25 February 2016

Thoughts about Americans and the Third Reich

by Marc Masurovsky

Volumes could be written about this vast and complex topic. Here are some elements to think about and jump-start the discussion:

1/ the United States and Germany have been joined at the hip since at least World War I. Lawyers, scholars, businessmen, entertainers, artists, art historians, museum directors, curators, government officials, religious figures, bankers, diplomats—their mutually beneficial ties and exchanges have run deep before, during and after the Third Reich (1933-1945). That might explain why J. Edgar Hoover, legendary former director of the FBI, was paranoid (he was about everything, actually) that a fifth column of spies, agitators, and subversives could easily form on American soil without being bullied into serving the Reich. (Note: this line of thinking applied just as well to the perceived "communist threat") In his view, there were more than enough volunteers who would either remain neutral or engage in activities that would support National Socialist policies. In a state of war, that was potentially treasonous behavior. Henry Morgenthau, Franklin Roosevelt’s Secretary of the Treasury, thought alike. Well aware of the interlocking interests that bound American and German businesses, Morgenthau was convinced that the American private sector would have to be held on a tight leash to prevent it from aiding Nazi Germany and from profiting from its discriminatory policies.

2/ American banks and companies have invested heavily in Germany. At Hitler’s rise to power, there were well over 300 American companies active on German soil. By the time the United States entered WWII in December 1941, that number may have dropped somewhat but not by much, many businessmen preferring to “wait it out” and hope for the best. That display of business pragmatism towards National Socialism allowed those companies to continue producing for the Reich either as wholly owned subsidiaries of the American parent or as companies with a majority German interest on their boards. Since the German government forbade profits from being repatriated to the US—the enemy--, those profits were set aside or, in some cases, cleverly concealed and transferred with the connivance of German officials to holding companies established in “neutral” countries where the American company held an interest. After WWII, these same American businesses sent their representatives into the various Allied zones of occupation to inspect their subsidiaries and tally up accounts receivables. Business as usual.

3/ No one knows exactly how many American citizens remained in Europe after 1933 and especially after September 1939. The State Department, through its consular offices, received thousands of requests for exit visas, most of which were not honored for quota reasons. What happened to what we believe were thousands of Americans from all walks of life stuck in every country that fell to the Nazis and their Fascist allies? Special camps and detention facilities were established for Allied enemy nationals—British and American—in France (Vittel is the most well-known) while the concentration camp of Gross-Rosen had a sub-camp where American actors, singers, and musicians were deported to, most of whom were African-American. If you look closely enough, you will find the names of American citizens typed on deportation lists from Western Europe, Italy, Austria, and Eastern European nations.

4/ for those American citizens who remained relatively free of movement throughout the years of Nazi rule, we know very little about their activities. However, we do get hints of what they were up to, like in France, where some frequented the Paris auction house of Drouot and acquired art objects which were later donated to American museums. American banks like Morgan and Chase invested in joint ventures involving the French real estate market under Vichy as it was being aryanized.

5/ In the postwar years, the discourse on Americans and the Holocaust has been a truncated, highly sanitized story. American soldiers and officers, traumatized, returning from the front, have testified about the horrors they witnessed, or rather, their aftermath as their units liberated one camp after another.

6/ After 1945, US government officials might have been upset about the role that American businesses played during WWII, but it was essential, especially in light of the incipient Cold War, to keep the nation on an even keel and not penalize opportunistic businessmen too harshly, or at all, for their dalliances with Nazis and Fascists. That might explain why no American CEO or company was brought to justice in the postwar years for acts of collaboration and abetting plunder. Those whose behavior was most conspicuous received private reprimands, but no more (Chase Bank and Morgan, for instance.). In liberated countries of Western Europe, American subsidiaries might have incurred fines for “wartime illicit profits.” Coincidentally, no sooner than WWII had ended that American intelligence priorities (equal to those of the British and the French) focused in part at using the private sector as a Trojan horse of sorts against real and perceived threats, making businessmen and entrepreneurs, partners in intelligence collection.

7/ And what of non-Jewish American survivors of internment in Nazi concentration camps, prisons and makeshift "confinement centers" set up in Axis-occupied territories? It would be fascinating and very moving to hear the stories of the many jazz and blues musicians who endured and survived the nightmare of Nazi concentration camps.

8/ By the end of 1946, the US had lifted all of its wartime restrictions on trade with Europe and the Far East. By the early 1950s, the Allies had settled financial scores with the neutral countries for having profited from trade with the Axis powers, especially as pertains to the recycling of gold looted by the Third Reich. And then, business resumed.

And so it goes…