The Slatest

Reince Priebus Tells Inspirational Story of GM Exec Who Helped Fuel Nazi War Effort

In his speech at the Republican convention on Thursday night, RNC chairman Reince Priebus told “a little-known story of American greatness.” The subject of this story was General Motors president William Knudsen. Here’s how Priebus told it:

William Knudsen was a Danish immigrant who started out working in a shipyard and living in a boarding house. He knew America promised limitless opportunity and was determined to make the most of it. He developed his talents for industrial engineering and worked his way up at General Motors. By 1937, he’d become the president of the company. In 1940, the government asked him to get America’s factories on a wartime footing. Instead of cars and trucks, America’s great manufacturers were now proudly making tanks and planes. For this enormous responsibility, Knudsen was paid $1 per year. He did not do it for the money. He was motivated by a duty to keep America free from tyranny.

Here’s a part of the story that Priebus left out: Under Knudsen’s leadership, General Motors played an enormous role in the Nazi war effort. An excerpt from a 2007 San Francisco Chronicle article headlined “Nazis rode to war on GM wheels”:

The biggest automotive manufacturer in Germany—indeed in all of Europe—was General Motors, which since 1929 had owned and operated the longtime German company Opel. GM’s Opel, infused with millions in GM cash and assembly-line know-how, produced about 40 percent of the vehicles in Germany and about 65 percent of its exports. Indeed, Opel dominated Germany’s auto industry.

In 1935, GM agreed to locate a new factory at Brandenburg, where it would be geographically less vulnerable to feared aerial bombardment by allied forces. In 1937, almost 17 percent of Opel’s Blitz trucks were sold directly to the Nazi military.

That military sales figure was increased to 29 percent in 1938—totaling about 6,000 Blitz trucks that year alone. The Wehrmacht, the German military, soon became Opel’s No. 1 customer by far. Other important customers included major industries associated with the Hitler war machine.

Expanding its German workforce from 17,000 in 1934 to 27,000 in 1938 also made GM one of Germany’s leading employers. Unquestionably, GM’s Opel became an integral facet of Hitler’s Reich.

The book General Motors and the Nazis notes that in September 1938 Knudsen met personally with Hermann Göring at the Nazi leader’s hunting lodge. On Octt 26, 1938, the New York Times quoted Knudsen’s remarks upon his return from a trip to Europe: “He said that Germany had been transformed since his last visit several years ago and that the Reich today was ‘the miracle of the twentieth century.’ ” The following year, according to General Motors and the Nazis, Knudsen set into motion the construction of “a plant designed, at the request of the German Air Ministry, to utilize American technology to develop advanced components for aircraft engines in which the leaders of the Luftwaffe were particularly interested.”

In March 1940, Knudsen said in a speech at the U.S. Army Industrial College, “I have to report with some regret that Mr. Hitler is the boss of our German factory.” By that point, the damage had been done. Here’s a quote from a front-page Washington Post story published on Nov. 30, 1998:

“General Motors was far more important to the Nazi war machine than Switzerland,” said Bradford Snell, who has spent two decades researching a history of the world’s largest automaker. “Switzerland was just a repository of looted funds. GM was an integral part of the German war effort. The Nazis could have invaded Poland and Russia without Switzerland. They could not have done so without GM.”

Knudsen called the Third Reich “the miracle of the 20th century.” The miracle of the 21st century: that Reince Priebus and his speechwriters couldn’t find a heartwarming tale about someone who didn’t help fuel the Nazi war machine.