Thursday, October 23, 2003

The Bush-Nazi connection redux

It’s certainly noteworthy that the connections of the Bush family fortune to the Nazi war machine and the Holocaust are back in the news, as Atrios and Hesiod are duly reporting. ( has a good set of links to the various pieces.)

Regular readers will remember that I discussed this story in depth in "Bush, the Nazis and America," but I reached somewhat different conclusions.

The genesis of the story's resurgence appears to be the John Buchanan piece in the New Hampshire Gazette, which actually appeared a week and a half ago. However, the AP's Jonathan Salant picked up on it and confirmed the new documents further establishing the Bush-Union Bank connection, and offered new details about UBC's dealings with Fritz Thyssen, the Nazis' main underwriter from 1928-31 and a significant participant in Nazi activities until 1938.

Of course, as I observed in my earlier essay, that connection was already rather well-established fact. What isn't so clear, as I argued then, is what that connection means.

Salant's piece is short on broader context, but quite accurate, though it does little to advance the underlying issues. Buchanan's is more problematic; it relies heavily on the charges contained in the Larouchite Tarpley/Chaitkin text, and does little to assess the quality of it -- which is, frankly, not very good. And it fails to put Bush's Nazi dealings in their larger historical context, particularly the fact that Union Bank was one of only many American corporations with significant ties to the Nazi regime and the buildup of its war machinery, as well as that of the Holocaust.

A similar problem lies in the way it has been discussed so far in the press -- which is to say, superficially at best. Much of the ensuing discussion has revolved around the suggestion that Bush family has secret Nazi sympathies. But this is mostly nonsense; as I explained in Part 3 of the earlier essay, there is simply no evidence of an ideological connection to the Nazis (though the same cannot be said of, say, a eugenicist like Averell Harriman or an anti-Semite like Henry Ford, not to mention the leadership of the America First Committee, notably Charles Lindbergh).

The only journalist to adequately tackle the topic so far has been Joe Conason, who hits nearly all the right notes in his latest Observer piece, "Bush 'Nazi' Smear Unworthy of Critics." Especially noteworthy is his conclusion:
There are many unflattering terms that can and should be used to describe George W. Bush. He is, among other things, a truly bad President. But neither his offenses, nor the Republican Party’s politics of personal destruction, can justify using such tactics against him. Imputing Nazi sympathies to the President or his family ought to be beneath his adversaries.

Besides noting that something as factually accurate as the Bush-Nazis tie is by definition not a "smear," I only differ with Conason significantly on one point:
Whatever the President’s grandfather did or may have done, how does that reflect on George W. Bush? In 1942, he hadn’t been born yet. If he is nevertheless accountable for Prescott Sr.'s actions, fairness requires that a similar standard be applied to other descendants of politicians and businessmen whose attitude toward Nazism was, at best, ambivalent. Should anyone named Kennedy, Harriman, Dupont or Fish be arraigned for the offenses of their dead ancestors? Should everyone boycott Ford Motors?

Actually, it's a good deal more complicated than that. All these names had different kinds of dealings with the Nazis, all of them with different levels of culpability. If it emerges, for instance, that Prescott Bush had a hands-on role in the use of slave labor from Auschwitz in the Silesian steel operations, for instance, then that makes his involvement of a different order of magnitude. Some Americans provided ideological support, others financial, and others both.

Moreover, both levels of that kind of involvement do have an effect that carries through today. Just how much of the Bush family fortune, for instance, is founded on the Nazis' bloody money? Does the profound ideological support for Nazism that came from the DuPont brothers still exist in the family today? I think these are questions worth asking, because they give us, if nothing else, a better sense of the real morality that is practiced by the wealthy elites who have throughout history assured us that they are our moral betters as well.

In other words, Republicans have made a great deal out of George W. Bush's superior moral character, ostensibly (or so it has been depicted) a product of his upper-crust upbringing. But what kind of character has the Bush family actually practiced through the course of history?

What the evidence irrefutably shows is that there was a substantial business connection between the Bush family fortune and the buildup of the Nazi war machinery (as described in Part 2), as well as a significant tie to the Auschwitz slave labor camps.

However, as I have argued (as does Conason), it is important again to keep this in context: Many Americans made money by investing in the Nazis, and many more made fortunes by taking an active role in arming the country in the 1930s: Ford's activities may have been the most noteworthy (his German engine-building plants, nationalized before the war, were key components of the Blitzkrieg machinery), but other major players included Kodak, Shell, General Motors, and DuPont, the latter pair having an especially noteworthy level of involvement (in which, it must also be noted, Joseph P. Kennedy, the family's patriarch, had no small role).

