New York: PublicAffairs, 2001. 416 pp. $27.50.
Henry Ford has long been known as one of the most virulent antisemites in American history. To its credit, the Ford Motor Company has done much to reverse the hateful legacy of its founder, donating millions of dollars to Holocaust educational projects and human rights charities. In December 2001, two years after being unsuccessfully sued by survivor Elsa Iwanowa, the Company released an exhaustive report under the guidance of university archivist Lawrence Dowler and automotive historian Simon Reich which concludes that its German subsidiary, Ford-Werke, was brought entirely under the control of the Nazi regime at the outbreak of World War II, and that American executives were powerless to stop the use of thousands of forced laborers, including transferred Buchenwald inmates, in the Ford-Werke plant. Unfortunately, the Company's understandable efforts to disassociate itself from any past ties to Nazism or antisemitism have made it especially difficult for historians to set the record straight about the origin and impact of Henry Ford's looney obsessions regarding "the International Jew." Neil Baldwin, a professional biographer and the executive director of the National Book Foundation, has sifted through several archival collections, including those at the Henry Ford Museum and Greenwich Village Research Center, in an attempt to piece together and explain the conflicting reports, euphemistic remarks and incomplete reminiscences that are virtually all that remain as evidence of Ford's personal antisemitism.
Baldwin portrays Ford as a man whose thoroughly enigmatic personality often kept him at arm's length from his closest friends, family members, and business associates. He was deeply nostalgic for the nineteenth-century agrarian Midwest of his boyhood, yet was the founder of the modern manufacturing system now known as "Fordism" that would transform the economies of all the leading industrial nations. He implemented progressive labor policies at his automobile plants, yet violated labor-friendly legislation like the Wagner Act of 1935 and treated unions with open contempt. And he sustained a long friendship with Rabbi Leo Franklin, one of Detroit's most prominent Jews, even while surrounding himself with a cadre of close personal advisors who encouraged him to print a serial of antisemitic rantings in The Dearborn Independent, Ford's newspaper venture.
Regrettably, the paradox of Henry Ford and the tangled structure of authority and communication within the Ford Motor Company are too much for Baldwin to handle in a conventional, mass market biography. While the archival research provides some fascinating details about Ford and his milieu, the book is too diffuse, seemingly propped up by lengthy, often melodramatic tangents on Hitler, The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion, or one of several Jewish spokespersons who confronted Ford and other American antisemites in the courts, media, and pulpits. In his eagerness to link Ford to the emergence of Nazism and the worldwide circulation of The Protocols, Baldwin constructs a narrative that sometimes resembles a six-degrees-of-separation parlor game. For example, in chapter 12, "Heinrich Ford," Baldwin devotes nine pages to Kurt Ludecke, a Nazi fundraiser who solicited donations from Ford during a 1924 trip to the U.S., before concluding, "Did Henry Ford make a promise of financial support in his one-on-one meeting with Ludecke, the proviso being that the German emissary deny that a funds transfer ever took place? It is impossible to be certain. Over the ensuing decades, Ford Motor Company officials denied that Henry Ford ever supported Hitler financially. There exists no evidence in company records to support the charge" (p. 189). Though I share Baldwin's interest in the full disclosure of previously suppressed historical evidence, I have to wonder whether such a passage and others like it merit the narrative weight they are assigned, or if they would have been better relegated to the endnotes. …