Sunday, September 07, 2003

Bush, the Nazis and America

[A short series: See Part 1]

2: The Bush fortune

The bulk of the information about the Bush family's Nazi connections comes from a couple of books of varying quality: The Secret War Against the Jews, by John Loftus and Mark Aarons, which is generally quite accurate, though somewhat tendentious; and George Bush: The Unauthorized Biography, by Webster Tarpley and Anton Chaitkin. The latter is the text that is most commonly cited by critics who make the Bush-Nazi connection, but it is also decidedly the most problematic. Tarpley and Chaitkin are followers of the right-wing extremist Lyndon Larouche, and their book is primarily devoted to "exposing" George H.W. Bush, the current president's father, as a leading member of a secret cabal intent on enslaving mankind.

Like most Larouche texts, the Bush "biography" is a mélange of fact and distortion, written in a highly suppositional style that makes numerous leaps of logic and asserts connections where there is no real evidence to support it, at other times omitting exculpatory or contrary information that reveals a more complete picture. Sifting through it requires a great deal of work, but there are nuggets of fact woven into their text that are substantiated and which deserve proper consideration. (Here are the relevant chapters, two and three, from the book that cover this material. You can read the remaining chapters to see how it weaves a classic right-wing conspiracy theory about Bush.)

Loftus' work is thesis-driven and likewise does not take much into consideration exculpatory points; at other times it makes assertions supported by intuition but not hard evidence. However, it is considerably more reasoned and factually sound than the Tarpley/Chaitkin text. It is not available online, but Loftus maintains a Web site, including this piece: "How the Bush family made its fortune from the Nazis". (A piece by Toby Rogers, "Heir to the Holocaust," is largely derived from Loftus' work.)

The core facts, gleaned from both books and other sources, and which are completely documented and appear irrefutable, are as follows:

The current president's great-grandfather, George Herbert "Bert" Walker (the surname provides the "W" by which the president is widely known), was a close business associate of railroad magnate W. Averell Harriman. Walker was CEO and president of the W.A. Harriman & Co., their Wall Street investment firm. Over the years, the Walker/Bush and Harriman fortunes became closely interconnected.

In 1920, Walker and Harriman obtained the Hamburg-Amerika Line, reportedly the world's largest private shipping line, from the United States government, which had seized it during World War I. Among the people who reportedly facilitated this deal were Samuel Pryor, chairman of Remington Arms, the largest U.S. gun manufacturer; and Samuel Prescott Bush, an Ohio steel manufacturer who had been director of the arms and facilities division of the U.S. War Industries Board during World War I. S.P. Bush's duties primarily were a liaison between the government and various arms makers, notably Remington Arms. (Bush already had a long business relationship with the Harriman family, since his company, Buckeye Steel Castings, had provided much of the steel rail used by Union Pacific Railroad.)

Prescott Bush, his son, married Bert Walker's daughter Dorothy in 1921.

In 1924, Harriman and Walker set up the Union Banking Corporation, whose primary purpose was to funnel American capital to German industry. Walker was president of the company, and Harriman its chief stockholder. In just one three-year period, the Harriman firm sold more than $50 million of German bonds to American investors.

It is important to remember, however, that during these initial years of operation, Union Banking was primarily doing business with non-Nazi Germans. Fritz Thyssen, the German industrialist who was the company's chief client, in fact had helped finance Hitler's nascent organizational campaign in October 1923, but after the failure of the "Beer Hall Putsch" the next month, severed his ties with them. Hitler was jailed for a year, and the party remained in dire financial straits for the following four years. However, in 1928, Thyssen changed his mind and became a major benefactor of the Nazis. That clearly was when the Harriman-Nazi connection took root as well, though as we will see, there already were certain ideological commonalities.

In 1926, Walker named young Prescott Bush a vice president of W.A. Harriman, made him a director of Union Banking, and placed him in charge of overseeing the firm's German operations, particularly its capital investments in Thyssen's various industrial ventures, notably his Vereinigte Stahlwerke, or United Steel Works.

The Depression, however, hit the Harriman firm hard. It started losing money hand over fist, and as a 2001 Boston Globe profile of the Bush family dynasty (which noticeably mentions the 1942 Vesting Order, but then fails to give any further detail on Bush's dealings with Germany, though it does obliquely refer to Bert Walker's "dangerous dealings") revealed, Harriman used his family fortune to bail it out.

But beginning in 1931, the firm began recovering, in no small part because of Prescott Bush's successful work in Germany. In just one three-year period (1932-1934), the Harriman firm sold more than $50 million of German bonds to American investors. It was during this period, indeed, that investment in German industry was considered one of the most solid investments available; the reason for this, as the retrospective of history has shown, was the Nazi military buildup that was occurring then.

