Book Review: Corporate Morality in the Third Reich

IG Farben factory at Auschwitz

IG Farben factory at Auschwitz, ca. 1941-1944 (German Federal Archive).

Unrestricted access to sensitive sources such as personnel files made it possible for Lindner to frankly and systematically describe the often questionable conduct of management, not only throughout the Hitler years but also in the aftermath of the war, when the new Hoechst AG emerged in 1951 from the old IG-Hoechst works. The new corporate management led by Karl Winnacker (who had been dismissed by the Americans in 1945) regarded former colleagues sentenced at Nuremberg as “victims” of Allied punishment (p. 355) and reinstated some of them, while resisting claims of former colleagues who had been victims of the Nazis.

In order to better understand the policies of IG Farben’s predecessors Lindner devotes the heart of the book, more than half the total text, to extensively documenting managerial practices and the development of the workforce under National Socialism. He shows that senior plant managers collaborated with the regime, keeping in close touch with local Nazi officials. In some cases the managers were themselves enthusiastic Nazis who enforced what they saw as National Socialist work discipline and sometimes went beyond the laws of the regime to purge people (managerial colleagues, chemists, or other staff) they deemed unacceptable or politically unreliable. By wartime, resistance to the Nazi regime within the company had vanished, and exploitation of imported foreign workers had become common practice. Some corporate officials were already implicated in such criminal acts as the testing of drugs by SS doctors on concentration-camp prisoners, usually with fatal results. Lindner thus effectively undermines the picture of innocence or reluctant compliance that corporate leaders had tried to paint in postwar accounts.

In addition to these concerns Lindner also describes in less detail the history of the company before 1933 and the development of its business within the Farben company during 1933–45. Highlights include research and development in pharmaceuticals and biochemicals, a new department of chemical engineering (called process engineering, then a rarity in Germany), and innovations in plastics (featuring an increasingly tense collaboration with the future Nobel laureate Hermann Staudinger). Overall the company grew steadily under the Nazi Four-Year Plan for economic rearmament and during the war itself (although the Hoechst division only had secondary priority for war production).

Lindner is at his best when describing the actions of individuals, good and bad, and his judgments seem fair. On other topics his descriptions are generally clear and straightforward (though the translation from the original German by Helen Schoop is not flawless). Nevertheless, I highly recommend the book to anyone interested in German business history, the chemical industry, or the politics of National Socialism.

Jeffrey Johnson, professor of history at Villanova University, has been doing research in the archives of German chemical corporations since the 1970s. He is coauthor of German Industry and Global Enterprise. BASF: The History of a Company (Cambridge University Press, 2004).