I was reading a book about Germany in 1923. The communist journalist Victor Serge, living in Berlin at the time, wrote down his impressions of the political crisis and the hyperinflation for a weekly column. From today’s perspective, the most interesting passages are about a clownishly reactionary upstart who was trying to proclaim himself dictator down in Bavaria. Serge wrote:
“Hitler’s gangs were arming feverishly, financed by the very rich industrialist [Alfred] Hugenberg, and, it is said, by Mr. Ford, a citizen of the United States.”
Ford? That rings a bell. In December 1922, the New York Times had reported from the Nazi headquarters in Munich:
“The wall beside his desk in Hitler’s private office is decorated with a large picture of Henry Ford. In the antechamber there is a large table covered with books, nearly all of which are a translation of a book written and published by Henry Ford.”
The book that so inspired Hitler’s hordes was The International Jew: The World’s Foremost Problem, published by Henry Ford in 1920. Ford gave so much support to Hitler that in 1938, the U.S. capitalist was awarded the Order of the German Eagle. Before and during the war, the Ford Motor Company produced vehicles for the Nazi armies, exploiting slave labor from concentration camps.
This all got me thinking about my alma mater, the Free University down in leafy Dahlem. The FU’s main building, opened in 1954, is the Henry-Ford-Bau. That seems wildly inappropriate. There aren’t many monuments in Berlin named after figures so close to Hitler — the only thing that comes to mind is the street Hindenburgdamm, named after the Reich president who appointed Hitler chancellor.
If this is the standard for having your money accepted by one Berlin’s leading universities, what would one need to do to get disqualified?
Debates about the name started 15 years ago when the building was remodeled. The university’s presidium offered a simple excuse: The building was not named after the antisemite Henry Ford, but rather after his grandson, Henry Ford II. His Ford Foundation gave money to West Berlin’s new university after he visited the city in 1951.
So is it in fact the Henry-Ford-II-Bau? As the historian Ralf Hoffrogge pointed out at the time, the claim is preposterous. Just look at the building: there is not a “II” or “the second” or “junior” anywhere to be seen. There is no mention of “the grandson” in university documents or press reports from the time.
While it might be typical for U.S. universities to name buildings after wealthy donors, such a practice is unheard of in Germany. As Wikipedia explains, “In Germany, as has been common practice in Western democracies after 1945, in principle streets are not named after living persons.”
Henry Ford, the antisemite, had died in 1947. His grandson lived for over 30 years after the building was completed.
Even if we assume, against all the evidence, that the building is in fact named after Henry Ford II, then it is named after the heir of an antisemite. It honours a fortune that was based, at least in part, in collaborating with Nazis in exploiting slave labor. Is that so much better?
What’s more, the Free University gets money from other foundations named after Nazi war criminals. A foundation named for the convicted war criminal Alfred Krupp von Bohlen und Halbach is on the list (he was granted amnesty in 1951). So is Fritz Thyssen, whose memoirs are titled I Paid Hitler. If this is the standard for having your money accepted by one Berlin’s leading universities, what would one need to do to get disqualified?
A recent opinion piece in The New York Times showed how the German economy, and particularly the automobile industry, is run by the scions of Nazi war criminals: the Flicks, the Quandts, the Porsches, the Piëchs, and other German oligarchs. It’s high time to expropriate this ill-gotten wealth. It’s a question of historical justice, and it would be a boon to the environment as well.
Until we do that, we can at least take the name of a Hitler fan and antisemite off the Free University’s main building, as FU students have been demanding for years. After all, there is an FU alumni who truly deserves the honor – his name is Rudi Dutschke.
Nathaniel Flakin’s new anticapitalist guide book Revolutionary Berlin is available now from Pluto Press. 304 pages, €18.99 / £14.99.