Hitler’s carmaker: How General Motors helped jump-start the Third Reich’s military machine
James D. Mooney thrust his arm diagonally, watching its reflection in his hotel suite mirror. Not quite right. He tried once again. Still not right. Was it too stiff? Too slanted? Should his palm stretch perpendicular to the ceiling; should his arm bend at a severe angle? Or should the entire limb extend straight from shoulder to fingertips? Should his Sieg Heil project enthusiasm or declare obedience?
Never mind, it was afternoon. Time to go see Adolf Hitler.
Just the day before, May 1, 1934, under a brilliant, cloudless sky, Mooney, president of the General Motors Overseas Corp., climbed into his automobile and drove toward Tempelhof Field at the outskirts of Berlin to attend yet another hypnotic Nazi extravaganza. This one was the annual May Day festival.
Tempelhof Field was a sprawling, oblong-shaped airfield. But for May Day, the immense site was converted into a parade ground. Security was more than tense, it was paranoid. All cars entering the area were meticulously inspected for anti-Hitler pamphlets or other contraband. But not Mooney’s. The Fuhrer’s office had sent over a special windshield tag that granted the General Motors’ chief carte blanche to any area of Tempelhof. Mooney would be Hitler’s special guest.
As Mooney arrived at the airfield about 3:30 p.m., the spectacle dazzled him. Sweeping swastika banners stretching 33 feet wide and soaring 150 feet into the air fluttered from 43-ton steel towers. Each tower was anchored in 13 feet of concrete to resist the winds as steadfastly as the Third Reich resisted all efforts to moderate its program of rearmament and oppression.
Thousands of other Nazi flags fluttered across the grounds, as dense column after column of Nazis, marching shoulder to shoulder in syncopation, flowed into rigid formation. Each of the 13 parade columns boasted between 30,000 and 90,000 storm troopers, army divisions, citizen brigades and Hitler Youth enrollees. Finally, after four hours, the tightly packed assemblage totaled about 2 million marchers and attendees.
Hitler eventually arrived in an open-air automobile that cruised up and down the field amid the sea of devotees. Accompanied by cadres of SS guards, Hitler was ushered to the stage, stopping first to pat the head of a smiling boy. This would be yet another grandiose spectacle of Fuhrer-worship so emblematic of the Nazi regime.
When ready, Hitler launched into one of his enthralling speeches, made all the more mesmerizing by 142 loudspeakers sprinkled throughout the grounds. As the Fuhrer demanded hard work and discipline, and enunciated his vision of National Socialist destiny, the crisp sound of his voice traveled across an audience so vast that it took a moment or two for his words to reach the outer perimeter of the throng. Hence, the thunderous applause that greeted Hitler’s remarks arrived sequentially, creating an aural effect of continuous, overlapping waves of adulation.
General Motors World, the company house organ, covered the May Day event glowingly in a several-page cover story, stressing Hitler’s boundless affinity for children.
“By nine, the streets were full of people waiting to see Herr Hitler go meet the children,” the publication reported.
The next day, May 2, 1934, after practicing his Sieg Heil in front of a mirror, Mooney and two other senior executives from General Motors and its German division, Adam Opel A.G., went to meet Hitler in his Chancellery office. Waiting with Hitler would be Nazi Party stalwart Joachim von Ribbentrop, who would later become foreign minister, and Reich economic adviser Wilhelm Keppler.
As Mooney traversed the long approach to Hitler’s desk, he began to pump his arm in a stern-faced Sieg Heil. But the Fuhrer surprised him by getting up from his desk and meeting Mooney halfway, not with a salute but a businesslike handshake.
This was, after all, a meeting about business — one of many contacts between the Nazis and GM officials that are spotlighted in this multipart JTA investigation that scoured and re-examined thousands of pages of little-known and restricted Nazi-era and New Deal-era documents
This documentation and other evidence reveal that GM and Opel were eager, willing and indispensable cogs in the Third Reich’s rearmament juggernaut, a rearmament that, as many feared during the 1930s, would enable Hitler to conquer Europe and destroy millions of lives. The documentation also reveals that while General Motors was mobilizing the Third Reich and cooperating within Germany with Hitler’s Nazi revolution and economic recovery, GM and its president, Alfred P. Sloan, were undermining the New Deal of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and undermining America’s electric mass transit, and in doing so, were helping addict the United States to oil.
For GM’s part, the company has repeatedly declined to comment when approached by this reporter. It has also steadfastly denied for decades — even in the halls of Congress — that it actively assisted the Nazi war effort or that it simultaneously subverted mass transit in the United States. It has also argued that its subsidiary was seized by the Reich during the war. The company even sponsored an eminent historian to investigate, and he later in his own book disputed many earlier findings about GM’s complicity with the Nazis. In that book, he concluded that assertions that GM had collaborated with the Nazis, even after the United States and Germany were at war, “have proved groundless.”