Reviewed by Roger Keeran
January 16, 2018
Big Business and Hitler by Jacques R. Pauwels. Toronto: James Lorimer Company Publishers, 2017. 304 Pp. $27.95.
In 1938, Georgi Dimitroff, the Bulgarian Communist leader, gave the classic Marxist-Leninist definition of fascism: “the open terrorist dictatorship of the most reactionary, most chauvinistic and most imperialist elements of finance capital.” He added, “Fascism is the power of finance capital itself. It is the organization of the terrorist vengeance against the working class….” In Big Business and Hitler, Jacques Pauwels does more than validate Dimitroff’s proposition. He provides a jaw-dropping account of the collaboration between big capital and Hitler, a collaboration that involved American capital as well as German, a collaboration that extended beyond Germany to other European countries, and a collaboration that occurred not just before World War II but also during and after World War II. If you thought you knew something about capitalism and Hitler, Pauwels’s book, will likely show that you did not know half the story.
Pauwels, a Canadian with a PhD in history from York University, has written two previous books—The Great Class War 1914-1918 and The Myth of the Good War— that challenge some accepted understandings of World War I and World War II. In this work, Pauwels also challenges some myths. He argues that the largest industrial and finance capitalists in Germany and in the United States played the major role in supporting, financing, and supplying Hitler’s government from the beginning until the end. They did so because Nazi policies increased their profits and attacked their enemies, namely the Communist Party, the trade unions, and the Soviet Union. The first half of the book deals with German big business and Hitler, and the second half with American big business and Nazi Germany. Fluent in English, French and German, Pauwels bases his argument on leading scholarship in these languages as well as sources in Italian, Dutch and Spanish. Concise and readable, the book masterfully synthesizes existing research.
Though the idea that big business supported fascism will come as no surprise, Pauwel’s rich variety of sources, his statistics, and other telling details, will inform and astound even with those familiar with the story. It is astounding to learn, for example, that however great were Hitler’s violations of democratic norms, however great the atrocities committed against Communists, Socialists, labor unions, Jews, Gypsies and others, however costly and devastating were Germany’s wartime losses, the support for Hitler by German capitalists did not diminish. In other words, the death of imprisonment of one third of the German Communist Party, the persecution of ethnic minorities and the seizure of their property, and even the 13.5 million Germans who were killed, wounded or taken prisoner between 1939 and 1945, did nothing to dampen the enthusiasm of German capitalists for Hitler. Indeed, they benefitted from these policies.
The capitalists supported Hitler because his policies steadily increased their profits. The destruction of the left and the trade unions made possible the increased exploitation of workers. Wages fell and hours of work lengthened. For example, real wages in German-occupied France dropped 50 percent between 1940 and 1944. In Germany, by the end of 1942 workers at Opel and Singer labored over sixty hours per week. Moreover, German industry benefitted from the confiscation of Jewish property and the plundering of the banks and resources of occupied lands. This wealth went directly into the hands of German capitalists to pay for war production. German industry also benefited directly by the use of the slave labor. At least 12 million workers–imported from occupied countries, prisoners of war, and prisoners of the concentration camps–worked for German industry for little or no pay. I.G. Farben, for example, built a giant factory in Auschwitz where inmates worked until death producing synthetic rubber. One-fifth of them died every month. Meanwhile, I. G. Farben’s profits rose every year, from 47 million Reichsmarks in 1933 to 300 million in 1943.
The most eye-opening aspect of Pauwel’s account is his description of what transpired during and after World War II. Many American firms—General Motors, Ford, Du Pont, IBM, Singer, ITT, Kodak, RCA, Standard Oil, Dow, Coca Cola—and banks—Guaranty Trust, Chase Manhattan, J.P. Morgan—had subsidiaries or close business relations with German companies and the government before the war. After Pearl Harbor and even after the declaration of war on Germany, these companies and relationships continued to benefit German fascism. The German government did not seize American subsidiaries, and the idea that American capitalists lost control of their Germany enterprises was largely a myth promoted by the capitalists themselves. For the most part American subsidiaries continued to operate and make profits during the war, where they supplied the German army with fuel, equipment and supplies to prosecute the war and even technology to run the concentration camps. Though German managers ostensibly ran these subsidiaries, and the American companies in Germany continued to supply the German war machine, American owners often kept in contact with German managers through clandestine channels in neutral countries. Outside Germany, Standard Oil used clandestine channels to deliver fuel and other supplies to Germany. During the war, American subsidiaries suffered little damage. For example, the Ford Works outside of Cologne were spared the allied bombing that flattened the rest of the city. At the end of the war, the occupation authority returned the subsidiaries often with profits and enhanced facilities to the American management.
After the war, American capitalists benefitted from the extraordinary influence they exercised in the Roosevelt and Truman administrations. American companies enjoyed reparations for what little damage they suffered. American capitalists forced the Truman administration to scotch the so-called Morgenthau Plan that called for the dismantlement of German industry. They also stopped West German reparations to the Soviet Union and secured favorable treatment for German industrialists who had faithfully served the Third Reich. In what could serve as a fitting coda for the book, Pauwels quotes the French poet Paul Valéry: “War [is] an event in which people who do not know each other massacre each other for the profits of people who know each other very well but not do not massacre each other.”
At the end, Pauwels points out how both popular and scholarly accounts of German fascism have obscured or rewritten the role of big business and the elites. In a bit of historical mythmaking, The Sound of Music portrayed aristocrats opposing fascism while the commoners supported it. Schindler’s List portrayed a German industrialist defying authorities to save Jewish lives, when the common reality was quite the reverse. Similarly, Daniel Goldhagen’s Hitler’s Willing Executioners diverted attention from the culpability of German capitalists by blaming fascism on the supposed inherent anti-Semitism of the German people. In their histories of Ford and General Motors, the historians Simon Reich and Henry Ashby Turner completely whitewashed the collaboration of both firms with Nazi Germany.
Jacques Pauwels’s book makes a timeless contribution to understanding capitalism and fascism. It is also a timely contribution. During the Dreyfus Affair, Emile Zola said that in morally bankrupt times, one has to accustom oneself to swallowing a live toad each day in order to develop a true indifference to the horror around. Today, though most Americans refuse to become indifferent to the horrors emanating daily from Washington, the corporate and financial elite are more than willing to swallow toads. To understand their willingness, one has to look no further than a rising stock market and rising profits. Trump may not be a fascist, but the venality and cynicism inherent in capitalism make the American elite as complicit with Trump’s present and future outrages as their counterparts were with Hitler’s.