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Multinational Enterprise, ‘Corporate Responsibility’ and the Nazi Dictatorship: The Case of Unilever and Germany in the 1930s

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  01 May 2007

Head of School – International Studies and Social Science, and Associate Director of the Applied Research Centre in Human Security, Coventry University, GE Building, Priory Street, Coventry CV1 5FB;


The reason why a fuller understanding of the significance of the Hitler dictatorship did not emerge in prewar democracies remains a question of enduring historical interest. This article examines the way in which Unilever, one of the earliest multinational corporations, responded to the challenges of political risk posed by the Third Reich, and how aspects of business activity that gave rise to moral issues were weighed against the need to survive commercially. The realisation that Unilever could be seen as an unwitting accomplice in the dictatorship's criminal activities seems to have come late to the company. While corporate culture reflected the values of contemporary society, multinational business was partly responsible for the failure to sound the alarm over the unique dangers inherent in National Socialism.

Unilever et l'allemagne dans les années 1930: entreprise multinationale, responsabilité de la firme et dictature nazie

Pour les historiens, la raison pour laquelle une véritable compréhension de la signification de la dictature d'Hitler n'a pas émergé au sein des démocraties de l'entre-deux-guerres reste durablement une question d'un grand intérêt. Cet article analyse comment Unilever a répondu au défi du risque politique posé par le Troisième Reich. Il examine comment des aspects de son activité économique suscitant des questions morales ont pesé contre la nécessité de survivre commercialement. C'est seulement tardivement qu'on a réalisé qu'Unilever pouvait être vue comme une complice involontaire dans les activités criminelles de la dictature. Tandis que la culture de la firme reflétait les valeurs de la société contemporaine, le commerce multinational était en partie responsable de ne pas avoir donné l'alarme sur les grands dangers inhérents au national socialisme.

Multinationale unternehmen, ‘corporate responsibility’ und die nazidiktatur: der fall unilever und deutschland in den 1930er jahren

Weshalb die Demokratien der Vorkriegszeit kein umfassenderes Verständnis von der Bedeutung der Hitler-Diktatur entwickelten, bleibt eine Frage von historischem Interesse. Dieser Aufsatz analysiert, wie Unilever auf die politischen Risiken infolge des Dritten Reichs reagierte, und wie Aspekte des Geschäftslebens, die zu moralischen Fragen wurden, gegen die Notwendigkeit des kommerziellen Überlebens abgewogen wurden. Die Erkenntnis, dass Unilever möglicherweise als unbewusster Mittäter der kriminellen Handlungen der Diktatur gesehen werden könnte, scheint dem Unternehmen erst spät in den Sinn gekommen zu sein. Während die Unternehmenskultur die Werte der damaligen Gesellschaft widerspiegelte, waren multinationale Unternehmen mit dafür verantwortlich, nicht auf die dem Nationalsozialismus immanenten speziellen Gefahren aufmerksam gemacht zu haben.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2007

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1 For a discussion of this issue see Kobrak, Christopher, Hansen, Per and Kopper, Christopher, ‘Business, Political Risk, and Historians in the Twentieth Century’, in Kobrak, Christopher and Hansen, Per, eds., European Business, Dictatorship, and Political Risk, 1920–1945 (New York: Berghahn Books, 2004), 1021.

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2 For an outstanding analysis of the issues surrounding business–state relations, see Buchheim, Christoph and Scherner, Jonas, ‘The Role of Private Property in the Nazi Economy: The Case of Industry’, Journal of Economic History, 66 (June 2006), 2. Recent corporate histories include: Feldman, Gerald D., Allianz and the German Insurance Business, 1933–1945 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001); Abelshauser, Werner, Hippel, Wolfgang von, Johnson, Jeffrey Allan and Stokes, Raymond G., German Industry and Global Enterprise. BASF: The History of a Company (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004); James, Harold, The Nazi Dictatorship and the Deutsche Bank (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004); Hayes, Peter, From Co-operation to Complicity: Degussa in the Third Reich (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004).

