Wednesday, August 27, 2008

How chemical giants and their patents helped Nazi Germany

A new book Hell's Cartel: IG Farben and the Making of Hitler's War Machine by Diarmuid Jeffreys (Metropolitan Books)has been published, incurring the first sentence of the review describing correctly the tone of the book: In February 1941, a top manager of German chemical group IG Farben thought he had found the perfect location for a new synthetic-rubber factory. The site was out of range of Allied bombers, easily reached by rail, and had plenty of water and coal. Most important, there was a ready supply of cheap labor. The site was near a town in occupied Poland called Oswiencim, better known to history as Auschwitz. The author writes at one point about how important IG Farben's role was: "Had IG Farben been even marginally less compliant, Hitler would have struggled to get his war machine moving." IG Farben was a consortium/cartel formed by big German companies Bayer, BASF, Hoechst and with many smaller companies in 1925, which were and still are big patentees in the chemical world. That these companies are such big patentees relates to an interesting lament in the review: "Probably never in history has a major corporation been twisted to such evil ends. Yet what is most disturbing is that, for most of its past, the conglomerate and its predecessor companies embodied many of the qualities we admire in business today. Its managers were inventive and diligent, and its scientists discovered vital medicines, with quite a few earning Nobel prizes." And even more were earning patents. Interestingly, a book based on a PhD thesis: "Divide and Prosper: The Heirs of I.G. Farben Under Allied Authority, 1945-1951", by Raymond G. Stokes (University of California Press, 1988) discusses, among other things, how the Allies temporarily "seized" the patents of the I.G. Farben component companies as part of their post-war control of Germany. If anyone buys/reads the book, I'd appreciate any comments on it, especially in comparison to a controversial book written a few years ago about another well managed, innovative company with many patents whose products were used by the Nazis to evil ends - IBM. That book was titled "IBM and the Holocaust" by Edwin Black. I quote from the Wikipedia entry on "History of IBM": Although IBM actively worked with the Hitler regime from its inception in 1933 to its demise in 1945, IBM has asserted that since their German subsidiary came under temporary receivership by the Nazi authorities from 1941 to 1945, the main company was not responsible for its role in the latter years of the holocaust. Shortly after the war, the company worked aggressively to recover the profits made from the many Hollerith departments in the concentration camps, the printing of millions of punch cards used to keep track of the prisoners, the custom-built punch card systems, and its servicing of the Extermination through labor program. The company also paid its employees special bonuses based on high sales volume to the Nazis and collaborator regimes. As in many corporate cases, when the US entered the war, the Third Reich left in place the original IBM managers who continued their contacts via Geneva, thus company activities continued without interruption. IBM can always be blamed for the "monstrously bad" logic, bad science and worse engineering of Benson, a decision lawyers should be disbarred for citing, the decision being such a travesty of justice, a decision that quotes three paragraphs from a U.S. presidential commission on software dominated and controlled by... IBM, the first and biggest troll ever. Making their stock usually a good buy.