How visionary was Henry Ford

Eight-hour shifts, five-day weeks, hourly wages of five dollars: at the beginning of the 20th century, no factory owner in the USA treated his workers as well as Henry Ford. But the automobile manufacturer also had another side; one that does not at all want to fit the image of the progressive industrialist with a social conscience. His leadership style provoked comparisons with the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini - and Adolf Hitler even described the author of anti-Jewish inflammatory pamphlets as an “inspiration”.

Workers as robots

If one were to take the working conditions in Ford's factories alone as a yardstick, one would have to regard him as a great fighter for the cause of the workers. The Detroit industrialist even employed African-American and Eastern European immigrants who otherwise struggled in the US labor market of the early 20th century. But the impression of the selfless factory owner quickly fades on closer inspection: In order to offer its cars at unrivaled low prices, Ford introduced assembly line work and thus reduced production costs. Each of the workers in his factories had only one task, which he performed over and over again like a robot - eight hours a day, five days a week. Accordingly, everyday life on the assembly lines was empty of meaning and monotonous. But Ford's calculation worked: thanks to high wages and short working days, jobs in his factories were in great demand; For the mostly unskilled workers, social security and time for the family weighed heavier than a varied job.

The dictator of Detroit

Those who landed a job at Ford no longer had to worry about their livelihood - but they also entered a system of strict social control. The car manufacturer laid down strict rules that deeply affected the private lives of his workers: how they had to live, what they should eat, what they spent their free time with; all of this was dictated by the industrialist. Compliance with these rules was monitored by a separate department of the Ford Motor Company: the Sociology Department. Those who did not conform to Ford's ideal of an American worker received wage deductions.
But it wasn't just the control of its workers that earned Ford a reputation as a dictator. The industrialist also ran a so-called service department, which was headed by the shady ex-boxer Harry Bennett. This internal security department was strongly reminiscent of political combat units that were widespread in Germany during the Weimar Republic. They monitored the factory workers and took all possible means against demonstrators and trade unionists - even the use of firearms did not shy away from Bennett's troops. Because of its brutality, it has been referred to as "Ford's Gestapo" behind the scenes. Even the industrialist himself had to live with comparisons of fascism: In an article about Ford in 1928, the New York Times headlined “Mussolini from Highland Park”.

Model of the Nazis

To describe Henry Ford as - to put it mildly - a difficult personality suggests not only his dictatorial leadership methods. The car manufacturer was also a staunch anti-Semite: “The solution to the Jewish question is primarily a matter for the Jews; if they don't, the world will solve them. ”Statements like these, to be found in Ford's book series“ The International Jew: A World Problem ”, fell on fertile ground, especially among the losers in the war in Germany and Austria, where the hostility to Jews in the 1920s Increased dramatically over the years. For the then relatively insignificant National Socialists, the American became a real role model: the later SS chief Heinrich Himmler described Ford in a letter in 1924 as one of "the most valuable, weighty and ingenious champions", Hitler in an interview with the Detroit News in 1931 as "Inspiration".

In July 1938 Henry Ford even received a medal from the Nazis: the Grand Cross of the German Eagle Order. The industrialist was the first American to receive this award - just a month before General Motors boss James Mooney. Both car manufacturers owned factories in the German Reich and made good money from the sale of vehicles there, for which they were awarded. Ford's anti-Semitism therefore played no role in the award - the industrialist had officially renounced his hatred of Jews as early as 1927. Ford's “purification” did not come about entirely voluntarily: Only after he had been sued for defamation did he apologize for his anti-Jewish publications. No anti-Semitic statements are known from him from the period after 1927 - in 1942 he even spoke out in an open letter against hostility towards Jews and expressed the hope that it would one day stop forever.
As clearly as Henry Ford had publicly renounced anti-Semitism, he was obviously not irritated by the hatred of Jews in the German Reich. There is hardly any other explanation as to why the industrialist had cars and later trucks produced for the Wehrmacht in Nazi Germany. It was only with the US declaration of war against the German Reich in December 1941 that the Ford Motor Company officially lost all influence over its German subsidiary in Cologne - but unofficially there were still contacts. And while IBM President Thomas J. Watson, who was also honored with the Grand Cross of the German Eagle Order, returned it in 1940, Ford never distanced itself from its award by the Nazis. So to this day there remains a two-part picture of Henry Ford: On the one hand, the progressive entrepreneur who introduced high social standards in his factories - on the other hand, the dictatorial industrialist and anti-Semitic publicist, whose late departure from anti-Semitism was more based on political calculations than real ones Conviction looks like.