On the other hand, as I argued in Part 4, the issues raised by the Bush association run even deeper. It must be said first that the context does not by any means exonerate either Prescott Bush or his heirs -- nor, for that matter, any of the other businessmen whose similar contributions formed that context. The connection to Fritz Thyssen, especially, is no small thing, because he played such a significant role in the Nazis' rise to power. Hitler's party was on the ropes in 1927 and probably would have gone under entirely had not Thyssen bailed them out beginning in 1928, actively underwriting their activities for the next several years until they assumed power in 1933.

Thyssen was a classic case of the corporatist conservative who saw the thugs of fascism's far right as a useful bulwark against the left in general and communists in particular, believing all along they could control it. Of course, Hitler proved Thyssen wrong; by 1937, his propensity for devouring his allies (see especially the Night of the Long Knives) had become self-evident, and Thyssen tried fleeing to Switzerland, but eventually was caught and served out the war in prison.

More to the point, it was clear well before the outbreak of war in 1938 just what kind of person these gentlemen were dealing with. Hitler had already commanded the brutal thugs of the SA during his rise to power. He already, beginning in 1933, rounded up political dissidents and opposition leaders -- mostly socialists, Communists and leftists of different varieties -- and placed them in concentration camps (Dachau being the most notorious), where many of them were subsequently "liquidated." He had already, in 1934, imprisoned or summarily executed his former allies in the Night of the Long Knives. And of course, his ardent, screeching anti-Semitism had long been painfully apparent, and the anti-Jewish Nuremburg Laws, passed in 1935, were abundant evidence he meant business. The list is long, but the nature of the man with whom they were blithely doing business -- and thereby deepening his grip on power -- was more than plain.

Prescott Bush's activities in Germany were of a piece with this approach to dealing with the Nazis: If good money is to be made, even thugs and dictators are acceptable business partners. There are three significant moral dimensions to Bush's dealings here, all of which warrant deeper study:
-- To what extent did those dealings enable one of the most monstrous regimes in history in its subsequent mass genocide and warmaking? The evidence so far would suggest it played a significant role, since Thyssen's steelmaking operations were at the heart of so much of the Nazi machine.

-- To what extent did those dealings harm America even before the war? The flow of American capital into Germany played a key role in the so-called "German miracle" of the 1930s, when its economy was booming at a remarkable rate; by contrast, America's own economic recovery was slow to take root. It would be interesting to examine just how much capital was flowing out of the country at a time when it needed to stay home and invest in American jobs, and what its actual effect was.

-- To what extent is the Bush family fortune -- which itself played no small role in the ascension of the current occupant of the White House -- derived from these Nazi dealings? It is worth remembering, perhaps, that Prescott Bush himself later attested that in the early 1930s, the firm for which he worked would have gone under completely were it not for the personal intervention of Averell Harriman, who wrote checks out of his own accounts to keep the business running until it could become prosperous again. The dealings that clearly put the house back in order subsequently were its German investments. This suggests that the Bush family fortune -- like those of many once-wealthy families after Black Friday -- was at Ground Zero in the early '30s and was subsequently rebuilt largely through these dealings.

Indeed, it is clear that this issue has been allowed to fester for well over half a century precisely because there has never been any kind of adequate reckoning of the business dealings that helped make the Nazi nightmare a reality. This is true not only of the German industrialists who gave the Nazis both their political and their warmaking powers, but of the American industrialists and capitalists who contributed substantially to the same.

In this sense, it is worth comparing the German and American postwar response to this legacy, especially when it came time to reckon the moral and legal consequences for the roles of the various participants in the Nazi phenomenon -- especially since the Germans, for obvious reasons, were made to bear the brunt of the culpability. What's noteworthy is to what little extent Americans ever had to do the same.

Yet even in this regard, there is one constant: The financiers, the people who lined the Nazis' pockets with money, and who likewise lined their own pockets with the regime's profits, almost uniformly escaped facing any kind of serious consequences for having done so. As I discussed in Part 4, these men were never held culpable, legally or socially, in part because of the exigencies of the postwar period, when it was widely believed their resources were needed for rebuilding the international economy. However, as Christopher Simpson explored in his 1993 book The Splendid Blond Beast: Money Law and Genocide in the Twentieth Century (a somewhat narrower examination of the issue can be found in John Higham's 1983 text, Trading With the Enemy: The Nazi American Money Plot 1933-1949) a more important factor was the fact that international tribunals were stymied by the same machinations of privilege and power that had wrought the genocide in the first place. The elites whose fortunes were at stake found that the structure of international law was weak and easily manipulated so that they could simply "get on with business."

This fact came back to haunt Germany in the 1990s, when the connection of certain industrialists not only to the Nazi regime but to the Holocaust resurfaced in a controversy with similar features -- namely, the uproar that resulted from the city of Nuremburg's decision to honor Franz Diehl, whose wartime factories used Nazi slave labor.

