Hitler needed a chemicals company to provide the raw material for his war. Enter IG Farben, the largest chemicals cartel in the world…
Hell’s Cartel: IG Farben and the making of Hitler’s war machine, by Diarmuid Jeffreys, paperback, 406 pages, ISBN 978-0-7475-9655-4, Bloomsbury, 2008, £8.99.
This book by Diarmuid Jeffreys brilliantly chronicles the story of the rise and fall of the chemical conglomerate, IG Farben. It tracks the cartel’s evolution over history: from its origins in the nineteenth century in the nascent German chemical industry to its global dominance of the world chemical industry. By the 1920s, IG Farben had become the fourth largest industrial concern in the world after America’s General Motors, US Steel and Standard Oil, and the largest in Europe. So strategically important was it to Germany that Weimar Republic Chancellor Gustav Stresemann, declared, “Without coal and IG Farben, I can have no foreign policy.”
The book provides comprehensive evidence of its fatal alliance with the Nazis and its direct complicity and close collaboration with Nazi aims and war crimes. Without IG Farben’s participation, Hitler and his party followers would never have been able to seize and consolidate their power in Germany, and the Third Reich would never have dared to plunge into war.
|Gestapo chief Heinrich Himmler (foreground, left) visiting IG Farben’s synthetic rubber (Buna) plant at Auschwitz, being shown round by IG Farben executive Carl Krauch (centre) and Auschwitz commandant Rudolph Höss. Krauch, sentenced to 6 years by a US war crimes tribunal, was released for “good behaviour” two years later.|
Jeffreys traces the development of IG Farben back to its beginnings in the nineteenth century, when German textile manufacturers impelled by the economic impetus that came from German political unification exploited the new aniline chemistry (invented by an English chemistry student in 1856) and soared into the lead, establishing close to the river Rhine many more synthetic dye works than elsewhere in Europe. Companies such as BASF (which was to play a leading part in the IG Farben project), Bayer and Hoechst were set up, employing their own scientists and chemists, conducting their own academic research and soon leading in the world field.
These businesses quickly realised that “dyestuffs were only the beginning, that out of the same set of basic chemical compounds could come other, more remarkable discoveries”. Soon investigations into the medical potential of coal tar derivatives led them into pharmaceuticals, which developed into a hugely profitable area, particularly for Bayer. Other commercial applications of basic coal tar science ranged from paints and printing inks to photographic materials and cleaning products.
By the time of the First World War, the programmes to produce synthetic nitrate (for gunpowder) and also poison gas weapons brought the German chemical industry into a mutually dependent relationship with the state, which increased still further with military contracts for products such as dye for service uniforms, medicines and paints, replacing the exports that had been interrupted by the war. Also, in August 1916, responding to growing international competitive pressures, a sort of half-merger of Germany’s chemical industries took place; the shape of IG Farben was beginning to emerge.
Following the First World War, the half-merged German chemical companies, facing a weaker international position and needing to update technology, to invent new products and find new capital, decided to merge fully. In December 1925, IG Farben was born.
In 1933, IG Farben donated 400,000 Reichsmarks to the Nazi Party, the largest donation from a firm. In the March 1933 election Hitler emerged with a slim majority, before crushing all internal party opposition. A few weeks later the cartel increased its financial contributions and by the end of the year had given 4.5million Reichsmarks. IG Farben now settled into a stance of collaboration with the Nazi regime. Though some of its leading directors remained non-Nazi, from this moment on many of its leading managers became Nazi party members and the company and state interests merged.
Underwriting the costs
In particular, Hitler and the Nazis promised to underwrite the costs of IG Farben’s quest to produce a synthetic fuel usable by the military and thereby reduce or end Germany’s reliance on foreign energy supplies. Soon after, the cartel further planned to devise synthetic rubber, also essential for the rearmament plans. “From now on IG Farben’s fate and fortunes would be inextricably tied to those of the Third Reich.”
The company greatly profited from the Four Year Plan in which it was given a dominant role in the run-up to war: selling more products, employing more people, making more money than ever before. And in 1938 with the takeover of Czechoslovakia, IG Farben bought one of its rival Czech companies, Aussiger Verein, on very favourable terms, as war plunder.
The German war effort after 1939 is almost unthinkable without IG Farben. The Wehrmacht’s vehicles rode on its synthetic tyres, were powered by its synthetic fuels and fired shells with its explosives. A summary of IG Farben products in the German military machine takes almost a page to describe in the book.
Slave labour and the SS
Also, IG Farben developed a cheek-by-jowl relationship with the SS, consuming countless slave labourers in its plants, most infamously at their plant near Auschwitz, and colluded in the process of the Holocaust. Three chapters towards the end of book catalogue IG Farben’s participation in the concentration camps, including direct experiments on prisoners. The German military blitzkrieg into Poland was swiftly followed by the company, who acquired the most important chemical plants there.
After the war, in 1951 the cartel was broken up and Bayer, Hoechst and BASF were reborn along with 6 smaller firms, which quickly resumed dominance. In August 1947 23 IG Farben defendants were put on trial, but no one received a long sentence and most were freed early, quickly acquiring jobs in industry again. By now, American interests were firmly anti-Soviet; collaborators with Nazism were needed to rebuild Germany on pro-American lines.
This book, full of copious research and evidence, is very informative. It illustrates that fascism assumes power through the established system and confirms that it is the open, naked dictatorship of the most extreme sections of monopoly and finance capital called into play to prevent the progress of working people.