Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
Working for the Enemy

Working for the Enemy: Ford, General Motors, and Forced Labor in Germany during the Second World War

Reinhold Billstein
Karola Fings
Anita Kugler
Nicholas Levis
Copyright Date: 2004
Edition: 1
Published by: Berghahn Books
Pages: 352
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Working for the Enemy
    Book Description:

    General Motors, the largest corporation on earth today, has been the owner since 1929 of Adam Opel AG, Russelsheim, the maker of Opel cars. Ford Motor Company in 1931 built the Ford Werke factory in Cologne, now the headquarters of European Ford. In this book, historians tell the astonishing story of what happened at Opel and Ford Werke under the Third Reich, and of the aftermath today.

    Long before the Second World War, key American executives at Ford and General Motors were eager to do business with Nazi Germany. Ford Werke and Opel became indispensable suppliers to the German armed forces, together providing most of the trucks that later motorized the Nazi attempt to conquer Europe. After the outbreak of war in 1939, Opel converted its largest factory to warplane parts production, and both companies set up extensive maintenance and repair networks to help keep the war machine on wheels.

    During the war, the Nazi Reich used millions of POWs, civilians from German-occupied countries, and concentration camp prisoners as forced laborers in the German homefront economy. Starting in 1940, Ford Werke and Opel also made use of thousands of forced laborers. POWs and civilian detainees, deported to Germany by the Nazi authorities, were kept at private camps owned and managed by the companies. In the longest section of the book, ten people who were forced to work at Ford Werke recall their experiences in oral testimonies.

    For more than fifty years, legal and political obstacles frustrated efforts to gain compensation for Nazi-era forced labor; in the most recent case, a $12 billion lawsuit was filed against the computer giant I.B.M. by a group of Gypsy organizations. In 1998, former forced laborers filed dozens of class action lawsuits against German corporations in U.S. courts. The concluding chapter reviews the subsequent, immensely complex negotiations towards a settlement - which involved Germany, the United States, Poland, Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Czech Republic, Israel and several other countries, as well as dozens of well-known German corporations.

    eISBN: 978-1-78238-785-5
    Subjects: History, Economics

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. ix-ix)
  4. List of Abbreviations
    (pp. x-xii)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-18)
    Nicholas Levis

    Anyone in Europe or North America who has ever held a steering wheel or a television remote control can name two U.S. carmakers, market leaders on both continents, and their German subsidiaries. General Motors, the largest corporation on earth, is the owner since 1929 of Adam Opel AG, Russelsheim, the maker of Opel cars. Ford Motor Company, founded by Henry Ford in 1903, is currently the world’s third largest corporation by revenues. In 1931 Ford Motor built the Ford Werke factory in Cologne, today the headquarters of European Ford.¹

    This book tells the story of what happened at Opel and...

  6. Part One

    • Prologue: The Pre-War Years
      (pp. 21-32)
      Nicholas Levis

      A maker of bicycles and sewing machines, the Adam Opel firm began producing automobiles in 1899. By the 1920s Opel was the largest European carmaker. Its home plant, in the Hessian town of Russelsheim, was the largest car factory in Europe. When operating at capacity, Opel Russelsheim employed 13,000 people. It was considered technologically advanced. An assembly line was introduced in 1925¹ and most of the machinery was purchased in the late 1920s. According to General Motors’s analysis at the time, Opel had the best dealer organization in Germany.²

      The period of family ownership need not be romanticized. Despite the...

    • Chapter 1 Airplanes for the Führer: Adam Opel AG as Enemy Property, Model War Operation, and General Motors Subsidiary, 1939–1945
      (pp. 33-82)
      Anita Kugler

      Are large transnational corporations such as the automotive giants General Motors and Ford Motor Company so powerful and remote from public scrutiny that they can violate U.S. security interests at will? The U.S. Senate Committee on the Judiciary considered that question once, a quarter of a century ago. In the spring of 1974, its subcommittee on antitrust and monopoly, chaired by Senator Philip Hart, called hearings on “American Ground Transport.” Among other issues, these zeroed in on the activities during the Second World War of General Motors’s German subsidiary, Adam Opel AG of Russelsheim, and of the German Ford factory...

