In 1938, on his 75th birthday, Henry Ford, the iconic American industrialist, was honored with the Grand Cross of the Supreme Order of the German Eagle, an esteemed award created by Adolf Hitler in 1937. This recognition was the highest honor Nazi Germany could bestow upon a foreigner and showcased Hitler’s personal admiration and gratitude towards Ford. The ceremony took place in Dearborn, Michigan, where Ford was presented with the prestigious award by German officials Karl Kapp and Fritz Heller.
The peculiar connection between Henry Ford, a symbol of American industrial modernity, and the infamous villains of the twentieth century, the Nazis, has been a subject of fascination for historians and curious readers alike. This connection was not without reason, as Ford had expressed anti-Semitic views through his writings in The Dearborn Independent, a newspaper he acquired in 1918. These anti-Semitic articles were later compiled in Germany as “The International Jew, the World’s Foremost Problem,” furthering Ford’s association with Nazi ideologies.
Ford’s notoriety reached the highest echelons of the Nazi party. Heinrich Himmler, in a letter from 1924, described Ford as “one of our most valuable, important, and witty fighters.” Even Adolf Hitler himself praised Ford in “Mein Kampf,” stating that Ford remained independent from the Jewish-controlled business interests in the United States.
Hitler regarded Ford as an inspiration and kept a life-size portrait of the industrialist next to his desk. He even modeled the Volkswagen, the “people’s car,” after Ford’s Model T. The German industry adopted aspects of Fordism, particularly flow production and industrial rationalization, which were appealing in their efficiency.
Historians have proposed different interpretations of the Ford-Nazi connection. Some view Ford as a Nazi sympathizer and war profiteer, while others see it as an example of Nazi “reactionary modernism” – a fusion of technological zeal and anti-modern romanticism. There are also those who suggest a structural nexus between Fordism and Fascism, viewing Ford’s industrial methods as a form of capitalist control over the workforce, which became dominant in Germany under the Nazis.
Although Ford was extremely anti-Semitic, he was also notably anti-war and blamed Jews for World War I. Despite accepting the German Eagle award, he clarified that it did not imply any sympathy for Nazism and that he abhorred anything that bred hate.
The Ford-Nazi connection remains a topic of unease and discomfort. Integrating Ford’s anti-Semitic views and political leanings into the broader understanding of his historical role, particularly as a herald of the roaring 1920s in America, proves challenging and creates an image of Ford as an enigmatic figure.
Though Ford did not travel to Germany to receive the award, the association with Nazi Germany remains a part of his legacy, leaving historians and readers grappling with the complexities of this historical episode.