Ford Says WWII Study Clears Firm
Seeking to end lingering allegations that it forged an unholy alliance with the Nazis, Ford Motor Co. on Thursday released a study saying it did not profit from its German subsidiary during World War II.
Ford, the world’s second-largest auto maker, also said it will donate $4 million toward human rights studies, primarily focusing on slave and forced labor.
Company founder Henry Ford was a notorious anti-Semite who wrote a 1921 pamphlet, “The International Jew: The World’s Foremost Problem,” and other anti-Jewish articles admired by Adolf Hitler. In 1938, the year before the war began, Hitler awarded the American industrialist the Grand Cross of the German Eagle, the highest honor the Nazis bestowed on foreigners.
The 144-page report issued Thursday was commissioned by the company in January 1998 after the British Broadcasting Corp. raised questions about the auto maker’s use of slave and forced labor at its Ford-Werke plant in Cologne.
Ford also said it will devote $2million of its donation to a fund created by an affiliate of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to compensate slave laborers and others who were forced to work in German factories owned by American companies or their subsidiaries during the regime of Hitler.
The company said it will give a public archive the 98,000 documents it gathered while preparing the report during the last 31/2 years.
The study, in essence, reiterates in considerably greater detail positions that Ford took in March 1998 after the company was sued in federal court in Newark, N.J., by Holocaust survivors who claimed the firm profited from forced labor at the Cologne factory from 1941 to 1945.
The suit contended that as many as half the workers there were unpaid and laboring “under utterly barbarous conditions” during the war. The plaintiffs sought disgorgement of “all economic benefits” Ford got from forced labor and punitive damages.
A federal judge in New Jersey dismissed the case in September 1999, saying the resolution of such matters should left to international treaties between countries. The plaintiffs appealed, but just before the appeal was set to be heard, a $5-billion settlement of Holocaust-related claims against German companies was consummated and the appeal was mooted.
Thursday’s report states that Ford lost operational control of Ford-Werke, originally opened in 1931, after the Nazi government seized the company’s assets in 1941 and that the parent company had no further communication with the Cologne plant until the war ended. Ford regained control of the plant in 1948.
Moreover, the report said, although Ford-Werke made money during the early years of the war--manufacturing military trucks and armored personnel carriers--none of the funds were provided to the parent company, and the plant was so severely damaged at the end of the war that Ford was a net loser.
According to the report, most companies in Germany used conscripts because of labor shortages brought on by the war. By 1944, Ford-Werke was using Belgian, Italian, Russian and Ukrainian civilians as forced laborers in the plant, as well as prisoners from the Buchenwald concentration camp.
Ford received compensation from the German and U.S. governments after the war.
The report was praised as thorough and candid by Simon Reich, a University of Pittsburgh political scientist, who was hired by Ford to observe its research process and to write a forward to the study.
“Despite Hitler’s knowledge of Henry Ford’s anti-Semitic publications, his personal admiration for Ford himself and his adaptation of the mass production techniques that Ford had made famous, Ford-Werke’s linkages with the Dearborn [Mich.] headquarters became increasingly attenuated during the course of the decade of the 1930s,” wrote Reich, who earlier did a study of the wartime auto industries in Germany and Britain.
Nonetheless, the Ford-Werke plant was never formally confiscated, unlike virtually all other U.S.-owned companies in Germany. That alone means Ford bears a particular responsibility, said Gideon Taylor, executive vice president of the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany.
“Ford’s majority ownership of the company during the war goes directly to the question of its responsibility for the use of forced labor,” Taylor said.
New York University law professor Burt Neuborne said a fully independent review of the documents would have to be made before drawing conclusions about Ford’s World War II conduct.
Nonetheless, Thursday’s announcements were “a positive development,” said Neuborne, one of the lead lawyers in several Holocaust related cases, including the one against Ford.
Because there is no case pending against Ford, he said, “the company can say that it has made a contribution when it has nothing to fear from the law,” rather than have the donations be linked to the end of a lawsuit.
Washington attorney Stuart Eizenstat, who was the Clinton administration’s special envoy on Holocaust reparations issues, also applauded Thursday’s developments, particularly the decision to make the 98,000 documents public. He said no other company--in Germany or the U.S.--had agreed to make its Holocaust files public.
Eizenstat said he hoped that Ford’s $2-million contribution would inspire donations from other U.S. companies with subsidiaries that operated in Germany during the war.
More than 18 months ago, the Chamber of Commerce said it would solicit donations from U.S. corporations to compensate slave laborers and others forced to work in German factories during the war. But Ford’s donation is the first made to the fund, said its director, Craig Johnstone.