    • [Illustrations]
      (pp. None)
    • Chapter 2 1945. How the Americans Took Over Cologne–and Discovered Ford Werke’s Role in the War
      (pp. 83-124)
      Reinhold Billstein

      Dirty Business” was the headline given to a sensational December 1998 report inNewsweekabout the role of American banks and businesses in Nazi Germany after 1933. “America had its own Nazi connection,” the magazine wrote. “Chase, General Motors and Ford all had some links to Berlin. And now they may have to face the consequences.”¹

      Sold as a major revelation, this was not terra incognita to researchers. American historians began already in the early 1960s to explore the policies of the Ford Motor Company in Europe and Germany after 1933.² The results are informative and important, but do not...

    • [Illustrations]
      (pp. None)
    • Chapter 3 Walter Rietig and the Effort of Remembrance
      (pp. 125-132)
      Bernd Heyl

      Walter Rietig was just thirty-six when he was murdered, in December 1942, by the authorities of the German Reich. He was sentenced to death by the Volksgerichtshof, the so-called People’s Court in the Berlin district of Plotzensee. Many of the judges who delivered verdicts there regained high posts and judicial authority after the war. They never had to answer for their misdeeds. Their victims were relegated to the historical scrap-books of the Federal Republic, the recollection of them fading with time.

      A short street in the town of Russelsheim is named after Walter Rietig. Despite such scattered symbolic gestures, people...

  7. Part Two

    • Chapter 4 Forced Labor at Ford Werke in Cologne
      (pp. 135-162)
      Karola Fings

      The three efforts to remember the past cited above each stem from a direct participant, but the way they remember seems to differ greatly. In 1949, the factory doctor and the security officer claim they can no longer recall what happened a few years earlier.¹ Fifty years later, the retired Ford worker Fritz Theilen, who had been active in the resistance against the Nazi regime, says he remembers clearly.² For Stepan Saika, a former forced laborer, looking back on the years at Ford-Werke AG in Cologne is a painful process.³

      German society is afflicted to this day by the rationalizations...

    • [Illustrations]
      (pp. None)
    • Chapter 5 “And they took the 38 of us to Ford” Interviews with the former forced laborers Kamila Felinska, Inna Kulagina, Elsa Iwanowa-de Meyer, Anna Nesteruk and Nadia Shubrawa, Stepan Saika, Kazimierz Tarnawski, Yvon Thibaut, Mareno Mannucci, and the retired German Ford employee Fritz Theilen
      (pp. 163-228)

      The years were 1993, 1995, and 1998. The visitors came to Cologne from the Ukraine, Russia, Poland, Italy, and nearby Belgium. They met each other, got acquainted with their hosts, spoke to gatherings of sympathetic listeners. They returned to their former workplaces, where labor camps once stood. Perhaps to an old prison cell. Afterwards, in a room at the city’s NS Documents Center, each visitor sat down with a German interviewer and an interpreter. On the table there were pictures, aerial photos, maps. Questions were posed in German. The subjects spoke in their mother tongues. A tape recorder was running....

    • Chapter 6 Memory and Liability
      (pp. 229-248)
      Nicholas Levis

      For few groups did 1945 pose more of a new beginning, and a challenge, than for the foreign forced laborers and concentration camp prisoners who were liberated by the arrival of Allied troops in Germany.¹ So many of them had lost their families or friends, or suffered personal injury. Most of them had nothing. As displaced persons, they were returned in the first months after the war to their home countries, where long years of fighting and occupation had wreaked devastation. Those who went back to what became known as Western Europe had little to hide. They were accepted, their...

  8. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 249-249)
    Nicholas Levis
  9. Notes
    (pp. 250-288)
  10. Appendix: Concept 1: Organization of the Forced Labor System at War Operations
    (pp. 289-290)
  11. Glossary
    (pp. 291-292)
  12. Select Bibliography
    (pp. 293-298)
  13. Illustration Sources
    (pp. 299-300)
  14. The Authors
    (pp. 301-302)
  15. Index
    (pp. 303-310)