A Nazi Chemical Cartel and the “Other” Nuremberg Trials

by Martha Papapostolou

Illustration by Herman Jönsson

Carl Krauch was a simple man and an honorable Christian. A scientist who had committed his entire life to scientific progress, his defense counsel at Nuremberg said. Mr. Krauch was responsible, had never committed an offence, and, once the worst of the war had gotten underway, Mr. Krauch, feeling a personal responsibility toward the German chemical industry, wanted to “rescue science from Hitler.” 

But during the war, Krauch had also been chairman of the advisory board of IG Farben, then the world’s largest chemical cartel and a crucial element of Hitler’s “war machine.” At Farben, Krauch had directed the (self-established) Vermittlungsstelle W, or Liaison Office Wehrmacht—an office created to improve cooperation between IG Farben and the German Military. He had been Military Economic Leader and General Plenipotentiary for Special Questions of Chemical Production under the Four-Year Plan, too. 

In other words, Krauch was a key figure in the creation and maintenance of the connection between the National Socialist State and IG Farben. He was also only one of many industrialists to stand trial at Nuremberg in 1947

It Takes Two (or an Entire Country) to Tango 

Modern memory of the Second World War revolves around the Holocaust. But the war, and the atrocities committed in its name, were not solely driven by a handful of vehement Nazis—a Goebbels, a Goering, an Eichmann. Nazi war aims and fantasies of Aryan supremacy depended on multiple societal actors—a reality termed “collective responsibility” after the war. 

In order to paint as accurate a picture of collective responsibility as possible, 13 separate trials were held at Nuremberg—of Goering and other “top Nazis” before the International Military Tribune (IMT), but also of doctors, judges, and bureaucrats. The Farben, Flick, and Krupp trials brought “big business” to the courtroom. The trying of industrialists—many of whom had seen their interests increasingly align with those of the regime during the war years—was to serve as a critical step towards establishing the new postwar order. 

This is how Carl Krauch and 23 other Farben executives found themselves at Nuremberg after the war. None of them had ventured anywhere near the front during the conflict, but there they were, indicted on five charges. Counts I and V, at the time the most significant, alleged involvement in waging aggressive war alongside the Nazi state. Count III charged the defendants with involvement in slavery and mass murder, not least on the grounds of the “symbiotic” relationship between Auschwitz and Farben’s nearby erected synthetic rubber factory. 

Heinrich Himmler (foreground, left) visits IG Farben’s synthetic rubber plant at Auschwitz III. Krauch (centre) and Auschwitz commandant Rudolph Höss show him around. Polish Institute of National Remembrance

For all the effort made to resist another simplification of guilt at the time, memory of postwar justice has still come to center around a singular expression of it: Nuremberg, specifically the trial of “top Nazis” held before the International Military Tribunal. But this key event on which modern collective memory bases its assumption of a European society rehabilitated and cleansed of the war’s racial, societal, and political evils provided no ground zero, no clean break from the past. Nuremberg did not leave us with as blank a slate as one may think. 

Of Corporate Personhood and Really Bad Timing 

How do you blame a war on men who were not part of the army or the government? This question puzzled US prosecutors. They faced no simple feat—the trials were not only to prosecute war criminals and to re-educate the German people, but also to set precedent for dealing with future aggression. All this, no less, came at a time when a majority of Germans condemned Nazism not inherently, but for its faulty application

Even so, the industrialist trials’ disappointing results (as noted later by Ben Ferencz) were not a self-fulfilling prophecy. At the crux of the outcome lay the decision to prosecute individuals, rather than the corporations themselves. At that point, the IG Farben may have been an entity unindicted and entirely devoid of assets, but it was still an undisputed presence in the courtroom, known as the “invisible defendant,” and the backbone of the entire case against the industrialists. In Krupp, the Tribunal routinely referred to the firm’s desire to employ slave labor. It was the corporation which provided the accused individuals—though groundbreaking scientists in their own right—with the need, and the motivation, to commit the crimes for which they were indicted. Remove the corporate framework, and a good deal of motivation disappears with it.  

Defendants in the dock on the first day of the IG Farben trial, August 27, 1947

The myth of corporate personhood skewed the outcome of the industrialist trials by confronting American judges with an uncomfortable truth: a group of prominent, wealthy defendants, of similar stature, charged with complicity in mass murder. A corporate charge would have meant convicting an abstract entity—which could have made the judges less hesitant. 

So why didn’t the prosecution change its strategy? The reason couldn’t have been more banal: really bad timing. By 1946, financial and administrative concerns drove the military government to emphasize economic recovery above retribution or reform. The trial budget shrunk accordingly. Telford Taylor, the chief prosecutor, was forced to cut down the number of chosen defendants from 500 to 200 and finally to 185 and the number of proposed tribunals from 18 to 12. 

Reparation and decartelization policies in Germany were retracted, and in June 1947, the Marshall Plan was drafted. Minimizing occupation costs and constructing a strong capitalist economy to resist the growing threat of communism became the order of the day. Commitment in Washington to prosecute Farben faded drastically as the Truman administration realized that corporate actors played a central role in US plans for West German reconstruction. It was too late for the prosecution to jump ship.

By 1951, the sentences of all convicted Farben defendants had been commuted by high commissioner John McCloy. The Cold War had brought new threats, West Germany was thriving in its role as a bulwark against the Soviet Union, and the US was not about to stand in the way of its own meddling.

