German businessmen

In 1965, just twenty years after the collapse of the Nazi regime, I visited Auschwitz. Even though that was nearly half a century ago, my memory of that shattering experience remains vivid: the mountains of human hair, eyeglasses, and gold dental fillings; the photographs of skeletal prisoners staring glassy-eyed from bunk beds crowded together in darkness; the route from the trains to the barracks to the ovens followed by more than one million European Jews from 1941 to 1944.

Those disturbing images kept coming back to me as I made my way through the pages of Hell’s Cartel, Diarmuid Jeffreys’ compelling story of the role of Germany’s largest industrial concern in the rise of the Nazis and the conduct of World War II. Few readers under the age of 60 are familiar with the name IG Farben, but for most of the 1920s and 1930s, the company ranked fourth in the world, just behind General Motors, U. S. Steel, and Standard Oil of New Jersey.

However, IG Farben was more than another enormous business — it was, in fact, a cartel, or association of separate huge firms for much of its existence — and, more than any other company, it personified German science and Germany’s rise while it dominated much of the German economy between the two World Wars. (The name IG Farben is an abbreviation for a string of German terms meaning “community of interest of dye-making corporations.”)

Hell’s Cartel: IG Farben and the Making of Hitler’s War Machine by Diarmuid Jeffreys ★★★★☆

Hell’s Cartel opens in Nuremberg in 1947, where 23 of the highest-ranking Nazi political and military leaders of the Third Reich had been tried, and most found guilty, in a lengthy war crimes trial that ended the preceding year. Now, in one of a series of subsequent military tribunals, 24 of the directors of IG Farben were going on trial, too.

With the scene set against the devastation of urban Germany, Jeffreys then launches into the history of IG Farben, beginning in the 1880s with the first attempts in Germany to challenge English control of the chemical dye industry; the emergence of several large companies famous in their own right (Bayer, BASF, Hoechst, Agfa) as the German industry overtook its competitors and leapt to the lead in dyestuffs, pharmaceuticals, and chemicals; and the two-decade quest of Carl Duisberg (“the world’s greatest industrialist”) to convince the leaders of competing firms to combine with his own company, Bayer, in an all-German chemical cartel. When Duisberg finally won the day in 1925 and the IG Farben was born, the foundation was laid for one of the darkest chapters in the history of business.

In Jeffreys’ view, the fatal moment came in 1933, shortly after Hitler came to power, when the IG’s chief executive, Carl Bosch, entered into a huge government contract to produce high-octane synthetic fuel for Hermann Goering’s illegal air force. “The agreement Bosch had signed,” Jeffreys writes, “was far more  than the fulfillment of his long-held ambitions [to commercialize synthetic fuel]. It was also a pivotal moment in a sequence of events that would lead inexorably to the blitzkrieg, to Stalingrad, and to the gas chambers of Auschwitz.”

IG Farben’s military significance

Although the IG manufactured thousands of products through its extensive web of companies and subsidiaries — ultimately, throughout the lands Hitler annexed from 1936 to 1943 — its military significance lay chiefly in its production of synthetic fuel, synthetic rubber, and explosives. However, for many observers, the cartel’s most notable product was the Zyklon-B gas used to exterminate millions of Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals, and others judged undesirable and unfit in the deranged mind of Adolf Hitler and those who followed his lead.

Jeffreys’ judgment about the preeminent role of IG Farben is unequivocal. “Had the IG’s managers found the courage to oppose doing business with the Nazis in the late 1930s, or had they been even marginally less compliant, Hitler would have struggled to get his war machine moving.” Going even further, the author quotes one of the company’s top executives, Georg von Schnitzler, who concluded after the war had ended that the firm gave “‘decisive aid for Hitler’s foreign policy which led to war and the ruination of Germany . . . I must conclude that IG is largely responsible for the policies of Hitler.'”

German businessmen unmoored from morality

It is difficult to imagine a more dramatic example than IG Farben of business unmoored from any moral purpose — not just supplying the products that literally fueled the Nazi war machine and sponsoring the gruesome research of Dr. Josef Mengele (the notorious “Angel of Death”), but going so far as to build its own concentration camp for Jewish slave laborers at Auschwitz. [Note: “Auschwitz” connoted a network of more than forty camp facilities, including the Birkenau extermination camp and the IG’s installation near the synthetic rubber plant it was building near the Polish border town of Auschwitz.]

In the final pages of Hell’s Cartel, Jeffreys returns to the 1947 IG Farben trial in Nuremberg, detailing the testimony and attitudes of the two dozen defendants, introducing the American lawyers and judges, and relating the court’s verdict on each of the defendants. I won’t summarize here the outcome of the trial. Suffice it to say that the final chapters of this book make the whole story well worth reading.

Diarmuid Jeffreys is a British journalist and television documentary producer. In an earlier book, Aspirin: The Remarkable Story of a Wonder Drug, he researched some of the early history of Bayer and other German pharmaceutical companies that figure in central roles in Hell’s Cartel.

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