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
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.