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How Big Business Bailed Out the Nazis

A tragic tale of what can go wrong when profits are entangled with politics.

The views expressed are the author’s own and not neces­sar­ily those of the Bren­nan Center for Justice.

Consid­er­ing the outcome of this year’s pres­id­en­tial primar­ies, where the best-financed candid­ates were defeated, I’ve been asked repeatedly whether corpor­ate money in polit­ics really matters. And I’ll grant, corpor­ate money so far mostly gone to losing candid­ates. But history may give us some greater perspect­ive on how corpor­ate money in polit­ics can prove decis­ive.

It’s a largely forgot­ten piece of history, but in 1932 the German Nazi Party was facing finan­cial ruin. How did the Nazis move from being broke to being in control of the German govern­ment just a year later? The Nazi Party was bailed out by German indus­tri­al­ists in early 1933.

The indus­tri­al­ists who led the way were two huge German firms, I.G. Farben and Krupp. Lead­ers of both of compan­ies were among the few civil­ians who were later charged with war crimes at the Nurem­berg Tribunals after World War II. These trials placed the story of their finan­cial and moral support of the Nazis into the histor­ical record. Krupp was a huge arms manu­fac­turer. I.G. Farben was a vast chem­ical company which made everything from Bayer aspirin to Zyklon B, the poison used in the gas cham­bers.  

Accord­ing to The Arms of Krupp, the Nazi Party was essen­tially bank­rupt in late 1932. Joseph Goebbels, who would later become the Minis­ter of Propa­ganda, complained, “[w]e are all very discour­aged, partic­u­larly in the face of the present danger that the entire party may collapse….The finan­cial situ­ation of the Berlin organ­iz­a­tion is hope­less. Noth­ing but debts and oblig­a­tions.”

Regard­less of the party’s finan­cial prob­lems, Hitler was named Chan­cel­lor in late Janu­ary 1933. He called for elec­tions in early March. With less than two weeks left before the vote, Herman Goer­ing sent tele­grams to Germany’s 25 lead­ing indus­tri­al­ists, invit­ing them to a secret meet­ing in Berlin on Febru­ary 20, 1933. Attend­ing the gath­er­ing were four I.G. Farben direct­ors and Krupp chief Gustav Krupp. Hitler addressed the group, saying “private enter­prise cannot be main­tained in a demo­cracy.”  He also told the men that he would elim­in­ate trade unions and commun­ists. Hitler asked for their finan­cial support and to back his vision for Germany.

Accord­ing to Robert Jack­son, the former Supreme Court Justice and chief U.S. prosec­utor at Nurem­berg, “[T]he indus­tri­al­ist­s…be­came so enthu­si­astic that they set about to raise three million Reichs­marks [worth about $30 million today] to strengthen and confirm the Nazi Party in power.”

Gustav Krupp was the first exec­ut­ive to speak at the Berlin meet­ing, and pledged one million marks. As the United Nations summar­ized in a 1949 report, Krupp was a key finan­cier for the Nazi Party, includ­ing through his corpor­a­tion:

It was clear from the evid­ence that Gustav Krupp embraced Nazism shortly prior to the seizure of power by the Nazi Party and contin­ued his alle­gi­ance there­after. He played an import­ant part in bring­ing to Hitler’s support other lead­ing indus­tri­al­ists and through the medium of the Krupp firm… from time to time made large scale contri­bu­tions to the [Nazi] Party Treas­ury.

Hitler awar­ded Krupp the title of Fuhrer of Industry later in 1933.

Krupp acted in concert with other busi­ness­men, includ­ing the direct­ors of I.G. Farben, then Europe’s largest corpor­a­tion. I.G. Farben’s full name was Interessen Gemeinsch­aft Farben­in­dus­trie Aktiengesell­schaft which trans­lates to “Community of Interest of the Dyestuffs Industry, Incor­por­ated” or as one of the Nurem­burg prosec­utors, Josiah DuBois Jr. in his book, The Devil’s Chem­ists, put it, the name was “like the cross between a service club and Easter eggs.”  But what I.G. Farben did with the Nazis was no laugh­ing matter, includ­ing using slave labor at a specially-construc­ted plant at Auschwitz called Monow­itz

In the open­ing of the tribunal against the direct­ors of I.G. Farben, prosec­utor U.S. Gen. Telford Taylor stated: “The indict­ment accuses these men of major respons­ib­il­ity for visit­ing upon mankind the most sear­ing and cata­strophic war in human history. It accuses them of whole­sale enslave­ment, plun­der, and murder.”

At the Febru­ary meet­ing, the I.G. Farben exec­ut­ives gave the Nazis 400,000 marks, and a total of 4.5 million marks by the end of 1933, accord­ing to The Crime and Punish­ment of I.G. Farben. This infu­sion of corpor­ate cash saved the Nazi Party from finan­cial disaster. The rest, as they say, is history — tragic, tragic history.

As the book Hell’s Cartel explains, the history of the German indus­tri­al­ists’ support of Hitler shows “what can go wrong when polit­ical object­ives and the pursuit of profit become danger­ously entwined.”  One can only surmise what might have happened if the busi­ness­men had simply said “no” to Hitler that night.