The Past Has Passed…Or Has it? 

The allies, of course, did not put all of their denazification eggs in one basket. Other trials were conducted alongside Nuremberg. Military courts, trying lower level Nazis, convicted more than five thousand people of War Crimes and Crimes against Humanity in the Western Zone. 

And trials were also not the only vehicle for denazification—but the larger aim of ridding German society entirely of Nazi ideology was hardly practicable in the late 1940s, regardless of method. As Tony Judt argues in Postwar, it was difficult to find competent Germans who were not Nazis—in Bavaria, in 1949, 94% of judges and prosecutors and 77% of finance ministry employees were ex-Nazis. 44% of the newly constituted West German diplomatic corps was made up of former SS men, 17% of which had served in the SD or the Gestapo. The question, as such, was less one of purging German society of all Nazi elements, and rather of supervising those elements as they began reconstruction. 

Aerial photograph of Auschwitz showing the IG Farben plant, June 1944. US National Archives

For many years, it was upheld that the crimes of the war had been committed “in the name of Germany” (to quote Helmut Kohl)—not by Germans. Only in 1962 did ten West German states make the period from 1933 to 1945, including what would later come to be known as the Holocaust, a mandatory school subject. And much still needed to happen for Germany to become a poster child of remembrance. 

This “collective amnesia” extended beyond Germany to affect most European neighbors. It took the Swiss 40 years to abandon their narrative of neutrality: only in 1944 did Bern recognize the “J,” which Switzerland requested be stamped in every German Jew’s passport, as an act of intolerable racial discrimination. Let us not speak of Greece, where known collaborators were chosen to reign supreme in order to obliterate the communist “threat.” 

French remembrance is particularly interesting. For one, the French wartime government was an exception in Europe; unlike other regimes, it had been voted into office in 1940. So, regardless of Pétain’s own legitimacy—he forbade women to expose more than their ankles and demanded they fulfill their duty to the state by bearing children, while he himself only settled down at the ripe old age of 60 (with a divorcée)—his regime very much was the democratically elected authority. A democratically elected authority which, without German coercion, voted the “Jewish Laws” into power. Yet France only incorporated Crimes Against Humanity, first mentioned in the London Accords of 1945, into law in 1964. That’s almost 20 years of collective amnesia enabled by omission—and 20 years in which France played a crucial role in shaping today’s European Union. It’s really no wonder you’ve heard more about French Resistance than French collaboration.

Everything Old Is New Again 

The intended split of IG Farben into 47 smaller units never happened. Instead, the conglomerate was succeeded by just three new units—Bayer, BASF, and Hoechst. 30 years after the Nuremberg trials, all three companies ranked in the 30 largest multinational corporations worldwide, far outgrowing their predecessor.  

What of our industrialists, you ask? Flick, convicted in 1947, was released three years later and restored to his former eminence as leading shareholder in Daimler-Benz. Alfred Krupp regained control of his steel firm in 1953, and IG Farben’s Fritz Ter Meer, who was convicted of both plunder and slave labor, became the chairman of Bayer’s board in 1956. The successor companies resumed trade with one another, as well as with former subsidiaries.  

IG Farben Auschwitz factory, 1941. German Federal Archives

But for all the shortcomings of the outcomes they were meant to shape, the trials had an intrinsic value to them. At Tehran in 1943, Stalin had suggested shooting somewhere between 50,000 to 100,000 Germans. Yes, Stalin might have had something of a track record with purges—but to dismiss such a version of postwar justice as unpopular would be inaccurate. America’s treasury secretary, Henry Morgenthau Jr., himself proposed the mass deportation of millions of Germans. His was very much an eye for an eye attitude; responding to allegations of immorality, Morgenthau said he supposed “putting a million or two million people in gas chambers is a godlike action.”

Just as the war that fathered them, the Nuremberg trials were steeped in symbolism— especially for the country that, by conducting them, chose due process over retribution. And their legacy, of course, is manifold. Crucial precedent was set. 

But the fact remains that “evil” in postwar Europe was diffuse and nuanced, something no single type of postwar justice could account for—like denazification itself, Nuremberg’s practical shortcomings were real. Crucial Third Reich players, for different reasons, escaped judgement altogether, or, if convicted, were in the end saved by shifting priorities in the world around them. If there is one thing the Nuremberg Trials were not, it is some sort of final, ultimate reckoning with wartime evil, a decisive sweep that put to rest any and all Nazi legacy. 

Defendants in their dock at the Nuremberg trials; Goering, Hess, von Ribbentrop, and Keitel in the front row

Some elements of German society—especially corporations—haven taken it upon themselves to “own up” to their involvement in the war, where their predecessors had not faced “official” justice, or had benefited from European “collective amnesia.” Acts such as these—beyond those of the German state—certainly contribute to the belief that Germany has, comparably, come far down the path of reckoning with its past. But the need for such acts also lays bare the fact that that reckoning was, and is, imperfect, and that, above all, is still ongoing. We live in a postwar world, and it is simplistic—even dangerous—to view contemporary issues in a vacuum that considers the legacy of the war “dealt with.”

Considering the inconclusive nature of postwar justice, the imperfection of memory—are we even right to call it reckoning with the past—when the past is still our present? 

Martha Papapostolou is an editor at INTERZINE. 

Categories: Europe & Russia

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