War in the West

Beetles in Brown Shirts?

Michael Burleigh on Volkswagen's Nazi past

Historians are not usually subsidised by the subjects of their research. Business historians are an exception. Most of the time this relationship does not matter very much, since the work that results is usually only consulted by past and present employees or other business historians. The paying public does not rush to buy histories of the postal or railway services or multi-volume works on the banks and oil giants. At its best, business history is a respectable branch of knowledge; at its worst, it is corporate vanity publishing.

German concerns go in for business history too, but since their history includes the period of the Third Reich, there are special problems. One way of getting around the awkward parts of the story is to appoint official business historians with exclusive access to the firm's archives which cuts out independent scholars. Official historians can be relied upon not to embarrass their patrons. Thus, in 1986 a team from the ‘Society for Business History’ produced a volume to mark the centenary of Daimler-Benz, after promising in a confidential memo to show that the automobile concern: 'supported the National Socialist regime only to an unavoidable extent for a company of its importance.'

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