|The American Axis:
Henry Ford, Charles Lindbergh and the Rise of the Third Reich
by Max Wallace
Excerpt From Chapter 12
Part One | Part Two | Part Three | Part Four
After Pearl Harbor, as Ford claims, Dearborn did lose effective day-to-day control over the Ford-Werke plant. According to Simon Reich, the consultant hired to oversee the project, the plant's relationship with Dearborn became increasingly "attenuated" during the 1930's and non-existent after Pearl Harbor. Reich makes the point that, "short of divestment by the American parent, Ford's German managers had little choice but to try to address Nazi demands."
This may or may not be true. A significant body of evidence shows that it was Ford Germany, with the full consent of Dearborn, that solicited the Nazis to begin awarding the company military contracts in the first place. The Nazis never in fact forced the company to manufacture on behalf of its military machine. But, for the sake of argument, it can be assumed that the government may have eventually compelled the company to assist the German war effort. If that had happened, as Reich argues, Dearborn would have been left with only two choices. The parent company would either be forced to comply with government demands or divest its German holdings, sacrificing potentially large profits.
In 1940, of course, Henry Ford and his company chose "principles" over profits, opting to give up the British Rolls Royce engine contract because of his alleged reluctance to "manufacture for a foreign belligerent," thereby sacrificing millions of dollars in lost revenues. Before Pearl Harbor, when it still controlled its German subsidiary, Dearborn could have done the same thing, refusing to participate in the German war effort. Instead, as Reich acknowledges, "Ford did absolutely everything they could to ingratiate themselves to the Nazi state."
Reich maintains that after 1939, the German subsidiary acted with growing autonomy from the American parent company, which was "often ill-informed" about activities in Germany. This assertion is certainly not borne out by a letter Ford-Werke Chairman Heinrich Albert sent Edsel Ford in July, 1940 seeking permission to hire Albert's own son to work at the Cologne plant. This evidence of Dearborn micro management almost a year after the war began hardly demonstrates the German subsidiary's growing autonomy.
It is almost impossible to ascertain exactly how much Dearborn knew about the German plant's activities before and after Pearl Harbor. The Ford research team had access to more than one hundred letters exchanged between Ford-Werke and Dearborn before Pearl Harbor, and Reich insists there is no evidence in the letters to indicate that the parent company knew about the use of forced labor. But this paper trail doesn't reveal the whole story. In September, 1940, V.Y. Tallberg, a former chief inspector at the Cologne plant, sailed from Germany to the United States with instructions from Ford-Werke management to "tell the people in Dearborn how conditions were and what wewere doing in the plant."No record exists about what he reported but it is likely that Dearborn was much better informed about the activities of its German plant than the surviving documentation would suggest.
In fact, the possibility of missing documents was the only real constraint faced by Reich and the Ford research team. "We could only work with what was there," says Reich. However, it is impossible to determine how much wartime documentation is actually missing from the company's archives. The recollections of former Chrysler Chairman Lee Iacocca — who began his automotive career at the Ford Motor Company in the 1950's, working under Edsel's son, Henry Ford II — suggests there may be a great deal. In his 1984 autobiography, Iacocca recalls his employer's attitude about preserving company documentation: "Henry actually used to boast that he never kept any files. Every now and then he would burn all his papers. He told me, 'That stuff can only hurt you. Some day you could be crucified for keeping all that stuff'."
Although it acknowledges that it had a controlling financial stake in the plant throughout the war, the Ford Motor Company has always claimed that it lost all communication with Ford Werke after Pearl Harbor and therefore had no knowledge of, or responsibility for, its activities after December 7, 1941. But in 1944, a former Ford-Werke employee named Oscar Bornheim told US military authorities that former plant co-manager Erhard Vitger had "been in communication via radio-telephone with the Detroit offices of the Ford Motor Company" subsequent to 1942. If true, this would have represented a serious violation of US Trading With the Enemy laws, presenting grounds for prosecution of the parent company. However, there was no way of proving the allegation and authorities were forced to drop the investigation. Nevertheless, it underscores a point that the company has been anxious to downplay since the charges of war-time Nazi complicity first surfaced. Unlike most other American corporations operating in Germany after America entered the war, Ford Werke was not actually run by Nazis; it was still being operated by long-time Ford employees, most of them hired by Dearborn more than a decade earlier and fiercely loyal to the parent company's interests. In an affidavit supporting Elsa Iwanowa's slave labor lawsuit, Ford-Werke's wartime head of production Hans Grande denied that the Nazis were calling the shots:
"We on the floor, we didn't have the impression we were working for the Government but that we were still owned by the [American] shareholders and that we were working for Ford, for the Ford Motor Company."
Grande, who went on to become Ford's Vice-President of European Operations after the war, acknowledged that "Our first priority was to look after the company's interests, even after Pearl Harbor."