Policy & Politics

Corporate Morality in the Third Reich

How did National Socialism shape the conduct of management at IG Farben, the German chemical giant?

By Jeffrey A. Johnson | July 2, 2009
IG Farben factory at Auschwitz

IG Farben factory at Auschwitz, ca. 1941-1944.

German Federal Archive

Stephan H. Lindner. Inside IG Farben: Hoechst During the Third Reich. New York: Cambridge University Press, 424 pp, $60.

In the immediate aftermath of the collapse of Hitler’s Third Reich, the victorious Allies dissolved the notorious German chemical monopoly, IG Farbenindustrie AG, and tried many of its surviving executives at Nuremberg. despite complicity in crimes, including plunder and the enslavement and murder of camp prisoners, the executives were either acquitted or received relatively light sentences (up to eight years, all eventually commuted). Many later returned to serve with Farben’s successor corporations (chief among them were the “big three,” BASF, Bayer, and Hoechst AG), which remained intact through the 1990s. The parent corporation remained a taboo subject— its successors reluctant to open their archives to historians—until 1987, when Peter Hayes’s Industry and Ideology: IG Farben in the Nazi Era inaugurated a new era of more objective analysis.

One of the most interesting products of the new era to date is Stephan H. Lindner’s Inside IG Farben: Hoechst during the Third Reich, to which Hayes (who also chaired the research advisory committee for the book) has provided a useful foreword. Both in its sources and in its focus, Lindner’s work sets itself apart from other analyses of the subject and demonstrates how National Socialism shaped the conduct of iddle and upper management in a division of one of the most significant corporations of its time.

The increased openness of IG Farben’s successor corporations toward professional historians has made possible the work of Lindner and other historians (including this reviewer). This shift came about with the passing of the older generation of leaders and with continued changes in the political-economic landscape, including the fundamental restructuring of the chemical industry itself. Although Hoechst has effectively disappeared (the name perseveres as an internal subdivision of Sanofi-Aventis, formed in 2004), its archives remain intact. To make full use of these and other corporate documents, Lindner obtained “unwavering support” (p. xix) from Jürgen Dormann, the last board chairman of Hoechst AG (and subsequently of Aventis SA before its merger into Sanofi-Aventis)

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.