A 1942 U.S. government investigative report would later tally the industrial output that created the Nazi war machine, and determined that during the 1932-41 period, Vereinigte Stahlwerke had produced the following proportions of Nazi Germany's total national output: 50.8 percent of its pig iron; 41.4 percent of its universal plate; 36 percent of its heavy plate; 38.5 percent of its galvanized sheet; 45.5 percent of its pipes and tubes; 22.1 percent of its wire; 35 percent of its explosives.

In the meantime, the Hamburg-Amerika Line was playing its own significant role as a major pipeline for Nazi propagandists and American money. This paragraph from Tarpley and Chaitkin in fact is perfectly accurate (and can be confirmed at the source document, Investigation of Nazi Propaganda Activities and Investigation of Certain Other Propaganda Activities: Public Hearings before A Subcommittee of the Special Committee on Un-American Activities, United States House of Representatives, Seventy Third Congress, New York City, July 9-12, 1934, Hearings No. 73-NY-7):
According to testimony of officials of the companies before Congress in 1934, a supervisor from the Nazi Labor Front rode with every ship of the Harriman-Bush line; employees of the New York offices were directly organized into the Nazi Labor Front organization; Hamburg-Amerika provided free passage to individuals going abroad for Nazi propaganda purposes; and the line subsidized pro-Nazi newspapers in the U.S.A., as it had done in Germany against the constitutional German government.

Hamburg-Amerika also played a more insidious role in events unfolding within Nazi Germany. Hitler's notorious Brownshirts -- the armed "citizen" platoons of the Sturmarbteilung, or SA -- who were providing so much of the violent thuggery associated with its rise to power, particularly in such events as Kristallnacht, were in fact being armed primarily with American weapons, many of them made by Remington Arms.

Samuel Pryor, the Remington Arms chairman, was also a founding director of both the Union Banking Corp. and the American Ship and Commerce Corp., which was the company that controlled Hamburg-Amerika. In 1934, U.S. Senate investigators began examining the traffic in weapons from the United States to other nations where conflict was erupting, and they began looking into Remington after it entered into a cartel agreement with the German explosives firm I.G. Farben (which would go on to gain infamy for its notorious role in many of the Nazis' concentration camps, as well as in creating the Zyklon B poison gas that killed millions of victims in the Holocaust). Testimony produced in the so-called "Nye Committee" revealed that Remington guns were being unloaded from Hamburg-Amerika boats to the waiting arms of the SA.

A Col. William J. Taylor told the committee that "German political associations, like the Nazi and others, are nearly all armed with American ... guns.... Arms of all kinds coming from America are transshipped in the Scheldt to river barges before the vessels arrive in Antwerp. They then can be carried through Holland without police inspection or interference. The Hitlerists and Communists are presumed to get arms in this manner. The principal arms coming from America are Thompson submachine guns and revolvers. The number is great."

In any event, it is clear that Harriman's enterprises, with Prescott Bush playing at least a significant role, was an important player in providing the capital that produced the Nazi war machine during the 1930s, and its activities had also played a role in facilitating the violent eliminationist politics that were being practiced by the fascists throughout Europe (Harriman also had major dealings with Italy's Benito Mussolini).

After 1937, the picture becomes much murkier. Thyssen in 1939 fled Germany because he believed Hitler was about to turn on him, following the Fuhrer's first military invasions and the nightmare of Kristallnacht. The German government confiscated all of his holdings. That same year, Hitler invaded Poland and the German government took control of the United Steel Works plants in Silesia, which were a significant interest of Union Banking and W.A. Harriman & Co.

According to Loftus, Harriman's firm, with Prescott Bush in charge, nonetheless continued to oversee operations at the Silesian plant. Indeed, Loftus charges, Bush was involved in obtaining slave labor from the nearby Auschwitz concentration camp to work at the operation's mines and mills. His basis for making this charge is a 1941 memo from a Dutch intelligence agent, though Loftus' reporting does not evaluate the reliability of the memo or its contents.

However, the 1942 vesting memo that seized Union Banking Company's assets tends to at least corroborate the contention that the Harriman firm remained active in managing its German and Polish assets and in trading with Nazi industries. That is the basis, after all, of the seizure.

What is completely unknown is the extent to which the gains in wealth made during the 1928-37 period of heavy German investment by the Bush and Harriman families were significant. Certainly Loftus and others believe that the bulk of the Bush family fortune actually arose during that period, and it may be reasonable to surmise this, but there is simply no evidence to prove it definitively, mainly because the Harriman and Bush families' investments were extremely diverse. Germany was decidedly not the only place they invested. The family has never opened its books, and considering the extreme secrecy with which it has dealt with issues and records regarding the presidential behavior of George H.W. Bush, it is not likely to any time soon.

However, it is worth noting that when the Union Banking Company's assets were finally unfrozen in 1951 and distributed to the owners of the original shares, Prescott Bush received $1.5 million for his single share -- in those days, a large fortune in itself.

Next: The Bush ideology

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