- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 14, 2008


By Diarmuid Jeffreys

Metropolitan Books, $30, 480 pages


By David Dalin and John F. Rothmann

Tantor Media, $49.99, 224 pages


Is Adolf Hitler‘s image in trouble?

There may well be a risk that the ongoing excess of commercial exploitation of the monstrous Nazi mass murderer’s reputation could turn him into a flattened cartoon, the way Vlad the Impaler was first reduced by actor Bela Lugosi’s Count Dracula and then morphed into a Muppet character (Count von Count) and a children’s chocolate breakfast cereal.

Perhaps not. But it does seem that when the publishing industry slaps Hitler’s name and visage on a book cover it is just too easy a marketing ploy. It brings to mind the London publisher who 20 or so years ago published “The Complete Golfing Book of Cats” which was adorned by a Nazi swastika on the cover — to test the widespread theory that Britons would buy any book about golf, about cats or about Nazis — while the interior text had no mention at all of those three topics. Reportedly, sales were brisk.

Not to suggest that we need to halt further research and publishing about the Holocaust or its main architect. To the contrary, Saul Friedlander’s monumental studies on Germany and the Jews advances our understanding with each volume while Adam Tooze’s “The Wages of Destruction: The Making and Breaking of the Nazi Economy” (which was reviewed here last year) shows just what a wealth of material can still be mined from archival sources.

So a new study of the German chemical industry’s complicity in support of Hitler and his war machinery would be a valuable opportunity to advance our understanding of how science can too often become the handmaiden of unspeakable horrors.

But “Hell’s Cartel: I.G. Farben and the Making of Hitler’s War Machine” is no advance at all. It is a summary of the vast volume of documentary information that began to stack up as early as 1946 and is useful if one cannot access one of the on-line potted history services such as Wikipedia.

This is a missed opportunity. Mr. Tooze did an extraordinary job in outlining just how vulnerable the entire German industrial economy was before and during Hitler’s slapdash experiment with national industrial policy. But the Farben cartel was uniquely international in its ties to other marketers of oil, chemical and dye products in the global marketplace to an extent that did not apply to German steel, coal or food producers. It deserves its own story.

Founded in 1925, Interessen-Gemainschaft Farbenindustrie AG, was as its name says, a syndicate of dyestuff corporations, a marketing and production joint venture of such well established firms as film maker AGFA, dye maker BASF, pharmaceutical firm Bayer, Hoechst, and others. The international marketplace for chemicals was one of the most contentious arenas in the post-World War I economy and Farben’s organizers were aggressive in winning agreements to carve up sales territories and push their own patent interests with competitors such as Standard Oil in the United States and Imperial Chemical in Britain.

Prior to Hitler’s sudden seizure of power in 1933, the cartel’s official policy was to stay aloof from the fractious politics of the Weimar era. From 1934 onward however Farben was first aggressively seduced by Hitler and his henchmen and to the firm’s perpetual disgrace, its executives quickly succumbed if not to the Fuerher’s personal charms, then certainly to the promise of his support for Farben’s greatest hope, the prospect of profitably producing vast quantities of synthetic gasoline and motor oils from the ample supply of lignite, or brown coal, available in German mines. Hitler even in the early days realized that Nazi ambitions were dependant on Germany being secure against the kind of energy blockade that brought the country to its knees in 1918.

If Hitler gave Farben access to scarce resources of finance, labor and raw materials, Farben in turn cooperated with a zeal that landed 24 of its directors before an Allied military tribunal during the Nuremberg prosecutions. Among the accusations were that it built a synthetic fuels plant at the notorious Auschwitz and Birkenau death camps and used 83,000 slave laborers there alone. A subsidiary turned out the pesticide Zyklon B in increasing quantities for use in the program of wholesale extermination carried out there and in other concentration camps. The delays and grudging payment of insufficient reparations to the surviving captive workers remains an ongoing scandal even though Farben was officially broken up in 1952.

Yet British author, Diarmuid Jeffreys, fudges the real question at issue in any credible study of the guilt of Farben’s executives: What exactly did they know of the various crimes, atrocities and horrors being inflicted either at the death camps or at their corporate installations. The external pressures and the internal complicity involved remain a mystery that tantalizes.

“Even if they were not directly informed about the mass exterminations (which some of them almost certainly were aware of) and didn’t know the precise details, the conditions under which the concern’s staff lived, and worked, at Auschwitz and their close connections with the SS, both official and unofficial, would have made it impossible for anyone in a senior position to remain in the dark for very long,” Mr. Jeffreys lamely concludes.

Yes, but the details of that relationship are what matters now. Yet only 42 pages out of the book’s 467 deal with the evidence and trial at which 13 of those Farben directors were given jail sentences. We are left not knowing much more than when we started the book.

“Icon of Evil: Hitler’s Mufti and the Rise of Radical Muslim” is another attempt to take a valid avenue for historical exploration and hype its sales with the questionable notion that today’s radical Islamic movement is a direct result of Hitler’s support of an exiled cleric during the last three years of World War II.

The jacket cover showing Hitler chatting in 1941 with the newly arrived exile Haj Amin al-Husseini, the mufti, or clerical leader of Jerusalem, promises more of a story than the authors deliver. And to call al-Husseini “the Father of radical Islam” is just shameful hype that clouds the complex and many-layered story of how religious fundamentalism was perverted by many hands into the general horror it has become.

The al-Husseini story of violence and hatred is important enough without embroidering it with swastikas. Through British blundering and a right of inheritance he was elevated to the mufti’s position in 1921, 20 years before his meeting with Hitler. From the start he was a virulent anti-Semite and promoted a series of riots and murders to protest the arrival of Jewish immigrants to Palestine and the promise of an independent Israel.

On the run from British authorities in the Middle East, al-Husseini’s usefulness to the Nazi war effort was mostly to recruit Muslim volunteers in Bosnia and Croatia to fight in Waffen SS units in the brutal Balkans campaigns. While the trappings of Nazi philosophy did attract adherents among postwar Arab radicals, especially the Ba’athists of Syria and Iraq, it merely confuses the larger story to try to draw a direct line from Adolf Hitler to al-Husseini and then to his distant cousin Yasser Arafat, let alone to Saddam Hussein.

The point is neither Hitler nor al-Husseini needed much help from the other to work the evil that each produced.

  • James Srodes’ latest book is “Franklin: The Essential Founding Father.”
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