The most recent edition of The Journal of Modern History contains a fascinating piece by Neil Gregor titled " 'The Illusion of Remembrance': The Karl Diehl Affair and the Memory of National Socialism in Nuremberg, 1945-1999," which deals with precisely this topic. (A piece on History News Network by Daniel Bogler of the Financial Times of London, "Germany comes clean: Companies are putting the past behind them by revealing the truth about their history", discusses with the issue on a broader scale.)

Gregor describes how the Nuremburg city council, which for the first time in years came under control of corporatist conservatives in 1996, decided to make Diehl, a major figure in the town's business life, an honorary citizen. This raised a considerable storm, since Diehl had been a Nazi party member and his plants not only had produced Nazi armaments, but had employed slave labor from various concentration camps. As the controversy progressed, further evidence arose that Diehl had financially supported far-right-wing/neo-fascist organizations in the years immediately following the war, before they had become outlawed in Germany.

The corporatists' response was a familiar one:
Most obviously, what was at stake in the dispute was the relative persuasiveness of competing images of the Nazi past put forward by the various protagonists. Diehl's ability to parry criticism depended not least on his ability to project a compelling narrative of Nazi Germany that cast businesses as the victims of the regime and brutalities as the sole responsibility of their immediate perpetrators. Diehl's mobilization of the imagery of totalitarianism to characterize life under the National Socialist regime drew not only on widely held beliefs within broad sectors of a postwar West German society but also, more specifically, on an exculpatory narrative that had been propagated by West German social elites since the 1950s in an attempt to reconstruct the legitimacy of elite conservative politics after this legitimacy had been called radically into question by this same group's complicity in the crimes of Nazism. [emphasis mine] In seeking to cast the suffering of forced workers as an issue pertaining only to individual managers' direct responsibility for isolated acts of inhumanity on the shop floor, rather than recognizing that organizational interests and institutional cultures for which he bore responsibility were to blame, Diehl was playing upon a problem that had represented a judicial conundrum for decades. While courts in the 1950s and 1960s had generally been able to convict individuals whose crimes and misdeeds in the concentration or extermination camps could be directly proved, it was much harder to legally demonstrate the involvement of those whose function within the system of exploitation and murder had been one or more stages removed from the actual site of brutality itself. The result was that, while socially marginal thugs who had ended up as SS camp guards could be convicted in postwar trials, respected middle-class members of the judiciary, civil service, and business community could return to professional life with their reputations untarnished.

This strategy was extremely successful; the Diehl controversy was muted even within the confines of the opposing mainstream liberal party. Only the local Green successfully brought up the significance of the victims' grievances, particularly in the larger sense of Diehl's moral obligations to the victims and their families, as well as to squarely facing the consequences of his behavior in an honest and forthright fashion (he wound up suppressing an objective historical account he had commissioned to supposedly "exonerate" his prewar behavior).

There were two versions of this postwar narrative: one which cast both German society and the individual citizens "as the victim of a 'normal' war in which the peculiarities of Nazi racial imperialism and barbarism were denied," and a second which "sought to co-opt the city's historical associations with the Nazi regime into a story that represented the city and its inhabitants as having been the terrorized victims of a peculiarly vicious totalitarian regime, against which they had been powerless to resist but in the face of which they had preserved peculiarly local values of decency and humanity," or what Gregor calls "the cozy myth of Nazism as having somehow come from outside of Nuremberg's political life to somehow take such powerful hold that it had been impossible to dislodge."

Gregor concludes that Nuremburg (and by extension, German society) will not adequately confront the peculiar challenges raised by the history of Nazism in their midst until it discards these myths and confronts the truth:
Instead of continuing to construct Nuremberg as a site upon which the events of high politics were played out, and instead of representing Nazism as an anonymous, external force visited on the city and its inhabitants from outside, Nuremberg needs to reframe its memorial politics using an approach that emphasizes the structures of consent, participation, and activism in everyday life and that acknowledges the extent to which local institutions, public and private, became agents of Nazi terror and murder. Rather than representing Nazis as outsiders and the local population as either victims or passive bystanders, local politicians and city agencies would do well to consider the oppositenamely, that local institutions, agencies, and individuals should be recognized as active perpetrators and that it was the multitude of actual outsiders who represented the overwhelming majority of victims. Moreover, those citizens of foreign countries murdered during the Third Reich, both in Germany and abroad, should be acknowledged as the victims of an unprecedented war of racial annihilation that had its roots in the society of which Nuremberg was part. For only when the official history of Nuremberg involves seeking answers to searching questions about the identities of local perpetrators will the city be able to claim that it is confronting the problem of its Nazi past honestly. And only when the city recognizes the extent to which the crimes of the Third Reich relied upon the cooperation, collusion, and collaboration of such local perpetrators will it be spared the embarrassment of being seen to endow an exploiter of concentration camp labor with its highest civic award.

