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West German Industry and the Challenge of the Nazi Past, 1945-1955

Author(s):Wiesen, S. Jonathan
Reviewer(s):Stallbaumer-Beishline, L. M.

Published by EH.Net and H-Business (June 2002)

S. Jonathan Wiesen, West German Industry and the Challenge of the Nazi Past,

1945-1955. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001. xvi + 329

pp. $39.95 (cloth) ISBN: 0-8078-2634-0.

Reviewed for H-BUSINESS and EH.NET by L. M. Stallbaumer-Beishline, Associate

Professor of History, Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania

How do businessmen or corporate executives come to terms with accusations of

criminality? S. Jonathan Wiesen (Assistant Professor at Southern Illinois

University at Carbondale) raises this question in his study of West German

industry’s publicity and public relations efforts in the first decade after the

Second World War. Because industrialists were reinventing their public image as

entrepreneurs (“Unternehmer”), it is assumed that they were repressing memories

of the Nazi past. However, Wiesen convincingly illustrates that industrialists

were pre-occupied with the Nazi past by going behind the scenes to discover how

they developed their public relations tactics through such venues as industrial

organizations, publications, and trade fairs. While Wiesen is primarily

interested in formal, institutional behavior, he also scrutinizes the endeavors

of individual industrialists. He raises questions of universal importance about

the place of morality in corporate behavior and how memory can be engineered

and promoted.

To illustrate the urgency, indeed obsession, felt by industrialists to explain

their Nazi past, Wiesen cites the example of the German electrical firm,

Siemens & Halske. The company’s managing board, although surrounded by the

ruins of war in July 1945, composed manuscripts to explain its corporate

behavior. Why the urgent need? Siemens wanted to deny war crime allegations

being leveled against it by the Allied powers and to remind the public of the

significant role that the company would play in the reconstruction of Germany.

By analyzing how the manuscript was drafted and edited, Wiesen reveals a number

of rationalizations offered by many industrialists: they were simply doing

business, held no political views (yet attempted to resist Nazi policies),

could not avoid using forced labor, and at least in the case of Siemens,

“worker friendly.” (p. 38) Wiesen is critical of Siemens’s behavior, yet places

it in the context of its time and demonstrates the urgent need that the Siemens

directorate felt to explain its Nazi past.

The bulk of Wiesen’s monograph is devoted to how industry came to promote a

collective identity in order to soften Allied occupation policies, to improve

its public image with domestic and foreign trading partners, and to check the

growing power of organized labor. Initially, these attempts were ad hoc

responses to immediate needs. For example, heavy industry supported the

creation of the so-called Industry Office, that was devoted to the collection

and organization of documents that could be used by German defendants in Allied

tribunals and in denazification procedures. Yet, Wiesen also demonstrates that

industrialists were sensitive to charges of crude apologetics as evidenced by

his examination of Ruhr industrialists’s cautious attitude towards the

publication of August Heinrichsbauer’s Schwerindustrie und Politik.

The more significant development in promoting collective identity was the

decision of the Bundesverband der Deutschen Industrie (BDI or Federation of

German Industry) and the Bundesvereinigung deutscher Arbeitgeberverbande (BdA

or Federation of German Employwers’ Associations) to fund the public relations

organization that eventually became known as the Deutsches Industrieinstitut

(DI, later renamed the Institut der Deutschen Wirtschaft). The first director

of the DI was Fritz Hellwig, who was one of the “new breed of image makers”

that included in its ranks, Fritz Berg, Carl Hundhausen, and Herbert Gross, all

of whom promoted American business concepts of publicity and public relations.

In its numerous publications, references to the Nazi past were intended to

portray the businessman as a victim of the totalitarian regime. The Di’s

tactics proves that it was tacitly admitting the damage done to its reputation

during the Nazi era. Far from ignoring the Nazi past, the DI acknowledged its

existence and in response was putting forth the image of the businessman as

Unternehmer and the “unsung hero of industrial capitalism.” (p. 118) How the DI

and other publicists promoted this image (e.g. through trade fairs and

publications) and its efforts to woo organized labor through the promise of a

middle-class standard of living is then examined in subsequent chapters.

While the DI formally represented industry, it did not preclude individual

firms from attempting to improve their public images. For example, Wiesen

explores two ill-fated publications commissioned by Vereinigte Stahlwerke: a

twenty-fifth anniversary commemorative history of the company and a biography

of Albert Voegler. In each case, Wiesen clearly demonstrates in fascinating

detail that these were crude attempts at “corporate whitewash” by describing

why the volumes were initially conceived, how they were edited by those

involved in the project, and why the initial enthusiasm for both works died

down. A more ambitious project was undertaken by Alfried Krupp, in

collaboration with conservatives in the United States, when he was approached

to subsidize the research and writing of Louis Lochner’s Tycoons and Tyrants:

German Industry from Hitler to Adenauer. Lochner essentially portrayed German

industrialists as embattled businessmen, who should now be allowed to rebuild

Germany through free enterprise. By examining the motives behind this project,

Wiesen again demonstrates that industry was trying to reinvent itself, because

it was pre-occupied with the Nazi past.

Wiesen’s study is a compelling analysis of how West German industry’s

development of public relations was a response to the immediate Nazi past.

Because Wiesen is concerned with formal, institutional memory, particularly

represented by the DI, he uses terms such as industry, business, and big

business interchangeably. Yet the DI represented a broad range of companies

from relatively small family firms to large conglomerations, so one is still

left wondering if the voice of the DI leadership was representative. Wiesen

raises questions about ethics and morality that are useful to business

historians generally. He judiciously points out the hypocrisy of

industrialists’s claims that they were victims of a totalitarian regime.

Moreover, Wiesen’s study points out the need for more research on

twentieth-century German business history: the relationship between capitalism,

fascism, and business ethics. Why did industrialists have little or no moral

compunction in such activities as exploiting forced labor or involving itself

in “aryanization”? Why did conservatives in the United States so readily

identify with their business counterparts in Germany after the war? What was

the impact of West German industry’s attempts to reinvent its public image?

Wiesen hints at the possible impact, but he is reluctant to discuss German

attempts at “coming to terms with the past” (Vergangenheitsbewaeltigung)

because this has only been measured in absolute terms of success or lack

thereof. Rigid standards leave no room for the gray areas Wiesen discovered.

Yet, the concept might still serve a useful heuristic purpose. Wiesen’s study

is a convincingly well-research monograph that business and German historians

will find incredibly useful.

L. M. Stallbaumer-Beishline is an Associate Professor of History at Bloomsburg

University of Pennsylvania, where she teaches modern German history and is

researching a monograph on the Flick Concern during the Nazi era.

Subject(s):Industry: Manufacturing and Construction
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII