I offer my great thanks to Max u for the Amazon Gift Card that allowed me to acquire this book.
“I am listening, Herr Rathenau,” replies Smaragd of IG Farben. “Tyrian purple, alizarin and indigo, other coal-tar dyes are here, but the important one is mauve. William Perkin discovered it in England, but he was trained by Hofmann, who was trained by Liebig. There is a succession involved. If it is karmic it’s only in a very limited sense . . . another Englishman, Herbert Ganister, and the generation of chemists he trained. . . . Then the discovery of Oneirine. Ask your man Wimpe. He is the expert on cyclized benzylisoquinilines. Look into the clinical effects of the drug. I don’t know. It seems that you might look in that direction. It converges with the mauve-Perkin-Canister line. But all I have is the molecule, the sketch . . . Methoneirine, as the sulfate. Not in Germany, but in the United States. There is a link to the United States. A link to Russia. Why do you think von Maltzan and I saw the Rapallo treaty through? It was necessary to move to the east. Wimpe can tell you. Wimpe, the V-Mann, was always there. Why do you think we wanted Krupp to sell them agricultural machinery so badly? It was also part of the process. At the time I didn’t understand it as clearly as I do now. But I knew what I had to do..” from Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon, 1973
I first became aware of IG Farben’s role in Nazi war effort when I read, in 1973, Gravity’s Rainbow. (The company is mentioned 18 Times. Other GR Readers will perhaps recall that IG Farben is said to have been tracking Tyrone Slothrop long before the war.) Hell’s Cartel showed me Pynchon had his facts right, of course.
This very wonderful history begins with a very thorough account of the state of the chemical industry in Germany after World War I. There were lots of competing firms. The production of dyes from coal by products gave the industry an initial focus. Jeffreys shows how IG Farben was formed from the merger of lots of chemical companies. Many of the future executives of IG Farben had PhDs in chemistry and related fields. Some were Nobel Prize Winners.Jeffreys tells us how a giant German corporation, at one time the fourth biggest in the world, essentially made the Nazi War effort possible, profited greatly from the Holocaust through slave labor and the sale of poison gas. Farben was involved in the death of millions both by their war products and their use of slave labor.
This story cannot be separated from the social and political history which explains the rise of the Nazis to power. Of course I thought I knew the basic story but I learned somethings new in Jeffreys’ very well structured narrative. He takes us through the period of hyper-inflation, through the first few years of Hitler and his growing anti-Semitism. Farben had numerous Jewish employees, from factory workers to important scientists and ultimately they all had to be fired. We see the deals Farben had with Standard Oil and French and Britain firms.
As Germany rearmed Hitler directed Farben to develop an oil substitute from coal and a rubber substitute. Without this, the Nazis could not have captured continental Europe. They also contributed money. Most Farben executives were pragmatic, not ideologues though at first they did favour the Nazis over the Communists.
Farben as the war began had a huge factory workforce. They lost a large percentage of their workers to the army. They replaced them with concentration camp inmates who were often worked to death. Once they failed in health, they were gassed with an IG Farben product. They also produced gas and chemical weapons, paid for horrible experiments on inmates using their products. Farben was very involved with Auschwitz.
When the war ended a number of Farben leaders were charged with war crimes as well as crimes against humanity. Jeffreys does a marvellous job describing the months long trial. Of course the defendants claimed they did not know what was going on in the concentration camps. Further their attorneys claimed they were forced to follow the orders of the Nazis and under international law cannot be held responsible. The defendants got of lightly, some were found innocent and at most did just a few years in prison. Most eventually returned to scientific work. Farben was disbanded but aspirin, which they created is being sold worldwide.
I highly recommend this this book for all interested in World War Two. As I read it, I wondered would big international firms of today do the same thing now?
Diarmuid Jeffreys is a writer, journalist and television producer who has made current affairs and documentary programmes for BBC TV amongst others, including Newsnight and the Money Programme . He is also the author of The Bureau: Inside the Modern FBI (1996) and Aspirin: The Remarkable Story of a Wonder Drug (2004). He lives with his wife and children