Published by EH.Net (May 2004)

Werner Abelshauser, Wolfgang von Hippel, Jeffrey Allan Johnson, and Raymond G. Stokes, German Industry and Global Enterprise BASF: The History of A Company. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004. 620 pp. $75 (Hardback) ISBN: 0-521-82726-4

Reviewed for EH.NET by J. Steven Jones, History Department, Northwest Mississippi Community College

Abelshauser, von Hippel, Johnson, and Stokes have produced a collaborative history of the German chemical giant BASF in incredible detail and breadth. In doing so, they give us a very good picture of not only the development of BASF from its fledgling days, but also the development of the German chemical industry as a whole. The authors were granted unprecedented access to BASF company archives for the preparation of this book, in part because the work was funded by BASF itself. In addition to company archives, the authors have done extensive research into other archived materials and used a wide array of secondary sources. This material is skillfully woven together to create an interesting, useful, and sometimes troubling book. Each author writes about a particular period in the history of the company with the whole narrative tied together by what Abelshauser calls the “social system of production.” (p.2)

Normally, one would think that this term describes the relationship between the company and its workers, a relationship in which there is little conflict between management and labor and one in which there exists a paternal and caring management. That is not true in this instance. Instead, the corporate culture is based on the symbiosis of science and management to such an extent that until very recently, the company has been led by men who began their careers as research scientists in the company. This symbiotic relationship is evident throughout the book. Each of the four sections that make up this book deal with a specific time period in the history of BASF. Each section is filled with the activities of scientists and the impact that their research had on the growth and success of BASF.

The most troubling section is that written by Raymond Stokes. His section covers the period 1925-1952 when BASF and the other large German chemical firms were fused into the IG Farben Trust. This section is troubling not because of what is said, but rather for what is not said. There is an obvious attempt to tap-dance around the involvement of the BASF component of IG Farben in Nazi crimes.

Stokes does point out that the former core of BASF, the Ludwigshafen, Oppau, and Leuna factories were producing synthetic rubber and gasoline and that these production lines led to the involvement of IG Farben with the death and labor camp at Auschwitz. (p. 207) However, he attempts to separate BASF from guilt by arguing that it was only part of IG Farben and did not control the trust. (p. 206) It is interesting to note the bifurcated view one gets of BASF in these years. On the one hand, there is trumpeting of the facts that the former BASF led IG Farben in production, investment, and research and development. The fact that its scientists and managers played a large role in the direction of IG Farben (p. 235) seems to contradict the argument discussed earlier that BASF was only a cog in the IG Farben wheel.

Perhaps most disturbing is the very limited discussion of Jewish policy under the Nazis. No mention is made of the Nuremberg Race Laws and the effect of these laws on BASF and IG Farben. The only specific reference to anti-Semitic measures is a brief mention of how Goring redefined what a Jewish “firm” was in the context of the Four Year Plan in 1938. Stokes writes that by then all Jews in positions of responsibility had been transferred to offices abroad. (p. 291) One is left to wonder if any Jews worked for BASF/IG Farben on the production line and what their ultimate fate was. Also, what of those who had been transferred abroad? No mention is made of their fate either. Were they caught in other European countries later and ground up in the Nazi death machine or were they sent to countries outside Nazi reach? One cannot tell from this book. In addition, Stokes’ argument that Monowitz was the only suitable location in Poland for the Buna plant and that the endless supply of labor available in Auschwitz had no bearing on the decision to locate the plant are simply implausible. (pp. 300-4)

The other major fault in this book is the lack of discussion about guest workers in post-war Germany. Werner Abelshauser writes the last section of the book dealing with the refounding of BASF as an independent company from 1952 to the present. In a book that sometimes gives excruciating detail of the company’s relations with workers and unions, there is only one paragraph dealing with guest workers. (pp 411-2) As anyone conversant with recent German and European history knows, the problems associated with immigrant labor are a hot issue in both social policy and industrial policy. Overall, this is a valuable book, but only to the degree that the reader realizes that much is left out or glossed over. The fact that the book was funded by BASF makes it impossible for the reader to get the whole story on certain issues that would reflect badly on the company. In other ways, the book is excellent. The reader gains not just a picture of the development of BASF over its corporate life, but the German chemical industry as a whole, and indirectly the entire German economy. The book provides a valuable starting place for anyone wishing to study German economic history. It is not however, a book one can use to gain understanding of some of the key social and political issues faced by German industry during much of the mid and late twentieth-century.

Please also read the Author’s Response to this review.

J. Steven Jones teaches history at Northwest Mississippi Community College