The story of the IG Farben chemical conglomerate is one with tremendous relevance for the present day. Formed in 1925, from a merger of a number of familiar firms including Agfa, BASF and Bayer, it was the largest industrial concern in Europe, and soon found itself embroiled in Hitler’s ‘revolution’, emerging as one of the mainstays of the economy of the Third Reich.
The German war effort after 1939 is almost unthinkable without IG Farben. The Wehrmacht’s vehicles rode on its synthetic tyres, were powered by its synthetic fuels and fired shells filled with its explosives. More darkly, IG Farben developed an intimate relationship with the SS; consumed countless slave labourers in its plants; most infamously the Monowitz plant near Auschwitz, and in the process earned itself grim complicity in the Holocaust. Long before the phrase was coined, it was the original military-industrial complex.
Yet, when its 24 senior executives were arraigned for trial at Nuremberg in 1947, on charges of planning aggressive war and crimes against humanity, it seems that the political imperative of rebuilding Germany had replaced that of justice and retribution. After the standard defence of ignorance or deflecting responsibility, only 13 of the defendants were convicted, and were sentenced to moderate terms of between 18 months and 8 years. After brief periods of enforced contrition, most of them were then free to continue their lucrative careers as captains of industry.
Diarmuid Jeffreys’s book is a wonderful exploration of this sorry tale of the amorality of rampant capitalism, in the service of a wicked dictatorship. It is engagingly written, with admirable research in evidence, but also a degree of repressed anger. Jeffreys concludes, for instance, that when IG Farben was finally wound up in 2003, its remaining assets were paid, not to organisations of former forced-labourers, but to the banks.