3 See Abelshauer, Werner, Hesse, Jans-Otmar and Plumpe, Werner, eds., Wirtschaftordnung, Staat und Unternehmen: Neue Forschungen zur Wirtschaftsgeschichte des Nationalsozialismus (Essen: Klartext Verlag, 2003).

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4 Overy, Richard J., ‘German business and the Nazi New Order’, in Gourvish, Terry, ed., Business and Politics in Europe, 1900–1970: Essays in Honour of Alice Teichova (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 177–9.

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5 Simon Reich, The Fruits of Fascism: Postwar Prosperity in Historical Perspective (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1990).

6 Buchheim and Scherner, ‘Private Property in the Nazi Economy’, 401.

7 A case can be made that survival is the ultimate mark of success; see, for example, Youssef Cassis, Big Business: The European Experience in the Twentieth Century (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 102.

8 Charles Wilson, The History of Unilever: A study in Economic Growth and Social Change, Vols. I and II (London: Cassell, 1954).

9 Feldman, Gerald D., ‘Foreign Penetration of German Enterprises after the First World War: The Problem of Überfremdung’, in Teichova, Alice, Lévy-Leboyer, Maurice and Nussbaum, Helga, eds., Historical Studies in International Corporate Business (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1989), 97.

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10 For an authoritative statement of this point see Mira Wilkins, ‘Multinationals and Dictatorship: Europe in the 1930s and 1940s’, in Kobrak and Hansen, European Business, 22–38.

11 Straumann, Lukas and Wildmann, Daniel, Schweitzer Chemieunternehmen im ‘Dritten Reich’: Herausgegeben von der Unabhängigen Expertenkommission Schweiz – Zweiter Weltkrieg, Band 7 (Zurich: Chronos Verlag, 2001).

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12 Turner, Henry Ashby, General Motors and the Nazis: The Struggle for Control of Opel, Europe's Biggest Carmaker (London: Yale University Press, 2005).

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13 Ibid., 151.

14 Jörg Später, Vansittart: Britische Debatten über Deutsche und Nazis 1902–1945 (Göttingen: Wallstein Verlag 2003), 15. The author observes that national stereotypes that pretend to explain ‘the other’ may, first and foremost, allow insights into the prejudices and collective mentalities that help to define ‘the self’.

15 For an analysis of this phenomenon see Patricia Clavin, ‘Defining Transnationalism’, Contemporary European History, 14, 4 (2005), 421–39.

16 Tomlinson, B. R., ‘Continuities and Discontinuities in Indo-British Economic Relations: British Multinational Corporations in India, 1920–1970’ in Mommsen, Wolfgang J. and Osterhammel, Jürgen, eds., Imperialism and After: Continuities and Discontinuities (London: German Historical Institute and Allen & Unwin, 1986), 156.

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17 For a commentary on this see Kobrak, Christopher, National Cultures and International Competition: The Experience of Schering AG, 1851–1950 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 250.

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18 Unilever plc, Unilever Archives and Records Management (hereafter UARM), minutes of Directors’ Management Conferences (hereafter DMC), 21 Dec. 1931.

19 UARM, minutes of Special Committee with Continental Committee, G18, 7 March 1932, ‘German Currency Matters’.

20 UARM, Supporting Documents to Special Committee minutes (hereafter SD), 76, minutes of meeting between Fabian and authorities, 4 March 1932.

21 UARM, SD, 75, ‘Currency Positions in Central Europe – Germany’, J de Blank, 3 March 1932.

22 UARM, minutes of Special Committee with Continental Committee, G30, 19 July 1932, ‘National Socialist Party’.

23 UARM, DMC, 30 March 1933.

24 Straumann and Wildmann, Schweizer Chemieunternehmen, 64; Peter Hayes, Industry and Ideology: IG Farben in the Nazi Era (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), 90–1.

25 UARM, DMC, 16 March 1933.

26 UARM, Special Committee with Continental Committee, G34, 25 April and G46, 15 Nov. 1933.

27 For details see Wubs, ‘Unilever between Reich and Empire’, 53.

28 Karlsch, Rainer and Stokes, Raymond G., ‘Faktor Öl’: Die Mineralölwirtschaft in Deutschland 1859–1974 (München, C.H. Beck, 2003), 161–2.

