The Community of Interests of Dye-making Corporations plc (IG Farben)

Industrialisation—the introduction of modern machinery into the manufacturing process and the concomitant rise of factories—revolutionised the textile industry. The increased volume of goods now being produced, the ever broader range of products, and Europe’s fast-growing population all led to a greater demand for dyes. When in 1856 the British chemist and industrialist William Henry Perkin invented the first aniline-based artificial dye,[1] the triumphal march of modern chemistry had begun. Knowledge of the new process quickly spread throughout central Europe, and many companies whose names are still household names were founded, to include Bayer (OHG Friedrich Bayer et comp.) in 1863 in Leverkusen, Hoechst (Meister Lucius und Brüning) in 1863 in Höchst am Main, BASF (the Badische Anilin und Soda-Fabrik AG) in 1865 in Ludwigshafen,[2] Cassella (the Cassella-Farbwerke Mainkur) in 1870 in Frankfurt-Fechenheim,[3] and Agfa (the Actiengesellschaft für Anilin-Fabrikation) in 1873 in Berlin. These large-scale concerns often developed from small firms that were basically still workshops or from local pharmacies.[4]

These modern corporations initially specialised in the production of dyes but quickly diversified into cosmetics, pesticides, fertilisers, medical drugs, chemical additives, and other new materials. The new product lines allowed them to make huge profits within a very short period of time[5], and they soon set up their own laboratories and research centres to further develop their products. Research into new chemical compounds resulted in greater specialisation: while BASF, for instance, quickly dominated the market in modern fertilisers, Agfa concentrated on the nascent film and photo industry.[6]

But shortly after these large-scale enterprises were formed, they were locked in bitter competition. For despite the growth in demand for chemical products, marketing opportunities were still limited. Carl Duisberg, General Director of Bayer, sought to improve the prospects of his own company by an intelligent policy of forming alliances. On his initiative, Bayer, BASF and Agfa formed a “triple alliance” in 1904. Hoechst and Cassella responded by forming a rival “dual alliance”, which was joined in 1907 by the Chemische Fabrik Kalle & Co. in Biebrich.

During the First World War, the Allies forced Germany out of international markets and this, together with the British naval blockade of Germany, accelerated efforts to replace natural materials with synthetic substitutes, leading to further innovation in the chemical industry. In addition the industry also supplied the German military with explosives, medicines, and chemical weapons—to include chlorine gas, prohibited by international agreement—thus profiting financially from the war.[7] Faced with diminishing market opportunities abroad, the two great industrial federations—the “triple alliance” and “dual alliance”—decided to cooperate and in 1916 united to form a “community of interests”.[8]

After the First World War, the situation of German industry worsened considerably. Loss of patent rights, the dismantling of factories, and a massive decline in international sales resulted in a drastic economic downturn.[9] Nevertheless, industrial structures and organisation, as well as production facilities, remained largely intact. With the aim of making German industry internationally competitive once more, in 1924 the chemical corporations merged to form the “Community of Interests of Dye-making Corporations plc” (otherwise known as IG Farben). The assets of participating corporations were transferred to BASF and the latter converted into a massive joint-stock company after the American model. The supervisory and management boards of this newly created chemical concern, the largest in the world, were made up of directors and top executives of participating corporations. The former director of Bayer and brains behind the fusion, Carl Duisberg, became chairman of the management board of general directors, while Carl Bosch, former CEO of BASF, took over the chairmanship of the supervisory board.

