Who influenced Henry Ford?
Three years after Swiss banks became the target of a worldwide furor over their business dealings with Nazi Germany, major American car companies find themselves embroiled in a similar debate.
Like the Swiss banks, the American car companies have vigorously denied that they assisted the Nazi war machine or that they significantly profited from the use of forced labor at their German subsidiaries during World War II. But historians and lawyers researching class-action suits on behalf of former prisoners of war are busy amassing evidence of collaboration by the automakers with the Nazi regime.
The issues at stake for the American automobile corporations go far beyond the relatively modest sums involved in settling any lawsuit. During the war, the car companies established a reputation for themselves as "the arsenal of democracy" by transforming their production lines to make airplanes, tanks and trucks for the armies that defeated Adolf Hitler. They deny that their huge business interests in Nazi Germany led them, wittingly or unwittingly, to also become "the arsenal of fascism."
The Ford Motor Co. has mobilized dozens of historians, lawyers and researchers to fight a civil case brought by lawyers in Washington and New York who specialize in extracting large cash settlements from banks and insurance companies accused of defrauding Holocaust victims. Also, a book scheduled for publication next year will accuse General Motors Corp. of playing a key role in Hitler's invasions of Poland and the Soviet Union.