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Historically Speaking

Historically Speaking: The Toolmakers of Nazi Germany – Part II

By Tom Morrow

For years during the forties and fifties a popular American company used the sales phrase: “Better living through chemistry,” (Dupont) But, during the two world wars, chemistry played a large part as a destructive weapon.

Chemicals have been used for more than 100 years and those used during the first and second world wars were made with popular-labeled products on both sides of the battle front.

The company that made everything from aspirin to pesticides provided products used by both the Allied Forces as well as the Central Powers during World War I, and the Nazis during World War II.

Bayer was part of IG Farben, which at the time was the world’s largest chemical and pharmaceutical company, from 1925 to 1952. and then again became an independent company. Bayer became part of IG Farben in 1925

In 1938, leading up to World War II, the IG Farben chemical conglomeration, which Bayer was a part, had 218,000 employes world wide.

IG Farben was controversial both on the far left and on the far right, partially for the same reasons, related to the size and the Jewish background of several of its key leaders and major shareholders.

Far-right newspapers of the 1920s and early 1930s accused IG Farben of being an “international capitalist Jewish company.” The liberal and business-friendly German People’s Party was the most pronounced supporter of the new company, whereas not a single member of the management of IG Farben before 1933 supported the Nazi Party. A third, of the IG Farben supervisory board was Jewish.

There is some evidence of “secret contributions to the Nazi war chest” in 1931 and 1932. IG Farben ended up being the “largest single contributor” to the successful Nazi election of Hitler’s campaign of 1933.

In 1941, an investigation exposed a “marriage” cartel between John D. Rockefeller’s United States-based Standard Oil Co. and IG Farben. It also brought new evidence concerning complex price and marketing agreements between DuPont, a major investor in and producer of leaded gasoline, United States Industrial Alcohol Company and its subsidiary, Cuba Distilling Co. IG Farben had bought the patent for the pesticide Zyklon B, which later was used to gas thousands of Jewish prisoners. The gas, ironically, had been invented by the Nobel Prize-winning German Jewish chemist Fritz Haber’s research group.

During World War II, IG Farben used slave labor in factories that it built adjacent to German concentration camps, notably Auschwitz, and the sub-camps of the Mauthausen-Gusen concentration camp. IG Farben purchased prisoners for human experimentation of a sleep-inducing drug and later reported all test subjects died. IG Farben employees frequently said, “If you don’t work faster, you’ll be gassed.” IG Farben held a large investment in Degesch which produced Zyklon B.

IG Farben facilities were frequent bombing targets of the Oil Campaign of World War II, and up to 1941, there were five  Nazi German plants that produced synthetic fuel.

Due to IG Farben’s Nazi entanglement, after the war it was considered by the Allies to be too morally corrupt to be allowed to continue to exist.

But, IG Farben had large entanglement with American companies, notably with the successors of Standard Oil. IG Farben was modeled after and broken up into several companies.

In the late 1940s, IG Farben was being rebuilt in the western zones and continuing doing business. In 1951, the company was split into its original constituent companies. The four largest quickly bought the smaller ones.

One of Bayer’s discoveries was heroin. In 1898, Bayer trademarked and marketed it as a cough suppressant and non-addictive substitute for morphine.  But Bayer’s first and best-known household product is aspirin.

Among other products produced by IG Farben include the nerve agent Sarin. And the German war machine kept fuel-hungry vehicles and airplanes running with a crucial product: synthetic fuel, made from lignite coal using the liquefaction process.

The IG Farben Trial, was the sixth of the 12 Nuremberg war crimes trials. The defendants, all had been directors of IG Farben. Of the 24 defendants, 13 were found guilty. All were sentenced to prison, but received early release. Most were quickly restored to their directorships, and some were awarded the Federal Cross of Merit.

Since World War II, Bayer’s continued primary areas of business include human and veterinary pharmaceuticals; consumer healthcare products; agricultural chemicals and biotechnology products; and high value polymers. Today, the company is a component of the Euro Stoxx 50 stock market index. The Bayer company’s motto today is “science for a better life.”

Today, popular consumer products such as Agfa and BASF, with Bayer aspirin-type products remaining.

In 1995, Helge Wehmeier, the head of Bayer Corporation, publicly apologized to Elie Wiesel for the company’s involvement in the Holocaust at a lecture in Pittsburgh.

Too little too late.


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