The creation of this huge corporation opened up new opportunities in production and marketing. Through a strategic division into four business cooperatives, through sales promotion based on individual product lines, and through a pooling of special operations, the streamlined corporation quickly became a financial success. But its organisational structure revealed weaknesses: thanks to the gigantic decentralised administrative system, documents and messages had to be issued in multiplicate and sent back and forth between the corporation’s main locations. The need to centralise administration and planning was thus apparent. Since the main marketing offices were already in Frankfurt, it was decided to locate and build a new headquarters there. The building was also to symbolise the massive new corporation’s power and potential: in 1925, the Frankfurter Zeitung noted that the merger that had created IG Farben represented a “significant event in the history of industrial capitalism.”[1]

A total of 16 million Reischsmarks was set aside for building work. After the project was put out to tender, the architect Hans Poelzig was commissioned to construct the building on the site of the erstwhile “Bedlam Castle” [Link], close to the former Grüneburg. Thus the complex, completed in 1931, is also known as the Poelzig Building.

The new headquarters was an ideal base of operations. A perfect location as regards transport networks and infrastructure, the City of Frankfurt had from the start welcomed the chemical industry with open arms. Mayor Ludwig Landmann (1865 – 1945) not only encouraged the development of existing transport links—by water on the River Main and overland by rail. He also aspired, with the help of the planned motorway and airport, to establish Frankfurt as a major European business location.[2]

After a start-up phase during which not all members of the supervisory and management boards were yet resident in Frankfurt, more and more staff members moved to the city on the River Main. Together with the adjoining laboratories, the IG Farben Building provided space for 2,000 employees, who worked in this “Palace of Money”[3], the most modern office high-rise in Europe, on a daily basis. As home to the first German corporation of this size, Frankfurt am Main had become the centre of the German chemical industry.

The National-Socialist era also politicised IG Farben. The after-effects of the global depression had a dramatically negative impact on the German chemical industry, but when it was clear that the National-Socialists were rising to predominance, the company leadership decided to support their political party, the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (NSDAP).[4] After 1933, IG Farben became one of its major financial backers. When the National-Socialists seized power, this support paid dividends: the Petrol Agreement of 1933, for instance, committed the corporation to expanding petrol production, receiving in return generous price guarantees and tax breaks.[5]

The personnel of the concern also changed in the 1930s: whereas at the beginning of the century its upper echelons contained many influential Jewish managers, during this period it became relatively swiftly “aryanised”. Nazi sympathisers on the management board joined the NSDAP early on, and repressive measures from both within and without caused the supervisory board alone to lose a quarter of its members. From 1938/39 onwards, IG Farben intensified its support of Hitler’s policies. An integral part of the Four-Year Plan set up in 1936, IG Farben became an important component of the German war machine.[6]

With the start of World War Two, production was fully subordinated to military needs. Besides munitions and essential raw materials, the concern processed surrogate materials such as synthetic rubber made from petrochemicals. When Poland was invaded, IG Farben also received the right to “appropriate” factories in conquered areas, placing them under its administration, and assimilating them into the concern.

In 1941, IG Farben went a step further and, in cooperation with the SS, set up its own concentration camp: Buna/Monowitz (Auschwitz III). A new factory, IG Auschwitz, was built using forced labour. An estimated 25,000 slave workers died before the site was surrendered on 23 January 1945—on the building site, in the camp, and in the gas chambers of the extermination camp attached to the Auschwitz complex.[7] The firm of Degesch, in which IG Farben had a stake, delivered the Zyklon B gas (active agent: hydrogen cyanide) for the gas chambers. Originally developed in 1922 as a pest control substance, it was now being used for the mass murder of European Jewry.[8] Medical experiments were also regularly conducted on prisoners there, for instance to develop typhus vaccines.[9] Thousands of prisoners met their deaths through these experiments; amongst the few survivors was Norbert Wollheim.

After the end of World War Two, the victors were faced with the question of what to do with IG Farben. The firm’s complicity in war crimes initially resulted in its assets being confiscated and the supervisory board dismissed.[10] The administrative building in Frankfurt became headquarters of the American Occupation Zone’s military administration.  In the Russian Occupation Zone, dismantling and removal of factories began. Assets illegally acquired in conquered regions, such as Poland, were returned. In the autumn of 1948, the Bipartite IG Farben Control Office started to liquidate what remained of the giant concern and to separate it into its constituent parts. The debate on how this was to be realised lasted until 1955; as an interim measure the original participating companies of Hoechst, Bayer and BASF were re-established in 1951. However, the IG Farben executives accused of war crimes at the Nuremberg Trials were all acquitted.