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29 Straumann and Wildmann, Schweizer Chemieunternehmen, 67–9, 193–5; Kobrak, National Cultures and International Competition, 267.

30 UARM, DMC, 20 April 1933.

31 Bickers, Robert, Britain in China: Community, Culture and Colonialism 1900–1949 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1999), 170.

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32 Putten, Frans-Paul van der, Corporate Behaviour and Political Risk: Dutch Companies in China 1903–1941 (Leiden: Leiden University, CNWS Publications, 2001), 148.

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33 Simon Reich, ‘Ford's Research Efforts in Assessing the Activities of its Subsidiary in Nazi Germany’, Ford Motor Company Archives, Simon Reich Commentary, 2001, available at

34 Bullock, Alan, Hitler and Stalin: Parallel Lives (London: BCA, 1991), 489.

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35 For the campaign against Beiersdorf see Bajohr, Frank, ‘Aryanisation’ in Hamburg: the Economic Exclusion of Jews and the Confiscation of their Property in Nazi Germany (New York: Berghahn Books, 2002), 22–6.

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36 UARM, DMC, 27 July 1933, and SD 697 (minutes of Special Committee with Continental Committee, 24 July 1933).

37 UARM, DMC, 19 Oct., 26 Oct. and 2 Nov. 1933.

38 UARM, DMC, 7 Dec. 1933.

39 UARM, DMC, 30 Aug. 1934.

40 UARM, DMC, 12 Sept. and 24 Oct. 1935.

41 UARM, SD 1754, translation copy of company letter to Reichswirtschaftministerium, 4 Nov. 1935, marked for the attention of Wohltat.

42 UARM, DMC, 21 May and 8 Oct. 1936.

43 UARM, DMC, 8 July 1937 and 24 March 1938.

44 UARM, DMC, 18 Aug. 1938.

45 UARM, DMC, 23 March 1939; Albert Van den Bergh was in the chair.

46 Straumann and Wildmann, Schweizer Chemieunternehmen, 357.

47 UARM, DMC, 13 and 20 Feb. 1936.

48 UARM, SD 2061, note by Rykens, 15 June 1936.

49 UARM, minutes of Special Committee with Treasury, J222 and J241, 13 Feb. and 2 July 1936 respectively.

50 UARM, DMC, 24 Oct. 1935.

51 UARM, SD 3574, 8 April 1939. The report refers to the company as ‘Bayerische Motoren’.

52 James, Deutsche Bank, 82.

53 Hayes, Degussa, 75.

54 UARM, DMC, 24 Oct. 1935.

55 UARM, DMC, 23 July 1936. Unilever, like other multinationals, appears to have negotiated with certain Jewish proprietors in order to provide some compensation and help outside Germany. In line, perhaps, with the need to maintain secrecy, contemporary documentary evidence is sparse. For details see Wubs, ‘Unilever between Reich and Empire’, 64–5.

56 Straumann and Wildmann, Schweizer Chemieunternehmen, 71.

57 UARM, SD 3042, C. Santkin (Berlin) to Nairn (London), letter dated 9 May 1938.

58 UARM, SD 3254, Treasury Schedule, 5 Oct. 1938. The specification of transfers includes an item for Rm 0.5 million for Tellmann.

59 UARM, SD 1886, 24 January 1936, and SD 1923, 4 March 1936.

60 UARM, DMC, 31 Oct. 1935.

61 Dieter Ziegler, Harald Wixforth and Jörg Osterloh, ‘“Aryanisation” in Central Europe, 1933–1939: A Preliminary Account for Germany (the ‘Altreich’), Austria and the “Sudenten” Area’, in Gourvish, Business and Politics, 192–3.

62 UARM, SD 3359, ‘Memorandum re Participation in Banking Firm of Messrs A.E. Wassermann’, 14 Dec. 1938.

63 UARM, SD 3500, ‘German Forecast 1939’, cash flow statement, 1 March 1939.

64 Bakan, Joel, The Corporation: The pathological Pursuit of Power (London: Constable, 2005).

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