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Susanne Urban on From Cooperation to Complicity: Degussa in the Third Reich and The Nazi Dictatorship and the Deutsche Bank

Filed under: Antisemitism, Europe and Israel, World Jewry
Publication: Jewish Political Studies Review

Jewish Political Studies Review

Jewish Political Studies Review 17:3-4 (Fall 2005)

Industry and National Socialist Politics: A Close Relationship

The first generation of research on the structure and politics of the Third Reich focused on the leading personalities of the Nazi Party. Then, for a long time, investigators directed their attention to second-ranking politicians, the Wehrmacht, and the special forces of war and terror.

After the German reunification, the contribution of industrial and insurance companies, banks, and similar institutions to the Nazi Party, the rise of the Party, the network of war and repression, and finally the Holocaust became matters of serious interest. The OMGUS Report on the economic structure of Nazi Germany disclosed much information on the perpetrators and the profiteers of forced and slave labor1 and also on the death camps. Published in 1947 by the Office for Military Government for Germany, US/Finance Division/Investigation Section, it did not become available within Germany until the late 1980s.

It was in the early 1990s that the financial restitution of the forced and slave laborers was first placed on Germany’s agenda. Although, initially, German companies and banks often denied any connection to the forced-labor network that the Nazis set up throughout Europe, historians began researching these bodies’ role during the Third Reich, and by now many books have been published on the subject. In some cases, companies and banks themselves initiated inquiries, which for the most part were genuinely independent of their boards.

One area of interest is the role of such major bodies as the Deutsche Bank, the Dresdner Bank, and the chemical industry. Regional studies analyzed smaller companies. Little by little, the “blind spots” in these organizations’ history are being illuminated. The research often shows that cooperation with the Nazi Party brought large financial benefits.

Degussa, Degesch, and Zyklon B

Peter Hayes, a specialist in twentieth-century German history at Northwestern University, published in 1988 the prizewinning Industry and Ideology: IG Farben and the Nazis (new ed., Cambridge, 2001). Another company that has received much attention is Degussa, which smelted metals plundered from Holocaust victims and was directly connected to producing Zyklon B, while using forced laborers from ghettos and camps. Degussa invited Hayes to write the firm’s story during the Third Reich; the historian hesitated until he received a guarantee that Degussa would not have any rights of review or censorship.

Hayes was given full access to Degussa’s archives. Other companies that were connected to it after 1933, such as Henkel of Düsseldorf, have kept their records closed. Hayes’s outstanding study of Degussa is, however, based on newly available material from its own annals.

Although Degussa was never a large firm, it gained importance because of its specialization in smelting. Gold, silver, and other precious metals taken from Jews passed through its refineries. Degesch, a chemical concern concentrating on pesticides that Degussa bought after World War I, later produced Zyklon B, which was used not only against pests but also against Jews and others in the gas chambers. As detailed in an appendix to this book, Degussa and Degesch’s participation in the Holocaust increased after Auschwitz was built in 1942. More than fifty-six tons of Zyklon B were provided by these companies and others to the extermination camps.

Hayes emphasizes that cooperation with the Third Reich was extremely profitable for Degussa and its daughter companies. Degussa had excellent relations with the Nazi Party, prominent members of which served on its board during the war years. Degussa also derived benefit from its approximately three thousand forced laborers, 40 percent of whom were Jews, and from taking over industries and factories as part of the Aryanization program.

Degussa representatives increasingly identified with the racial program and other aspects of Nazi ideology that were linked to terror and mass murder. They also accepted the National Socialist approach of a centralized economy. There were no efforts to keep Degussa independent of the Party’s influence; on the contrary, Degussa was totally devoted to the Third Reich. It sought the easiest ways to amass wealth and power under a terror regime, never showing the slightest concern even about victims murdered with its own products.

Like his study of IG Farben, Hayes’s book on Degussa is an exemplary and judicious account. His insights into the company’s structure and history are applicable to other German firms that participated and profited from Nazi policies. More broadly, this well-written, readable work is essential for those seeking to understand how German citizens in general became collaborators with the Third Reich.


Hunger for Profit: The Deutsche Bank during the Third Reich

Harold James, professor of modern history at Princeton University, has published books on such subjects as the interwar depression in Germany and the changing character of its national identity. He is a member of the Independent Commission of Experts investigating the political and economic links between Switzerland and Nazi Germany, and of commissions examining the roles of Deutsche Bank and Dresdner Bank. In the latter capacity, in 1995 he contributed to a history of the Deutsche Bank a chapter on its role during the Third Reich. His further study, The Deutsche Bank and the Nazi Economic War against the Jews, appeared in 2001 (Cambridge), and his latest book explores the Nazi leadership’s connection to this body. Deutsche Bank was one of the main financers of the Third Reich, a role from which it reaped huge profits. Both the Nazi Party and the SS were its beneficiaries, as well as the military industries. During the Reich, the bank’s director Hermann Josef Abs was also the head of IG Farben’s board.

James’s well-structured, clearly written book is an elaboration of his earlier chapter. It incorporates new materials from American, Russian, and Central European archives, which, he notes, shed light on “some aspects of the bank’s activities and policies that were neglected in the 1995 history,” particularly gold transactions. Beyond that, The Nazi Dictatorship and the Deutsche Bank is not really new, though worthwhile for those who do not want to read the whole book on Deutsche Bank’s history.

Deutsche Bank profited both from forced labor and from giving the Nazis a million-Mark credit for building Auschwitz. The OMGUS Report noted that Deutsche Bank also financed an IG Farben factory with $250 million (1947 currency). During the reparation proceedings, the bank also sold over 300 kilograms of gold whose origin was never completely disclosed, and transferred the profit to Jewish organizations. Although this book could perhaps have been better titled Hitler’s Willing Bankers, James does not convey the prominence of Deutsche Bank’s role during the Third Reich. He is circumspect in his conclusions and less clear than Hayes, speaking of a “fundamental dilemma” and “Germany’s moral catastrophe” in which the “bankers too played a role” (p. 224.). Germany, however, was not beset by a calamity; an overwhelming majority favored the Nazi Party and its program.

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1. The Claims Conference defined forced laborers as people deported from their homeland to the territory of the German Reich or to a German-occupied area, outside the territory of Austria, and forced to perform work there, and slave laborers as people compelled to work in concentration camps, ghettos, or other places of incarceration.