The IG Farben Liquidation Termination Law of 1955 finally removed all restrictions imposed by the American administration. Ninety percent of IG Farben’s original assets was transferred to the newly established smaller concerns, and very soon former IG Farben executives were once more sitting on the boards of Bayer, BASF and Hoechst. Thanks to the efforts of former slave labourers such as Norbert Wollheim, in the following years the Federal Government passed a number of compensation laws that forced even these concerns—at least partially—to accept responsibility for wrongdoing.

© Frankfurt Humanities Research Centre

Literature and Links:

  • Drummer, Heike/Zwilling, Jutta: Von der Grüneburg zum Campus Westend. Die Geschichte des IG Farben-Hauses. Frankfurt am Main 2007.
  • Fritz Bauer Institut: “Homepage des Wollheim Memorial”
  • Garfield, Simon: Lila: Wie eine Farbe die Welt veränderte. Berlin 2001.
  • Hayes, Peter: “Die I.G. Farbenindustrie AG als nationalsozialistischer Staatskonzern – 1933-1945.” In Meißner, Werner/Rebentisch, Dieter/Wang, Wilfried (eds.): Der Poelzig-Bau. Vom I.G. Farben-Haus zur Goethe-Universität. Frankfurt am Main 1999, 97-103.
  • Rebentisch, Dieter: “Frankfurt am Main und die Gründung der I.G. Farben.” In Meißner, Werner/Rebentisch, Dieter/Wang, Wilfried (eds.): Der Poelzig-Bau. Vom I.G. Farben-Haus zur Goethe-Universität. Frankfurt am Main 1999, 81-96.
  • Rhein, Johannes: “Immer wieder das Gleiche: Noch einmal zur Geschichte des schönsten Campus   Deutschlands...” Zeitung des Allgemeinen Studierendenausschusses der Goethe-Universität 01/2013, Frankfurt am Main, 5-10.
  • Roth, Karl Heinz: Die I.G. Farbenindustrie AG im Zweiten Weltkrieg. Frankfurt am Main 2009.
  • Stadt Frankfurt: “Chronik von Fechenheim.”
  • Schmal, Peter Cachola: “Der Kunde ist König – zum Einfluß des Bauherrn I.G. Farbenindustrie AG auf die Entstehung der ‘Grüneburg’”. In:Meißner, Werner/Rebentisch, Dieter/Wang, Wilfried (eds.): Der Poelzig-Bau. Vom I.G. Farben-Haus zur Goethe-Universität. Frankfurt am Main 1999, 47-59.
  • The complete history of the IG Farben Building by Karl Heinz Roth can be accessed online via the homepage of the Wollheim Memorial.

[1] Garfield 2001.
[2] Drummer/Zwilling 2007, 24.
[3] Stadt Frankfurt, Chronik von Fechenheim.
[4] See Rebentisch 1999, 82ff.
[5] See Rebentisch 1999, 83ff.
[6] Drummer/Zwilling 2007, 24.
[7] Drummer/Zwilling 2007, 26.
[8] Drummer/Zwilling 2007, 26.
[9] Rebentisch 1999, 88.
[10] Frankfurter Zeitung, quoted in Rebentisch 1999, 81.
[11] Rebentisch 1999, 91f.
[12] Theodor Heuss 1929, quoted in Rhein 2013, 5.
[13] Drummer/Zwilling 2007, 60ff.
[14] Drummer/Zwillling 2007, 60.
[15] Drummer/Zwilling 2007, 64.
[16] Fritz Bauer Institut/Wollheim Memorial.
[17] Roth 2009, 49.
[18] Ibid., 52ff.
[19] Drummer/Zwilling 2007, 84.