I would like to argue that a similar problem confronts America, which has historically excused itself from complicity in the Nazi phenomenon largely on the basis of the fact that it was American and Allied forces that defeated the German army, a reasonable-seeming position that is directly undermined by such inconvenient histories as that raised by the Prescott Bush, Henry Ford and America First cases.

More to the point, the American postwar narrative resembles the Germans' in that it seems specifically tailored to protect the elites whose culpability in the Nazi regime remains profound from any consequences for that behavior. Like the German mythology, it casts Nazism as almost an alien infestation from outer space, or at least as something specifically confined to Nazi Germany. This elides, of course, the extent to which fascist ideology spread in America before the war and the extent to which it was encouraged and sponsored by American industrialists, as well as, most of all, the extent to which those same capitalists did the same in Germany and, moreover, specifically were involved in numerous business dealings that fueled the Nazi war machine which was to cost so many Americans their lives.

A reckoning is long overdue, and not merely for the sake of clearing our national conscience or coming to terms with some distant history now in our national rear-view mirror. Such legacies as the Prescott Bush case specifically, and the problem of prewar American dealings with Nazi Germany generally, need a thorough examination precisely because they reflect directly on the conduct and behavior of our national leaders today.

As Phil Leggiere put it in his remarkable piece (cited in Part 4, and worth repeating), "The Indiscreet Charm of the Bush Nazi Web Conspiranoids":
What … Aaron-Loftus and Simpson substantiate with more detail and in a far wider historical context, is that the relationships between Harriman Bank and other corporations and Nazi-era Germany need to be understood as part of a larger pattern. There is little evidence that the free-form meta-diplomatic modes of international financial deal making developed by Harriman, Bush and company in the 1920s and '30s signaled pro-Nazi or pro-fascist political ideology. However, it did help form a template for U.S. international finance and politics in which support for dictatorships, (financially in the '30s, financially and politically-militarily during the cold war) would become business as usual in U.S. foreign policy. One of the most interesting aspects of both the Simpson and the Aaron and Loftus books is their examination of how the private sector style of international affairs pioneered by Dulles, Harriman, Lovett and Bush in the '30s gradually metaphorphosed, during and after World War 2, into the official realpolitick of the U.S. government, often under the guidance of these same men. The ruling precepts of anti-communism and free trade that guided the international banking elite in the '30s in their dealings with Hitler would become the official policy through which the U.S. would support a wide variety of corporate-friendly dictators throughout the world, from the '50s to the present.

… This evidence is only partly about the Bushes. More significantly, it traces the origins of the cavalier, amoral relationship between American and global financial elites and genocidal dictatorships that has characterized U.S. policy for decades.

This legacy has two dimensions that that need reckoning: domestic and international.

-- The willingness of elite capitalists to sponsor the activities of the thuggish elements that are intrinsically a major component of fascism as a bulwark against "leftists" has never left us entirely. Indeed, it has been occurring with renewed vigor since the early 1990s, when the conservative-movement dogmatists decided that Bill Clinton was a major threat to their drive for power, and began forming alliances with proto-fascist elements, specifically transmitting their ideas and agendas into mainstream conservatism. (This is, of course, the primary subject of "Rush, Newspeak and Fascism.")

That propensity has been rising to the surface in increasing numbers with the George W. Bush regime, which deployed thuggish elements in the Florida debacle in 2000 and turned them loose against antiwar protesters in 2002-03. The levels of violence and thuggery have remained subdued so far, but a serious challenge to Bush's power in the 2004 elections may well raise it another notch. In any event, the willingness to form these alliances dates can be traced directly back to the behavior of such capitalists as Prescott Bush and George Herbert Walker in the 1930s.

-- The willingness to do business with, and indeed sponsor and arm, brutish thugs, dictators and continues to affect us today. After all, Iraq's Saddam Hussein was precisely the kind of dictator that America has historically armed and backed as an "enemy of our enemies" over the years since World War II, only to have them turn on us as a genuine threat themselves. For that matter, the terrorists who now operate Al Qaeda were originally sponsored by Americans in Afghanistan as part of our effort to undermine the Soviet Union in the 1980s.

Not that we have ever learned anything from this: Today, in the name of defeating Al Qaeda and Saddam in the "war on terror," we have allied ourselves with all kinds of reprehensible thugs and authoritarian regimes, including those in Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, China, and Malaysia.

Confronting America's past regarding its dealings with the Nazis is not merely an intellectual exercise or picking old scabs, but is an important step to understanding our role in the world today and the behavior of our politicians today, as well as facing the ramifications of our failure confront it previously. Because by shoving this part of our history into the collective memory hole, we enable the people who perpetrated it to not only escape responsibility, but to keep on behaving the same way -- along with their heirs.

In this regard, there is one other point on which I differ with Joe Conason: It is not only the historians who should be sorting this out. It needs to be everyone. And for that to happen, it needs to happen in the media as well.

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