330,000 Farben workers were slave labor, with 30,000 coming from Auschwitz. And Bayer employee and SS captain Helmuth Vetter conducted vile medical experiments on Auschwitz prisoners. One of them killed 150 women from the camp. Vetter simply asked for another 150. After the war, IG Farben was dismantled because of its war crimes, although the Bayer name lived on.
3. Associated Press
Undoubtedly one of the most respected of the world’s news agencies, Associated Press (AP) is an American company founded in 1846. Today, AP is used as a source by news operations around the globe and is widely trusted for its accurate journalism. But questions have been asked about the ethics of its reporting from Nazi Germany during the 1930s.
Many press agencies were kicked out of Germany after Hitler came to power, but not AP. According to German historian Harriet Scharnberg, the agency made a deal with Hitler’s regime which involved feeding U.S. newspapers with Nazi propaganda. And this meant that AP was the last western agency working in Germany right up until the declaration of war with the U.S. in 1941. At the heart of the sweetheart pact with the Nazis was AP’s undertaking not to publish material the Nazis didn’t like. AP even employed Franz Roth, an SS man favored by Hitler himself, as a photographer.
Henry Ford founded his automobile manufacturer in 1903, in the Detroit suburb of Dearborn. Ford, an anti-Semite, promoted lies about Jews in his media mouthpiece, The Dearborn Independent. So perhaps it should come as no surprise that his company used slave labor provided by the Nazi regime during WWII.
That Ford was a hero of Hitler’s is not in doubt. The Führer talks of him in Mein Kampf and in 1938 gave him the Grand Cross of the German Eagle, the highest award for a non-German. And according to Max Wallace in his book The American Axis: Henry Ford, Charles Lindbergh and the Rise of the Third Reich, Ford’s German arm used forced labor before and after America entered WWII.
1. Chase National Bank
Chase National Bank was born as long ago as 1877 and after years of acquisitions became the world’s largest bank by 1930. Its involvement with the Hitler regime in the 1930s and on into the Second World War consisted of a financial arrangement which benefited both the Nazis and the bank’s bottom line. The people who lost out on this shady deal were Germany’s persecuted Jews.
The Nazis had a special kind of reichsmark currency that American-based Nazi supporters of German heritage could buy at a discount for U.S. dollars. Chase National Bank acted as an agent in the process. The special reichsmarks were actually cash that had been stolen from German Jews. From 1936 to 1941, Nazi thieves took a total of around $20 million from German Jews. Chase Manhattan picked up a tidy $500,000 in fees for laundering the stolen cash. That’s nearly $8.6 million in 2018 dollars.