Did you know that Hitler regarded Henry Ford as “an inspiration” and he was the first foreigner to receive the Nazi’s highest award.
In the early 1920s, Ford sponsored a weekly newspaper that published (among many non-controversial articles) strongly anti-Semitic views. At the same time, Ford had a reputation as one of the few major corporations actively hiring black workers, and was not accused of discrimination against Jewish workers or suppliers. He also hired women and handicapped men at a time when doing so was uncommon.
In 1918, Ford’s closest aide and private secretary, Ernest G. Liebold, purchased an obscure weekly newspaper for Ford, The Dearborn Independent. The Independent ran for eight years, from 1920 until 1927, during which Liebold was editor. Every Ford franchise nation-wide had to carry the paper and distribute it to its customers.
The newspaper published The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which was discredited by The Times of London as a forgery during the Independent’s publishing run. The American Jewish Historical Society described the ideas presented in the magazine as “anti-immigrant, anti-labor, anti-liquor, and anti-Semitic.” In February 1921, the New York World published an interview with Ford, in which he said: “The only statement I care to make about the Protocols is that they fit in with what is going on.” During this period, Ford emerged as “a respected spokesman for right-wing extremism and religious prejudice,” reaching around 700,000 readers through his newspaper. The 2010 documentary film Jews and Baseball: An American Love Story (written by Pulitzer Prize winner Ira Berkow) noted that Ford wrote on May 22, 1920: “If fans wish to know the trouble with American baseball they have it in three words—too much Jew.”
In Germany, Ford’s anti-Semitic articles from The Dearborn Independent were issued in four volumes, cumulatively titled The International Jew, the World’s Foremost Problem published by Theodor Fritsch, founder of several anti-Semitic parties and a member of the Reichstag. In a letter written in 1924, Heinrich Himmler described Ford as “one of our most valuable, important, and witty fighters.” Ford is the only American mentioned in Mein Kampf. Adolf Hitler wrote, “only a single great man, Ford, [who], to [the Jews’] fury, still maintains full independence…[from] the controlling masters of the producers in a nation of one hundred and twenty millions.” Speaking in 1931 to a Detroit News reporter, Hitler said he regarded Ford as his “inspiration,” explaining his reason for keeping Ford’s life-size portrait next to his desk. Steven Watts wrote that Hitler “revered” Ford, proclaiming that “I shall do my best to put his theories into practice in Germany,” and modeling the Volkswagen, the people’s car, on the Model T.
Grand Cross of the German Eagle, an award bestowed on Ford by Nazi Germany
On February 1, 1924, Ford received Kurt Ludecke, a representative of Hitler, at home. Ludecke was introduced to Ford by Siegfried Wagner (son of the composer Richard Wagner) and his wife Winifred, both Nazi sympathizers and anti-Semites. Ludecke asked Ford for a contribution to the Nazi cause, but was apparently refused.
While Ford’s articles were denounced by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), the articles explicitly condemned pogroms and violence against Jews (Volume 4, Chapter 80), but blamed the Jews for provoking incidents of mass violence. None of this work was written by Ford, but he allowed his name to be used as author. According to trial testimony, he wrote almost nothing. Friends and business associates have said they warned Ford about the contents of the Independent and that he probably never read the articles. (He claimed he only read the headlines.) However, court testimony in a libel suit, brought by one of the targets of the newspaper, alleged that Ford did know about the contents of the Independent in advance of publication.
The libel lawsuit, which was brought by San Francisco lawyer and Jewish farm cooperative organizer Aaron Sapiro in response to anti-Semitic remarks, led Ford to close the Independent in December 1927. News reports at the time quoted him as saying he was shocked by the content and unaware of its nature. During the trial, the editor of Ford’s “Own Page,” William Cameron, testified that Ford had nothing to do with the editorials even though they were under his byline. Cameron testified at the libel trial that he never discussed the content of the pages or sent them to Ford for his approval. Investigative journalist Max Wallace noted that “whatever credibility this absurd claim may have had was soon undermined when James M. Miller, a former Dearborn Independent employee, swore under oath that Ford had told him he intended to expose Sapiro.”
Michael Barkun observed,
That Cameron would have continued to publish such anti-Semitic material without Ford’s explicit instructions seemed unthinkable to those who knew both men. Mrs. Stanley Ruddiman, a Ford family intimate, remarked that ‘I don’t think Mr. Cameron ever wrote anything for publication without Mr. Ford’s approval.’
According to Spencer Blakeslee,
The ADL mobilized prominent Jews and non-Jews to publicly oppose Ford’s message. They formed a coalition of Jewish groups for the same purpose and raised constant objections in the Detroit press. Before leaving his presidency early in 1921, Woodrow Wilson joined other leading Americans in a statement that rebuked Ford and others for their anti-Semitic campaign. A boycott against Ford products by Jews and liberal Christians also had an impact, and Ford shut down the paper in 1927, recanting his views in a public letter to Sigmund Livingston, ADL.